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More than 40 percent of Fort Drum civilian workforce furloughed because of government shutdown

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FORT DRUM — Tuesday was not a long workday for Amanda L. Craig, a civilian optometric technician with the post medical department.

Scheduled for a vacation day, she received a text message from her supervisor informing her that she needed to come to work. She is getting furloughed and needed to sign paperwork making it official. Coming in from her home in Champion, she was in and out within 20 minutes.

She described the mood in her office as “pretty somber,” since she and other workers had just endured six unpaid furlough days this summer because of federal budget cuts. Even before the new furloughs, this time because of the government shutdown, Mrs. Craig said the optometry office was struggling to keep up with a packed schedule, booked more than a month in advance, with a reduced staff. The staff, which includes only one optometrist for the entire installation, faces a rush of 3rd Brigade Combat Team soldiers making last-minute preparations before deploying to Afghanistan.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Mrs. Craig said. “It gets harder and harder.”

She has a simple wish for members of Congress who have not made an agreement to fund the government: that they get as many unpaid work days as furloughed federal workers.

“I think this would get settled a lot sooner if they did,” Mrs. Craig said. “This is just ridiculous.”

Mrs. Craig is one of hundreds of employees, representing about 42.5 percent of the post’s civilian workforce, who started emergency furloughs Tuesday.

The shutdown also threatens some services.

Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, post and 10th Mountain Division commander, acknowledged in a statement released Tuesday morning that “these are difficult times.”

“This lapse will challenge us; however, it is imperative that we recognize that it is not a reflection of our dedication to mission,” Gen. Townsend said. “Time and again, we have proven that we are the toughest and most resilient in the Army. I have no doubt that we will continue to meet our mission and maintain the highest levels of readiness.”

The furlough numbers were compiled from both the post and its largest employee union Tuesday.

The post said that about 250 of the approximately 790 garrison employees were furloughed. About 324 of 560 medical workers, representing 58 percent of the medical department, also were sent home early, according to Jeffrey W. Zuhlke, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 400.

Furloughed employees were sent home within four hours of arrival at work.

The post announced Tuesday that the commissary will be closed from today until the end of the shutdown. It also said its medical operations will continue with reduced staff, and will have few disruptions if the shutdown ends within a few days. Most activities of the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation office, including child care, will continue.

Many civilian workers are avoiding the cuts due to large number of troops returning from and heading to Afghanistan. The post is welcoming home thousands of soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, and the 3rd Brigade Combat Team is deploying with about 2,000 personnel. Exempted workers will be paid only after the shutdown ends.

It would take a separate act of Congress to reimburse unexempted workers for lost pay.

“It’s one hit after another,” Mr. Zuhlke said. “It’s almost like they’re trying to chase people out of federal service.”

The lost pay is bad news for Mrs. Craig, who said she recently learned a seasonal job she usually takes at the Salmon Run Mall will not be available this year. Her two children, ages 19 and 18, hope to begin college locally in January.

“Great timing,” she said. “More bills to pay.”

Her husband, a government contractor, has seen layoffs at his company because of reduced government spending.

“Now, I’m hoping his job isn’t affected,” she said.

In addition to her two jobs, Mrs. Craig also operates a riding horse farm in Champion, which has five horses.

“Horses still have to eat,” she said. “They don’t know the meaning of furlough.”

The shutdown also is affecting the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, which has 20 employees who work on a contract basis on post through Army Community Services. Executive Director Kevin J. Jordan said all of his employees were laid off Tuesday.

“As far as I know, ACR is still functioning, but at a reduced level,” he said. “Our hope is this will be short-lived.”

Working alongside federal employees, the 20 extension workers helped Fort Drum families understand deployment and consumer finance, and participated in various education programs. Mr. Jordan said hundreds to thousands of people are helped through ACR services each year.

The extension office also receives some federal money through Cornell University, Ithaca, as well as various state departments, “but we haven’t been made aware of any effect on them, yet.”

“A lot of this is a trickle-down effect from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Mr. Jordan said. “A lot of this depends on how long this lasts.”

A media inquiry made Monday to the state USDA office about the shutdown issue was referred to the Office of Management and Budget.

Gen. Townsend’s full statement can be found at http://wdt.me/oTHNR4.

Times Staff Writer Rebecca Madden contributed to this story.

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