Work stoppage: Valley workers cope with federal shutdown

  • Joe Pinnetti, of Northampton, an information technology specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley who is out of work because of the federal government shutdown, stands near his workplace, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Joe Pinnetti, of Northampton, an information technology specialist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley who is out of work because of the federal government shutdown, stands near his workplace, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer 
Published: 1/10/2019 12:03:52 AM

NORTHAMPTON – Now in its 20th day, there appears to be no end in sight for the partial government shutdown as President Donald Trump continues to demand the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico amid opposition from Democrats.

And the longer it goes on, the more it hurts federal workers and services in the Valley.

Joe Pinnetti, 33, of Northampton, is an information technology specialist and independent contractor with the Northeast Regional Office U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Hadley who has been without his $22-an-hour job because of the shutdown.

“For me, the big change has been a lack of predictability,” he said. “I have financial responsibilities based on that $22-per-hour wage. Now I have no idea how long this will last.”

The budget impasse has affected over 800,000 workers nationwide. About 420,000 federal employees have been working without pay since Dec. 22 and 400,000 are furloughed, according to information from the House Appropriations Committee.

In Massachusetts, 6,869 federal employees are affected by the shutdown, according to U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s office.

On Tuesday evening, Trump delivered a speech in the Oval Office in which he continued to push for his proposed wall, and on Friday he threatened that he could keep the government shut down for “months or even years.”

Pinnetti said he has an emergency fund, but it is going quickly and he is now on unemployment. He is also studying to get his bachelor’s degree in network security, but with a tuition payment for the upcoming semester looming, he may have to put those plans on hold.

“People say this an inconvenience. This is much more than that,” he said. “It’s actually setting back our lives. I’d have to look at taking a semester off to build my savings. That’s putting me back months.”

Unlike federal workers, Pinnetti is not hopeful he will get back pay when the government reopens.

“I actually took a pay cut to work for the government,” he said, “Now I have sunk cost into this job.”

Trump told reporters that he can “relate” to the pain of federal workers who are unable to pay their bills.

“I don’t disbelieve he has some sort of empathy for us,” Pinnetti said, but he added, “If you’re inflicting pain on someone else as a way to move a political objective through, I’m very scared of what that means for the future.”

Jan Taylor, former chief of the Natural Resource Division for National Wildlife Refuges in the Northeast, retired last spring after a 37-year career at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Taylor has been through several shutdowns and said USFWS employees are worried about the impact on time-sensitive projects, which could be set back even when the government does re-open.

“At this time of year, managers are hiring seasonal employees all across the country to monitor and manage wildlife and essential habitats,” Taylor wrote in an email to the Gazette. “We are at a critical juncture that may prevent bringing on young and enthusiastic college students or vets looking for a career move, in time due to the short hiring window ...”

Similarly, the shutdown has impacted the U.S. Geological Survey’s Conte Anadromous Fish Laboratory in Turners Falls, where about 16 employees are furloughed without pay.

Food assistance programs remain afloat

In Massachusetts, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children’s nutrition program (WIC) and the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children program are not currently affected by the shutdown. The state’s Department of Early Education and Early Care child care financial assistance program is also not impacted.

Massachusetts politicians are worried about the future of SNAP benefits. State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker with their concerns about the future of the program.

But on Wednesday, the USDA announced that SNAP will be fully funded through February, even if the government remains closed.

In 2017, SNAP reached 764,000 people in the commonwealth, more than 10 percent of the state’s population, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

WIC is also expected to be funded through February, said Ann Scales, spokeswomanfor the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Tax season worries

The majority of IRS employees are on furlough, sparking concern about the upcoming tax season and not getting refunds back promptly.

But the 75 percent of Americans who receive annual refunds will still get them on time this year, even if the shutdown continues, the IRS announced Monday. The federal agency said it will be restoring a significant number of its workers.

Struggling to get in touch with the IRS has been the biggest impact for Dorothy Grabowski of Western Mass Tax Associates in Hatfield.

“We’re kind of in limbo there,” she said.

It is somewhat bad timing for the IRS as there are changes to the tax code this year, such as personal exemptions and standard deductions, Grabowski said.

“We’re not sure how it’s all going to work out in the end,” she added.

Beer

Jay Sullivan, brewer and co-owner of Honest Weight Artisan Beer in Orange, said the shutdown is preventing him from selling new beers outside Massachusetts. He’s waiting for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to approve new labels for several barrel-aged beers he hopes to sell in places like New York and New Hampshire.

But because the federal bureau is closed, he does not know when that will happen.

“We’re just sending in labels hoping they get in a queue and we see them at some point,” Sullivan said.

Those new labels still can be sold in Massachusetts, as federal approval is not needed, he said. Sullivan estimated he has between $10,000 and $15,000 worth of beer waiting for distribution.

The Orange brewery, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, is now pivoting and producing less beer that requires federal approvals. Sullivan said it is not an uncommon problem for breweries right now.

“I’ve got a bunch of friends across the country, in Indiana, Oklahoma, Chicago and Denver who are seeing issues like this,” he said.

Violence Against Women Act

Also tied to the government shutdown is the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act. Passed in 1994, it includes funds for programs that help survivors of abuse and domestic violence.

It expired at the time of the shutdown, and the act and its funding were not renewed. This worries local groups who assist survivors of domestic violence.

The Northampton nonprofit Safe Passage receives some federal funding through the Violence Against Women Act that helps pay for a Spanish-speaking counselor and a counselor stationed in a rural area, according to Executive Director Marianne Winters.

The nonprofit invoices one of its Violence Against Women Act contracts quarterly and, typically, funds are provided to the organization in a month. However, Winters said, the organization will not get a reimbursement for an invoice from October through December until the shutdown is over.

“We don’t know when they will be able to get those funds. It’s kind of an unknown. It creates a potential cash-flow question. We can’t count on that money but we continue to pay payroll,” she said.

Winters said she is remaining optimistic and hopes the Violence Against Women Act will be reauthorized.

“To try to gain political points by opposing something that saves lives of victims of domestic violence and their children is horrendous,” she said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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