Navy Times: After kicking out thousands, Navy offers bonuses to fill manning gaps.
Sailors, and a lawmaker, want answers
Aug 13, 2012 -
‘It just doesn’t add up’
By Mark D. Faram
Personnel Specialist 1st Class (SW) Max Feige got the word in November he was being cut by an enlisted retention board. The Navy was breaking his contract and ending his 12-year Navy career.
That was devastating.
But when the Navy announced last month it was throwing tens of thousands dollars at sailors to extend sea duty — in ratings once held by sailors separated by the ERB — that made him angry.
“When I heard about these sea duty bonuses, I was furious,” Feige said. “It was like some¬one had kicked me. It just doesn’t add up at all. Manning at sea has always been a challenge, but the ERB has only made a bad problem worse.” Some may chalk the complaint up to a disgruntled sailor. But Feige, one of 2,946 sailors cut by last year’s two ERBs, is not alone. Sailors in the ranks, unaffected by the cuts, say they are disturbed by the Navy’s actions. More than 100 of the separated sailors are suing. And now a congressman wants to call Navy brass on the carpet on Capitol Hill to explain why sailors have been cut at the same time bonuses are being thrown around to keep others working overtime.
The Navy on July 26 announced several measures aimed at fixing its 10,000 sailor manning shortages in sea duty billets. Among those were Sea Duty Incentive Pay bonuses, ranging from $500 to $1,000 per month, for select rat¬ings and paygrades.
Among those rating and paygrade combinations were 22 that were also gutted by the ERBs. More than 800 sailors separated by the ERBs might have qualified for those jobs. This had sailors — and at least one lawmaker — scratching their heads. Why were some sailors being cut while others were being extended at sea?
Sailors in Feige’s PS1 rating, for example, can earn $600 per month if they agree to extra sea duty to fill manning gaps.
“The second thought that occurred to me about this,” Feige said, “was that, though the money would be nice, I’d have extended at sea for free.” For sailors in the 31 ratings hit by the ERBs, all of whom will be cut by Sept. 1, it appears the Navy is breaking faith. Officials told these sailors they were cut because those ratings were expected to be overmanned. But data show that hasn’t always been the case. PS1s, as just one of many examples, are only 61 percent manned at sea, according to Navy figures.
This isn’t really a surprise, Navy officials said.
Service leaders realized that some sailors cut by the ERBs would have been slated for sea duty, as the boards did not factor a sailor’s assignment by design , said Cmdr. Kathy Kesler, spokes-woman for the chief of personnel.
“Navy, to be fair, assumed the risk that some sailors not selected for retention by the ERB would be on sea duty orders upon release of board results,” she said.
Part of the ERB sailors’ beef with the Navy is they’ve never been told exactly what got them the boot. But in cases where cuts were mandated by rating and year group, the board members were given the ability to go far back into a sailor’s records to find problems such as fitness failures and nonjudicial punishment.
While the bulk of the sailors were cut through mandatory quotas, 324 of them, officials say, were cut because of recent misconduct or declining performance.
Officials did not provide data on how many of the ERB cuts came from those on sea duty.
Kesler said the recent actions to fix sea duty manning were not a reaction to any problems caused by the ERB.
“While several of Navy’s force management initiatives, including the ERB, helped improve balance in ratings and paygrades, they address only part of the equation,” she said. “We now have the number of sailors we need by rank in some previously overmanned ratings, and are working to ensure our sailors are in the best locations for the Navy.” Last month’s new sea duty rules, she said, are simply “distribution mechanisms … in place to ensure our sailors are in the appropriate billets.”
‘Navy broke faith’
Sailors still in the fleet, though unaffected by the ERB, remain unhappy with what happened to nearly 3,000 of their shipmates.
“There’s so much about this whole process that has just been flat-out wrong,” said a first class aviation structural mechanic — not cut by the ERB — who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of backlash from the Navy.
