Pentagon recalls most civilian defense employees idled by shutdown

Reuters

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Saturdayit would recall the vast majority of around 350,000 civilianDefense Department employees sent home during the U.S.government shutdown, a move that could greatly lessen the impactof Washington infighting on the U.S. armed forces.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said a legal review of the"Pay Our Military Act," signed by President Barack Obama onMonday on the eve of the shutdown, would allow him to bring mostcivilians back to work next week.

"I expect us to be able to significantly reduce - but noteliminate - civilian furloughs under this process," Hagel said.

"Employees can expect to hear more information from theirmanagers starting this weekend."

In a telephone briefing to reporters, Pentagon ComptrollerRobert Hale estimated that the no more than a few tens ofthousands of employees would remain on furlough.

"And it may be substantially less than that," he said,adding that furloughed personnel who did not qualify to returnincluded legislative affairs personnel and some employeesworking in public affairs.

Hale estimated the number of civilian personnel nowfurloughed at roughly 350,000, down from previous estimates byU.S. defense officials of about 400,000 workers.

Since the start of the shutdown, American troops have feltthe fallout from the feuding in Washington despite legislationmeant to protect them. Republicans in the House ofRepresentatives have tried to defund or delay Obama's signaturehealthcare law as a condition of funding the government, leadingto the impasse.

With the shutdown, sailors have complained about delays inannual payments of re-enlistment bonuses, military academieshave scaled back classes and key Pentagon offices - includingones dealing with intelligence matters - have been hollowed out.Even U.S. commissaries selling groceries to military familieshave been shuttered.

Although the return of civilian employees will lessen theblow of the government shutdown, Hale cautioned that thePentagon was still unable to pay death gratuities on time tofamilies of active duty troops who die during the shutdown.

Officials also cautioned that, in the event of a prolongedshutdown, the "Pay Our Military Act" did not allow for theDefense Department to buy new supplies necessary for manyPentagon employees to do their jobs.

"Critical parts, or supplies, will run out, and there willbe limited authority for the Department to purchase more," Hagelsaid.

"If there comes a time that workers are unable to do theirwork, I will be forced once again to send them home."

For many affected civilians, it was the second time in asmany months that they were forced to take unpaid leave.

More than 600,000 civilian U.S. defense employees wererequired to take unpaid leave in early August in a bid to reducespending after across-the-board budget cuts went into force inMarch.

"This has been a very disruptive year for our people," Hagelsaid.

Michael Steel, press secretary for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said Hagel's decision was in line with thethinking of Republicans, who passed a bill last week to pay themilitary during the government shutdown.

"That was always the clear intent of the House-passed bill,"Steel emailed Reuters.

Democrats have resisted efforts by Republicans to pass billsfunding certain parts of the government such as the VeteransAdministration and the National Park Service, insisting that thewhole government be reopened.

Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, saidHagel's action was "the right decision for the hundreds ofthousands of patriots who support our soldiers, and now it'stime to end this harmful government shutdown that has lefthundreds of thousands of other federal workers sitting at home."

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