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After months of uncertainty, federal workers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station will see shorter work weeks and a 20 percent reduction in pay starting this week.

The unpaid furloughs and four-day work weeks are scheduled to last through September, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year.

Many defense industry contract workers who support government programs may see similar reductions in work and pay.

“We’ve been preparing for a long time,” said Bill Scarafia, president of the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce. “I’m sure there’s going to be a certain amount of discomfort for a lot of people.”

The sequestration cutbacks, Scarafia said, could hurt more than help the federal government, as programs miss important milestones to move projects along. “If these things are stretched out to take longer to do, I don’t see how it’s going to save the government any money,” he said.

Garry Newton, senior federal worker at the Naval Air Systems Command, has said that some deadlines and scheduled tests will change. Last month, he also told industry leaders that most contractors would not be allowed in federal workspaces on furlough days. Although the government has already paid some defense contracting companies to complete certain tasks, furloughs have driven NAVAIR to shut down most of its command operations on those days.

Defense contracting companies can’t send people on base to do the work on federal furlough days, so many contract employees likely will not be paid during that time, Scarafia said. Business owners, he added, have told him that they’ll be taking cuts to their own paychecks as well. “It’s difficult to try and run your business and pay your people the rate that you have understood you could afford,” Scarafia said.

“You’re dealing with much more than what’s in their paychecks,” said Scarafia. This change could be scary for some families, and cause them not to spend money, leading to fiscal strain for restaurants, retail and businesses that offer services to homeowners. “What we need everybody to do is manage their finances to meet their needs, but not crawl into a hole.” He hopes people will consider “the impact that their actions have on the entire economy.”

The furlough period will be tough but, right now, it’s only scheduled to last about 11 weeks, compared to longer-term projections earlier in the year, he said.

Meanwhile, St. Mary’s County officials are keeping an eye on the local unemployment rate. “We’re obviously watching it very closely,” said Laura Boonchaisri, economic development coordinator for St. Mary’s County, which continues to hold one of the state’s lowest rates of unemployment.

Latest data shows St. Mary’s has the state’s sixth-lowest jobless rate. But that figure has increased slightly from last year. In May 2012, unemployment was at 5.9 percent. This May, it was at 6.3 percent.

Some change is expected, Boonchaisri said. What will be more telling are the fall unemployment figures, she said. The trend, hopefully, will show that people have moved to different companies as contracts associated with the defense industry change hands, and not necessarily show a net loss in jobs.

Optimistically, Scarafia said, furloughs will end with the fiscal year, but, “God only knows what the Congress will do.” If more budget cuts are on the horizon, “hopefully, they’ll do them in a much more logical fashion.”

nclark@somdnews.com