More furloughs at Kittery naval shipyard

Shipyard workers at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard successfully undock the Los Angeles-class submarine USS San Juan (SSN 751) one day early from a routine engineered overhaul. The shipyard is a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command, NAVSEA, and is committed to maximizing the material readiness of the Fleet by ensuring every ship is ready to respond to the Navy’s mission. (U.S. Navy photo by Jim Cleveland/Released)

The most read business story on the BDN website yesterday was about furloughed employees at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery facing pressure not to speak to the media about the sequestration-forced furloughs, which are forcing workers to take off one unpaid day a week through September.

The story — which was from our friends at the Foster’s Daily Democrat — initially took me by surprise because I had thought, and previously reported, that the Department of Defense had exempted its 4,700 civilian employees at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from the furlough.

To get the straight dope, I called Paul O’Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council at the shipyard.

It turns out I wasn’t incorrect in my previous reporting. The roughly 4,700 civilian employees who work at the Kittery “shipyard” repairing and maintaining submarines — meaning those employed by Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA — are exempt from furlough, O’Connor said.

However, it turns out the Navy employs roughly 1,300 additional civilian workers who technically work at the shipyard, but under completely different chains of command — each with its own government-generated acronym, including NAVSUP (those who handle supply) and NAVFAC (those who manage the facilities and engineering).

It turns out these 1,300 workers have been furloughed.

It’s a common mistake, O’Connor said. Even the shipyard’s website says it only employs 4,700 civilian workers.

Of course, it’s not known how many of the 1,300 shipyard employees who are furloughed are Maine residents, but it’s a safe guess that this means the number of furloughed Defense Department workers in Maine is higher than the 2,000 I previously reported.

That number could increase much higher in October. O’Connor pointed out that the 4,700 NAVSEA workers are technically only exempt until the end of September. Come Oct. 1, furloughs will be back on the table and with less room for the Department of Defense to maneuver, he said.

“Layoffs and base closures have been talked about,” O’Connor said. “Our shipyard will not survive nine and a half more years of this Congressional bull. They have to find a way to work together to figure this out.”

O’Connor is referring to the fact that sequestration — which he called the “doomsday default condition” included in the Budget Control Act of 2011 — is scheduled to be in place for a decade.

“We need sequestration to end. Telling hardworking Americans not to work is not going to save money. The work still has to be done. It will back up. Sequestration was never meant to be a logical budget cutting tool,” he said. “Sequestration is a job cutter and it’s going to cost tax payers more in the long run, and if anybody doesn’t see that they’re not paying attention.”

I asked O’Connor if he or his union members had faced any pressure about speaking with the media. He said no, but took offense that others had faced that pressure.

“That’s just an idle threat that has no place in the workplace. It’s absolutely inappropriate,” he told me. “Our lives are being impacted dramatically. I say that as a federal employee. I have not been furloughed, but my fight is for everybody and it will be for us come October 1, as well. The idea that we’re supposed to sit back in silence as this law impacts our lives is incredibly outrageous. Who the hell do they think they are telling us we can’t speak to the press?”

Whit Richardson

About Whit Richardson

Whit Richardson is Business Editor at the Bangor Daily News. He blogs about Maine business, entrepreneurs and the economy.