EXCLUSIVE: Furlough foul-up affects 20,000 Hawaii workers

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's the furloughs that should not have happened.

Some 20,000 civilian Department of Defense employees in Hawaii -- and more than 350,000 workers nationwide --- shouldn't have been ordered off the job last week due to a new law that provided for funding for their pay, according to Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa.

"Of course, these furloughs should not have happened," Hanabusa said.

"For the most part they would be covered under POMA and should not have been subject to furlough."

Hanabusa is referring to the Pay Our Military Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on Sept. 30 -- the day before the furloughs went into effect.

The legislation specifically provides for "pay and allowance to the civilian personnel of the Department of Defense."

The new law was cited by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when he ordered the workers back on the job Saturday.

"For the past several days, we've been looking at the Pay Our Military Act and it's clear. It's clear that civilians should not have been furloughed. We should have been at work getting paid," said Don Bongo, president of the Hawaii Federal Employees Metal Trades Council, which represents about 4,000 workers at the Pearl Harbor Shipyard.

Added Jamie Hiranaka, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers: "The DOD employees should never have been furloughed because the Pay Our Military Act had been signed on Sept. 30 before the shutdown."

The IFPTE represents about 2,000 DOD white-collar workers in Hawaii.

Calls to a Defense Department spokesman in Washington, D.C. were not return calls.

In his remarks on Saturday, Hagel said the Pay Our Military Act does not permit a "blanket recall" of civilians.

But he did say that attorneys for the DOD and the Department of Justice concluded that the law does allow the department to recall workers that "contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members."

Union leaders expressed frustration that it took the federal government so long to reach that conclusion.

Bongo said the language of the law is pretty clear that the civilian workforce is exempt.

He added that there's precedent in previous furloughs brought on by sequestration where civilian employees at the shipyard and other DOD installations were deemed essential and remained on the job.

Hanabusa said she's been trying to convince the military that civilians are covered by the new law ever since the furloughs were first announced.

But she said communication with the DOD was hampered by the fact that many of the key department contacts were on furlough themselves.

"It's been an extremely frustrating process," she said.

"The problem is the people who have the information and can gives us the answers are on furlough."

Even though they're back on the job, many workers say the loss of three or four days of pay is still weighing on their finances.

"It's just scary. We were worried about whether we're going to pay our bills on time," said Denny Sebala, a 10-year shipyard employee.

"I was already thinking I think I gotta start recycling cans and bottles now and worrying like we have our mortgage coming up on the 15th you know."

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