Furloughs Killing Productivity at Pentagon

Sequestration is even dumber than we thought.


Sequestration is even dumber than we thought.

Defense News (“US Furloughs Wreak Havoc On DoD Productivity“):

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.

There’s much more in the report but, since it’s subscriber-only, I’ll refrain from excerpting more of it.

I was, of course, aware of the furloughs and the fact that they were taking place on Mondays and Fridays. Given that we’re giving these employees a 20 percent pay cut, quite possibly in contravention of the law, it only seems reasonable that they at least get a long weekend out of it.  I was even aware, for reasons I’m not free to share, that commands were alternating furloughs such that some people were off Mondays and others on Fridays, thus essentially doubling the impact of inefficiency.

What I didn’t realize—although it’s blindingly obvious in hindsight—was that the furlough came with a 32-hour-a-week cap. Again, this makes perfect since when you think about it. Otherwise, we’d be screwing people out of a fifth of their paychecks but then making them cram all of their work into the other four days. That would be great for the taxpayer but demonstrably unfair.

But here’s the thing: many if not most Pentagon civil servants have something other than a 40-hour workweek. While lower level administrative personnel pretty much work eight hour days (or, quite often, four twelve hour days or alternating three and four ten hour days in order to get more long weekends) managers—and the Pentagon is overrun with them, given that it’s after all a headquarters—are exempt employees who work as many hours as needed to get the job done. But, with the furloughs in place, they’re not able to do that. So, instead of working five 10 hour days, they’re now working four 8 hour days. So, instead of being a 20 percent cut in hours worked, it’s probably more like a 40 percent cut for these people.

Of course, bureaucratic organizations have a strong incentive to be as dysfunctional as possible during sequestration. If they could somehow function nearly as well with 20 percent fewer workers, that would be a pretty powerful argument for getting rid of 20 percent of the workforce. That’s true even if the surge in productivity was temporary and unsustainable. But, combined with the twin morale hit of being forced to swallow a pay cut with the anxieties caused by a looming reduction in force, there’s not much incentive to try to make it work even aside from bureaucratic cynicism.

The report notes that employees are being turned into “clock watchers” as a result of the restriction. And, understandably so: If you’re being treated like an hourly employee, you’re going to start acting like one. I can’t help but wonder, though, whether this attitude won’t remain even after the furloughs are gone.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Military Affairs, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Damn straight. When your work is appreciated, you do what it takes to get the job done. When your’re told that you’re nothing but a lazy SOB and that your work doesn’t matter, you do the minimum and nothing more.

  2. Butch Bracknell says:

    I’ve heard, but not yet verified, MSPB has 10,000 – yes, 10,000 – new cases based on the furlough position. I also know high functioning professionals who are leaving DOD because they are insulted by the way they are being treated — and for NO other reason. They’re just pissed at this hamfisted approach and they have options. DOD will lose out on their talents in the long run.

  3. Tony says:

    Management is tracking impacts of the furlough, so we’re told to make sure there are impacts. It’s a morale killer when you’re told to be inefficient.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Expect the number of retirement applications to spike, and when or if VERA/VSIP (early retirement or separation incentive) is offered, they will be snapped up.

  5. Jim says:

    Mr Joyner. What people (senior managers) are discovering is that GS employees in DoD ARE hourly nonexempt workers under Federal Labor laws who have ALWAYS, under law been required to work only 40 hours a week with anything over that compensated by overtime or compensatory time. Only SES are exempt employees who are legally allowed to work over 40 hrs. What we’re really seeing I an understanding of the number of hours it actually takes to get the volume of work done!! A lot of dedicated people have “volunteered” a lot of time over the years!

  6. Krista Jackson says:

    Quote: ” With employees limited to working 32 hours each week, defense officials worry that employees could become clock watchers, decreasing productivity even more.” Huh, are these the same officials that threaten disciplinary action if we give even one minute of our own time during the furlough

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Tony: @Krista Jackson: It strikes me as perfectly reasonable for managers to ensure that employees aren’t ramping up their effort to minimize the impact of sequestration in the short term and thus maximize it in the long term. That doesn’t, of course, extend to a slowdown during regular working hours.

    And I’m sure there are real legal issues that flow from furloughed employees answering emails and otherwise performing work tasks while not being paid.

