WASHINGTON - After weeks of debate and number-crunching, the Defense Department announced plans Tuesday to furlough about 680,000 of its civilian employees - including thousands of people in the Pikes Peak region - for 11 days in the last three months of this fiscal year.
The military is allowed only limited exceptions to avoid or reduce the unpaid time off, which translates to one day per week from July 8 to Sept. 30 - or about 20 percent of pay for three months.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a memo to the department, called the decision "an unpleasant set of choices" and later told a town hall meeting in Northern Virginia: "I tried everything. We did everything we could not to get to this day this way. But that's it. That's where we are."
Brought about as a result of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the furloughs could affect as many as 9,000 civilian employees at the five military installations in the Pikes Peak region. That number, though, could drop if exemptions are granted.
On Tuesday, spokespeople at each installation said they were unaware if any employees would be left off the furlough list.
Hagel said that the Defense Department will evaluate the budget situation over time and will try to end the furloughs early if possible.
The furlough notices are expected to begin going out May 28, and workers will have several days to respond or seek appeals. The unpaid days off would begin no sooner than July 8, according to the memo. Officials said the furloughs will save the department about $1.8 billion.
J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the furloughs a slap in the face to civilians who live paycheck to paycheck. He said the department's decision "to impose such enormous economic pain on its own workforce, while continuing to lavish billions in new and unnecessary spending on wealthy contractors, is utterly shameful."
A civilian employee for 23 years after serving four years in the Army, Albert Rivera called the decision "huge," especially given his wife is also a civilian behavoiral health care nurse at Fort Carson.
However, Rivera, who also is vice president of the local American Federation of Government Employees, expressed gratitude that the figure dropped in recent weeks. The Pentagon initially threatened to place employees on 22 furlough days, but later reduced that number to 14 days.
Should he and his wife have had to take 14 furlough days, Rivera expected his household to lose $6,800 in income.
"Am I going to be able to make my bills? Yeah," he said. "I'm just not sure what kind of a menu I'm going to have. The grocery bill's going to hurt. Definitely no entertainment, things of that nature.
"It's going to be a huge cut. It's going to be a listless summer."
Under pressure from military leaders and members of Congress, the Pentagon will allow the Navy to avoid furloughs for tens of thousands of workers at shipyards. Civilians make up the bulk of the workforce at those facilities and are key to keeping production lines going and preventing major backlogs in the repairs of ships and combat vehicles.
Officials expect that civilian intelligence workers in the National Intelligence Program - largely the CIA - will be exempt from furloughs. But civilians funded in the Military Intelligence Program will be subject to the unpaid days off. Those would include workers in military intelligence agencies such as Special Operations Command and the Army, Air Force and Navy intelligence offices.
Other exempt workers include civilians in the war zone and in critical public safety jobs, as well as people whose jobs are not paid for through congressional funding. As an example, some employees may be contractors or people working in facilities that pay for operations out of their earnings - such as some jobs in recreation or foreign military sales. Overall, defense officials say that about 15 percent of the department's civilian workforce will be exempt from the furloughs.
In addition, officials said that nearly 11,000 Defense Department school staff and teachers will be furloughed for only up to five days, to avoid any effects on accreditation.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the decision.
Defense and military officials have been debating for weeks how to divide up the $7.5 billion-plus it now has the authority to shift from lower priority accounts to more vital operations and maintenance programs. While some argued to use the money to reduce or eliminate furlough days, others said it should be directed at other priorities, including flight and combat training and the massive effort to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan.
Gazette reporter Jakob Rodgers contributed to this report.
local furlough impact
More than 9,000 civilian government workers at military bases in the Pikes Peak region could face furloughs this year. The Pentagon announced plans on Tuesday to exempt about 15-percent of its civilian workforce. Officials with installations across El Paso County said they were unaware of how many of their employees would be left off the furlough list.
Below are the number of civilian employees that faced furloughs before the possibility of exemptions came into play on Tuesday. All figures are current, except for Peterson and Cheyenne Mountain, which were recorded Sept. 3.
? Peterson Air Force Base and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, 3,900 civilian employees.
? Air Force Academy, about 1,500 civilian employees (including 300 civilian academic instructors).
? Schriever Air Force Base, 630 civilian employees.
? Fort Carson, about 3,000 civilian employees.