Wednesday, October 09, 2013

TOP STORY >> Military gets civilians back

Leader senior staff writer

Sgt. Crystal Ashley, 29, one of 738 National Guardsman sent home a week ago when large parts of the federal government shut down, said Tuesday she’s happy to be back to work, but still concerned about pay, back pay and the future.

Among the state’s military, all 350 Little Rock Air Force Base civilian employees are back at the direction of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, as are 733 of the 738 dual-status guardsmen at Camp Robinson. But still at home are the 294 employees furloughed from the Arkansas Military Department, according to Arkansas National Guard Spokesman Maj. Matt Snead. (See editorial, page 8A.)

When the government shut down, about half of the Defense Department’s civilian work force of 800,000 was ordered to stay home. Military personnel are automatically exempted from the shutdown.

Civilian employees were notified through their chain of command Sunday to return to work Monday, according to Arlo Taylor, a Little Rock Air Force Base spokesman who was among the 350 furloughed and was just returning to base. “They will be receiving back pay for the unpaid furlough days,” he said.

Col. Patrick Rhatigan, 19th Airlift Wing commander, said Tuesday, “We are very fortunate to have our civilian workers return to work. Having our civilians back has allowed us to reopen essential services that directly support our airmen and their families,” he said.

Rhatigan said the wing continues to perform operational and training missions, thanks to the dedicated airmen and returned civilian employees.

“As our Air Force Chief of Staff says, there’s only one Air Force in America, and we’re it. Our mission cannot fail, and we need every airman — active, Guard, Reserve, civilian and contractor — to make it happen,” he said.

Maj. Gen. William D. Wofford, Arkansas Adjutant General, said, “While I am relieved we are putting most of our technicians back to work, I am deeply concerned about the continued financial and emotional impact on employees of the Arkansas Military Department. All our employees are critical to the mission of the Guard. We will not be back at 100 percent until the government shutdown ends and we are back to business as usual.”

Ashley, the mother of three children, ages 10 months, 8 and 10 years old, said the uncertainty is stressful.

“It was devastating,” she said of the layoff. “You wonder when you’re going to get paid next. Your pay check is pulled out from under you and you wonder how you’re going to feed your children.” Even though she was home and didn’t need daycare, Ashley had to pay anyway so she wouldn’t lose her spot.

A Beebe resident, she has been in the Guard and loves it. Ashley is a supply technician and manages the barracks.

“There’s still 10,000 soldiers in limbo about (monthly) drill. That affects our readiness.” She said she is also was concerned about the state Military Department employees who have not been called back to work.

“We depend on them a lot,” Ashley said.

Lost wages to federal Guard employees in Arkansas are $558,000 to date and another $220,000 to state Military Department employees.

Snead said, the situation is “changing by the hour,” but everyone’s intention is that the 738 dual-status guardsmen will be paid Oct. 11 for the Sept. 22-Oct. 5 pay period. They may not get pay for the time they were furloughed — at least not now.

“Here’s what people have to understand,” Snead said. “It’s not back to business as usual. We still have 294 not on the job.”

He said a lot of them were maintainers who work on the Guard’s vehicles and aircraft. There is no money for fuel, parts, rations or ammunition for training.

Money for utilities could be a problem, and a drill has been called off, at least for October.

“We’re going to hit a point when we can no longer keep the lights on in the facilities,” Snead said. “The fuel in the tanks of our vehicles and aircraft we not be replenished.”

He said fuel and parts are thought to be sufficient for 30 days.

It’s a problem for pilots, who must maintain flight hours or lose their night-flying rating.

“That degrades our readiness,” Snead said.

Morale is hurting, he added.

With the 294 still furloughed, there is so much uncertainty. “They want to be able to plan, to know what to do to take care of their families,” Snead said.