Area’s 1,500 federal workers affected by shutdown; ‘essential’ services uninterrupted
A US Park Police officer watches at left as a National Park Service employee posts a sign on a barricade closing access to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday as a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama's health care law stalled a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800, 000 federal workers off the job and suspending most non-essential federal programs and services. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Purchase photo reprints »
FILE - In this Jan. 4, 1996, file photo the sun gleams down on the still-closed Washington Monument as the federal budget impasse continued in Washington. OK, gridlocked politicians we're used to. But why padlock the Statue of Liberty? You don't see other democracies shuttering landmarks and sending civil servants home just because their political parties can't get along. The potential for a shutdown is a quirk of American history. So if you're tired of blaming tea party Republicans or President Barack Obama, you can lay some responsibility on the Founding Fathers. Or blame Jimmy Carter. Or Newt Gingrich's temper tantrum. A quick history of government shutdowns, American-style. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File) Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Getting out of work at noon is often the start of a great day, but not when it’s the result of a government shutdown.
The shutdown has already cost some federal government workers in the Pioneer Valley — along with 800,000 across the nation — a full day’s pay when they were sent home Tuesday.
There are almost 1,500 federal employees working in Hampshire and Franklin counties, according to the 2012 annual Employment and Wages Report by the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. The federal government runs more than 70 establishments here, too.
As a result of the shutdown, all “non-essential” civilian government employees left work halfway through Tuesday, while “essential” employees stayed on to work without pay, though employees may be paid retroactively.
The federal government estimates that across the U.S., 800,000 people were sent home Tuesday, while 1.3 million civilian employees were kept on as essential, according to the Washington Post. The sectors hit hardest by the shutdown include health, housing, law enforcement, parks and museums.
Workers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Northeast Region headquarters in Hadley and the U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development office in Amherst went home at midday Tuesday.
At the fish and wildlife center, a message for callers said simply, “Due to a lapse in appropriations, our office is closed until further notice.”
A message at the office of a USDA employee was similar: “I am on furlough due to lapse in government funding,” it said, noting that employees have no access to email or voicemail. “I look forward to responding to your message once funding has been restored.”
Area parks and wildlife centers were closed Tuesday.
An email message from Terri Edwards, chief of public affairs at the fish and wildlife site, said, “All U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices, including the Regional Office, Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, Sunderland National Salmon Station and Connecticut River Coordinator’s office, are closed until the federal government shutdown comes to an end.”
A brief phone message on the main number for the Springfield Armory told a similar story: “Because of the federal government shutdown, this park is closed. Thank you.”
The website for the park, along with those for other national parks, was also not operating Tuesday.
Robert A. Nakosteen, former job forecaster and University of Massachusetts Amherst Isenberg School of Management economics professor, said the shutdown hurts workers employed directly by government agencies the most.
“Even if they are ‘essential,’ they will receive no paychecks until the shutdown ends,” he said, in an email to the Gazette.
The broader consequences of the shutdown are difficult to predict, Nakosteen said, because they hinge on how long the stalemate in Congress lasts. If it’s short, he said, the overall effects will be moderate, maybe even reversible. In past shutdowns, federal employees were paid retroactively, Nakosteen noted.
Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action, the anti-poverty agency that serves Hampshire and Franklin counties, had a frontline view of the partial government shutdown that began Tuesday as a result of congressional gridlock over the nation’s new health reform law.
Higgins was in Washington at a national conference on Head Start, the early childhood program that was among the federally funded agencies affected by the shutdown.
In a phone interview from the conference, Higgins had reassuring news for families of the 525 children enrolled in Head Start programs through her agency in the Pioneer Valley.
Although the shutdown means Community Action’s Oct. 1 contract with the federal government is not renewed, Higgins said the state has stepped in to provide funding for Head Start services for up to two weeks.
“We hope the situation can be resolved by then,” she said. “If we lose that (federal) money, which we hope we won’t, we would have to start eliminating families in two weeks.”
The government shutdown was the talk of the Head Start conference, Higgins said, noting that many participants were worried about how long the situation will go on.
“The mood was concern,” she said. “Resolve your differences, that’s what we work with children to do.”
Higgins said her agency has been told there will be no immediate impact on services provided locally under the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. It provides supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education for pregnant women, mothers and their children.
The Associated Press reported that school lunches and breakfasts will also continue to be served, and food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will still be distributed at this point in the shutdown.
Megan Pete, director of development for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield, said that is what her agency has been told, as well. “Our understanding is that SNAP is going to continue,” she said.
Still, Heidi Nortonsmith, executive director of the Northampton Survival Center, said her staff is still trying to figure out what the shutdown might mean for people using her organization’s services.
While immediate assistance through federally funded programs such as SNAP and WIC appears to be continuing, “people with applications and appeals pending may be affected,” she said.
Nortonsmith said the message staff members plan to share with vulnerable center clients is, “don’t panic. And don’t suffer alone. Call us and let us know what you’re finding and we’ll try to help.”
No employees were furloughed at the veterans hospital in Leeds as a result of the partial government shutdown and there were no interruptions in health care services, according to spokeswoman Amy J. Gaskill.
She said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System was “business as usual” Tuesday. “We’re still open and our five community-based outpatient clinics are open as well,” Gaskill said.
The health center fielded a number of calls Monday from veterans concerned about what was then only a possible government shutdown, Gaskill said. She noted that administrators will “continue to review the situation and provide updates,” but they anticipate no impact on the health center’s services to veterans.
Gaskill did not know what the government shutdown might mean for veterans’ disability benefits, which the Associated Press reports could be affected if the closure goes on longer than two weeks.
At the University of Massachusetts, spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said campus officials expected no immediate effects from the shutdown, though they are paying close attention to three areas: federal research grants, student financial aid and employees paid with federal money.
Many university professor depend on grants, which reimburse them for purchases and wages associated with their research, Blaguszewski said.
He described the impact of the shutdown on the university thus far as “minimal.”
“We may not get reimbursed in as timely a fashion as usual for federal research grants,” Blaguszewski said. “A delay of a week or two won’t be a problem.”
Potentially, some students who need to have transcripts processed by the Internal Revenue Service for ensuring their eligibility for student aid won’t be able to do so, he said.
“We don’t view that at this point as affecting a significant number of people,” Blaguszewski said.
For those it does affect, their status as enrolled students won’t change, he said.
In addition, some employees at the UMass Extension are paid with federal dollars, but they will continue to work.
“This is not going to affect anyone’s job,” Blaguszewski said.
Meanwhile, Nakosteen, the economist, is concerned about the next crisis — wrangling over the debt ceiling. If Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, it could drag the nation’s economy back into recession, he said.
“Having some treasury securities default could throw the financial markets into a tailspin similar in magnitude to that we saw after the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008,” Nakosteen said.