The U.S. Navy is scrambling to spend the billions of dollars in extra spending that the Trump administration and Congress lavished on it as part of the Pentagon’s 2018 budget.
For many of the roughly 5,000 workers at a major aircraft-repair facility in San Diego, that means overtime—lots of it. And it hardly matters what the workers do while on the clock.
In a mandatory effort to spend the entire 2018 budget and justify equal or higher spending in 2019, some workers at the North Island naval air facility—NAVAIR, in military parlance—are browsing the internet, socializing with co-workers, and even sleeping on the job. All on the taxpayer’s dime.
Many workers have little choice but to kill time while on the clock. Even before the new overtime requirement, some North Island employees were only working at half-capacity owing to bottlenecks in other parts of the Navy’s aircraft-maintenance process.
And supervisors have warned that employees not working at least 15 percent overtime could face “an appropriate penalty... for an act of employee misconduct,” according to an internal NAVAIR email obtained by The Daily Beast.
Required to be present but lacking productive tasks, North Island staff are at an impasse—and increasingly frustrated. “People where I work are very scared to speak up about this dictum and literally whisper about its absurdity,” one North Island worker told The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, as they are not authorized to speak to the press.
So-called budgetary burn-offs are endemic to the military. “It’s an open joke within the ranks,” Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps officer who is now an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight, told The Daily Beast. “Practically everyone in the military knows that, with budgets, it’s important to use it or lose it.”
Not only does the federal government require agencies to return any unspent money at the end of the fiscal year, administration officials and congressional appropriators tend to adjust budgets upward or downward depending upon how fully a given agency spent its previous allocations.
Those twin pressures encourage agencies to spend every dollar they have, even if that means buying equipment they don’t need or paying people to do unnecessary work.
“Research suggests that year-end spending surges may facilitate wasteful spending,” Jason J. Fichtner and Robert Greene concluded in a 2014 study for George Mason University’s right-leaning Mercatus Center.
The mandatory overtime at North Island, which began March 11, could continue until the facility spends every dollar the administration requested and Congress appropriated for 2018. This year the Navy asked for $1.4 billion for aircraft maintenance at depot facilities including North Island—a $200 million increase over 2017. Congress appropriated $640 billion for the Defense Department for 2018, a nearly $40 billion boost compared to 2017.
North Island plans to use some of its share of the cash windfall to hire at least 155 additional workers by March 2019. But the extra hiring might not guarantee the facility spends its entire 2018 budget.
In internal communications, North Island supervisors framed the urgent effort to spend money as an “attack” on the military’s long-standing shortfalls in aircraft readiness—a years-old wear-and-tear problem that Pentagon officials have blamed on “sequestration” spending caps and back-to-back frontline deployments.
“As we aggressively bring aboard these people, we cannot wait to step up our attack on readiness issues,” one supervisor wrote in an email to facility staff. “One tool we have to make an impact NOW is the use of overtime/comp time ... ”
But it’s apparent from the supervisors’ own emails that the top priority is spending all of North Island’s money, whichever way works best. “If the teams run out of $$ it [the mandatory overtime] may end even if our hiring has not met the goals,” a supervisor explained.
The North Island NAVAIR facility did not respond to emailed inquiries. The Navy Office of Information declined to comment for this story.
Ironically, the mandatory overtime risks wearing out existing staff who have no choice but to hang around their office for an extra 12 hours per two-week pay period, North Island employees told The Daily Beast.
Supervisors are aware of the exhaustion risk. “Leadership understands the impact this has on the workforce,” one NAVAIR team leader wrote in an email to facility staff.
There’s a better way to fix the Navy’s airplanes, one worker said: “The most direct solution to readiness shortfalls is to have 100-percent capable equipment and personnel.” To that end, NAVAIR should spend its excess money on aircraft parts and employee training rather than overtime, the worker added.
“In my opinion, the budgets of many well-meaning government programs and agencies are being cut back or eliminated altogether for the sake of hundreds or thousands of [Defense Department] workers basically logging hours by browsing the internet or socializing, some all day, to demonstrate a false requirement for future budgets,” the same worker told The Daily Beast.
“People get rewarded for expanding their departments and their budgets,” Grazier explained. “This practice is learned at low levels at the beginning of careers and is expanded and perfected when people reach the higher levels. It is then that readiness can really be hurt.”
“Spending more money on defense does not necessarily result in more defense,” Grazier added.