During her five days of mandated, un-paid time off from her job this summer, Heather, a married mother of two, spent her time vigorously trying to cut costs and spend as little money as possible. “I toyed around with the idea of putting some things around the house on Craigslist,” she said. “I take my lunch to work every day and we called our AT&T service provider to lower our service.”
Heather, a veteran and now a Department of Defense civilian employee working in Northern Virginia, is one of the 650,000 civilian government employees nationwide who were furloughed this summer as a result of the sequester. In the spring, civilian employees were alerted that they would be working only four days a week for 11 weeks straight come July 5. It was part of a maneuver to cut $37 billion from the defense budget because of sequestration put in place by Congress and the Obama Administration. For employees like Heather, the change meant a 20 percent pay cut. “I’m a veteran myself and the word furlough wasn’t even in my vocabulary,” she said.
The furlough wasn’t the first plan put in place to cut down federal debt that also directly affected the paychecks of federal workers. For over two years federal employees have been coping with a pay freeze implemented by President Obama, which he extended in February for another nine months.
Facing this new round of salary cuts through the furlough, Heather, like many other civilian government workers, tightened her belt and her family’s budget. “Instead of putting our kids in their regular summer camp program, we have a close friend with a teenage daughter looking for some extra money, so she stays with them during the week,” she said. “I did consider a part time job. But I am already maxed out so that I have no other time in the rest of my week to work a full-time job anywhere else and the amount of money I would make wouldn’t be worth the effort, not by the time everything’s taxed.”
For Paul, a contract specialist for the Navy working at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in D.C., making sure the same amount of money was still going into his and his wife’s savings account was the most important thing—and it meant cutting back on living expenses. “It sucks. I’m already on a budget,” he said. “Obviously we can’t spend willy nilly as we have. We keep trying to keep money going into our savings. We won’t be going out and spending money and eating out all of the time and spending money on trips and stuff.”
You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to realize that reduced wages and lower budgets translates into less spending at businesses—especially those located near bases or that provides services to them. Economists say the D.C. metro area economy is suffering from lost jobs and stalled wages that largely stem from government cutbacks and the furloughs. Military bases around the D.C. metro area have also worked to cut down their own costs. The maintenance and cleaning services typically employed were whittled down tremendously a few months before the furloughs hit. Gardening was limited and grass was left to grow noticeably longer. Certain gates were kept closed so they wouldn’t have to be manned by a guard, and employees were left to take out their own trash at the end of the work day.
When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday that the furloughs will come to an end five weeks early, it came as a huge sigh of relief to many cash-strapped employees. But some view the reprieve as the calm before the storm, as official reports and Sec. Hagel warn that next year may not only bring another furlough, but more severe cutbacks. “As we look ahead to fiscal year 2014, less than two months away, the department of Defense still faces major fiscal challenges,” Hegel wrote in his announcement Tuesday. “ If Congress does not change the Budget Control Act, DoD will be forced to cut an additional $52 billion in Fy2014, starting on October 1. This represents 40 percent more than this year’s sequester-mandated cuts of $37 billion. Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year.”
And now government employees caught in the crosshairs of a Congress hell-bent on enacting spending cuts realize their future will continue to hang in limbo. “The furlough had a stressful impact on a lot of people and it showed differently in different people,” said Adam*, an Army civilian contract specialist. “But it's a fairly common belief that the next fiscal year will bring more of the same. The only question is when will it come?”
Adam has worked for the Army for three years, and said he now realizes that the future of his job relies on Congress, to whom he is just a number. “When you are at the low level, like the actual implementation level, it’s discouraging when people are just talking about broad numbers with the budget and they don't even know how to get there,” he said. He argues that the sequester has made it apparent that defense jobs are second string in terms of importance. It becomes especially clear to him when he learns of proposals approved for building more weapons and artillery when the DoD is supposedly cutting back.
For example, take the F-35 fighter jet, “The DoD said we don't want it because it will increase sustaining cost unnecessarily. But it's a good product because it’s manufactured in many congressional districts,” he explains. “You just kind of scratch your head and say why can't we get out of our own way?”
Government workers say the sequester and furloughs—and the promise of more to come—are likely to increase their financial conservatism. And the actions are also leading many to consider whether they should be pursuing alternate career paths. “I stayed with the DoD after I got out of the military because that’s my comfort zone and that’s the language that I speak,” said Heather. “One of the reasons why I always felt so comfortable working for the DoD is that I always felt that I had some job security.”
Some names have been changed—or truncated to first-names only—due to concerns over retribution for being quoted on the topic. Changed names are denoted with an asterisk*.