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Defense Department cuts furlough count for civilian workers, including at Fort Drum, from 11 to 6 days

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FORT DRUM — Civilian defense workers, including about 1,800 on post, will have the number of unpaid furlough days cut from 11 to 6.

The reduction in furlough days is possible due to budget savings within the final few months before the end of the fiscal year at the end of September. The furloughs, launched due to federal budget cuts better known as sequestration, started in early July, and are now in their fifth week. Workers should return to their full schedules the week of Aug. 18.

“While we are still depending on furlough savings, we will be able to make up our budgetary shortfall in this fiscal year with fewer furlough days than initially announced,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a message sent to the media Tuesday afternoon.

The furloughs have meant one unpaid leave day for workers each week, primarily on Friday, effectively cutting at least 20 percent of workers’ paychecks for those weeks. The furloughs have also affected access to a wide range of services on post for soldiers and their families.

Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, post and 10th Mountain Division Commander, said in a statement that the furloughs threatened the ability of the post’s units to deploy and of families to receive needed support.

“I am heartened to hear that our civilians will be back to earning their full paychecks and providing complete services to our soldiers and families starting the week of August 18,” he said.

The savings needed to cut the furloughs were hinted at on Thursday by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John F. Campbell during a visit to the post, stating it had found reductions in fuel costs and by moving around funds to cover different priorities, he added.

“We believe now that hopefully we can buy back, and we look at that as buy back readiness, as our great civilians provide for that readiness,” he said at the time. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

The Pentagon’s decision was first reported by the Associated Press. Officials quoted by the Associated Press said last week that they would need to find about $900 million in savings in order to eliminate five of the 11 furlough days.

Mr. Hagel approved the final numbers this week after meeting with top leaders.

The defense secretary has been saying that budget people were trying to find savings to shorten the furlough time. But officials also have cautioned that the savings are for this year only, and won’t affect likely budget cuts in 2014, if Congress doesn’t act to avoid automatic, across-the-board cuts slated for next year. The 11 furlough days were expected to save roughly $2 billion.

In a statement, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he applauded Mr. Hagel’s decision to reduce the furlough days, and called on his congressional colleagues “to pass a practical, long-term solution that ends sequestration as soon as possible.”

Defense officials said the savings for the current fiscal year are the result of a number of things, including penny-pinching by the military services and Congress’s decision to give the Pentagon more flexibility in moving money around between accounts. They indicated that budget crunchers moved money from lower priority accounts in order to free up money to reduce the furloughs and provide additional resources to other programs that directly affect the military’s readiness for combat.

During his recent visits to bases in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, Mr. Hagel was peppered with questions by civilian defense employees worried about the furloughs and their job security. Some gasped in surprise as the Pentagon chief warned that budget cuts would likely continue next year, probably triggering more furloughs and possibly, layoffs.

Facing $37 billion in budget cuts this year, Pentagon leaders initially announced the 11 furlough days, arguing they needed to shift money to other priorities, including combat training, flight hours, and efforts to bring tons of equipment out of 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.

A law enacted two years ago ordered the government to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade. The law included the threat of annual automatic cuts as a way of forcing lawmakers to reach a deal, but they have been unable to do so. The Pentagon, as a result, is facing $500 billion in cuts over the next decade. For the 2014 budget year, that will mean a reduction of up to $54 billion from current spending totals.

Multiple attempts to reach Jeffrey W. Zuhlke, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 400, were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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