“First, the Navy broke faith and cut these career sailors. We lost critical talent from the fleet that you can’t just grow overnight. It’s forcing those left behind to work longer and harder, and now we see them offering money to people to head back to sea where they just cut out so many. What about that makes sense at all?” Though aviation ratings were hardest hit in the cuts, it’s hap¬pening elsewhere.
“There was such an urgency attached to the ERB, and they said it was to increase advancement and re-enlistment opportu¬nity,” said a chief operations specialist on an East Coast cruiser who also chose to speak anonymously. “But it doesn’t seem like they looked at the second and third order effects of their actions. “The ERB is such a very sensitive issue out here,” he said. “It’s discussed often behind closed doors — the impact of breaking faith with sailors as well as the manning issues — but rarely is anyone openly critical of it.
“The problem is, Big Navy has dug its heels in on this issue so hard that no one who wants to have a career will risk talking openly and frankly about it. But the fact is, the OS rating lost a lot of good petty officer leadership in the ERB, and with the critical [navy enlisted clas¬sification] skills we need to fight our ships. You can’t grow these sailors with just money.” But Navy officials say the ERBs worked.
“The bottom line is that overall, most of the ERB ratings are now in balance,” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (SS/SW) Rick West. “It’s proving itself with the record advancements we had and that, in many of these ratings, re-enlistment approval has jumped from 30 percent to over 90 percent.” But that’s doing little to ease concerns of some sailors.
“If they did it once, they can do it again,” said the chief operations specialist. “I know leadership is saying they don’t plan to have an ERB over the next few years, but there’s a level of trust among sailors that’s gone now and it will be hard to get that back.”
Voice in Congress
Separated sailors have a major advocate in Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who wants to openly challenge the Navy logic in a Congressional hearing. (CLICK HERE TO SEE CONGRESSMAN RIGELL'S LETTER)
In June, Rigell wrote to Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, the chief of naval personnel, and asked him to extend the deadline for 172 ERB sailors who were within a year of qualifying for 15-year retirements. Van Buskirk declined.
Now, Rigell wants the military personnel panel of the House Armed Services Committee to take a look at the ERB, too.
“I am concerned about the way the ERB was conducted,” Rigell said in an Aug. 8 letter to Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who chairs the subcommittee, and to Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat.
“The Navy recently released guidance on the Voluntary Sea Duty Program and Sea Duty Incentive Pay offering eligible sailors an additional $500 to $1,000 a month … to support critical undermanned at sea requirements,” he wrote. “Sailors who are separating due to ERB could potentially be in the rating and pay grade combinations that are not critical billets at sea. They should be given the opportunity to fill these positions and not be involuntarily separated.” And the Fleet Reserve Association, the only lobbying group for enlisted sea service members, agrees.
“There’s a major disconnect between the ERB separations affecting certain ratings — and the Navy’s efforts to now pay personnel — many in those same ratings to go to sea or extend sea duty,” said Joe Barnes, FRA’s national executive director.
“An obvious question — why can’t some of the ERB sailors be considered to fill critical sea duty billets to help address this situation, rather than involuntarily separating them? FRA strongly supports Rep. Rigell’s request for a congressional hearing on the Navy’s ERB, and his efforts to allow the nearly 3,000 affected career sailors to continue their service.” Kesler wouldn’t comment directly on Rigell’s letter, saying only that the “Navy regularly responds to requests for information from Congress through correspondence, briefings and hearings; and continues to do so regarding personnel and force management matters.” Still, the idea that lawmakers are looking into the at-sea manning problems, as well as the ERB’s impact, is a positive step, according to Operations Specialist 1st Class (SW) Ricardo Santos, a 13-year sailor who was cut by the ERB and, until June, was assigned onboard the destroyer The Sullivans.
“This really is a readiness issue because of the amount of deckplate talent the Navy cut in this process,” he said.
“When I left, I was the [leading petty officer] in OI division, and I had to turn the division over to E-5s. And though they’re good sailors, they really weren’t ready to make that step.”