As nearly 6,000 civilians employees begin furloughs next week, Fort Hood officials insist services will be slowed, but not stopped.
That means many offices and facilities not deemed mission critical, including the commissaries, the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, health clinics and pharmacies and the casualty office, will be closed one day a week.
“It’s been very hard,” said Andy Bird, deputy garrison commander, of preparing for furloughs. “It’s tough on everybody, because you’re affecting people’s lives.”
Beginning Monday, all appropriated funded civilian employees — those whose jobs are paid by funding from Congress — are required by law to take 11 discontinuous unpaid days off through Sept. 27. Employees paid by nonappropriated funds — mainly in the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation and Army & Air Force Exchange Service — will not be impacted at all. The services and programs they provide will continue business as usual.
From the top down
The furloughs are the result of sequestration combined with the continuing budget resolution to fund the military and a shortfall of funding for the Afghanistan war, according to the Defense Department. Employees impacted include top administrators, with Bird and directors of directorates, all the way down to cashiers at the commissary and maintenance staff.
Working through the furloughs will be like trying to fit five pounds of sugar into a four-pound bag, said Charles Green, director of the Directorate of Human Resources.
“We are delivering the service and we are trying to do everything we can to lessen the impact on our customers and our community. At the same time, as we look at the volume, I’m compressing a five-day work schedule on my people into a four-day cycle,” he said. “I worry about my people. We are putting stressors on them for the workload and ... because the furlough affects them also. Their salary is affected by this.”
Some exceptions were made, including jobs affecting life, health, safety, protection of property or directly impacting mission readiness, Bird said. Some of those jobs will still be furloughed, but the defense secretary allowed for an adjustment to hours to keep facilities such as fire stations and the ID card center open.
“We’ve adjusted (firefighters’) schedules and that affects about 85 firemen,” Bird said. “When we issued their furlough letters, we told them we were adjusting their hours, so that they can work the shifts and we will pay the regular hours and overtime for that. The police department isn’t affected that much because they’re all military.”
Dealing with 11
The original plan for furloughs called for 22 days, which led Bird to believe fire stations may have to close some days, but the drop to 11 days changed things, he said.
For any sort of emergency, either on or off post, Bird said exceptions will be made and necessary personnel brought it.
“We can bring that in and we get reimbursed in contingency funds,” Bird said. “If we don’t get reimbursed, nobody is going to stop a hose at 5 o’clock and say, ‘I’m off. I’m done fighting the fire.’ And we won’t stop mutual aid. ... There’s no fence line to Fort Hood, so we’ll be OK with that.”
Air traffic controllers were able to adjust their schedules to allow for the third shift to remain in place, Bird said. Fort Hood’s controllers managed 11 air corridors, including the airspace over the training impact area.
It was originally thought the midnight to 8 a.m. shift would be cut, closing a runway, and flights on both the military and civilian side of the airport would be impacted, including training.
Aside from firefighters and air traffic controllers, overtime was granted for select Directorate of Public Works employees to respond to emergency maintenance, and to the Office of Public Affairs to work during the court-martial of the accused Fort Hood shooter, which begins next week.
To find the $300,000 needed for all this overtime pay, Bird said Fort Hood had to take some internal hits by forgoing purchases of new office supplies. Going to a paperless system also helped recoup some funds, he said.
About 500,000 people utilize the Copeland Soldier Services Center annually, and officials are asking people to make appointments when possible and be patient. The center is home to soldier in- and out-processing, the Army Career and Alumni Program, the Directorate of Human Resources and the ID card center. Most of these programs fall under human resources and will be closed on Friday, with the exception of ID cards and ACAP, Green said. Some ID card positions are contracted, which is keeping the service available five days a week, but with fewer hours.
“The community should understand we will be able to deliver the services, it will just be a little different,” Green said.
Soldiers can still get treatment through the Army Substance Abuse Program, but not on Friday. Treatment on Friday will have to be through the emergency room. Mail will still be delivered, but impacted. Mobilization at the readiness processing center will happen, just not on Friday. The casualty office will also be closed on Friday, and Green said the state mortuary service has already been notified.
“Across the directorate ... we may be going through a furlough, but we’re here to serve and they’re here to serve and work continuously to provide our folks with dignity and respect and provide the best personnel service and customer service that we can give,” Green said.
“Now, that being said, there will be some pain,” he added. “When you do this here across the board, there will be some affects on the service deliverables as you look at the volume, you can only do so many transactions.”
ACAP and Education Services operate under human resources and both employ contractors, which will keep most services running despite furloughs.
Linda Christ, ACAP director, said all services will continue to operate as they are now, because career counselors are contract employees.
Education services, which sees about 3,500 people a day, is also heavily outsourced, said service officer Mike Engen. The only major change will be no walk-in counseling or briefings available on Friday.
“People can anticipate longer waits,” he said. “Mornings are better than afternoons. ... We encourage our clients to be patient.”
When September comes
Once the furlough ends in September, Bird said services should return to normal. People shouldn’t yet be concerned that there could be another furlough next year.
“It is tough. You’re telling people go home and that’s stressful for them,” Bird said. “Is it hard on people to do? It is. Are we asking a lot out of them? We are. The mission here is to produce a combat ready soldier and support the family. We’re doing that.”