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Federal workers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station have been waiting for months to learn whether they’ll be furloughed, and if so, for how long.

This week, Defense Department leaders made announcements that could offer employees some hope, but with little certainty or clarity.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said they are looking for ways to further reduce the planned pay cuts, which were originally scheduled for 22 days, according to reports released Wednesday by the Defense Department’s American Forces Press Service.

“Defense leaders are submitting a ‘massive reprogramming’ request to Congress in response to the idiocy of sequester,” Carter said. The DoD comptroller’s office has said that request could involve moving money across funding areas. Hopefully, by the summer, Carter said, Congress will “give us some additional [budget] relief of some kind.”

Currently, more than 700,000 federal workers are slated to receive furlough notices in early May. The number of furlough days has been reduced from 22 to 14, according to the DoD. Workers, essentially, would be forced to work 32-hour work weeks through September.

Meanwhile, federal and defense industry workers at Pax River say morale has suffered a serious blow as the uncertainty continues. There are about 22,400 workers, federal, industry and military workers are not slated to be furloughed under the sequester.

Dozens of defense industry workers — from people who clean rest rooms and maintain the grounds on the air station to vice presidents of contracting companies — have been laid off or have seen their hours reduced. Among them are at least 49 workers sacked from Wyle this year, as the company lost its E-2 radar aircraft, technical services contract to Imagine One Technology and Management, which underbid Wyle by more than $26 million. Base transportation service was eliminated, leaving about six workers without jobs. And as people who cleaned buildings at Pax saw their hours reduced or eliminated, federal workers have been left to empty their own trash, and bring it to “central collection sites,” where it sits in piles waiting for removal.

“One of the key consequences of the sequester situation is that we find ourselves dealing with the associated requirement to furlough our government civil servants, which adversely impacts not only those individuals and their families, but the entire industry that supports them and most importantly their vital mission of providing timely support to our men and women serving in our nation’s defense,” Glen Ives, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, and a Pax River defense industry executive, wrote in an email this week.

“The furlough process is extremely demanding in terms of preparation and notification and requires many extra hours on the part of leaders and managers to implement. The specter of a looming furlough has promoted a very tentative business environment and has caused a great deal of concern and apprehension throughout the federal government and the defense department, and has certainly undermined morale,” Ives wrote.

“Despite these significant distractions, the men and women supporting our NAVAIR and Pax River mission, active duty, civil servants and contract service professionals, have remained focused and dedicated to getting the job done,” Ives said. “We are hoping that the Department of Defense is able to find a solution that minimizes or completely does away with the furlough option.”

Science and technology (the type of work that takes place at Pax River) remain critical to national defense, Alan Shaffer, acting assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said Tuesday, according to DoD reports. He pledged to continue focusing on areas including electronic warfare, cyber- and counter-weapons of mass destruction.

“The challenge is clear,” Shaffer said to a House Armed Services subcommittee on intelligence, emerging threats and capabilities. “The president and the secretary of defense depend on defense research and engineering to make key contributions to the defense of our nation.”

Shaffer commended DoD scientists and engineers and their work with industry, academia and international partners. “When we look at the capabilities developed and delivered by these people during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I contend the nation has received good return on investment.”

But the drawdown in the war in Afghanistan is still creating fiscal concerns, Shaffer said. As DoD looks at cuts of about 9 percent across each program, he said, “uncertainty looms in national security and budget environments, creating reductions that will rattle some programs.”

Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said the budget woes come at a high price. “Our hard-working, middle-class federal employees at Pax River and at federal facilities throughout Maryland cannot afford to be furloughed, and failure to prevent the widespread use of furloughs threatens our military’s readiness,” he said in a statement.

Hoyer said Congress needs to replace the entire sequester, rather than take piecemeal steps, to prevent the broad impact it could have. “Now that both the House and Senate have passed their budgets, I continue to urge House Republicans to appoint conferees to work toward a conference agreement that can turn off the sequester with a balanced mix of targeted spending cuts and additional revenues,” Hoyer said. “I’m hopeful that both parties will work together to reach a bipartisan solution to prevent furloughs and strengthen our national security.”

nclark@somdnews.com