Feeling the pain: Public servants bear burden of federal shutdown

TSA agents are being required to work without pay at CHO and at airports around the country.
file photo TSA agents are being required to work without pay at CHO and at airports around the country. file photo

Almost one month into the federal government shutdown, Charlottesville hasn’t been hit as hard as Northern Virginia, where thousands of government workers are trying to figure out how to pay their mortgages and buy groceries. But there are more than 200 people here being asked to work without a paycheck, and approximately 4,100 households in the city and county that could see their food stamps run out if the shutdown continues to March 1.

One of the area’s larger employers, the spy center, aka the National Ground Intelligence Center up off U.S. 29  north, is part of the Department of Defense, and its 1,250 staffers won’t be missing a paycheck.

Things are not so rosy for the 40 or so TSA employees at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, who are being asked to work without pay. Their salaries range from $25,000 to $38K, according to the TSA website.

“We have been very lucky with the dedicated staff,” says CHO deputy director Jason Burch. “They are showing up. It’s got to be tough.”

Local companies and citizens have been providing sandwiches and pizza for the strapped security agents, says Burch. “Our TSA lines aren’t any longer,” he adds.

There are approximately 10 air traffic controllers—CHO spokesperson Stewart Key says she’s not allowed to say how many—who work for a company contracted by the FAA. Key says the controllers are not affected by the shutdown,.

Over at Shenandoah National Park, around 200 employees are employed this time of year, says Susan Sherman with the Shenandoah National Park Trust. The phone number for the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway was out of service, and no one answered the phone at the parkway’s headquarters in Asheville.

On January 6, the Department of Interior instructed national parks to tap into recreation fees to clean bathrooms and haul trash—a move some say could be illegal. Volunteers and nonprofit advocacy organizations like the Shenandoah National Park Trust are pitching in.

The trust has picked up two contracts to clean bathrooms at Old Rag and White Oak Canyon, says Sherman, and is sending gift baskets with snacks “to fuel park colleagues who are working without pay.”

Sherman worries about the long-term effects of the shutdown: damage to natural resources, the gap in scientific research and monitoring, the bear population getting used to easy pickings at overflowing trash cans, and the morale of park service employees.

“It’s not uncommon for married couples to both be employed by the park,” she says. “They’re public servants who have devoted their lives to working there, and they’re being told they’re nonessential. That’s inexcusable, in my opinion.”

Also in the shutdown’s crosshairs are families that depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as food stamps—which is funded through the USDA, another “nonessential” agency. On January 17, Virginia SNAP recipients received their benefits for February because the USDA is funded through January.

Around 2,000 households in Charlottesville and another 2,100 in Albemarle receive SNAP benefits. Sue Moffett with the city’s Department of Social Services worries about recipients managing money received three weeks early that’s supposed to last through the end of February. 

She says anecdotally, she’s seeing new requests for food stamps and for other assistance, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. “I have knowledge of people affected by the federal furlough,” she says.

Michael McKee is CEO of Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, which serves 25 counties in western and central Virginia, including hard-hit Loudoun and Frederick counties, where he estimates around 15,000 furloughed federal employees live.

The food bank serves 106,000 people through its network of food pantries and soup kitchens—on average 14,000 in Charlottesville and Albemarle—and about two-thirds of those receive food stamps. “SNAP provides 12 times as much food as America’s food banks,” he says.

If those benefits aren’t restored by March 1, “We can never begin to make up for what we would lose with SNAP,” says McKee. “We could be completely overwhelmed and unable to meet the needs of our neighbors.”

UVA has myriad ties to federal funding, but because many federal agencies have already been funded for fiscal year 2019, “the impact on UVA right now is isolated and limited,” says spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn. “UVA is monitoring the situation closely and preparing for potential effects if the shutdown continues past this month.”

Thanks to DoD funding, the JAG School at UVA’s School of Law is in operation, according to an officer there.

At the Federal Executive Institute on Emmet Street, people answering the phone refused to say whether the facility is open, and referred calls to the Office of Personnel Management. The OPM confirms the government leadership training center is open, although it’s unclear what essential service it provides.

Meanwhile, the shutdown is even thwarting local breweries that want to introduce new brews. Says Champion Brewery’s Hunter Smith. “We have to get all our labels approved by the Tax and Trade Bureau,” which normally takes two weeks when it’s open. He’d planned to introduce as many as six new beers this year, and had to stop production on one.

So far shuttered government agencies haven’t affected the real estate market, says Nest Realty’s Jim Duncan, but that could change if the closures continue.

“Right now the biggest effect is on the psychology of the consumer,” he says. “It’s hard to quantify fear.”

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When the government doesn’t take care of its own

A number of businesses and individuals are trying to help out the public servants who are furloughed or working without a paycheck. Great Harvest has taken sandwiches to CHO to feed beleaguered TSA agents, and is offering free sandwiches, salads, and bread to unpaid federal workers.

To help paycheck-less government workers forget about their travails, a couple of movie theaters are offering free flicks. At Alamo, that’s on Monday through Thursday, and Violet Crown is hosting free matinees on those days.

And the home of Founding Father James Madison. Montpelier, is offering free tours to feds and their families, who may be able to catch Madison rolling in his grave.

Correction January 18: Susan Sherman said around 200 employees are at Shenandoah National Park this time of year. She is not privy to how many are nonessential.