Local workers brace for government shutdown
The reality of a federal government shutdown sank in Monday for about 50,000 federal workers in Washington state, many facing the loss of paychecks.
Seattle Times staff reporters
It was a cliffhanger — and an avoidable crisis — weeks in the offing. But the reality of a government shutdown truly sank in Monday for thousands of federal workers in Washington state and around the nation facing the loss of paychecks.
Experts estimate as many as half of the nation’s 2 million federal civilian employees could be deemed nonessential and furloughed. About 50,000 federal workers are in Washington.
At 2 p.m. Monday, James Drexler, head of a union that represents 1,550 workers with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), got the anticipated toll from the shutdown: 1,263 people, or 82 percent of the union membership, likely will be furloughed.
The fallout from shuttering the federal government will be felt in varied ways. National parks and federal museums will close immediately. FDA food inspectors will stay home. Federal courts will operate for about two more weeks before exhausting their funding.
Visitor centers at Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks will be closed. “Highways that pass through the parks will remain open, but all other access and services will be closed,” said Mount Rainier National Park spokesman Kevin Bacher.
Gov. Jay Insee said Monday layoffs are possible at the Washington Employment Security Department, whose funding is 90 percent federal. The agency issued a warning that unemployment checks could stop after this Friday if the shutdown lasts into next week.
The Postal Service will continue mail delivery, veterans hospitals will stay open and air traffic controllers will remain on duty.
The budgetary twisting in Congress sank stock prices Monday around the globe. It sent jitters though businesses that depend on customers on the federal payroll.
In downtown Seattle, Un Bang, owner of The Original Deli on First Avenue across from the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, said her business is used to ups and downs. Even so, the uncertainty over how long a shutdown might last is scary.
“I don’t think [Congress] is thinking of people like us,” said Bang, who gets about 30 percent of sales from federal workers across the street. “If they keep going like this, how will we pay our rent? How will we pay our employees?”
One of Bang’s customers, Kirsten Watts, 50, works for the Bonneville Power Administration in the old federal building on First Avenue. Watts feared workers at her agency might be the only ones on her floor to show up to work Tuesday.
“It’s just sad that the government is playing games with people’s livelihoods,” Watts, of Tacoma, said.
Among those who could be furloughed in Drexler’s union are 563 workers with the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle and an additional 200 in Walla Walla, and 500 NOAA fisheries and emergency-response employees in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Drexler said the nation’s first federal funding gap since 1996 has demoralized workers already beset with pay and hiring freezes under a penny-pinching Congress.
“We all feel we do the best job we can,” he said, adding that effects from a shutdown will ripple beyond just the workers. “It’s one big mess.”
The current denouement over the short-term spending bill began when House Republicans — who have voted more than 40 times without success to defund or repeal the Affordable Care Act — made delaying the new health program a condition for renewing government funding beyond Sept. 30.
For some federal employees, anxiety has boiled over to anger.
Katie Gilkey, a paralegal with the federal public defender’s office in Tacoma, has already forfeited $2,700 in pay because of the automatic budget cuts called sequestration, which forced her earlier this year to take every other Friday off for six months.
Federal courts have enough money to pay judiciary employees until about Oct. 15. But Gilkey fears her biweekly paycheck next Friday might be cut in half if Congress hasn’t renewed the spending bill that expired Sept. 30.
At 62, Gilkey already has given up on thoughts of early retirement, because of financial uncertainty.
“I hold the Republicans responsible,” Gilkey said.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, whose district include Naval Base Kitsap Bangor, pledged Monday to give up his pay for the duration of the shutdown. Kilmer said Congress shouldn’t get paid if it “can’t get its act together.”
House and Senate members earn $174,000 a year. Their next paychecks are due Oct. 31.
Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report. Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong