By John B. SnyderMarch 25, 2013
WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. (March 25, 2013) -- Prior to March 1, the dire consequences of Sequestration, or what the Department of Defense calls "fiscal uncertainty," were hyped from the highest offices of the land. So it may have been a shock to some that America didn't fall off a cliff as we rolled into March.
After all, the stock market continued to set new records, Americans still flocked to spring break resorts, and national retail sales continued to grow. For most Americans, life went on without so much as a second glance at the Congressional and White House budget battles that have put our nation into such a precarious position.
But the negative effects of Sequestration are slowly and quietly gaining momentum, as if a snake was uncoiling from its rest. And just like a snake, once it uncoils the pain could be irreversible.
At a small Army post in upstate New York, is the Watervliet Arsenal. Situated on just 143 acres, Watervliet is America's oldest continuously-operated Arsenal having supplied hardware to the U.S. military since 1813.
Last January, the Arsenal's importance to the Army was finally recognized when Secretary of the Army John McHugh designated the Arsenal as a Center of Industrial and Technical Excellence for cannon and mortar manufacturing. Essentially saying, there is no other manufacturer in DOD that has the Arsenal's capability to manufacture cannons and mortars.
The Arsenal workforce of 600 federal employees are not the highly paid federal workforce that one might find in the Washington, D.C. Beltway. They are true middle class Americans whose average hourly pay is less than $28.
For this Army manufacturer, the effects of Sequestration have already imparted a huge financial toll, as well as a tax on the mental well being of the workforce. And, the Arsenal hasn't even started to furlough its employees, which is a requirement of Sequestration.
Hundreds of hours of prime time have already been diverted from the Arsenal manufacturing mission to assess, plan, coordinate, and to respond to higher headquarters all in the name of fiscal uncertainty. That diversion of labor still continues at an exceptional high rate as the Arsenal fights hard to take care of its workforce, while trying to mitigate the slippage of manufacturing schedules.
There have always been challenges throughout the Army, as well as at the Arsenal, to balance the notion of "taking care of the troops" with "mission accomplishment." But unless something changes soon, both will suffer at Watervliet.
Two things that are the most pressing on the minds of the Arsenal workforce: making mission and how to survive the devastating effects to their personal lives that will come from being furloughed for 22 days.
The Arsenal has 200 years of pride of providing the war fighter with the right products, at the right time, and at the right place. It cannot be understated that missing production schedules wears on the morale of this small workforce because this will happen on their watch. The fact that they have no control over the outcome of this fiscal uncertainty does not matter. Making mission is a matter of pride, history, and an Arsenal tradition.
So, who are the most vulnerable?
Joshua Feldman is a first year apprentice who began his training last August. He has served in New York's Army National Guard and so, the Army was in his soul.
Feldman speaks highly of his Army service and about how proud he was, and still is, when he was one of the 14 selected for an Arsenal apprenticeship. Nearly 470 applied for those coveted slots.
"This was my dream job," Feldman said. "I'm a blue collar worker at heart and I have always loved to work with my hands."
He said that when he landed the job at the Arsenal, he thought this was it. After years of searching for his dream job, now he could finally settle down and raise a family. Or so he thought.
He and his girlfriend bought a house, got engaged, and will have a baby in the near future. Feldman said had he known that he would lose up to 20 percent of his pay this year he would not have bought his house or financed his furniture.
"I thought I had done everything right," Feldman said. "With the potential to lose nearly $3,000 of my pay over the next six months has caused a significant amount of stress."
Brian Martino joined Feldman in this year's freshman apprentice class.
Martino came to the Arsenal with an extensive work history that includes 15 years of manufacturing experience. Despite that experience, he said he doesn't mind starting at the bottom floor because he was just happy to get a job with a great future after being unemployed for some time.
"When I found out that I was selected for the apprentice program, I quickly moved from Connecticut into an apartment that is close to the post," Martino said. "I signed a two-year lease based on what my pay would be and now, with a potential loss of 20 percent of my pay, I am worried about paying my rent."
Martino said he has already cut back by stopping his contributions to his 401k account and by not having cable TV in his apartment.
"I don't have anything else to cut except my food bill," Martino added.
Michael Smith, who is an expediter at the Arsenal, is use to tough times. He is a former Army Ranger who retired after 20 years of deployments that caused him to miss much of his family life. He has been at the Arsenal since last November.
Smith said he thought life would be different after he left active duty.
"I left the Army because I wanted to spend more time with my family," Smith said. "Due to the upcoming furlough and the loss of pay that goes with it, I can't afford to move my wife here."
Smith said he and his wife have already cut back by not eating out, not visiting each other as much, and by not being able to get a home or an apartment near the post. He lives in an economy hotel because he is maintaining two households until he gets situated. His wife currently lives in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Feldman, Martino, and Smith are the Arsenal faces to Sequestration. And, as many in the Arsenal workforce, they are cutting back and even eliminating some of the basics of life, such as giving one's spouse or child a kiss goodnight. They are stressed but remain proud. Although they say they will stick it out, one wonders if they can afford to. After all, federal pay has been frozen for nearly three years and now federal employees must take a 20 percent pay cut on top of it.
The Watervliet Arsenal is an Army-owned-and-operated manufacturing facility and is the oldest, continuously active arsenal in the U.S. having begun operations during the War of 1812. It will celebrate its 200th anniversary this July.
Today's Arsenal is relied upon by U.S. and foreign militaries to produce the most advanced, high-tech, high-powered weaponry for cannon, howitzer, and mortar systems. This National Historic Registered Landmark has an annual economic benefit to the local community in excess of $100 million.