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Government, Politics & Issues

As shutdown continues, some workers are starting to feel the pinch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2013: Nicole Starr is a furloughed federal employee from Florissant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Faced with a shutdown with no end in sight, she told the Beacon she’s trying hard to make her “money stretch until we’re able to go back to work.”

"As far as being paid retroactively, that’s fine. But in the meantime, we don’t have any income coming in, and the bills don’t stop,” said Starr, who noted that AmerenUE and Laclede Gas wouldn’t delay her bill because of the shutdown.

The House unanimously passed a bill over the weekend to give furloughed employees retroactive pay. U.S. Rep. Jim Moran’s bill passed by 417-0, a rare bipartisan moment after weeks of bitter infighting. But the U.S. Senate didn’t take any action on Moran’s bill.

Starr supports retroactive pay: "It’s good. I think they owe it to us to pay us for the time.”

While also supportive of the bill, Steve Hollis – the president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3354 – said furloughed workers shouldn't get complacent.

"Our members want to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to get paid – we can take this as a free vacation,’” Hollis said in an interview. “But the reality is that it’s only the House of Representatives that passed it. The Senate hasn’t passed it yet. The president hasn’t signed it yet. And if they get into some grand bargain type of deal, the president and the House could just turn around and take it away from us, too. So there's no guarantee just because it passed unanimously on Saturday in the House of Representatives.”

Even if retroactive pay occurs, Hollis said, some federal employees still face short-term hardships.

Erik Castellanos, a furloughed USDA employee, said he’s going to have a hard time paying bills without money in.

Starr said she’s been dismayed by some public backlash against retroactive pay for federal workers. She mentioned that a local TV station’s story about a movie theater giving out free popcorn to furloughed workers received scores of negative comments on Facebook.

Many people, she said, "don’t understand the situation that civilian employees are in. A lot of the public thinks that … federal employees make a ton of money. They put us in the bag along with the senators and congressmen – the bigwigs in D.C. that make six-figures. That’s not the case for local civilian employees. Most live almost paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Castellanos also said that federal employees “didn’t ask” for this situation.

“We didn’t want this," Castellanos said. "We want to be back to work and want to get the money. This is not a vacation.”

Short-term pain?

Robert Cropf, a political science professor at St. Louis University, said the shutdown could have a negative economic impact — at least in the short term — in communities with large clusters of federal employees.

Since federal employees aren’t getting paid, he said, they may hold off on small-scale and large-scale spending until the shutdown is over.

"What that means is they’re not doing things that they would ordinarily do,” Cropf said. "They’re going to have to dip into their savings because they’re not getting an income. They’re not going to be able to purchase big-ticket items. They’re not going to go out to restaurants. If they were planning on buying a new home, they’re not going to buy a new home. All of this happens in the short term.”

That could eventually trickle down to local governments, which he noted are dependent on sales taxes to provide services.

“It’s going to have a short-term impact, even when the money is retroactively paid,” Cropf said. “So in the short term, there’s this disposable cash that is not going into the economy – the local economy, the national economy.”

Steve Hinson, an economics professor at Webster University, said the shutdown could have some long-term impact on on businesses linked to federal services. That could include companies situated close to national parks.

But, he added, he foresees long-term economic problems only if the shutdown lasts several months.

"The estimates I’ve been reading in terms of economic impact are about a tenth of a percent of (gross domestic product) per week that the government is shut down,” Hinson said. “Given the economy only grew at 1.5 percent annual rate last quarter, that’s relatively significant. So if it were to last more than 15 weeks, then certainly we could wind up back in a recession – which clearly has long-term implications.

"If it lasts just a few weeks, there’s obviously going to be lots of personal harm done to people,” he added. “But probably economically, it’s just a blip" without many long-term consequences.

But both Hinson and Cropf agreed that failure to raise the debt ceiling could have disastrous implications for the economy. Congress faces an Oct. 17 deadline to get that done.

“That issue is like the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Cropf, adding he was heartened to read reports that House Speaker John Boehner wanted to raise the debt ceiling. “That has very clear, without a doubt, economic impact. If we were to go past the debt limit without raising it, then clearly we are in trouble.”

Scott Air Force civilians return to work

Meanwhile, Hagel announced over the weekend that Department of Defense civilian workers placed on furlough would return to work.

Korey Frantini, a deputy chief of public affairs at Scott Air Force Base, confirmed to the Beacon that Hagel’s order affects thousands of civilians furloughed last week.

"All of the furloughed civilians who work at Scott returned to work" Monday, Frantini said. “We are working through what that will mean for base operations as we are still operating without a budget. Exempted and excepted civilians that worked during the furlough will get paid as normal. All other civilians will not be paid for the furlough until the shutdown is over. The civilians that came back today will be paid for today forward.”

Frantini said that absence of civilian employees had a “substantial impact” on the base's operations. For instance, he said the shutdown caused the base’s commissary – essentially a grocery store – to shut down. And without mechanics and HVAC workers, he said it took longer to resolve infrastructure issues around the base.

"I can definitely tell you that there was a substantial impact here on base,” Frantini said. “If you could imagine losing approximately 3,000 civilian employees, that’s a lot of people not working.”

While the shutdown’s impact appears to be dissipating for civilian employees at Scott Air Force Base, employees at the region’s biggest defense contractor could be feeling the pinch soon.

The Defense News reported that both Boeing and Lockheed Martin would start furloughing employees this week if the shutdown continued. In a statement to the Beacon, Boeing spokeswoman Meghan McCormick said, “While the company is working to limit the negative impact of the shutdown on customers and employees, we expect some consequences could emerge in the coming days, including limited furloughs of employees in some areas.”

McCormick said that the company expects the furloughs to be limited to employees in Boeing’s defense, space and security division. She also said that the company didn’t know “the specific impact at each individual site, so I can’t tell you what the specific impact will be in St. Louis.”

“We continue to assess the current situation at each site and with each program,” McCormick said. “At this time, specifics steps related to the workforce actions (timing, which employees will be affected, how information will be provided to employees furloughed on “return to work” notifications) are a work in progress.”

State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, works as an aircraft assembly mechanic for Boeing. While he told the Beacon he’s not personally affected by the furloughs, the same can’t be said for some of his colleagues.

He also said that he’s gotten calls from federal workers trying to get more information about the shutdown.

"I said ‘I’m trying to learn as much as I can,’” said Smith, who participated in an “informational picket” on Monday in front of the Goodfellow GSA Building. “There’s a group of legislators who will have letters going out to our congressional delegation asking for some kind of resolve with this. But it’s unfortunate, because it impacts everybody.

"As far as the constituents, they need to get back to work,” he added. “This isn’t the best of economic times. So they need to do their jobs and continue with the good jobs they’ve been doing."

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