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Many furloughed Fort Drum employees to return to work Monday

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FORT DRUM — Hundreds of furloughed civilian workers could be back on post Monday as the Pentagon on Saturday afternoon ordered “most” workers to return to work.

Civilian defense workers across the country have faced furloughs since the start of the new fiscal year Tuesday, as Congress did not pass a new budget.

In a statement Saturday afternoon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said planning to bring back workers started when President Barack Obama signed the Pay Our Military Act. Though he said the law did not allow a blanket recall of the furloughed employees, “DoD and DOJ attorneys concluded that the law does allow the Department of Defense to eliminate furloughs for employees whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.”

The Pentagon is moving to identify “all employees whose activities fall under these categories,” and it expects to “significantly reduce — but not eliminate — civilian furloughs under this process,” Hagel said. “We will continue to try to bring all civilian employees back to work as soon as possible.”

The Pentagon said Saturday that at least 90 percent of its roughly 350,000 furloughed civilian employees would be called back to work, significantly reducing the number of sidelined federal workers. In all, about 800,000 federal workers had been furloughed.

The Pentagon’s comptroller, Robert Hale, said those recalled would include some who work for the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and other Pentagon-based intelligence agencies.

About 575 civilian employees at Fort Drum, representing about 42 percent of the post’s workforce, were not exempted from the furloughs and have been at home since the shutdown. The high number of exemptions locally was credited to the increased activity and deployments of the post and the 10th Mountain Division.

It is not clear how many would return as a result of Saturday’s order, or whether they would be paid. Employees exempted from last week’s furloughs have worked without pay, and will be reimbursed when Congress passes a budget.

Jeffrey W. Zuhlke, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 400, said Saturday afternoon that he was waiting for more information on what that meant locally.

“Until we get clarification, we’re just kind of in a holding pattern,” he said.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, praised the Pentagon decision.

“I am pleased with the Defense Department’s decision that will allow many civilian defense employees to return to work. They should not have been furloughed in the first place,” he said.“I call on the House leadership to work with rational members of both parties to reopen the government as soon as possible. My constituents deserve immediate access to all of the vital services the federal workforce supplies.”

The House, which met in a rare Saturday session, unanimously approved legislation to ensure back pay for furloughed government workers. The Senate, which also was in session, was expected to approve the bill, which the White House has said the president would not veto.

Agreeing to pay furloughed federal employees for the work days they are missing was a thin victory. Congress made the same deal after the shutdowns in the mid-1990s, and Saturday’s 407-0 vote was widely expected.

Still, it triggered the sort of derisive quarreling that has prevented Congress from resolving the larger funding and debt dilemmas.

“Of all the bizarre moments” involved in the debate, said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, “this may be the most bizarre: that we will pay people not to work.” He called it “the new tea party sense of fiscal responsibility.”

House Republicans said they want to ease the pain from the partial shutdown. Democrats said Congress should fully reopen the government and let employees work for the pay they’re going to receive.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., confirmed Saturday that the Democratic-controlled Senate will approve retroactive pay for furloughed workers, although he didn’t specify when.

Defense Secretary Hagel’s statement can be found at http://wdt.me/vUKAVM.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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