    @Jim: That can’t be right. Plenty of people in grades GS-12 through GS-15 are in legitimately exempt management and professional positions.

  8. Scott says:

    Not only do civilian workers restricted to 32 hour workweeks, they are strictly forbidden to work more than than, to take work home, or even to check their email on their time off. They are clock watchers because they can be punished is they go over the clock.

    This goes beyond just the Pentagon. My office is actually shut down on Fridays. As a contractor, I’m required to work 10-11 hour days to get my 40 in.

    Aug and Sep are the time that the contracting people spend lots of overtime to get contracts awarded (mostly through comp time). This year there is going to be a lot of money “saved” because contracts will not be awarded and the appropriations will expire.

    Not the best way to run an airline.

  9. DC Loser says:


    Many of those GS employees are FLSA exempt, but they are still required to document all their work hours on their bi-weekly timecards. Those employees who work over 80 hours every two weeks have to charge the excess hours on credit hours or comp time. Credit hours can only be accumulated to 24 hours, and comp time must be pre-approved by your supervisor (they convert to straight pay after a certain time period if unused). Overtime is rarely ever given, usually only to support mission requirements or shift work.

    If the government expect their employees to comply with every rule and regulation completely, then using OPM timekeeping guidelines is completely fair for the employees to cite.

  10. disenchanted says:

    Too bad . The Army can make cuts to save personnel from going on furlough, they just don’t want to. They don’t think much of the civilian workforce and eventually those who are close to retirement will leave. Oh I get it. That is the plan. However because the pentagon rarely shows any logic, they will lose their knowledge base regardless what they think of civilians. AND when the active duty gets cut, and they are – a lot, who are they going to depend upon to know what is going on? They don’t care, so frankly why should many.

  11. Federal Too says:


    No one bothers for the employee who gave the government their lives, their free time, their family time, and now we are reclaiming that. What the higher ups will learn is disenfranchising your employee base will cost more in required labor than anyone ever expected.

  12. disenchanted says:

    @ Jim

    I agree and was going to state that in my response however I could hear at the back of my head – ‘that was your choice’.

  13. GS overachiever (was) says:

    I am a proud GS employee. I occasionally worked longer than the hours I needed to in a given day to finish a project or work on a tasker for my customer, the US Navy. There were times I would take work home on the weekends to make my work week smoother, work in more relaxed atmosphere, or play with a pet project that would increase my productivity at work once I had it figured out. All of this without asking for overtime, comp time, or any monetary/time off compensation. I simply like my job that much that I just do it. Now, I am stuck in a catch-22…I am not allowed to even answer my work phone on my furlough days, look at emails, or work on projects if not at work. My customer, and her ships in the shipyards or getting ready to deploy need my assistance, but at exactly 8 hours of work, I stop. I just walk away, and that is hard to do, that is not who I am. If I stay and help my customer, it would make the impression I can do in 32 hours what I used to do in 40, giving some idiot in DC the idea we can stay at 32 hours forever and that furloughs don’t really hurt anyone. Sadly, the new mantra at work is “80% pay gets you 80% effort”. And I don’t see many people shaking that off when these furloughs end, or trying to play “catch up” on the pile of missed work. This is what DC wanted, this is what DC gets. I may suffer from lack on money (well, mostly my kids), but my customer, the US Navy, is the one that gets hurt the most.

  14. disenchanted says:

    @GS overachiever (was):

    From what I hear they are talking about another 22 days (which of course can be negotiated hopefully) and a RIF in FY14. So you have to choose between your work and yourself. What matters in the end?

  15. James Joyner says:

    @disenchanted: SECDEF Hagel has been adamant that there be no furloughs in 2014, even if that means RIFs.

  16. Scott says:

    @GS overachiever (was): This is my experience with a lot of civil servants in DoD. Hardworking and dedicated. After 40 years of being the right wing whipping boy, I think this may just break the back of a lot of government agencies. Which has the additional benefit of proving that Government doesn’t work!

  17. DC Loser says:


    Funny, I hear the exact opposite from agency heads telling their workforce to expect more of the same or even worse in FY 14.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @DC Loser: We’ll see what happens, I guess. Hagel has been out on the stump for a couple weeks trying to allay fears of workers and drive home to Congress how much pain is being inflicted. But he’s on record as saying he’s going to push for RIFs instead of furloughs.

