WASHINGTON - Defense department civilians will likely face up to five fewer unpaid furlough days than originally planned, as Pentagon leaders scrimp to find up to $900 million in savings in the final months of the budget year that ends Sept. 30, officials told The Associated Press.
Officials said no final decisions have been made, but they believe civilian workers will be forced to take six to eight unpaid days off rather than the 11 days that had been scheduled. The move comes as workers begin their fourth week of furloughs - a decision that riled department employees and prompted many to complain directly to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as he visited military bases earlier this month.
Hagel has been saying that budget crunchers have been doing all they can to find saving to shorten the furlough time. Defense officials said Monday that they do not expect an announcement this week because the numbers have not yet been finalized.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name publicly.
They cautioned that the savings are for this year only, and won't affect likely budget cuts in 2014, if members of Congress don't act to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts slated for next year.
About 650,000 department civilians have been taking one furlough day each week since early July. The furloughs were expected to save roughly $2 billion.
According to one defense official, current budget projections suggest that if Pentagon budget chiefs find about $500 million in savings, the number of furlough days will be shaved to eight. If they can find $900 million, the furloughs will be cut to six days.
Officials said the savings are the result of a number of things, including penny-pinching by the military services and Congress' decision to give the Pentagon more flexibility in moving money around between accounts.
During a recent swing down the East Coast to bases in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, worried defense workers peppered Hagel with questions about the furloughs and their job security. And they gasped in surprise as the Pentagon chief warned that budget cuts will probably continue next year, likely triggering more furloughs and, possibly, layoffs.
Facing $37 billion in budget cuts this year, Pentagon leaders initially announced the 11 furlough days, arguing that they needed to shift money to other priorities, including combat training, flight hours, and efforts to bring tons of equipment home from Afghanistan. Since then, budget chiefs have been analyzing the numbers in a persistent effort to find unspent dollars as they neared the end of the fiscal year.
The Pentagon faces the prospect of an additional $52 billion budget cut in 2014 unless Congress and the White House come up with a deficit-cutting plan.
About 85 percent of the department's civilians have been subject to furloughs. The bulk of the exempt employees are foreign nationals or workers not paid through appropriated funding. Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence workers are also exempt, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards, where officials worried that the harm to shop maintenance would end up costing more than the salary cuts would save.