PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Workers from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard rallied Thursday to urge Congress to stop automatic federal budget cuts that they say would be devastating to the 4,700 employees of the shipyard in Kittery, Maine.
Shipyard workers expect to begin receiving furlough notices in two weeks because of across-the-board cuts in federal spending caused by Congress’ failure to reach a debt-reduction compromise. They would have to take off one day without pay each week from April through September.
Workers can’t afford to lose 20 percent of their income, said Paul O’Connor, president of the shipyard’s Metal Trades Council, during the rally at Prescott Park that drew about 150 workers and supporters. The shipyard across the river served as a backdrop for the rally as workers held signs and waved American flags.
“The impact on our work force will be dramatic,” O’Connor said. “We won’t have the money to spend in the local community. We will be struggling week by week to meet our mortgage payments. The ripple effect in the community will be dramatic.”
The Department of Defense was expected to begin notifying many of its roughly 800,000 civilian employees Thursday about plans for as many as 22 unpaid furlough days from April 25 to Sept. 30. Instead, the department announced that it will delay the notices by two weeks to allow for an analysis of its resources.
The furlough days would cost most shipyard workers about a month’s pay. Frustration with Congress and the defense department was evident Thursday as workers who live in Maine and New Hampshire gathered for the rally.
Mark Nelson of Kittery, a union representative who has worked at the shipyard since 1989, said he is frustrated that the Department of Defense “sat back and assumed Congress would fix it.”
“To ignore (the automatic cuts) until now is, to me, fiscally unsound,” he said.
Nelson said he has already cut back on his own spending and won’t take a vacation this summer. He said the situation is difficult for all employees at the shipyard, and he is especially worried about his younger coworkers.
Young workers with mortgages and student loans couldn’t recover from a 20 percent pay cut over the next six months, he said.
Bob Baker of Sanford, a chief steward of pipefitters, said the pay cut would make it hard for him to keep up with his bills, something that’s already difficult as his wife battles cancer.
He blames members of Congress for putting workers in that position by failing to do their jobs.
“The American people need to step back and stop paying Congress,” he said. “We don’t get paid if we don’t do our jobs. Maybe they need to get furloughed.”
Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, said members of Congress need to “grow up and fix the problem.”
“It is time for Congress to stop playing games with the lives of the working men and women of this country,” he said.
Across the Piscataqua River in Kittery, businesses near the shipyard are bracing for the impact of the spending cuts. Many workers from the shipyard eat lunch and shop in town.
Joe Kaszuba, manager of Mojo’s BBQ Shack near the main gate, said he typically has a line of shipyard workers waiting to buy lunch each day even before the restaurant opens.
He said workers have been talking about the furlough and which day they’ll take off, how to cut back on spending and whether they should pick up second jobs. So far, he hasn’t seen a decline in business, but he said it’s only a matter of time.
“If they’re not working, they’re not going to be here,” he said.
Jeffrey Phillips of Sanford, who has worked at the shipyard for 33 years, said everyone has been “dreading” the furlough and trying to figure out how to pay bills as their paychecks shrink.
“It doesn’t matter how well we do our jobs,” he said. “It’s all political.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: