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Most furloughed Pentagon civilians headed back to work

Brad KnickerbockerThe Christian Science Monitor

Thousands of furloughed federal workers got two bits of good news Saturday.

The House passed a bill that would provide back pay to the 800,000-plus workers furloughed because of the federal government shutdown, now in its fifth day. And a large portion of those thousands of workers – most of the 400,000 civilian Defense Department employees – are expected to go back to work right away.

Uniformed military personnel were never part of the furlough, and Pentagon civilians supporting US military activities – from policy planners and weapons designers to those maintaining dining halls – are considered essential to readiness.

On Monday, the day before the shutdown began, Congress passed and President Obama signed the “Pay Our Military Act.” It authorizes paychecks for uniformed personnel as well as civilians who Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel determines “are providing support to members of the Armed Forces.”

“Congress fully intended for all of our civilian defense workers to be treated the same as our active duty military members,” Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) of Colorado, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote on Facebook. “All are vital to our national defense and need to be on the job protecting the nation.”

In a letter to Secretary Hagel this week, Rep. Buck McKeon (R) of California, chairman of the House Armed Services committee, told Hagel that DOD civilians who are currently sitting at home are actually authorized to work by the new law, reports Stars and Stripes, an independent newspaper.

“I believe the legislation provides you broad latitude and I encourage you to use it,” Rep. McKeon wrote. “The text does not limit the provision of pay to civilians who were previously categorized by the Administration as 'excepted' or 'essential' … Therefore, I strongly encourage you to use the authority Congress has given you to keep national security running, rather than keeping defense civilians at home when they are authorized to work.”

All US Senators and most members of the House of Representatives have military facilities with civilian employees in their states or districts. It’s part of the “iron triangle” – Congress, the Pentagon, and defense contractors – keeping military spending robust and ever-increasing.

In another letter sent to Hagel and reported by Stars and Stripes, Rep. Michael Turner (R) Ohio said all furloughed employees at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in his district provide support for the military, as specified in the new law, and thus should be allowed to work.

“The law is clear and provides the department as well as the United States Coast Guard with authority to immediately call its civilian employees back to work,” Turner wrote. The Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

In a statement Saturday explaining his action in recalling furloughed civilians to work, Hagel said the Department of Justice advised that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all Pentagon civilians. But government attorneys concluded that the law does allow the Pentagon to eliminate furloughs for "employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.”

Hagel said he has told Pentagon officials, including leaders of the military services, to "identify all employees whose activities fall under these categories." He said civilian workers should stand by for further word this weekend.

Traveling in Asia this week, Hagel stressed the importance of US military readiness to the nation’s position in the world.

"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?” he told reporters.

As the shutdown continued, the US headed for possible default Oct. 17, and the rhetorical barbs continued to fly, the two sides appeared to agree on one more thing: Allowing those 800,000-plus furloughed federal workers to be paid retroactively once they’re back to work, a measure approved unanimously by the House on Saturday. The White House backs the bill and the Senate was expected to approve it, too, but the timing was unclear.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.