The Pentagon began furloughing the vast majority of its civilian employees as part of an effort to generate billions in savings required to address budgetary constraints.
To meet the mandates of the so-called sequestration, 680,000 Defense Department employees will be forced to take a day of unpaid leave each week over the next 11 weeks. The move is expected to save about $1.8 billion, but it's frustrating many of those affected.
"This is exactly the wrong way to balance the budget, to arbitrarily furlough everybody," said Professional Services Council President Stan Soloway, whose organization represents government contractors whose work will be disrupted when large numbers of their government counterparts are forced into mandatory leave. "It's unfortunate and unfair."
As badly as the lost income will sting those who are furloughed, the Pentagon had originally expected it to be much worse. The current plan is a reduction from the 22 furlough days the department thought would be necessary.
Just one week before the furloughs took effect, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hinted that he would try to reduce the amount of unpaid leave even further.
"I hope we can do better than the 11 days," he told soldiers based at Fort Carson, Colo., in late June. Hagel also pledged to cut his own pay, in solidarity with those employees who have been forced to take what is effectively a 20 percent pay cut over the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
About 120,000 civilian employees were exempted from furloughs, providing important indications about what positions and operations the Defense Department values most.
Following a series of sexual assault cases within the military, Hagel exempted employees working on sexual assault prevention efforts to show how seriously the department viewed the issue.
The Pentagon also exempted all uniformed military personnel and 30,000 Navy shipyard workers from mandatory unpaid leave.
The furloughs are part of a Pentagon effort to address mandatory, across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration, which will reduce defense spending by $500 billion over the next decade unless Congress intervenes to halt it.
But there is little hope on Capitol Hill that sequestration will be reversed, even as congressional hawks warn of a decline in military readiness and effectiveness.
The effects of the Pentagon's mandatory unpaid leave will be felt across the country, but they will hit the Washington, D.C., area particularly hard. The region's economy will lose $2 billion in lost furlough wages and because of vacant positions left unfilled, according to economist Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis.
"We've seen some of the effects already, because if you know you're going to lose 20 percent of your salary over the next 11 weeks, you're saving in anticipation," Fuller told the Washington Examiner. "[Economic] performance during the second quarter of this year has shown some weakness, and I think that's partially attributable to the anticipation of furloughs."