Workers idled at Aerospace Testing Alliance in Tullahoma, Tenn.

Workers idled at Aerospace Testing Alliance in Tullahoma, Tenn.

October 16th, 2013 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

Arnold Engineering Development Complex

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

As Congress nears agreement on ending the federal shutdown, Aerospace Testing Alliance, the primary contractor at Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma, Tenn., is in the odd position of sending workers home by the hundreds while preparing to hire new workers for a heavy schedule of testing set to begin next week.

Last Friday, 100 to 150 people were notified not to show up for work until the shutdown ends. Another 300 were asked to take any available vacation time this week but to be ready to return to work by Monday to start gearing up for planned testing activities, Aerospace Testing spokeswoman Kathy Gattis said.

The shutdown hit 23 to 27 percent of Aerospace's workforce of 1,682 people, Gattis said. Those employees still will have insurance benefits and can accrue vacation time.

Employees who have vacation time were encouraged to take time off, and "that's in special funding that's set aside, so there's money to pay that," she said. Consequently, if workers use vacation time, that leaves more money for operations during the shutdown, she said.

For some Aerospace employees, a planned water outage at about 15 buildings at the base was forcing many to take off this week anyway while crews performed routine maintenance, Gattis said. That lessens the impact for those employees, and others might follow suit.

Officials with Aerospace Testing Alliance and its fellow contractors hope the shutdown ends soon, she said.

"We've got a really heavy test load in November and December," Gattis said.

"Typically December is a slower time for us - and a good time for us to get maintenance done - but it's not this year," she said. "So, we're really hoping the government comes to some agreement soon.

"It'll not only put us behind, at a certain time the majority of us will be going home," she said. When funding starts running out around Oct. 25, "you're going to see some major changes if the government doesn't come to some kind of agreement."

The day of the shutdown, Oct. 1, 56 Arnold Engineering Development Complex workers were sent home on emergency furloughs. But by Oct. 14, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a recall of those employees based on legislation President Barack Obama signed into law on Oct. 1, said Jason Austin, spokesman for AEDC and Arnold Air Force Base. That measure is called the Pay Our Military Act.

Employees furloughed from Oct. 1-5 got a check for 60 percent of their pay last week. Meanwhile, a bill passed in the U.S. House to retroactively pay federal workers the rest of their salaries has stalled in the Senate, according to Austin.

Upcoming testing involves a number of major federal military projects, including testing for the Conventional Prompt Global Strike family of weapons, space chamber tests on the Missile Defense Agency's sensor technologies, thermal tests for ballistic re-entry heat shields, an accelerated mission test for engine for the B-01B Lancer, a new jet fuel additive, altitude validation tests on engines for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and similar testing of the engine for F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Officials say that in the event Congress passes a budget, employees should wait for their supervisors to give a date to return to work.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.