Commissary customers already are starting to see longer lines at the cash register in some locations as the result of the federal civilian hiring freeze, according to a Defense Commissary Agency spokesman.

And things could get worse.

"With an over 20 percent average turnover rate, if the hiring freeze continues for an extended duration we may eventually be forced to temporarily cut services or reduce days/hours if staffing problems occur," said DeCA spokesman Kevin Robinson. Such moves will be "our last course of action," he noted.

More than 1,650 of the agency's 18,000 jobs are open, Robinson said. That's a vacancy rate higher than 9 percent. Of those vacant jobs, 83 are management positions.

Cashiers and other commissary employees are federal civilian workers. Most of the employees work in the 238 commissaries in 14 countries around the world. Among the employees are military spouses who may leave their jobs to make a move to a new duty station with their service member; military spouses made up about 28 percent of DeCA's worldwide workforce as of 2015.

To date, store hours and services haven’t been cut, Robinson said, as commissary officials have increased the hours of part-time workers.

DeCA is in the process of requesting an exemption to the hiring freeze through the Defense Department, Robinson said. Its workers do not fall under any of the exemptions outlined in existing DoD guidance, which allows for hiring of military child care workers but leaves out virtually all other quality-of-life programs on military installations.

President Trump signed a memo Jan. 23 ordering the hiring freeze of federal civilians. That covers exchanges and morale, welfare and recreation programs, event though their employees are paid by operational profits, not taxpayer dollars.  

The freeze comes at a bad time for the commissary agency, which is set to begin implementation of a new pricing system Wednesday. The setup will allow officials to make a profit on some items, marking prices up and down to be more competitive with local grocery stores, they say.

The new system will start with 10 installations, with a small number of items. Officials declined to name those stores.

DeCA also is suffering technical setbacks as they implement a long-planned new business system in the midst of the pricing change, according to an industry source who wasn't authorized to speak to the media on the matter.

A provision in the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act allows DoD to move DeCA to variable pricing, and doesn't require a pilot program.

"Nevertheless, the Defense Commissary Agency will make changes prudently and carefully monitor the effects. We are mindful of maintaining the patron savings baseline that Congress has required while not degrading commissary service levels," Robinson said, adding that "DeCA will maintain savings levels at their baselines at all test locations."

Until recently, commissary officials reported that customers saved an average of 30 percent compared with shoppers outside the gate. Congress required DeCA to provide a baseline savings before the variable pricing began. In January, commissary officials announced they'd changed their method of calculating those savings and pegged the new overall figure at 23.7 percent (20.2 percent in the U.S., with variations by region).  

By law, commissaries will have to provide at least the baseline of savings as they move to this new pricing system. Until now, the commissaries have sold groceries at cost from the supplier, plus a 5 percent surcharge and a 1 percent markup for spoilage and loss. As variable pricing is implemented, items are no longer necessarily sold at cost.  

Officials also plan to start a new private label program, rolling it out gradually in May, and sources said the commissary agency intends to use commissary employees to stock the items. Most of the stocking of the national brands is done by the supplier, and those costs are rolled into prices.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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