Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday that most of the 400,000 civilian defense workers who were furloughed due to the government shutdown can go back to work, ending a work stoppage that the Pentagon’s top budget official criticized as “a colossal waste of time.”
“I am now directing the military departments and other DOD components to move expeditiously to identify all employees whose activities fall under these categories,” Hagel said in a statement Saturday afternoon. “I expect us to be able to significantly reduce – but not eliminate – civilian furloughs under this process. Employees can expect to hear more information from their managers starting this weekend.”
Hagel and his staff have been huddling all week to find a way to exempt more workers from furloughs after President Obama signed the Pay Our Military Act late Monday, just hours before the shutdown, that keeps uniformed personnel on the job. The law was vague and brief, but said “the Secretary concerned determines [who provides] support to members of the Armed Forces.”
“The Department of Defense consulted closely with the Department of Justice, which expressed its view that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all civilians,” Hagel said. “However, DOD and DOJ attorneys concluded that the law does allow the Department of Defense to eliminate furloughs for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”
The Justice Department said the law — dubbed POMA inside the Pentagon — does not allow Hagel to lift all the furloughs, however, just those who provide “support to members of the Armed Forces.” Hagel issued a memo to his top leaders to help them identify those personnel. Included under that category are suicide prevention and health care workers, TAPs program employees, family support programs, those providing maintenance and repair of weapons systems and platforms, commissary workers, any training associated with readiness, installation and facilities maintenance, payroll workers, anyone providing guidance, such as legal advice, to military members, and any legal, human resources and administrative support for any of the these duties. “We will continue to try to bring all civilian employees back to work as soon as possible,” he said.
On Sunday, Comptroller Bob Hale, the top DOD budget official, estimated that more than 90 percent of civilian Defense Department employees will be recalled to work.
“Needless to say this was a difficult process and a time consuming one,” Hale said, sharply criticizing Congress for putting the Pentagon through yet another distracting and wasteful exercise. “It is consuming… just thousand of hours of time,” he said. “It is a colossal waste of time and very frustrating for all of us.”
Hale has earned a reputation for blunt talk about the effects of Washington’s budgetary politics on the Pentagon’s preparedness. He called on Congress to quickly come to an agreement that allows all federal employees back to work in full.
“We’ve seriously damaged civilian morale,” Hale said, with pay freezes, furloughs and work stoppages. “We’ve also had to stop some training activities,” he said. “It’s damaging our readiness, which has already been damaged by this sequestration.”
Hale explained that the recall means good news for qualifying civilians in two categories: those who focus on “morale, wellbeing and military readiness,” such as health care employees, family support programs and those working military commissaries; and civilians whose work, if lapsed, would cause future problems for the military, including defense intelligence staff and civilians working in contract oversight and management, and supply chain management.
The law also was been interpreted to include Department of Homeland Security civilian employees who are in support of the Coast Guard.
Earlier Saturday the House voted unanimously to approve back pay for all furloughed workers, which Hagel said he “strongly supports.”
“Ultimately,” he said, “the surest way to end these damaging and irresponsible furloughs, and to enable us to fulfill our mission as a department, is for Congress to pass a budget and restore funds for the entire federal government.”
Kevin Baron contributed to this report.