WASHINGTON — When Andrew Bagni first heard of “sequestration,” he found himself — like many of his fellow employees at a General Dynamics defense plant in Taunton — wondering what the word meant.
“I had to Google what it was,” Bagni said.
Now the effects of Washington’s across-the-board, automatic budget cuts are all too clear.
The 26-year-old supply manager, who started at the company’s C4 Systems division as an intern five years ago, is among hundreds of the firm’s workers at two Massachusetts plants who fear that any day they will lose their jobs because of a planned $128 million cut to an Army contract for communications equipment.
“Now I realize what it is and the severe impacts it could have,” he said.
‘It is very scary. ... It is hard to really see how this is going to go.’
The Pentagon is expected to inform Congress soon that it plans to strip the money from the Army communications contract and use it instead for war funding, to help replace $7 billion lost to the automatic cuts.
General Dynamics last week could not estimate the number of layoffs that would result in Massachusetts, or the timing. But the defense contractor said it would affect “hundreds’’ of the 1,000 employees in Taunton and 400 in Needham.
“It is very scary,” said Laura Miola, 62, the operations manager at the Taunton plant who has worked there for three decades. “We come in every day and hope there’s an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, we’re up and running and this is what is going to happen.’ And we go home again every day not knowing. It is hard to really see how this is going to go.”
The company and members of Congress, including newly-elected Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, are mounting a last-minute push to try to avert the cut in communications spending, either by persuading the Pentagon to slash elsewhere or by getting Congress to restore the money.
The state of limbo for the targeted workers highlights the upheaval caused by the sweeping reductions, which economists say are beginning to hamper America’s sluggish economic recovery.
Congress adopted the automatic cuts in August 2011 as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling. It was believed the prospect of the sequester would be so onerous that lawmakers would negotiate a better deal. But by the time the 2013 deadline rolled around, Congress remained mired in partisan dysfunction and the $85 billion in automatic cuts for the current federal fiscal year began taking hold in March.
In Massachusetts and around the country, federal employees and contractors are cutting salaries, imposing furloughs, and laying people off. These moves all squeeze money out of the overall economy.
The proposed cut in Massachusetts is contained in a $7 billion request to shift funding out of dozens of weapons projects to pay for current operations. The shift, which was first reported by InsideDefense.com, gives precedence to the daily needs of forces. In exchange, the Army’s plan to outfit brigades with new communications equipment is placed on the back burner.
The apprehension felt by workers and their families has spread to businesses in the local communities and to scores of suppliers who rely on the company for their business.
The General Dynamics C4 Systems division, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has a major presence in Massachusetts, where its annual payroll is $143 million. It spends another $105 million on products and services, according to company officials.
About two-thirds of the workers in Taunton and Needham are involved in manufacturing the system that is targeted for cuts. In addition to the Taunton and Needham facilities, the company directly employs another 1,750 in Pittsfield and several smaller locations across the state. Those employees work on separate contracts and would not be affected by the impending cut.
The new communications system for soldiers on the battlefield is undergoing field tests in New Mexico and is intended to be implemented in all 125 Army brigades over the next decade. As recently as late April, Army leaders said the investment was a top priority. The new cuts, however, represent 25 percent of the contract for 2013 — and they would compound reductions imposed in an earlier round of cost-cutting last year.
The cuts would take place just as manufacturing is scheduled to increase, putting the entire future of the project in jeopardy, according to company officials.
“That’s when you start discussing the possibility of collapsing and consolidating facilities,” C4 Systems president Chris Marzilli said in an interview.
The cutbacks would freeze recruitment efforts at local universities, where General Dynamics draws a lot of the high-tech talent it requires.
For example, the project relies on cryptological experts who can ensure that the Army’s communications are secure, as well as engineers to build special components to prepare the equipment for battle conditions.
“To hire that engineering team and the manufacturing team to do that takes years of planning,” Marzilli explained. “You don’t turn that on a dime.”
And the company would curtail such benefits as tuition assistance programs, which are helping Bagni earn an advanced business degree at Bridgewater State University.
Kennedy, whose district includes Taunton, is helping to lead an effort to persuade Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to block the contract reduction.
“We need to be getting our debt and deficit under control,” he said, “but you shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of employees in our cities and towns who are providing an important and valuable service to the troops and who are going to be left jobless.”
The C4 Systems facility is the largest employer in Taunton’s Myles Standish Industrial Park, according to state data.
Budget specialists say the actual impact of the cuts might not be immediate and there could be a window to persuade Congress to reverse the decision. But defense contractors tend to plan for the worst-case scenario.
“If you are General Dynamics, you have start looking at all contingencies and start making decisions and planning accordingly,” said Todd Harrison, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
Harrison also noted that if sequestration is not reversed, the cuts are supposed to continue for nine more years.
“Over time the whole program could get canceled,” he said. “All the jobs could go away, though not all at once.”
Others around the state who depend heavily on C4 Systems are anxiously waiting to see what happens.
John Knott, of Jd Technologies in Middleton, is a sales representative for several companies that supply components to the Taunton plant, including Parisi Associates Inc. in Billerica, which makes metal electronics assemblies and employs about 15 people.
“C4 Systems is their biggest customer,” Knott said. “Whenever there is uncertainty or delays there is a direct correlation with their workforce. If there is going to be more cuts I see them going below 10.”
Knott’s firm, which has only two employees, would also be hurt: “We get paid on commission.’’
The fallout would affect even Home Plate, a Taunton sports bar that employs 52 people.
“We draw a lot of business from them,” said Frank Brack, the establishment’s manager. “Retirement parties, any kind of going-away parties, you name it. They come in for lunch, dinner, and we deliver there.’’
Kennedy, who signed a letter to Hagel along with the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, said he, too, is concerned about the reverberations the cuts could have on the “corner store, the supermarket, the CVS pharmacy.”
“It does have a real ripple effect,” he said in an interview. “ I think you are starting to see that cascade out now.”