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Defense furloughs to be reduced

Civilian employees of the Department of Defense will lose 14 workdays between now and the end of September.

That announcement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday ended some of the uncertainty over furloughs, but not the financial pain and other unknowns for thousands of Fredericksburg-area families that collect one or more DOD-related paychecks.

Fredericksburg residents Joe and Gretchen Winterer, for example, have been watching their spending carefully for months as the debate over sequestration and the continuing resolution to keep the government operating played out.

“My husband and I both work for DOD” at Marine Corps Base Quantico, “so we’ll both lose a significant amount of pay,” Gretchen Winterer said Thursday. “We don’t live paycheck to paycheck, but we have to start cutting some things, and we’ve already started doing this.”

They’ve sold one of the two family vehicles, plan to eat out less often, and will consider cutting back on some entertainment expenses.

Everyone knew furloughs were coming, she said, but details have been scarce, “and that’s the most frustrating part. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

For instance, “We don’t even know what day of the week” would be a furlough day, she said.

After automatic federal spending cuts took effect on March 1, most defense workers were told to expect 22 days of furloughs before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, and that they would be notified in late March.

Last week, with passage of a massive spending bill by Congress, the military was given more flexibility on how to manage the reductions. Also the notification deadline was extended to April 5.

Still unknown, Winterer says, “if we’ll be able to pick the day we have off.”

That’s important because the couple have to make day-care arrangements for their 18-month-old daughter Abigail.

“It would be helpful if we’re given a little bit of flexibility.”

As many as 800,000 DOD workers are affected.

Among those are teachers and staff at government schools such as those at Quantico, and the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren in King George County.

“People are frustrated and morale is hurting, that’s for sure,” said Gary Hritz, spokesman for the Federal Education Association in Washington. The group, which represents federally employed educators, is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“I think the worst part has been the ongoing uncertainty,” Hritz said. “Hopefully within a few days, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, at least for the remainder of the school year.”

DOD oversees about 194 schools worldwide and more than 90,000 students. The department has said that furloughs would be managed so that students would receive the required number of yearly hours of education, and schools would remain accredited.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431