By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Civilian defense workers across the United States began taking unpaid leave on Monday in a Pentagon-imposed austerity move expected to save $1.8 billion through September 30 by effectively cutting the pay of about 650,000 workers by nearly 20 percent.
Defense officials said they could not say exactly how many people took a day of unpaid leave because those decisions are handled locally at workplaces across the country. But absences were evident at the Pentagon.
"Sorry, we're on furlough - back Tuesday," said a sign taped to one computer.
The move, criticized by some lawmakers and unions, was one of the most visible effects of the nearly $37 billion in automatic across-the-board budget cuts imposed on the Pentagon this year in an effort to curb the U.S. government's nearly trillion-dollar deficit.
The military has postponed maintenance, curtailed training, canceled deployments and taken other steps to slash spending.
The cuts were imposed after Congress and the Obama administration failed to reach a compromise on alternative ways to reduce outlays.
Defense officials said about 85 percent of the 770,000 civilian employees eligible for furlough would begin taking two days of unpaid leave per two-week pay period beginning this week and continuing through the end of the fiscal year on September 30. That amounts to about a day per week for 11 weeks.
"I myself will be furloughed two days this pay period, which starts today," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
He said the furloughs were expected to reduce Pentagon spending by $1.8 billion through the end of the fiscal year.
Representative Buck McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, expressed disappointment at the furloughs and blamed them on the president, saying he had failed to show leadership needed to overcome the budget impasse that led to the cuts.
U.S. Representative Sean Maloney, a New York Democrat, said the cuts were the result of "dumb decisions" by the last Congress. He said furloughs would affect about 1,000 families at the U.S. military academy at West Point in New York.
An aide said later that when the Army garrison and hospital at West Point were included, 1,976 civilians would have to take unpaid leave. Only 52 civilian defense employees at West Point received exemptions from unpaid leave, according to information released by the academy.
Maloney said the furloughs would slash an average of $4,000 in wages per affected employee between now and September 30.
"That's a big cut in anybody's pay, particularly over such a short period," Maloney told a conference call.
"It represents an 18-percent reduction in that pay, and this will be a direct impact on families themselves but also the communities that depend on the wages of these employees for their own small businesses and local economies," he said.
Don Hale, who represents union defense workers belonging to the American Federation of Government Employees, said he was concerned that lower-paid defense workers might become homeless or be forced to choose between medical treatment and food.
"As the greatest society in the world, how we ended up in this position is beyond me," Hale said. "But to put this burden on top working, loyal employees who are actually at the bottom of the food chain economically, it's a travesty."
He said defense workers at places like West Point were "filled with angst and nervousness about how they're going to survive in the future, how they're going to provide for their families."
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Xavier Briand and Cynthia Osterman)