Thousands of civilian employees at Joint Base Lewis-McChord will take unpaid days off on 11 straight Fridays in July, August and September – part of a plan intended to concentrate the impacts of Pentagon-mandated furloughs to a single day of the week.
Some details of the four-day work week are still being ironed out, but the proposal would give
about 10,000 workers a reliable schedule to plan their furloughs. It also promises to reduce the number of commuters on Interstate 5 on typically traffic-heavy summer Fridays.
A panel of Lewis-McChord Army and Air Force commanders announced the plan Monday and said the furloughs are scheduled to start the week of July 8. They will hit firefighters, mechanics, doctors and many other workers who operate the city-like services at the base south of Tacoma.
“This city, as you can imagine, doesn’t run on its own,” said Lewis-McChord base commander Col. Charles Hodges.
About 25,000 people live on Lewis-McChord either in barracks or in base housing. About 63,000 work there in uniform or as civilians, making it Pierce County’s largest employer.
Hodges and other leaders are still holding out hope that Congress will avert the furloughs by canceling forced federal spending reductions known as sequestration. Those cuts cost the Pentagon about $40 billion this year and will reduce defense spending by about $500 billion over the next decade.
Lewis-McChord’s main building repair and renovation fund lost $52 million from a planned budget of $128 million. The operating budget lost another $1.2 million.
Lewis-McChord commanders said they’re already seeing negative effects from the budget cuts as vacancies go unfilled and some highly skilled Defense Department civilians take jobs outside the military.
Madigan Army Medical Center has 3,300 civilian workers, down from 3,500 last year. Madigan Commander Col. Dallas Homas attributed much of the drop to attrition followed by a hiring freeze.
Some of his civilian staff are taking job offers outside the base, he said.
“People are being forced to make very difficult decisions, decisions they don’t want to make, decisions they frankly should not have to make,” Homas said.
Some of the ways furloughs likely will disrupt the base this summer include:
• Madigan will keep its emergency room open around the clock, but it will close its operating room, pharmacy and family medical clinics one day a week. Some patients could be pushed outside the hospital for care. Madigan’s behavioral health employees will receive furlough exemptions, as will employees who work with wounded, injured and ill service members.
• Two or more of the base’s six fire stations could be closed any day of the week unless firefighters receive an exemption, firefighter union president Scott Powers said.
• Experienced civilian mechanics will miss work supervising maintenance of complex military equipment, such as the fleet of C-17 Globemaster IIIs at McChord Air Field. “Our readiness almost certainly will decline over time,” said 62nd Airlift Wing vice commander Col. Jeff Philippart.
• Commissaries will be closed every Monday from July 8 through the end of September.
On a positive note, military families at Lewis-McChord will get one break that’s not being offered at other bases around the country.
Schools will not be affected by the furloughs because they’re managed by Clover Park School District. Elsewhere, schools on military bases are closing for five days this fall.
Also, Lewis-McChord’s child day care centers will remain open on their regular schedules, Hodges said.
Puget Sound area lawmakers have vowed to repeal the forced sequestration cuts for months, but they have not been successful.
The cuts were put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 to compel a compromise on long-term spending priorities. Lawmakers could not reach a deal, and the “worst case” cuts are taking hold.
Hodges said Lewis-McChord is considering exemptions for firefighters and police officers.
Without exemptions, “We’re going to have to close (fire) companies every single day,” said the union’s Powers, because federal law requires the Fire Department to keep a certain number of firefighters on each engine.
“This is an unsafe way to go,” he said.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military