NEWPORT NEWS – The clock is ticking to find a solution to the federal government’s budget woes, and there is no place more concerned than Virginia’s largest industrial employer, Newport News Shipbuilding.
Mike Petters is the president and chief executive officer of the shipyard’s parent company, Huntington Ingalls Industries. Petters said Tuesday that unless funding is found soon to continue scheduled maintenance work for the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the shipyard’s 21,000 workforce would feel the impact.
“I think if we’re not starting on this, going forward on March 27, if there’s not a resolution that allows that ship to start in fiscal year 2013, then I think it will affect our workforce,” Petters said. “It would be across the whole business.”
There are also concerns over the potential economic impact of sequestration, which would sharply reduce military spending and have big consequences for the region.
Federal spending cuts are set to kick in on March 1 unless Congress reaches a deal on debt reduction.
A recent Old Dominion University study projects 28,7000 people in Hampton Roads could lose their jobs over the next three years if sequestration went forward.
Half the cuts would be to non-combat military spending while the other half would be to domestic discretionary spending. Click here for a breakdown of the Navy's fiscal actions.
The sequester cuts, totaling $1.2 trillion over the course of a decade, were agreed to in the summer of 2011 in a deal to raise the debt ceiling. They were intended to be so unpalatable that the White House and Congress would find a way to avert them by developing an alternate long-term deficit reduction plan.
Virginia Senator and Senate Armed Services Committee Member Tim Kaine visited Newport News Shipbuilding Tuesday and said he’s hopeful that sequestration can be averted.
“I insist there’s no reason we can’t fix this, this March first deadline is completely artificial,” Kaine said.
Meanwhile, workers are preparing for the possibility of reductions in force.
Pipefitter Jermaine Tatum told 13News, “I think it’s real sad. You know, they did a lot of hiring before the holidays. Now they’re turning right back around, going to lay off.”
Newport News Shipbuilding President Matt Mulherin said the threat of large-scale defense cuts has a real impact on the lives of real people. “These aren’t just line items in a budget, these are people. These are critical skills,” Mulherin said.
Arnold Outlaw, President of the United Steelworkers Local 8888, says what thousands are likely feeling, “This scares us, this scares us."
Outlaw said he is worried that with so much at stake, the politicians won't come up with a solution soon enough.
"We were told last year that we got work through 2020 and now all of a sudden it looks like everything is pushed back and we're worried, yes," Outlaw said.
The Navy has also announced plans to delay the scheduled mid-life overhaul and nuclear refueling on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. That decision also impacts workers at Newport News Shipbuiding, the world’s only manufacturer of the Navy’s Nimitiz class aircraft carriers, and therefore, the only place where such work can be done.
Work on the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford continues, but with time running out, the rank and file are left to wonder if things will get better or worse.
In addition to his visit to Newport News Shipbuilding Tuesday, Senator Kaine also toured Naval Station Norfolk. In the next two days, Kaine will visit military installations in other parts of the state.
"It affects the lives of a lot of people, especially men and women who livelihoods depend on these contracts," said Gary Preston, who has been at the shipyard for 32 years.
Preston was among people who attended a community forum in Newport News Tuesday night to discuss the economic impacts of sequestration.
Congressman Bobby Scott hosted the event.
"They're going to work tout this sequestration with this $1.2 trillion. Well, what about the little guy who's trying to pay for the gas that's going up?" asked Steve Jackson, a truck driver, who attended the meeting. "We want to know: How fast are those cuts gonna come? Are we gonna have a job in 2 weeks? Are they gonna start laying people off the same day, you know, are you gonna go to work the same day that these cuts take effect and not have a job?"
Because agencies facing the impact of sequestration will have to determine how to make the mandatory cuts, Scott told people at the forum there is no clear answer to questions such as Jackson's.
While a lot of emphasis has been put on defense cuts, Scott reminded people other areas stand to lose big.
"We haven't had as much discussion about the non-defense: what it does to Head Start, what it does to air traffic controllers, whether or not Smithfield Foods will be able to stay open because there may not be enough meat inspectors, what it's gonna do to border patrols and the FBI, I mean, NASA, Jefferson Lab, everybody is gonna suffer."