Defense secretary announces furloughs

WASHINGTON (AFPS) -- As he announced details of the Defense Department's long-awaited civilian furlough plan today, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel thanked civilian employees and their families for their service, sacrifices, and the "purposeful lives" they lead supporting the nation's defense.

During a televised and live-streamed town hall meeting with civilian defense employees at the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., Hagel announced the furloughs -- unpaid days off -- will begin in July, and most civilian employees will lose 11 days of work.

"You know what the budget is about," Hagel told his workforce. "You're all dealing with it every day. (On March 1), we went into what you all know as sequestration."

Sequestration is a mechanism in budget law that triggered across-the-board government spending cuts. Hagel said sequestration produced a shortfall of about $30 billion, with another $7 billion to $8 billion in deficits in other accounts.

"We're going to have to deal with that," he noted. "We don't have any choice."

Hagel and the service chiefs have cut as deeply as feasible into maintenance and training to delay civilian layoffs, the secretary noted.

"We've taken it as close to the line as we can, and still (be) capable of protecting this country and this country's interests around the world," he said. "We still have a war going on. Unfortunately, we still have casualties. We've got a lot of very dangerous, unpredictable places in the world, and I can't put this country in jeopardy by not factoring that in ... as the overall most significant responsibility, as well as treating our people right, as treating our people fairly."

After discussing furlough details, Hagel responded to questions from audience members, who asked about pay raises and the likelihood of repeated furloughs in the future.

Hagel noted the 2014 defense budget proposal includes a one percent pay raise for civilian employees, though Congress must approve it. On repeated furloughs, he acknowledged he can't rule out the possibility.

"I can't guarantee you that we're not going to be in some kind of a similar situation next year," he said. "I'm not predicting it. I'm not saying that that's going to happen. But what we're doing here is we're just trying to survive and get through this fiscal year."

The secretary said he hopes there will be no additional furloughs, but he acknowledged "you can't run an operation ... based on hope."

"I hope that we will be in a better situation all the way around," he added. "I've got some confidence that that will occur. But I'm not going to stand here and promise you that it won't."

Hagel said by October and the start of the new fiscal year, he hopes to have reached some budget high ground.

"No one likes uncertainty," he said. "It's a dark cloud that hangs over everybody's lives. I know for your families, I know for every part of your lives, it's not a good answer, but it's an honest answer. We will do everything possible not to ... have to be in this situation again, but a good amount of this is out of our control, too."