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Portsmouth shipyard exempt from furloughs

KITTERY, Maine (AP) -- Workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard will be exempt from the Defense Department's plan to furlough about 680,000 of its civilian employees for 11 days through the end of the fiscal year.

According to a memo obtained by The Associated Press, the Pentagon will allow the Navy to avoid furloughs for tens of thousands of workers at shipyards, including the approximately 6,000 workers at the shipyard in Kittery, Maine. The workers will be exempt because it would be difficult to make up delays in maintenance work on nuclear vessels, the memo states.

The Congressional delegations in both Maine and New Hampshire had pressed the Pentagon to exempt the shipyard workers from the requirements to take unpaid days off, and were quick to praise the decision Tuesday.

"The work done by the men and women at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is vital to our national defense and local economy," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H. While relieved, she said the announcement doesn't change the fact that Congress should end the automatic budget cuts that prompted the furloughs and focus on a balanced approach to deficit reduction.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., had urged Hagel to grant the Navy and Marine Corps the flexibility to avoid civilian furloughs and had questioned multiple military officials about the risks furloughs could pose to readiness.

"This announcement gives our shipyard employees the financial certainty they deserve and allows the shipyards to avoid furloughs that would have resulted in costly delays in ship and submarine maintenance," they said in a statement Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was expected to announce the decision Tuesday afternoon, when he speaks to Defense Department civilians in Virginia. The furlough notices are expected to begin going out May 28, and the unpaid days off would begin no sooner than July 8, according to the memo.

Congressionally mandated automatic budget cuts initially forced the Pentagon to warn that the bulk of its 800,000 civilians would be forced to take 22 unpaid days off — one in each of the last 22 weeks of the fiscal year. When lawmakers approved a new spending bill at the end of March, they gave the Pentagon greater latitude to find savings, and the furlough days were cut to 14.