TAMPA — Furloughs of 3,550 civilian employees at MacDill Air Force Base begin Monday, as base leaders fight to maintain morale even as workers lose at least $9.2 million in pay.
Most of the employees — about 2,200 — work for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, which is MacDill's host unit. Another 900 work at U.S. Special Operations Command and 450 more at U.S. Central Command, the nation's two premier combat commands.
The cuts are the result of congressional gridlock earlier this year when lawmakers failed to reach a deal on cutting the nation's deficit, triggering $1 trillion in automatic cuts across the federal government.
Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of the wing, said the financial impact on his 2,200 affected employees will average out to a loss of $4,200 in salary per person over the next three months — $9.2 million in total salary.
The lost pay — each employee must take a weekly day off without pay until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, or 11 days total — is undoubtedly higher for the entire base. Figures are unavailable for SOCom and CentCom.
Under a different formula used by the Department of Defense, the salary loss for all 3,550 employees is estimated at $11.7 million.
"For me personally, it is difficult to watch anyone on our team struggle" financially, DeThomas said in an email response to questions. "In the case of our great civilian workforce, I know the impact on their lives and their family's lives will leave a lasting mark as we navigate through this difficult period."
Base officials were unable or declined to make civilian employees available for interviews last week.
Across the military, about 680,000 civilians are being furloughed. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said last month that deeper cuts elsewhere in the Pentagon budget allowed officials to reduce furlough days from the original forecast of 22 for each employee.
Cutting the budget deeper in military programs to further reduce furlough days will harm national security, Hagel said.
"We've taken it as close to the line as we can, where we're still capable of protecting this country and the country's efforts around the world," Hagel said at a town hall event last month as reported by TheHill.com. "We got to a point where we couldn't responsibly go any deeper into cutting without jeopardizing core missions. I can't run this institution into the ditch."
At MacDill, DeThomas said furloughs will impact service levels across the base, including family-readiness programs and maintenance and flying operations. He did not provide specifics.
One impact begins immediately: The base commissary will be closed on Mondays.
The base's Airman and Family Readiness Center will hold financial workshops each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon to help affected personnel cope with the budget hit.
"The entire MacDill team, as well as our great Tampa community, stand ready to assist in any way and will ensure we together weather this impending storm," DeThomas said.
Tampa attorney Rhea Law, chairwoman of the wing's Command Advisory Council, said pay cuts are difficult enough for MacDill's civilian workers. "The bigger story is what happens next year," she said.
This year, the Pentagon's share of cuts under sequestration was $37 billion. Without compromise in Congress, fiscal 2014 promises $54.6 billion in defense cuts.
"The Department of Defense is now requesting all their service chiefs to prepare for 10 percent across-the-board cuts in 2014," Law said. "Commanders do not have the ability to say where cuts come from. They just have to make them across the board."
With cuts in maintenance and training, Law said, the Air Force will face a steep cost in rebuilding the service back to what it was before the budget ax fell.
The Pentagon said furloughs will impact 28,500 civilian employees in Florida, making the state the sixth hardest-hit in the nation with an economic impact of $94 million. California is the worst hit: 72,000 furloughed workers and an economic hit of $237 million.
In April, DeThomas told base personnel that, despite the hardships of cuts, they needed to stay focused on safety, their health and providing support for colleagues.
"Don't let the water cooler discussions or headlines from various news outlets discount your role in leading this great Air Force," he said in a message to personnel published in the base newspaper.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]