Military communities brace for 'hardship' as defense furloughs take effect

Military communities across the country, after listening to the warnings about steep budget cutbacks for months, are now bracing for impact as furloughs for roughly 650,000 civilian Defense Department employees kick in this month.

Officials at military bases and other DoD facilities will have some flexibility in scheduling days off. But the furloughs will nevertheless result in non-essential civilian workers missing one paid workday a week -- a roughly 20 percent pay cut -- over the next three months.

Virginia’s Hampton Roads, which encompasses the massive Naval Station Norfolk, is expected to be among the country’s hardest-hit communities -- considering it has 14 military and Coast Guard facilities. Roughly half the regional economy is tied to the Defense Department.

“There no question we’ll feel the impact and it will pervasive across the entire region,” said Ira Agricola, a government affairs official with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

However, he and other regional experts said the full effect will not be known for months because the furloughs just started and economists need time to collect and analyze the data.

“I’m certain it will impact the community,” said retired Adm. Craig Quigley, now executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance.

“People will be spending less across the board. They’ll postpone a family vacation, fix the car instead of getting a new one. … But it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on. It’s all over the map,” Quigley, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, told

The civilian defense employees -- about 85 percent of the department’s civilian workforce -- must take off 11 days without pay through September, the end of fiscal 2013.

Furloughed workers are already talking about canceling vacations and other efforts to trim household budgets, while military families express concerns about cutbacks in services, including their children’s schooling, considering fewer civilian providers will be on the job.

“I have been hit by the furloughs, and they're inconvenient and difficult,” Claire Riggle, a civilian employee and military spouse, told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday. “But what bothers me more is the effect it has on our children.”

Hagel, speaking at a town hall-style meeting at Fort Bragg, N.C., said civilian teachers are being furloughed just five days and that officials are trying to schedule their furloughs on non-school days.

“Most of the family programs are exempt,” he said. “I know this is difficult. And I know it's difficult for children.”

Hagel’s comments echoed those he made May 14 in announcing the furloughs, saying cuts to training, maintenance and other operations were not enough to reduce a $30 billion shortfall.

“The department has been doing everything possible to reduce this shortfall while ensuring we can defend the nation,” he said at the time. “I recognized the significant hardship this places on you and your families.”

The furloughs are part of the so-called “across the board” cuts to the federal government that are known as sequester and started in March -- after Washington failed to agree on less drastic budget reductions. As much as $85 billion will be cut this year as part of the large effort to trim the federal deficit by roughly $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

The furloughs are expected to save the department about $1.8 billion this year, but Hagel warned again Monday about an uncertain future, saying the potential for more cuts are “casting a very dark cloud over our institution.”

Part of the reason for the wide-ranging impact is that furloughs affect everybody from a senior-level civil servant to lesser-paid workers supporting their families on one salary.

Among those to first raise concerns about the furloughs were advocates for wounded combat soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center -- the country’s top facility for wounded warriors.

Roughly 2,400 workers at the suburban Washington facility – including doctors and therapists -- were notified in May about being furloughed, which  advocates say could jeopardize the quality of care.

A spokeswoman for National Capital Regional Medical said in response that wounded warrior care remains Walter Reed’s “top priority” and “will not be compromised.”