Shipyard Workers Worry About Sequestration Furloughs

fromNHPR

Military communities are keeping a wary eye on the sequester debate in Washington, D.C. In Maine, employees of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard have already been dealing with budget cuts. Now they could face furlough days as well. The smaller payroll could send shock waves through the local economy.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Now that automatic budget cuts are about to take effect, Americans are asking what it means for them.

WERTHEIMER: President Obama's administration has listed what the budget reductions would mean state by state. For example, California, Texas and New York would each lose tens of millions of dollars in education funding.

INSKEEP: Florida would lose millions of dollars that go to providing meals for seniors.

WERTHEIMER: And cities near military bases face an especially big hit. The Defense Department is preparing to furlough its civilian workforce.

New Hampshire Public Radio's Emily Corwin recently spent lunchtime at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: There are two times a day when Town Pizza in Kittery, Maine starts to bustle - 11:30, when the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard's 4,700 civilian employees get off for lunch, and in the afternoon, when they come off the yard for the day.

Civilian Navy engineer Mike Hamby has been eating the same spaghetti meatball dish here for the last 30 years. He says rumors are flying about furloughs that could cost him and his colleagues up to 20 percent of their pay.

MIKE HAMBY: Everybody's wondering what's going to happen next, then, you know, then we get our emails and explain how it's going to work, you know, one day a week, no pay, no nothing.

CORWIN: Hamby says it's the young people with babies and mortgages who are really anxious. Older guys like him have seen this kind of thing happen over and over again. And seriously, Hamby says, a four day work week?

HAMBY: It's kind of a blessing, you know, if you look at it the right way.

CORWIN: Hamby's friend Kelly Koulalis works at a sandwich shop at the shipyard. She says nerves about the budget sequester are already affecting people's behavior.

KELLY KOULALIS: We've noticed the lunches aren't as busy. I think people are worried about it. People are making decisions to spend less money on food.

CORWIN: The Navy has frozen hiring at the yard and halted maintenance on some ships and buildings, due to Congress's stopgap budget agreement known as the continuing resolution. But if the budget sequester actually happens, most of the 4,700 civilian employees here will also be furloughed one day a week for 22 weeks or more.

The Navy would also halt repairs to the USS Miami, a submarine that was damaged in a fire last May. The Navy needs to cut $8.6 billion in spending in 2013 alone.

Pretty much everyone in Kittery agrees that Shipyard workers are the scapegoats of political scare tactics. But not everyone thinks Defense cuts are necessarily a bad idea.

Bill Miller is trying on boots at a Pawn Shop just down the road from Town Pizza. His sister and brother-in-law work at the naval shipyard. He says they all agree - America needs to cut its spending, even at the shipyard.

BILL MILLER: So the cuts are needed or else we're in for big trouble, the country's in for big trouble.

CORWIN: But on the other side of the shipyard, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, city manager John Bohenko says effects from payroll cuts could be significant, even off the facility.

JOHN BOHENKO: Because when you have a reduction in payroll, that means that people have less to spend within the economy and the local economy.

CORWIN: The furloughs would take more than $90 million in employee income out of nearby towns.

Back in Kittery, at Carl's Meat Market, which is actually owned by a guy named Jim Spencer, people are lining up for lunch. Spencer gets a third of his lunch business from workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

And customer Kevin Quinn, who owns a car repair shop up the street, says he worries he'll lose business because of the furloughs too.

KEVIN QUINN: We do a lot of business with shipyard workers too, so we definitely don't want any layoffs or any cutbacks whatsoever.

CORWIN: Quinn says if his business slows down, going out to lunch here at this market, that'd be the first thing to go. It all trickles down, he says.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin.

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