Pentagon to recall most furloughed workers

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will recall most of its furloughed civilian workers in the coming days, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday, in a move that could substantially ease the impact of the government shutdown on the federal workforce.

The Pentagon did not immediately specify how many employees would be summoned back to work, except to say that “most” of its 400,000 furloughed civilians would be allowed to return. That means that at least 200,000 Defense workers will go back on the job — a figure that by itself represents one quarter of the 800,000 federal employees on furlough.

Hagel’s decision is based on liberal interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act, a bill passed by Congress last week and signed by President Obama that ensures that uniformed members of the military will not have their paychecks delayed by the shutdown. The bill includes general language exempting Defense Department civilians from furlough if they provide direct support to the military.

After consulting with Pentagon lawyers and Obama administration officials in recent days, Hagel decided that he could justify recalling most of the Pentagon’s furloughed workforce based on that provision in the law.

A senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity estimated that potentially 300,000 or more furloughed Pentagon employees could return to work. The Pentagon scheduled a 5 p.m. news conference Saturday to provide more details.

In a statement, Hagel said the Justice Department advised that the law would not permit a blanket recall of all civilians working for the Pentagon. But he added that attorneys for the Justice and Defense departments agreed that the law does permit the Pentagon to eliminate furloughs “for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”

Hagel said he has directed the armed services and defense agencies to determine exactly how many employees can come back to work. Workers, he said, can expect to hear from their managers starting this weekend about whether they can return to their jobs.

“I expect us to significantly reduce — but not eliminate — civilian furloughs under this process,” Hagel said. “We will continue to try to bring all civilian employees back to work as soon as possible. Ultimately, the surest way to end these damaging and irresponsible furloughs, and to enable us to fulfill our mission as a department, is for Congress to pass a budget and restore funds for the entire federal government.”

Paradoxically, however, the Pentagon’s announcement could actually relieve political pressure on lawmakers to end the shutdown by canceling furloughs for as many as 300,000 federal employees.

Moreover, Hagel’s decision could bring relief to thousands of private contractors who work for the Defense Department but had faced the threat of layoffs because of the government shutdown. On Friday, for example, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin said that it would furlough about 3,000 employees next week, and expects that number to grow if the budget standoff doesn’t end soon.

In a memo, Hagel noted that the Pay Our Military Act, which was signed by Obama on Tuesday, appropriates funds “as are necessary to provide pay and allowances to contractors” working for the Pentagon. He said that government lawyers are still “analyzing what authority is provided by this provision.”

“It is good that many DOD civilians who were unnecessarily furloughed will now be recalled,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, vice chairman of the House Armed Services committee, in a statement. “Unfortunately, there are signs that the Administration is trying to make this period as painful as possible. Hopefully, the Senate will pass and the President will sign the other targeted funding bills to ensure that our nation’s security is protected.”

Hagel’s memo offers some general guidance under which furloughed Defense Department employees can expect to return to work.

Those who will most likely receive a green light include people who provide health care to troops and their families; buy, repair or maintain weapons systems; work at commissaries; or acquire other supplies for the military.

Those who might not be covered include auditors, employees who work in public affairs or legislative affairs, or civilian employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, according to the memo.

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