wfedstaff | April 17, 2015 5:35 pm
A one-page bill Congress passed and that the President signed late Monday night provides for continued pay for members of the military during the government shutdown. But the Pentagon is still working through what the legislation means for DoD’s 400,000 civilians who now are on furlough — and for the hundreds of thousands of government contractors employed by the military.
While traveling in South Korea Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that the Pentagon’s general counsel was examining the legislation to determine whether DoD can lift at least some of the furloughs that had just begun. After a few hours in the office to perform “shutdown-related activities,” DoD placed about 400,000 workers on unpaid leave.
On its face, the bill would appear to provide some relief for civilians. A one-sentence section of the bill gives the Secretary of Defense a vague appropriation, with no dollar figure attached, to pay non-uniformed workers who he determines are providing support to members of the armed forces. The bill includes an identical provision for contractor employees.
A furlough-exempt Pentagon spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the department’s current understanding of the law by Tuesday evening, nor did the office of Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), the bill’s chief sponsor.
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But Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, made his views clear in a letter he drafted to Hagel Tuesday, in which he opined that DoD had wide authority to pay its civilians, even during a shutdown.
“The legislation provides you broad latitude, and I encourage you to use it,” McKeon wrote. “It does not limit the provision of pay to civilians who were previously excepted [from furlough]…I strongly encourage you to use the authority Congress has given you to keep national security running, rather than keeping defense civilians at home when they are authorized to work.”
Paycheck processing on solid ground
For military members, the next paycheck, due on Oct. 15, should arrive as normal whether the shutdown is resolved by then or not. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), DoD’s payroll organization, was unaffected by furloughs since it is funded through user fees paid by the military services and other agencies it serves.
And for now, it has plenty of money in its working capital fund, Tom LaRock, an agency spokesman, said.
“As long as we have a cash balance, we’re able to operate as normal,” he said. “Obviously, the longer a shutdown carries on, the tougher it would be for us to operate. But it’s something we’re going to be looking at on a daily basis as we try to make those determinations.”
DFAS still is waiting for guidance on how to handle the pay of both furloughed and non-furloughed civilians, LaRock said Tuesday afternoon, and he wasn’t able to say whether contractors will see delays in payments owed to them by DoD. Under guidance from the department and from the Office of Management and Budget, vendors can continue working during the shutdown and be paid for that work as long as the projects they’re working on were funded with money Congress already has appropriated.
While servicemembers now are assured their next paycheck, military advocacy groups are quick to point out that doesn’t mean they’re unaffected by the shutdown.
Support services takes a hit
A wide range of support services military members and their families rely on began to see the effects in time zones across the world Tuesday. For example, DoD held back care packages to troops in Afghanistan because of abrupt staffing cuts in the military postal system in Europe, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported. And the Pentagon curtailed seemingly-minor creature comforts such as cable TV for servicemembers serving overseas. The Armed Forces Network took all but one of its channels off the air because of furloughs at its broadcast center in Riverside, Calif.
“Of course we’re thrilled that servicemembers are going to continue to receive their salaries,” Lauren Gray of the Servicewomen’s Action Network said. “But there was definitely an air of concern. One that we should even be questioning whether the people who are reporting to work every day are going to be paid by our government. The other is that the legislation that was hastily pushed through doesn’t go nearly far enough for our servicemembers and veterans.”
The shutdown has resulted in a patchwork of disrupted services that vary from installation to installation. For instance, a family child care management office might be at least partially open on one base because it’s managed by a military member. At another installation, a similar office might be closed because its civilian-led workforce has not been exempt from furlough by the local commander.
But across the country, commissaries, a system of subsided grocery stores managed by DoD, were preparing to turn their lights off by early Wednesday. The stores stayed open Tuesday, mostly to sell off as much produce, meat and other perishable food as they could before they closed indefinitely. Overseas stores will generally be exempt from the shutdown closures, but continental U.S. locations reported large crowds, including some with lines that stretched outside the entrance doors.
“People are concerned, so they’re going to the commissary and they’re stocking up,” said Karen Golden, a Marine Corps spouse who works as deputy director for government relations at the Military Officers Association of America. “The value to the military family is about a 30 percent savings on the cost of groceries. It’s essentially a non-cash compensation benefit.”
DoD’s shutdown guidance provides exemptions for several other on-base services to preserve military and family readiness, such as child care centers and schools, but with smaller staffs in some locations.
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And military service officials began warning Tuesday that other support activities would experience closures or long waiting times. The Navy, for example, said offices that handle military identification cards would be closed or short-staffed in many locations. Golden said her organization has already begun to hear reports of closures at offices that that process military members’ moves from one duty station to another and recreational services like bowling alleys and movie theatres.
She said access to health care also is a major concern.
Wait times for medical care could increase
“We expect longer lines in a lot of military treatment facilities,” Golden said. “They’re going to be triaging service, and depending on how they’ve decided to staff their employees and who’s exempt, that will determine the availability of clinic appointments. We anticipate there are going to be some service delays for availability at some clinics, not for emergency care, but for routine care.”
In some cases, military members will also be affected by reduced services through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But many veterans are certain to be affected.
“We’re concerned about how this is going to affect the processing of VA disability claims, especially given the existing VA backlog,” Gray said.
VA is partially shielded from a government shutdown because many of its activities are funded from advance appropriations that Congress agrees to a full year ahead of time, including hospital services and some of the work that goes into processing benefit claims.
But during the shutdown, VA will not accept any new disability compensation claims or issue any decisions on appealed claims, and it will cut back on the number of hours its claims processors work. Several toll free hotline numbers for veterans, including those designed to handle claims for education benefits have been shut down entirely.