Workers facing U.S. spending cuts worry about money and mission

Health care, leisure activities may be hit by 20 per cent pay cuts

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) — From a submarine base in Maine to a Humvee repair shop in Texas and a Navy graduate school in California, workers in the bull's eye of spending cuts in the United States worry not just about money, but about risking the government's mission and sometimes their own safety.

With US$85 billion in cuts set to take effect on Friday, civilian employees of the U.S. government are struggling with how to cope financially with an expected 20 per cent cut in work hours and pay.

"The kids won't go to the dentist, the kids might not go to the doctor, we won't be spending money in local restaurants, local movie theaters," said Paul O'Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council, which represents some 2,500 workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.

They feel "frustration and anger and concern; how are we going to make it?" O'Connor said by telephone.

Beyond the personal money crunch, O'Connor said, skilled employees at the shipyard are worried about what they see as a false economy imposed by Washington's across-the-board belt-tightening: "I'm talking about planning our business."

Nuclear submarine maintenance, the main job at the Portsmouth base, is sometimes scheduled a decade in advance. That schedule will slip as workers are furloughed, O'Connor said, but the base will stay open, paying for services and security. Repairs will take longer and cost more.

At the elite Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, the sequester would hit about 1,500 faculty, managers and union workers, but the distraction started days before the deadline, said Pete Randazzo, an IT specialist and local president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

As a graduate university focused on research into U.S. Navy and other U.S. defense interests, the school has 1,500 students. If workers' hours are cut, classes could be delayed, sending careers off-course if students aren't academically ready for the next defense assignment, Randazzo said.

‘Let the mission suffer’

"There's a part of the military community and a part of the civilian community who are saying, maybe we should let the mission suffer," Randazzo said. "Should we just take the pain, do the suffering and then let them see what can happen when you do something like this, or do we go to all lengths to try and make this completely seamless?"

For Gregory Russell, a firefighter at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., safety is a primary concern.

Because of the way federal firefighters are scheduled, they will take a bigger financial hit than many government employees in regular and overtime pay, Russell said. Sequester cuts may also leave them short-staffed for emergencies.

Federal firefighting procedures are based on four-person crews, he said, but that could change under sequestration. The number of engines and firefighters dispatched could be cut back.

"I don't know how I'm supposed to function in my job safely and efficiently, with one person doing the job of two," he said in a telephone interview.

Lowered staffing levels also could make firefighters reluctant to go into burning buildings without backup, Russell said.

At the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas — the town's main employer — as many as 2,300 employees among a workforce of 6,000 could be furloughed, said Raymond Wyrick, a Humvee mechanic.

Zelda Cozart, a licensed practical nurse and union local president at the Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma, said anxiety is widespread among the 2,000 employees she represents.

"Everybody's worried," she said by telephone. "They're worried about how they're going to pay the rent when that 20 per cent of your income is gone."

Latest stories