Elizabeth Weise -- USA TODAY
Most of the Pentagon's 400,000 furloughed employees will be back at work as early as next week under a decision announced Saturday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The civilians are on emergency furlough because of the government shutdown. Hagel issued the return-to-work order Saturday under a new interpretation of the Pay Our Military Act.
Those being called back will be contacted by their managers, Hagel said.
Furloughed civilians include about 4,000 at Robins Air Force Base, the largest industrial complex in Georgia.
A base spokeswoman, Faye Banks-Anderson, said they won't know how many employees will be recalled until the base is officially notified.
Congress and President Obama passed the Pay Our Military Act just before the government shutdown began on Tuesday. It allowed active-duty military to continue to be paid.
On Saturday, Hagel announced the Department of Defense had reconsidered what that law covered and decided that most of its civilian employees were covered as well.
In a written statement, Hagel said officials from the departments of Defense and Justice had consulted with each other just after the Pay Our Military Act was passed and that Justice "expressed its view that the law does not permit a blanket recall of all civilians."
However, both agreed that the law did allow the Department of Defense to eliminate furloughs for employees "whose responsibilities contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members," Hagel wrote in the statement.
Hagel has now directed the military to "move expeditiously to identify all employees whose activities fall under these categories." He said he expects this to "significantly reduce - but not eliminate" civilian furloughs.
Hagel had made it clear earlier in the past week that Pentagon lawyers were trying to determine ways for some of the Defense Department's 400,000 furloughed civilians to get back to work.
Hagel acknowledged the blow to morale of the government shutdown. "This has been a very disruptive year for our people - including active duty, National Guard and reserve personnel, and DoD civilians and contractors," he said. "Many important activities remain curtailed while the shutdown goes on."
Contributing: The Associated Press, Air Force Times