WASHINGTON (CNN) – Nearly 800,000 civilian workers would be forced to take one day of leave per week without pay if automatic spending cuts go into effect as scheduled, the Defense Department told Congress Wednesday.
The furloughs would start in the last week of April and last for 22 weeks, according to the Pentagon plan. It’s unclear what would happen after 22 weeks.
The Pentagon’s plan is in response to the mandatory, across-the-board federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, that are set to begin on March 1. The cuts, mandated by a 2011 agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling, will take effect unless lawmakers come up with another deficit reduction plan.
The workers who would be furloughed could include office staff, aircraft and ship maintenance workers, schoolteachers and medical staff.
Under federal law, the Pentagon is obligated to notify Congress of furloughs 45 days before they go into effect, and the workers 30 days before they are furloughed.
The military services and other defense agencies will have to maintain at least minimum staffing for the “safety of property and safety of life,” Defense Department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins said. That means, for example, a military base would have to maintain a minimum force of security personnel.
Similarly, military hospitals must have enough medical staff to provide services to active-duty personnel, including the wounded.
Another crucial service is Defense Department-run schools. Enough teaching staff, including special education teachers, will have to remain on the job for the schools to remain accredited and for there to be a credible full school year of education.
Robbins said these issues will be resolved in the coming days as various elements of the department submit their specific plans and apply for waivers of personnel they believe must be kept on the job.
The initial plans for across-the-board furloughs do not distinguish between essential and nonessential personnel. That will have to come through waivers approved by the Pentagon, Robbins said.
Furloughed personnel would not be allowed to work from home. For now, no decision has been made about whether work cell phones, digital devices and laptop computers would be confiscated for those days.
Health care benefits would be maintained, Robbins said.
By Barbara Starr – CNN Pentagon Correspondent
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