July 29, 2013
WASHINGTON — Want to schedule a meeting with a senior Pentagon official? How does your calendar look in September or October?
The furloughing of civilian US Defense Department employees as a result of federal spending cuts is wreaking havoc on productivity and frustrating DoD and industry officials.
Scheduling meetings has become extremely difficult as the already jam-packed calendars of senior defense officials are full-up for weeks now that the vast majority of DoD’s more than 700,000 civilians must take off one day each week through September. With employees limited to working 32 hours each week, defense officials worry that employees could become clock watchers, decreasing productivity even more.
Since furloughs began in early July, many DoD civilian workers have scheduled their days off without pay on Mondays and Fridays. But that has created problems, particularly in arranging meetings with higher-ups and accomplishing day-to-day tasks, sources say.
“Things have come to a standstill on Mondays and Fridays,” said one DoD contractor who works in the Pentagon.
With many civilian workers off the job these two days, Tuesday has become a day to prepare for meetings on Wednesday or Thursday, these sources say. Moreover, it has delayed decisions on procurement programs and regular interactions with industry.
“What we tried to do here was set up furloughs for Fridays and Mondays and try to be as operational as we can be” three days each week, Frank Kendall, DoD undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in an interview. “But what we’ve discovered after [the] first week is that the Pentagon operates so much on interactions between people that that may not be the best approach.”
While the Pentagon could look to modify the days of the week federal workers take off for furloughs, making such changes would be difficult since employees have already scheduled and prepared for the 11-week furlough period.
The head of each DoD organization has the authority to decide how his or her office handles the mandatory furloughs.
“We’ve never done this before,” Kendall said of the furloughs. “I don’t want to say it’s experimental entirely. We tried to do the right thing in terms of how we set this up to execute it.”
Some agencies’ workers are scheduling four-day weekends, allowing them to work eight consecutive business days. This allows for somewhat of a “normal schedule” in a two-week period, Kendall said.
“There’s some merit to that,” he said. “It depends on what your mission is and what’s the best way for you to accept the furlough requirement and at the same time do as well as you can on your mission.”
Kendall said DoD will learn how to deal with furloughs after these first few weeks.
But so far, industry sources said furloughs have made it more difficult for them to arrange meetings with DoD officials since civilian workers began furloughs.
One industry source said regular meetings between DoD and contractors have been difficult to schedule.
“[W]e have an obligation to treat contractors fairly and reasonably under all circumstances, including these,” Kendall wrote in July 6 guidance to the acquisition workforce.
“We should honor contracts we have in place where the requirement is still needed,” Kendall wrote. “Where the requirement has changed due to funding cuts, furloughs of government employees or for some other reason, we should modify the contract to address the change in requirements provided it will result in savings to the government. In either circumstance, we need to deal with our contractors equitably and with full transparency.”
Kendall said in the interview he is worried about long-term effects these furloughs might have on the civilian workforce.
“The fact of furloughs is not sending the right message to them,” he said.
One mid-level DoD civilian said employees have turned into “clock watchers” since they are prohibited from working more than 32 hours each week. The employee said it would be better for DoD to shrink the civilian workforce to save money and gain better productivity out of the remaining workers.
“You’re losing all that productivity [with furloughs],” the employee said.
Kendall said this clock-watching mentality is worrying him.
With meetings on Mondays and Fridays already limited due to so many employees on furlough, meetings on other work days are mostly scheduled between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. due to work hour restrictions.