Joint Base Lewis-McChord is preparing to make the first serious reductions to its civilian workforce since the Army began its post-Iraq downsizing three years ago.
Over the next two years the base is projected to shed about 900 full-time and contractor positions for civilians, according to Army data JBLM released to The News Tribune.
Unlike active-duty military service members, civilians often are permanent South Sound residents. The base today employs about 16,380 of them.
News of the looming reductions won’t surprise civilians who work for the military. The Army in July announced it planned to cut 17,000 civilian jobs across the service over the next few years, although it has withheld information about where the reductions would unfold.
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Senior-ranking leaders at JBLM have been holding meetings to figure out how they’ll manage the installation with hundreds fewer workers performing jobs that range from retail clerks at the post exchange to day-care providers to technicians managing virtual reality training programs.
Those reductions, along with more staffing cuts expected through 2022, “will fundamentally change how we operate on base,” said Greta Powell, chief of the base’s resource management office.
“It’s bleak,” she said.
The civilian reductions won’t necessarily come in the form of layoffs. Most will occur through attrition and retirements, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino said.
In some offices, JBLM already has fewer employees than the Army would allow it to hire, which might limit the need for layoffs or early retirements.
“These reductions are ahead of schedule,” Buccino said.
For example, the JBLM office that oversees the city-like functions of the base has more than 100 vacancies, Powell said. Some of those positions likely won’t be filled because supervisors know they’ll be asked to make staffing reductions in upcoming years.
The Army is cutting about 120,000 active-duty soldiers from its peak strength in 2011.
The overall effect will turn back trends that developed during the booming wartime years when the Army swelled with civilian workers because soldiers were too busy preparing for deployments to take care of jobs they typically handled, such as gate security.
Some of the jobs once held by civilians now are being reduced or cut because troops are home and available to do the work. Others that focused on supporting families of deployed troops no longer are needed in great numbers.
“This isn’t a crisis or a catastrophe,” said Tom Knight, the base’s chief of staff. “This is an opportunity to reassess ourselves to change the way we’re doing business here for a lot of the right reasons. We have much more of a home-station military right now.”
It’s hard to tell what the economic impact of the staffing reductions might have on the South Sound without more detailed information about the kinds of jobs that will be eliminated.
Cheryl Fambles, chief executive of the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council, said local governments will want to know how many people are being laid off, where they live and whether they want to change careers.
That kind of information helped her agency win grants from a program called Camo 2 Commerce, which helped hundreds of active-duty military service members find new careers as civilians since the Army began its drawdown in 2012.
It might be difficult to get answers to Fambles’ questions because JBLM is composed of several major military commands that report different headquarters all over the country.
They include Special Operations, logistics, and a headquarters that manages all conventional soldiers on U.S. soil. The Air Force also has its own command.
“While there’s this big umbrella called JBLM, it’s like a little city and you have so many different employers,” Fambles said. “Finding out who those employers are is challenging because they can be tucked away in a number of different places.”
The anticipated cuts come as the Army is carrying out a post-war force reduction that is eliminating about 120,000 positions for active-duty soldiers from its peak strength of about 570,000 in 2011.
We have much more of a home-station military right now.
Tom Knight, JBLM chief of staff
The database that broadly describes how many civilians work at JBLM indicates that more people are employed there today than in 2012, before the drawdown. That might be because it includes estimates for contract employees, whose numbers fluctuate dramatically from year to year, base spokesman Joe Piek said.
The expected reductions follow several years of steady cuts to the ranks of troops stationed at JBLM.
The headcount has gone from a high of 34,000 active-duty soldiers in 2012 to about 27,000 today. Counting members of the Air Force and the reserves, about 40,750 military service members serve at the base.
Local and state government officials have been preparing for deep civilian cuts at the base for months.
Gov. Jay Inslee in July pulled together leaders from several state agencies and asked them to make a plan that would help troops or laid-off Defense Department civilian workers find new careers.
The Army announced over the summer that it would cut another 1,250 positions for active-duty soldiers at the base. It did not declare how many civilian positions it would eliminate.
In November, the Army gave briefings to congressional staff members in which it outlined its criteria for deciding what to cut. It again did not detail how many positions will be cut from specific installations.
So far, the small cuts JBLM has carried out to certain parts of its civilian workforce have not risen to the level that would require congressional notification or a notice to local government. The threshold for those notices is 50 layoffs in a single event.
“If we’re sitting there waiting for a notice to come, that’s probably not going to happen,” state Military Affairs Director Kristine Reeves said. “It’s going to be under 50 people every two months.
“We know that these cuts are coming,” she said. “We know they’re difficult decisions and what we owe Washington is a responsible and thoughtful approach to supporting these members of our community.”
Some parts of the base are preparing to add staff over the next few years. One is Madigan Army Medical Center, which has permission to hire hundreds of employees.
Madigan struggled with attrition after forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration triggered furloughs in 2013, which hurt employee morale.
The hospital is adding employees to catch up with those losses as well as to build new programs coming out of Army Medical Command, said Madigan Deputy Commander Col. Stephen Yoest.
Madigan also is recruiting to fill programs it had outsourced to private facilities during the Iraq war. They include an in-patient mental health treatment program.
“While JBLM may be shrinking its workforce overall, Madigan has been chronically understaffed as a consequence of sequestration and furloughs. We are still recovering from that,” he said.