  19. Woody says:

    But these are government employees! They are drags on the market and hinder prosperity! They should get on their knees and be grateful they get what they get! Being public employees, they are intrinsically lazy – oh sure, there are some overachievers, but the majority couldn’t hack it in the real world. And their benefits, pensions, and health care should be slashed in tough times . . . and in good times, too. One time, one of them didn’t treat me as well as I would have liked. One of them confided to me that they did the least amount possible at their job, too!

    Oh! beg pardon. Thought this was about teachers public defenders IRS agents regulatory inspectors non-Defense public employees.

    (I did like the piece, but I’m always bemused at how differently public employees associated with guns are somehow immune from regular Right tropes)

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Woody: There’s a lot of that sentiment out there, and it’s by no means relegated to the political right. There’s a lot of deadwood in bureaucratic agencies, including the Defense Department and it’s easy to find horror stories of people essentially retired in place while drawing a nice check from the taxpayer. And, because they’re essentially tenured, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth to fire them. Reforming the personnel system with an eye to weeding out the bad apples and improving the caliber of those brought into the system is almost certainly worthwhile, if difficult to achieve at that large a scale.

    DoD, like other agencies, has a mission to perform and it has to do it with the personnel on the payroll. Most of them, as with all agencies, are putting in a reasonable day’s effort to get the job done. Some of them are an incredible bargain, worth far more than they’re paid.

    But it seems to me that that’s a different discussion. Furloughs and the accompanying inefficiences are by far the stupidest way to deal with the problem. They guarantee that the taxpayer isn’t getting their money’s worth. Further, they’re undermining the morale and dedication of the best of the workforce.

  21. Al says:

    I’ve seen this same thing happen when I worked for a company that was shrinking and heading towards bankruptcy. The process is called “bright-sizing”, a play on the term “right-sizing” which is a euphemism for layoffs. The smartest, most talented people will leave because they can.

    It’s the death knell for most companies. For the DoD this probably means an era similar to post-Vietnam. Inefficient and ineffective for another decade.

  22. Bedrock Guy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Mr. Joyner. Secretary Hagel said that? Not last week he didn’t. He promised more pain for FY 14. Think you are talking to the wrong folks.

  23. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Well, the sequester was Obama’s proposal, and his administration has issued the orders that the sequester cuts are to be as painful as possible. Sounds like the Pentagon is following the orders of the Commander In Chief.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @Bedrock Guy: He issued a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 10 stating, “DoD is hoping to avoid furloughs of civilian personnel in FY 2014, but the department might have to consider mandatory reductions-in-force (RIFs). As with involuntary separations of military personnel, RIFs don’t save much in FY 2014 but would help accommodate funding caps in later years. While painful, RIFs would permit DoD to make targeted cuts in civilian personnel levels rather than the more across-the-board cuts associated with furloughs.”

    He’s said much the same thing in various speeches at military bases across the country since.

    The House has also voted to block furloughs for 2014.

  25. Wah, wah, wah! They have had two full years to plan for this. You got a bunch of bureaucratic whiners there. Truth is that half the staff in the Pentagon could be eliminated with effective management and sound planning, and no one outside of the military would notice the difference Get with it, get over it and get on with it. My children and grandchildren are sick and tired of assuming garagantuan debt to support your military empires.

  26. disenchanted says:

    @James Joyner: @James Joyner:

    Hagel was not put in his position to increase the military and or civilian population. He was put in place to decimate the military. The current administration is not a fan of the military and the cuts to the military are going to make your head spin and along with that will come a large decrease in civilian employment. Perhaps where you work they are talking no furloughs, but not at my agency . In fact they would rather furlough than to RIF so they can save their no colonel left behind program. ( there are a lot of new 0-5s and 0-6s in GS positions that do not have very much time in and many are still career conditional – the first to go in a RIF) If you do not believe this program exists, well what can I say?

    I can tell by some of the comments made that some people just do not want to be realistic. Just wait. those that make the decisions will say, well the civilians went without a percentage of their pay, so they can do it again. I would rather be realistic and make my plans and budget accordingly.

