A Week Into Government Shutdown, Ire Turns to Fear for Federal Workers


DECEMBER 29, 2018

WASHINGTON D.C. – When the government shutdown began a week ago, many federal workers were more irked than anxious.

They’re really anxious now. What at first seemed like ho-hum political brinkmanship is looking more like a prolonged, punishing shutdown, more akin to the 27-day funding lapse in 1995 and 1996 than the blink-and-miss-it shutdowns earlier this year.

“This one feels different,” said Celia Hahn, a Transportation Security Administration officer at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, who is working without pay and worried about her mortgage and her son’s orthodontic expenses. “If it were to go about two weeks, that’s when people would start panicking.”

Dena Ivey, a furloughed probate specialist in the Anchorage office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, lost many of her possessions during the recent Alaska earthquake, and feels overwhelmed by the man-made disaster now afflicting her family.

“We’re sort of being held hostage in the middle, and we have families and obligations,” said Ms. Ivey, a single mother. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make rent.” She added: “I’m basically living on credit now.”

Charles Aitken, who works in inventory management for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is continuing to report to work in Virginia. But he is not being paid and just informed his ex-wife that he may be late with child support payments.

“We have to grin and bear it,” Mr. Aitken said.

On Thursday, the federal Office of Personnel Management took the extraordinary, odd and ominous step of posting a link to a document that offered tips to federal workers on weathering a lengthy interruption, including suggestions on how to defer rent payments, or even barter with landlords by offering to perform minor repair work like painting or cleaning up.

Steve Reaves, the president of the union that represents FEMA workers, said Friday that he was getting four or five times the number of calls he ordinarily received from his membership.

“The worry’s mounting, the stress is mounting,” Mr. Reaves said. “Their concern is, what do we next? Where do we go from here? How are we going to make ends meet and pay our bills?”

Mr. Reaves said he expected federal workers to begin making more drastic decisions about their financial well-being within a week or so. He would decide within two weeks whether to use some of his retirement savings.

Some charitable groups are attempting to fill the breach.

The nonprofit Coast Guard Mutual Assistance is helping out lower-ranking members, offering $550 to married members and $350 to single Coast Guard members who need help paying for food or overdue bills. If all 21,000 members who are eligible for the aid request it, that would cost some $12 million.

“It’s a real challenge for us,” said Cari Thomas, a retired rear admiral and the chief executive officer of a nonprofit that is the official relief society of the Coast Guard. “It’s about $150 million each pay period to pay the active duty and civilian employees of the Coast Guard, and our nonprofit does not have $150 million, as you can imagine.”

She said she had been on the phone on Friday morning with a senior member of the Coast Guard, who is not eligible for the aid and was in tears, worrying about whether he would be able to pay his rent on Jan. 5.

Anxieties are highest for the 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay. But the fear is spreading far beyond the federal work force, hitting government contractors, local governments forced to cover for furloughed sanitation and maintenance workers and organizations that feed the poor, who are dealing with a possible interruption to sources of funding and provisions.

“So far we have been able to say that the sky isn’t falling yet,” said Joel Berg, chief executive of Hunger Free America, a national advocacy group for nonprofits that manage federal food programs for the poor. “But give it another week or two, or a month.”

Mr. Berg said that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, would likely be fine. But other programs — including Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, which provides aid to states — could see supply-chain interruptions if the shutdown drags on.

The Department of Agriculture’s emergency food assistance program, which sends surplus agricultural products to food banks, and the commodity supplemental food program, which provides food to low-income seniors, are both at risk, according to Catherine Drennan, the director of communications and public affairs at the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Ms. Drennan said federal officials had informed the state that those programs would be funded until February. “After that date, we don’t know,” she said.

The impasse is hitting the other end of the agriculture department’s supply chain. Direct payments to farmers covered by payouts intended to blunt the impact of Mr. Trump’s tariff war with China could be delayed until government funding is restored, because the workers processing them have been furloughed.

The shutdown is already causing major problems at national parks despite efforts by states and private groups to offset the loss of federal funding.

A pileup of trash and dirty toilets during the shutdown has drawn intense concern at Joshua Tree National Park in California. December is historically one of the park’s busiest months — last year, 284,398 people visited Joshua Tree in December. Visitors are still being allowed into the park, but there are no federally funded services being provided, including maintenance.

John Lauretig, the executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree, said local organizations have stepped in with toilet paper and volunteer cleaning crews to keep up with the park’s maintenance.

“Trash and dirty bathrooms are just the start of it,” he said. “Those issues lead to health concerns for visitors in the park and for the wildlife, which will start eating that trash and spreading that trash.”

The National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, has announced plans to close to visitors on Jan. 2. The zoo plans to furlough 130 of its employees, while an additional 191 involved in the care and feeding of animals are working without pay, according to officials.

The zoo has enough fodder and frozen foods to last a few weeks, they said, but administrators would need to tap alternative funding sources if the impasse drags on a month or longer, said Bryan Amaral, the senior curator in charge of mammals.

“This is absolutely the stupidest thing ever,” said Antar Davis, 23, a former zookeeper at a private zoo who showed up in the elephant house on Friday to take one last look at Maharani, a 9,100-pound Asian elephant, before the zoo closed.

Even Mr. Trump cannot entirely escape the sights, sounds and smells of the shutdown.

Inside the White House, callers to the main switchboard were greeted by a message asking them to “please call back” when the government reopened.

Outside the gates, heaps of garbage spilled out of cans on the Ellipse, just south of the executive complex. Nearby, a trailer rented by a private philanthropic group to offset shuttered park restrooms did a brisk tourist business.

A Jimi Hendrix impersonator, usually kept away by federal officials, was teeth-plucking a noisy rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of the East Wing.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington has deployed some of her work force to cover for the absence of federal maintenance workers, but said the shutdown was damaging the city’s businesses.

“The level of anxiety that people feel and the trickle-down impact of people not being at work intensifies the longer it happens,” Ms. Bowser said in an interview on Friday.

Still, there was little sense of urgency to quickly resolve the stalemate. House Democrats are still flatly refusing to finance the president’s proposed border wall with Mexico, and have little incentive to make a deal before assuming the majority next week.

If the uncertainty gives politicians leverage, it gives federal workers and their families a sense of insecurity at the worst possible time.

“We spent money on Christmas and all that thinking that we were going to have a paycheck on the first, and now we were told today that it’s official, we’re not getting one,” said Britaini Armitage, 30, whose husband is a gunner’s mate in the Coast Guard and is deployed in the Middle East.

Courtesy/Source: NY Times