Financial uncertainties intensify as government shutdown slogs on for 27th day
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the government shutdown enters its 27th day, the financial hardship is becoming more acute for federal employees who aren’t getting paid.
In response, some local businesses are stepping up to help.
“I think the shutdown is stupid, and I don’t like to see people compromised,” said Doug Matthews, owner of The Bakery on Downhill Drive in Steamboat Springs. “So, we baked some extra bread.”
On Facebook, Matthews encouraged furloughed federal employees — and those working and not getting paid — in the region to “Please come in and grab a loaf, some buns, whatever.”
This week, Alpine Bank began offering interest-free loans to furloughed federal workers, as they have done twice during previous shutdowns. The bank set aside $5 million for the loans.
“In our 46 years of serving our customers, we have confirmed that the success of our bank is a reflection of the strength of the communities we serve. When our neighbors need our assistance, we will be there to help,” said Alpine Bank founder and Chairman Bob Young in a news release.
Government employees currently on unpaid leave are eligible for the loans, and they can borrow up to one month of their net salary. They do not have to already be Alpine Bank customers. Payment on the loans will not be due until six months after the shutdown ends.
In Routt County — between the U.S. Forest Service and other U.S. Department of Agriculture offices, the Bureau of Land Management and TSA agents — some federal employees deemed essential are working without pay, while others are furloughed and not working.
There are close to 20 TSA employees at Yampa Valley Regional Airport, all working without pay at this time.
Airport Director Kevin Booth said everything is running smoothly, and everyone is coming into work and doing their job. He checks with the federal agency daily, and they haven’t pulled any agents so far.
Todd Hagenbuch, Colorado State University agriculture extension agent and director for Routt County, said one impact he is seeing is the lack of representation by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service at key meetings.
As they plan a wildfire mitigation conference in May, he said it is concerning not to have everyone at the table.
“We need those folks and their perspective,” he said.
Another concern for Hagenbuch is for farmers who are applying for loans through the Farm Service Agency and another program designed to alleviate the negative impacts of the trade war with China. The deadline was Jan. 15.
Hagenbuch has received word that the USDA would be recalling agents and reopening about half of their FSA offices, at least for the rest of the week. The Steamboat office, which serves Routt and surrounding counties, is not on the list to be reopened, though services will be available by phone, according to the USDA.
At a meat processing facility in Craig, they said the USDA inspector is still inspecting but not getting paid.
There are about 800,000 federal employees nationwide either furloughed or working without pay.
Back pay will most likely be issued to all federal workers, but there is no guarantee. And no one knows how long they will have to rely on their savings or find other sources of income. Getting another job can be tricky, however, because federal employees require approval to work elsewhere.
President Trump said this week he would “never, ever back down” in the fight for $5.7 billion in funding for his border wall, which he initially claimed Mexico would pay for.
And, while the concept may be foreign to Congress and the president, most Americans rely on each paycheck to get all the bills paid.
According to a recent report from CareerBuilder, 78 percent of full-time workers say they live paycheck to paycheck — a number that is increasing. The same report found 71 percent of all U.S. workers say they are in debt, and 56 percent said they were in debt over their heads.
Locally, personal stories are hard to come by, as federal employees are instructed not to talk to media.
On the Twitter feed “ShutdownStories,” people told stories about the impact of the financial uncertainty — not being able to fly home for a grandmother’s funeral or afford a child’s medical bills. Others worry about losing their homes.
On a lighter side of social media sharing, a Facebook group is dedicated to sharing how people are spending their down time. There are photos of projects around the house, musings on day drinking and questions like “Has anyone else organized their spices?” They also share resources, like Rosetta Stone’s offer to give furloughed employees three months of free language learning.
Applying for unemployment is an option. In Colorado, federal employees account for 20 percent of unemployment claims since the shutdown began. However, it isn’t a quick fix to missing a paycheck or two, as claims take four to six weeks to process. And, if they receive their back pay, they must repay the unemployment.
Programs like Medicaid, Social Security and Veterans Affairs continue to function, but there is a deadline for other benefits such as food assistance.
The USDA and Colorado announced they will release February SNAP benefits early. Recipients must apply by Jan. 30 to receive their February benefits.
“After that date, benefits will resume after the shutdown ends,” said Kelly Keith, Routt County Human Services director. “Current recipients will receive the food benefits on the EBT card early, in the last week of January, and we encourage SNAP recipients to plan ahead as there is no guarantee of funding after this payment at this point.”
Keith said there are 410 households in Routt County that receive food assistance.
Public lands remain open and accessible, though without full services including restrooms and trash pick up.
On Monday, a Rocky Mountain National Park spokesman told the Colorado Sun the park began using recreation fees to temporarily pay about 10 percent of furloughed workers to clean up the park. Other park staff, including law enforcement rangers, continue to work without pay.
Now that federal employees have missed one paycheck, each day of the shutdown brings more uncertainty and financial anxiety. For Matthews at The Bakery, that means continuing to bake extra bread. He said the word is spreading, and he’s getting a good response.
Another friend, to whom Matthews takes scraps for his pigs, is going to bring some pork for the federal workers.
“So they can pick up some bratwurst too,” Matthews said. “It’s just the right thing to do — to help people.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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