  27. disenchanted says:

    here’s an interesting article. This is our problem. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending, out of control spending problem.

    White House doubles down on vow Obama won’t agree to more spending cuts

  28. Sheila says:

    @James Joyner:

    And last week, he told civilians at Charleston there would probably be Furloughs and RIFs in ’14.

  29. Jay says:

    Terrible, so sad. DoD might lose track of taxpayer funds or maybe even lose a war! What? Already did both big time, huh?

  30. HeavyHokie says:

    @James Joyner: most of the worker bees at my installation are GS13s (we’re a R&D facility). We get comp time for anything over 40/wk.

  31. DC Loser says:


    LOL@ “the No Colonel Left Behind Program.” You brought up an interesting problem for these double dippers. If they want to be protected from the RIF, they’d have to scramble to get their 30% VA disability rating, or (Egads!!) give up their military retirement and buy back their active duty time to get credit for their military service.

  32. Recently Retired says:

    @DC Loser: In my experience, the best way to gain appreciation is to perform as though you deserve appreciation. It didn’t always work, but I could hold my head up high knowing that I EARNED my pay, and that I was doing my best to support the warfighter.

  33. DC Loser says:

    @Recently Retired,

    While that’s a perfectly resonable and professional attitude to have, and I did do that for decades, what I’ve learned is that all that gets you at the end of the day is that by doing all the work you weren’t supposed to be doing according to the regulations, you’ve proven that your organization didn’t all those people and billets after all, and you can permanently do more with less with no raise.

  34. C. Clavin says:
  35. @GS overachiever (was):

    This is what DC wanted, this is what DC gets.

    No, this is what the Republican Party wants.

    The Democrats didn’t want to cut spending (in a brutally stupid manner) during a down economy with extraordinarily low government borrowing rates; that was the ransom the GOP demanded for not shredding the economy.

    Longtime Republican Senate staffer Mike Lofgren explained the logic:

    A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

    A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. …

  36. Pragmatic says:

    @GS overachiever: That is some of the worst tripe I’ve ever heard considering the Democrats have voted three times to increase the debt ceiling. The republicans are being obstructive to attempt to stop the mindless spending that is taking place.

    For all the bitching and whining from the left on how much we spend on defense, it is amazing they have no problem paying people to sit on their a$$ and provide a plethora of “entitlement” benefits. The percentage of recipients that have no interest in trying to find a job and are comfortable on the government’s dime compared to the number of deadbeat bureaucrats is likely huge…I’ll take the deadbeats because at least I can get them to show up to work and get a little out of them.

    We ALL need jobs…private or public sector, it simply doesn’t matter. As long as we have people not working, we’ll stay in this rut.

    BTW, its the democrats and their union supporters that are driving up paychecks to the point companies would rather send jobs overseas than pay out the massive paychecks that cause cars to cost $50K nowadays. And we buy that overseas crap like there’s no tomorrow.

    BTW, I don’t let the repubs off the hook either. We haven’t had a complete review of government in a long time and have no idea how much the government actually costs…I blame both parties for this…we keep adding more programs and never really look to see which have served their purpose…so until a complete review of the government is complete and we have a handle on what we spend…then you can dish out that partisan crap.

    Both parties are responsible for the predicament we are in…

  37. Steve says:

    @James Joyner: nope. I am a 15 , and we have been given the same fear-mongering talks if we go one minute over or are caught logging into any work system outside the 32 auth hours.

  38. Steve says:

    @DC Loser: our time card system has had removed the options to even select comp or credit hours, only travel comp still available for travelers. Five of over 2000 employees in our org are exempt, not even our three SES.

  39. Steve says:

    @Woody: I always find my 10% but with a 32 hour week, vice my normal 50, though only paid for 40, it is even harder to go through the lengthy process to weed them out. I blame every supervisor they ever had that let them get away with such!

  40. Steve says:

    @Bedrock Guy: I specifically heard him say, and I am paraphrasing, I will do all I can to prevent furloughs next FY, but I make no guarantees. He basically said the same thing prior to executing our current furloughs.
    At this point I trust nothing coming out of the beltway!

  41. Steve says:

    @Sheila: heard exactly that from a close personal friend in Charleston.