CHAMPAIGN — An early end to furlough days may come as soon as next week for employees of the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign.
The Pentagon announced this week that the number of furlough days for civilian employees has been cut from 11 to six, due to savings in other parts of the defense budget.
Civilian employees have been taking off an unpaid day a week since July 8. That was expected to continue through Sept. 30, the end of the government's fiscal year.
However as a result of Tuesday's announcement, next week is expected to be the last week of furloughs at CERL, with perhaps a few spilling over into the following week depending on individual schedules, CERL spokeswoman Dana Finney said.
"The reduction of furlough days for our employees was very welcome news," said CERL Director Ilker Adiguzel. "I'm proud of how those staff members affected by the furlough stepped up and sacrificed six days of pay and productivity while continuing to sustain the lab's mission."
Adiguzel added that "this time of year is especially busy for us as we close out the fiscal year, so we are grateful that all of our employees can now be in a work status full time."
The local lab is part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center.
Located at 2902 Newmark Drive in Champaign's Interstate Research Park, the lab employs about 270, with about 230 of them subject to the furloughs. Roughly 40 others were exempt.
Had the employees taken all 11 furlough days, their pay for this quarter would have been effectively reduced by about 20 percent.
Defense officials said the Pentagon found sufficient savings in the final months of the current fiscal year to cut the number of furlough days.
Altogether, officials said they were able to identify about $1.5 billion in new savings. About $1 billion of that was used to buy back the five furlough days, and another $500 million is being used to restore money for Air Force training and flight hours, along with training for about six Army brigade combat teams.
But even as they eased some of the more painful budget cuts, defense officials said the struggles have drastically demoralized the workforce, created difficult budget uncertainties and eroded military training and readiness to the extent that it will take months to recover.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved the final furlough numbers this week after meeting with top leaders. Officials discussed this situation only if granted anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about it publicly.
"I want to thank our civilian workforce for their patience and continued dedication to our mission during these extraordinarily tough times," Hagel said in a letter to top military and defense officials. "I regret the difficulties they and their families had to face during this furlough period."
The decision came as about 650,000 civilian workers began their fifth week of furloughs, which have riled department employees and prompted many to complain directly to Hagel during his visits to military bases in recent weeks.
Facing $37 billion in budget cuts this year, Pentagon leaders initially announced the 11 furlough days, arguing they needed to shift money to other priorities, including combat training, flight hours, and efforts to bring tons of equipment out of Afghanistan. Since then, budget chiefs have been analyzing the numbers in a persistent effort to find unspent dollars as they neared the end of the fiscal year.
A law enacted two years ago ordered the government to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings over a decade. The law included the threat of annual automatic cuts as a way of forcing lawmakers to reach a deal, but they have been unable to do so. The Pentagon, as a result, is facing $500 billion in cuts over the next decade. For the 2014 budget year, that will mean a reduction of up to $54 billion from current spending totals.
About 85 percent of the department's civilians have been subject to furloughs. The bulk of the exempt employees are foreign nationals or workers not paid through appropriated funding. Nearly 7,000 defense intelligence workers are also exempt, along with about 29,000 workers at Navy shipyards, where officials worried that the harm to shop maintenance would end up costing more than the salary cuts would save.