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Fort Drum civilian worker furloughs begin

Joanna Richards/WRVO/NCPR

Civilian employee furloughs start at Fort Drum this week, as part of the federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Non-uniformed workers face one mandatory unpaid day off each week for 11 weeks. About 1,800 workers – and many services on post – are affected.

Uniformed members of the military are exempt from the furloughs, but that doesn't mean they won't be affected by them.

Colonel Gary Rosenberg is Fort Drum's garrison commander. He said service reductions have already been cause for some logistical wrangling on post.

Some soldiers were due back from Afghanistan this coming Friday, but the airfield couldn't accept them because that's a furlough day for many support workers. “We said, 'Hey guys, look at our schedule, we can't accept them on Friday, it's our furlough day, can you please move it?'” he said. “And so they...ended up moving it a couple days earlier. Now it could have just as well gone the other way, it could have been a couple days later, but the fact of the matter is, there's some things that we can't do the way we have always done because of this.”

Like those airfield employees, most of the civilian workers on Fort Drum will be furloughed on Fridays. Rosenberg said that creates some predictability for workers and those on post who rely on their services.

But everyone involved with Fort Drum is likely to be affected in some way. Rosenberg said the local economy will take a hit from employee belt-tightening, soldiers and their families will notice some longer wait times for services and reduced hours and capabilities, and workers and their families will feel a crunch in their finances. “It impacts my civilian employees harder than it impacts the soldiers and the family members, because for us, it's an inconvenience. For them, it's 20 percent of their pay,” he said.

The mandatory furloughs did come with some flexibility, Rosenberg said. Fort Drum requested some exemptions ahead of time for its behavioral health staff, fearing the civilian medical community wouldn't be able to handle increased demand. The Department of Defense approved.

Rosenberg said he can still recall workers back to the job in cases where the military mission is at stake, or if health or safety is a concern. And some civilian employees are categorically exempted from the furloughs. Those include workers like childcare providers, whose jobs are paid for by customers, and the program that addresses sexual assault and harassment.

Some workers will likely face serious financial hardship in the coming weeks, Rosenberg said, but many have expressed a commitment to serving Fort Drum's soldiers and families despite that. “When we first started talking about these furloughs, their questions were not personal – 'How am I going to make ends meet?'” he said, “but, 'How are we going to get the job done?'”

Rosenberg said Fort Drum is fortunate to be in a lull in its training schedule, thanks to the timing of various deployments, and that softens the blow of the furloughs.