Starting this week, about 6,000 Department of the Army civilians who work at Fort Hood will be getting a day off.
In fact they’ll be getting a day off from work each week for 11 consecutive weeks, from July through Sept. 30.
It sounds like a good deal. Except the days off are without pay — and for the most part, they’re unwanted.
The forced time off is part of the $85 billion in sequestration cuts that are forcing the Army to reduce its budget by 20 percent through the end of the fiscal year.
Most directorates at Fort Hood are splitting the furlough days between Mondays and Fridays, so fewer workers will be gone at any one time.
Still, the cutbacks are bound to be felt.
Already, many offices have cut staff to accommodate the Army’s budget shortfall. As a result, the remaining employees were working short-staffed, even before the furloughs. Starting this week, however, many of these offices will be further impacted two days out of the week, as civilian workers paid through appropriated funds are forced to stay home.
The effect on the productivity of these offices, as well as on Fort Hood services and programs, is likely to be significant, though garrison officials reportedly have worked to mitigate the impact.
However, the impact cannot be minimized for many furloughed workers, whose pay is being reduced by 88 hours over the span of 11 weeks. For those living on a tight budget, that 20 percent cut in their paychecks over the next three months could have serious consequences.
Still, it could be worse.
The Pentagon cut the original number of furlough days from 22 to 14, and then to 11.
In addition, with the defense secretary’s authorization, Fort Hood officials have been able to adjust and reduce furlough hours for mission-critical personnel and emergency services such as air traffic controllers, police and firefighters. For the most part, garrison officials rerouted internal funds and unfunded some previously authorized end-of-year expenditures to make ends meet.
And though budget cuts have forced the Army to reduce training, it hasn’t been restricted to squadron-level exercises, as had been forecast when the sequester took hold in March.
Still, the impact is bound to be felt by Fort Hood soldiers and their families in several areas — such as the closing of health clinics and pharmacies one day a week.
Since sequestration first took effect in March, lawmakers in Congress and administration officials have negated some of its more consequential reductions — thus sparing the public the widespread breakdown in government services that had been predicted.
As the Washington Post reported in an article last week, politicians transferred cuts from high-value programs to those of lower value. In other areas, they prevented furloughs by making “cuts” to programs that had superfluous budget items or by eliminating funding that had technically expired.
In its final analysis, the Post article concluded that sequestration has not become a daily hassle for most Americans.
While that may be true in large part, the same cannot be said for a considerable segment of the military community.
Fort Hood officials are to be commended for doing everything in their power to minimize the effect of sequestration on the post’s civilian employees, as well as those they serve.
Unfortunately, their job is not done. Sequestration mandates that the Army cut spending by $17 billion annually for the next 10 years. The Defense Department must make $50 billion in cuts each year during the same span.
October will bring a new fiscal year — and another round of cuts. Whether these cuts result in continuing furloughs remains to be seen, but they will no doubt continue to impact both military and civilian personnel to some degree.
Sequestration started out as a game of political “chicken,” with lawmakers of both parties confident they would garner budget concessions from the other side before the mandatory reductions took hold.
Now, four months after the sequester took effect, neither side is looking like a winner.
It’s extremely sad that all the political posturing has only served to hinder Fort Hood’s mission to train soldiers, support their families and protect our nation.
Congress owes it to our military — and to Americans in general — to work together to fix this mess before it gets any worse.