WASHINGTON — Workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery got a reprieve Tuesday from federal budget cuts that will require more than 600,000 civilian defense employees nationwide to take unpaid days off.
The Pentagon announced that the Navy’s four public shipyards will be exempt from the mandatory furloughs because “it would be particularly difficult to make up delays in maintenance work on nuclear vessels and these vessels are critical to mission success.”
Shipyard workers were among a relatively small number of civilian employees in the Department of Defense who were spared from furloughs triggered by the across-the-board budget cuts that took effect March 1. Exemptions were also granted to civilian workers in combat zones and intelligence operations.
An estimated 680,000 workers will be required to take 11 days off in the period from July to Sept. 30. That includes more than 500 Maine National Guard and Air National Guard employees and 600 at an accounting office in Limestone.
Members of the Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations had urged the Pentagon to give agencies maximum flexibility to avoid furloughs through other cost-saving measures.
“The elimination of furloughs at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is a significant positive step,” said Maine’s Sen. Angus King, a independent who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “On balance, it’s a classic case of good news and bad news. The underlying issue is that we have got to get rid of the sequester.”
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard employs about 4,700 civilian workers who are responsible for repairs and maintenance of the Navy’s nuclear submarines.
The Department of Defense is required to absorb about one-half of the $85 billion in spending cuts that began March 1 after Congress and the White House failed to agree on another way to reduce the federal deficit.
Congress passed a short-term spending bill last year that gave the defense department more latitude to identify cost savings. Since then, the Pentagon has reduced the number of anticipated furlough days, from 22 to 14 to the 11 announced Tuesday. The furlough days are expected to save the department $1.8 billion.
Navy officials said that furloughing the tens of thousands of workers at the four shipyards would impair readiness and cause maintenance and repair backlogs that would cost more money in the long run.
King and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and members of the New Hampshire delegation, urged the Pentagon to exempt the shipyard and grant flexibility to other departments to minimize furloughs through cuts elsewhere.
Collins, a Republican who is senior member of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, expressed disappointment that National Guard civilian workers and employees at the Defense Finance and Accounting Services Centers in Limestone were not excluded.
“This is going to create hardship for so many families,” Collins said in a written statement.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, whose congressional district includes Kittery, said she was pleased with Tuesday’s exemption announcement but said more must be done to avoid other budget cuts.
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