Federal cuts strain budgets, labor relations at Navy base

Groton — A safety specialist who works at the Naval Submarine Base said he will not be able to pay his mortgage and the loan for his son's college tuition once the Department of Defense civilian employee furloughs begin Monday.

Glen Robitaille said he plans to ask his creditors for leniency while he is taking one day off each week for the next 11 weeks. Adam Puccino, the mason at the base, said he will get food for his family at the United Way food bank.

"A 5 percent pay cut, I could probably live through it. Ten, I'd struggle. But 20, now I'm not within my means," Puccino said. "What I pride myself on, I can't do. I can't take care of my wife and kids with a 20 percent pay cut."

Peter Petrides and Vlear Skisuski will still work five days a week as federal police officers at the base, but they expect to perform some of the duties of others in the security department who are not exempt. And, they said, they have not received a pay raise in three years.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney heard these stories and many others when he met Wednesday at the base with government employees to answer their questions about the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which took effect March 1 and led to the defense department ordering furloughs for most of its civilian personnel.

About 1,300 DOD civilian employees work at the Groton base and 750 of them will be furloughed under the current plan. Some perform maintenance, support and administrative duties while others help run the child care, bachelor housing, Navy Exchange and recreation programs. Senior security and fire department leaders in administrative roles, such as the fire chief, will be furloughed.

Close to 100 people met with Courtney Wednesday morning. The meeting was closed to media but several participants spoke about it afterward.

"It was a pretty intense event because these are people whose paychecks are about to be cut by 20 percent," Courtney, D-2nd District, said. "Not surprisingly, they're legitimately angry and full of questions about how we got here and what's next."

Courtney said he told them it is still possible that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel could reduce the number of furlough days, and he plans to continue attempting to convince Hagel to do so. But the real solution, he said, is for Congress to stop sequestration by agreeing to a compromise to reduce the deficit in a balanced way.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, who also attended, said she feared the impact on the local economy, since there will now be hundreds of people spending less at restaurants and shops. The Historic Ship Nautilus and Submarine Force Library and Museum will be closed on Mondays because of the furloughs, which will hurt tourism, Wright added.

Too many people think sequestration is "no big deal," Courtney said, and he plans to return to Washington with "concrete examples of the damage that sequestration is doing."

People at the meeting discussed whether submarines will be able to get underway on schedule if there aren't enough crane operators at work, according to several of the attendees. A number of people also said they are worried that if they go into debt, their security clearances could be revoked and they could lose their jobs.

"We all have secret clearances and if we screw up and don't pay our bills, we can lose our secret clearances," Petrides said. "That puts us on the street if we can't do our job. There is a whole range of effects. Federal workers have sucked it up to this point but people need to realize this is significant."

When the base was targeted during the 2005 Defense Base Realignment and Closure process, Skisuski said, the community rallied to save the base. He said he wondered why there isn't any uproar in the community now that federal employees are suffering.

"The problem is, it's under the radar because we're not picketing in front of the gate," Petrides said. "We're not going there, we're trying to be good citizens, but you're putting an onerous burden on the back of federal workers here."

Most of the people affected make less than $50,000 a year, Puccino said.

Two unions that represent DOD civilian employees, The Tidewater Virginia Federal Employees Metal Trades Council and the National Association of Government Employees, Local R1-100, invited Courtney to the base.

Robert Faulise, the NAGE union president and a base police officer, said his union is exploring its legal options because members have heard there are plans to hire contractors to fill in for furloughed government employees, in violation of federal law.

Faulise said the meeting with Courtney was very informative, but people are sick and tired of the gridlock in Congress. And he said, they're worried that they will be furloughed again next fiscal year. Sequestration requires $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts over 10 years.

"Even if we do survive this round of furloughs, we're going to be reeling until next summer," said Puccino, who is the chief union steward for the MTC. "Then it's going to happen again? We're on our knees, now you're kicking us in the teeth next year? And what happens the year after that? The year after that, we're not even going to be here because we're all going to get other jobs."

"We're all patriotic. We all love our country. We all want to work for our country in federal service," Faulise said, "however, it's just too painful."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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POLL

If you had to give up 20 percent of your salary for the next 11 weeks, how would you get by?

I'd move my family in with my parents.

2%

I'd give up all my luxuries: dining out, vacations and clothes shopping.

44%

I don't think I'd notice. I don't know what the federal employees are complaining about.

10%

I'm looking forward to an extra day off.

13%

I'm worried about digging a bigger debt hole.

30%

Number of votes: 1810