By Michael Stewart / Executive Editor
The Meridian Star
About 300 civilian employees at NAS Meridian will feel the sting of sequestration beginning July 8 when mandatory furloughs kick in for 78 percent of the Navy's more than 200,000 civilian employees.
The employees will be required to take one unpaid day off a week for 11 weeks for the remainder of the Navy's fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, resulting in a 20 percent cut in pay during that time frame.
"Our civilian workforce is incredibly talented and dedicated, and the impact of the furloughs on them is not lost on me or the Department of Navy leadership," said Capt. Chris Moore, commanding officer, NAS Meridian. "They are patriotic Americans. They care deeply about their contribution to national defense and they are an important part of our total force, and reducing the availability of that work force will naturally impact overall readiness at NAS Meridian and in the Navy."
All services or facilities which employ civilian personnel will be affected to some degree, to include reduced services, longer wait times, shorter hours of operation and fewer personnel available to provide necessary services, according to a base response to a query from The Meridian Star.
Impacts to the base include:
• The commissary, or base grocery store, will close on Tuesdays during the furlough period.
• Morale, Welfare and Recreation facilities, including the Fitness Center, Liberty Center, Library, and Aquatics Center, also will reduce its hours of operation.
• The Pass and Tag office at the main gate will change its hours to: Monday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Friday from 6 a.m.to 2:30 p.m.
The impetus for the furloughs is the failure earlier this year of Congress to reach a deficit cutting deal by the self-imposed deadline of March 1, triggering $85 billion in across the board spending cuts to domestic and military programs.
The Department of Defense was tasked with absorbing $37 million of the budget cuts. On May 14, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the furlough of 680,000 of the military's 750,000 civilian employees for one day a week during the 11-week period, for an estimated savings of $1.8 billion.
The furloughs impact all DoD military branches.
"I have made this decision very reluctantly, because I know that the furloughs will disrupt lives and impact DoD operations," Hagel said at the time. "I recognize the significant hardship this places on you and your families."
Hagel has not ruled out the possibility of more furloughs in 2014.
Some essential civilian personnel are exempted from taking unpaid days off.
The Navy sought and was granted exemptions for shipyard workers, based on the greater long-term costs of delaying required ship maintenance. The bulk of intelligence personnel across all military branches are exempted from taking the unpaid days.
At NAS Meridian, "Firefighters and security personnel who provide safety of life or property functions are exempt, but only to the extent needed to prevent unacceptable risk or catastrophic gaps in the safety and protection of life or property," according to a base statement. "Also, employees funded 100 percent through non-appropriated funds are exempt."
The more than 700 contractors who work at NAS Meridian will not be affected. They provide various base functions including aircraft maintenance, instruction, administration, medical and dental services, IT support and more.
The amount the furloughs at NAS Meridian will save the Department of Defense was not immediately available but statewide the DoD is expected to reduce its civilian payroll in Mississippi by $25 million during the 11-week period, according to estimates provided by the base.
The furloughs will also have an impact on military personnel at the base, since they work closely with civilians.
"Furloughs will degrade our ability to effectively and efficiently complete important work," Moore said. "Civilians on board NAS Meridian provide law enforcement, fire and emergency services, emergency management, public affairs, administration and record keeping, ground electronics support, airfield management, safety program management, contracting and financial management, fleet and family support programs and more.
"They staff our health and dental clinics, public works department, supply department, grocery store, and they serve as instructors in the Starbase-Atlantis Program."
Furloughs aren't the only areas where the DoD is reducing spending.
In a May 14 memo posted on the Department of Defense website, Hagel states:
"We have begun making sharp cuts in the training and maintenance of our operating forces — cutbacks that are seriously harming military readiness. The Army, for example, has terminated most remaining FY 2013 training rotations at its combat training centers. The Air Force has or soon will stop all flying at about one-third of its combat coded squadrons in the active forces. The Navy and Marine Corps are cutting back on training and on deployments — including a decision not to send a second carrier strike group to the Gulf.
"These are only a few of the many cutbacks we have made in training and maintenance. These actions reduce our ability to handle future military contingency needs, both this year and in subsequent years."