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July 28, 2014

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Nellis, Creech civilian employees work, wait, wonder about next federal budget

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Christopher DeVargas

Eloisa Hopper, a civil engineer who has been working for the Air Force for 35 years, poses for a photo at her office on Nellis Air Force Base, Thursday Aug. 29, 2013.

Eloisa Hopper has been around long enough to know military budgets go in cycles.

Hopper has worked as a civilian in the military for the past 32 years. A civil engineer, she has watched officers leave Nellis Air Force Base as captains and return for subsequent assignments as colonels, and she has seen numerous buildings be built from the budgets she put together.

She also knows military budgets expand during wartime and contract after it.

The current budget cycle is at the lowest point Hopper has ever seen at Nellis. Across-the-board sequestration budget cuts that went into effect earlier this year have spared no one.

Jets have been grounded, the Thunderbirds had been silenced, and the civilian workforce has dealt with furloughs and more responsibility with no pay increases. Most employees understand the cuts and reductions are a reality of the military’s current situation, said Kathi Brown, a human resource specialist at Nellis.

But the biggest concern for the civilians on base is the future. A new federal budget year arrives Oct. 1, leaving them wondering what the swinging ax of sequestration will chop next.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen it, and they said it’ll be even worse next year,” Hopper said. “I think it will be one more year (of cuts), and then hopefully we’ll start climbing up. It’s a cycle.”

Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases employ about 3,550 civilians, all of whom work side-by-side with military officers and enlisted men and women. The civilian workers are engineers, physicians, nurses, analysts and administrators. They work on the jets and fill clerical positions. While they may not have a rank next to their name, they do many of the same jobs as their military counterparts.

Not a lot has changed because of sequestration, Brown said. No one has been fired because of the budget cuts, but positions have been eliminated and employees consolidated into vacancies.

Civilian salaries have also been frozen for three years, and the Air Force has issued furlough days — mandatory unpaid days off. The sequestration initially called for 22 furlough days, but that has been reduced to six days.

“Because it takes so long for changes to take place, even with sequestration, we haven’t seen any huge reductions at this point,” Brown said. “And we don’t know if there are going to be reductions.”

Still, the cuts have taken a toll on the civilian workforce.

Vernon Steed is president of the American Federal Government Local 1199. His union represents about 2,300 civilian workers at Nellis and Creech. Many of those workers are struggling with the reduced pay. Some workers have had problems paying their home mortgages or have gone deeper into debt while others struggle to pay their medical bills, Steed said.

The cuts have also decreased staffing levels and eliminated contracted employees, forcing the staff to do more with fewer employees.

“This is about as bad as I’ve seen it,” Steed said. “Even with the drawdown after the Vietnam War, it was bad, but not as bad as it now.”

Hopper said she has been to far more retirement parties this year than in past years. She worries the combination of a hiring freeze with retirements will leave the Air Force with an inexperienced workforce after sequestration is lifted.

“We’ve seen a lot of retirements because of the situation in the civilian workforce. People are saying, 'I can’t handle this situation, so I’ll just retire,'” Hopper said. “So the Air Force might lose a lot of expertise because of the retirements.”

Brown said there was a growing concern about what next year would have in store. Even the Nellis wing commander has no idea what the Air Force plans to cut for the next budget.

“The unknown is a lot of what’s frustrating,” Brown said.

Yet, there is a sense of hope among many of the union workers that the worst will be over soon.

“There’s more optimism from a union standpoint than people think,” Steed said. “We do believe once we go through the growing pains of sequestration, the civilian force will stabilize and the numbers are going to come up.”

Hopper said she planned to stick it out for at least three more years before she retires. She loves the sense of mission working on a military base provides. Despite the difference in pay between her government salary and a private salary, there isn’t another job she’d rather have.

“It’s a safe thing,” Hopper said. “Right now I’m not getting the money I’m supposed to be earning, but I still feel the satisfaction that I’m contributing to whatever is going on here at the base. Just because the money is not there anymore, I’m still doing something.”

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