TAMPA — The 1,500 civilian employees at MacDill Air Force Base furloughed without pay during the government shutdown are losing nearly $400,000 a day in salary, the installation commander said Wednesday.
But that's only part of the bad news at MacDill.
Active duty troops and family are still being paid. But MacDill's commissary with its deep discounts on groceries is closed. Forced to shop off base, troops face grocery bills 30 percent higher elsewhere, according to base officials.
Furloughed civilians who fall behind on their bills and take a hit on their credit history might lose security clearances, endangering jobs that require one, said Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing.
And with so many civilians gone, troops are facing longer hours, he said.
"I would like to think that morale is high," DeThomas said. "But I think I would be lying. There's a great deal of stress across the system."
But, he said, "We stand together. We stand together to help one another. We ensure that we take care of one another in times of need. And you can see that going on across the base as we speak. … And I expect, much like other times of hardships, we'll weather this storm."
Tampa Bay defense contractors who do business with MacDill and its various commands are also worried that payment for ongoing work may be delayed because of furloughed civilians who handle the base's financial paperwork, according to the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance.
Tim Jones, a board member of the alliance and president of a defense firm providing cybersecurity, said MacDill officials have already told contractors to expect delays.
Jones said there are currently $9 million in contracts with various providers across the base that face potential "termination" if the shutdown isn't quickly settled. Additional contracts valued at millions more are in limbo, he said.
Jones, president of Cybrix Group in Tampa, said his firm and its 35 employees can weather the financial storm for the time being. He said all his contracts are currently funded, but the future is uncertain.
"Just looking at new contracts, we can't grow right now," he said. "And it's not just us."
DeThomas said the wing is still flying its KC-135 aerial refueling jets in support of combat operations and said the shutdown had not harmed readiness. About 2,500 civilians — those with critical jobs — are still working and getting paid, he said.
Speaking of the $400,000 in total lost salary each day, DeThomas said, "That's a pretty incredible number on the backs of our civilian" workers.
The base library is closed, in addition to the education/training office and youth center. The base clinic is open, as is the child care office.
DeThomas said more civilian workers may be furloughed if the shutdown is protracted. That will be reviewed weekly, he said.
DeThomas also said he has asked the local business community to support those MacDill workers facing financial difficulties. He said some banks will offer "bridge loans" to help workers replace lost pay.
Furloughs are "going to have an impact on mortgages, credit cards, car bills — all those things that we take for granted sometimes," he said.
"What I'll ask is our financial community to be proactive in reaching out to those folks, making sure they don't get left behind, make sure there's accommodation in the system to allow them to get through this storm."
The commander said Americans may be frustrated with a political process. But he said the system still works.
"There are a lot of folks around the world that would die for this process," he said. "It sometimes can be disruptive. But the reality is the political process is doing exactly what a democracy intends it to do. We're debating issues in a national forum (that) requires the highest level of attention."
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3432 or [email protected].