Mary Theresa Nipwoda, a lab technician at Aberdeen Proving… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Mary Theresa Nipwoda, a lab technician at Aberdeen Proving Ground, did what she could to prepare for the 20 percent pay cut she knew was coming this week.
The Harford County woman, who earns about $67,000 annually, switched her prescription medications to generic drugs once it became clear Congress was not going to roll back the $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as sequestration. She skipped a AAA membership for her car.
Nipwoda, one of tens of thousands of Defense Department employees in Maryland who began taking unpaid leave this week, is prepared. But she's no less frustrated.
"I'll make it through," said Nipwoda, 58, who is also a steward with the National Federation of Federal Employees. "But it's one of those things where I go to church and pray, 'Dear God, please don't let anything else break.'"
Some 45,000 civilian employees in Maryland are to be furloughed one day for each of the next 11 weeks to help the Pentagon save $37 billion as required under the controversial spending cuts that began in March. The furloughs will continue through the end of the fiscal year in September.
The pay cuts, which will hit as many as 650,000 military employees nationwide, are one of the first tangible impacts from sequestration to reach Maryland, and analysts believe they will almost certainly have some effect on the economy.
Despite dire warnings from the Obama administration that sequestration would spin the nation into a second recession, economists now believe the impact has been small. Some federal parks, including Baltimore's Fort McHenry, have cut hours to deal with leaner budgets. The Blue Angels canceled their show at the Naval Academy graduation this year.
But there has been little in the way of wide-ranging economic impact to date, even in Maryland, which is home to some 300,000 federal workers. Most federal agencies with a large presence here, including the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, have managed to avoid furloughs altogether.
And that is partly why economists are watching the Defense furloughs closely. As required under their contracts, employees received notice last month.
Uniformed military personnel are exempt from furloughs, but a broad swath of support staff, from base security to scientists, will be affected. And the reductions will be felt at every military facility in Maryland, including as many as 27,000 employees at Fort Meade, about 4,900 at Fort Detrick and 2,400 at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, according to Sen. Ben Cardin's office.
"The furloughs will not only affect civilian employees, but also will hurt local businesses, restaurants and gas stations that will have less customers as DoD civilians and their families stretch to make ends meet," Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement.
"A 20 percent cut in pay is drastic and takes a toll on individual employees, their families and communities," he said.
The furloughs, which have been expected for months, are the latest cuts to hit a department already challenged by the sequester.
At Fort Meade, commanders have chosen to spend their diminished funds on programs and services that affect the health and safety of service members, civilian employees and their families before addressing maintenance and repairs at the World War I-era base in Anne Arundel County.
"I'm not going to say the cup is half-full, because reality is that this does present some very significant challenges for personnel and for the community," said Col. Edward Rothstein, the commander of Fort Meade. "But it's also been a catalyst for bringing folks together and focusing on our priorities."
With more than 52,000 military and civilian workers at the National Security Agency, U.S. Cyber Command, the Defense Information Systems Agency and other organizations, Fort Meade is the largest employer in the state. As furloughs approached, Rothstein directed the base newspaper to produce a special section offering advice to affected employees. The insert lists agencies on the base and in the surrounding counties to which workers may turn for help with finances, housing, education and stress.
Rothstein has been talking with fellow commanders and workers about furloughs since March.
"Expectation management is critical," he said.
George Matthews oversees the program at Fort Meade that prepares soldiers for life after the military — a role in which he's used to giving financial advice.
Furloughs have now forced the 59-year-old Glen Burnie man to do some extra planning of his own.
"Instead of being spread over a year, we're looking at a 20 percent pay cut over a short period of time," he said. "It creates an economic difficulty."
In his case, he said, the immediate challenge is the tuition bill for his son, an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.