‘Caught in the middle’: Shutdown putting the pinch on local federal employees, subcontractors

‘Caught in the middle’: Shutdown putting the pinch on local federal employees, subcontractors
World-Herald News Service

WASHINGTON — National Weather Service meteorologists will be on the job tracking the latest winter storm as it rolls through eastern Nebraska this week.

But those forecasters manning the radars and issuing public advisories haven’t been paid in weeks due to the record-setting partial government shutdown that is now nearing a month in duration.

“We show up to work with the promise of being paid later, so essentially an IOU,” said Becky Kern, one of the Nebraska forecasters who spoke in her capacity as the local union steward.

Those IOUs don’t pay the bills, however. While government employees can expect to receive their salaries retroactively once the shutdown ends, it’s unclear just when that will be.

President Donald Trump has so far shot down proposals to reopen the government while talks over his request for more border wall funding continue.

Democrats say the government needs to be reopened before they will get into deeper negotiations about the best way to secure the border.

Trump has said repeatedly in recent days that Republicans are united behind him.

“The Republicans are really, really sticking together,” Trump told reporters earlier this week. “It’s great to see it because we need border security. We have to have it.”

None of the Republicans representing Nebraska or Iowa on Capitol Hill has broken ranks thus far. Rather, most have pointed the finger across the aisle, saying that Democratic leaders refuse to negotiate in good faith.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, has supported Democratic proposals to reopen the government without funding the wall.

Only a portion of the government is affected. Offutt Air Force Base and the Omaha VA Hospital, for example, are open for normal operations.

About 7,200 of 9,800 federal civilian employees in Nebraska, and 6,000 out of 8,700 in Iowa, work for agencies that aren’t part of the current partial shutdown, according to figures reported by Governing magazine.

But others are missing out on paychecks.

Many of those have been sent home during the shutdown, but others, like Kern, are required to show up and work without pay.

Kern said she lives just south of Fremont with her husband and three children on a “middle-income” budget.

The family is dealing with the situation by tapping reserves and pleading for grace from creditors, including their mortgage lender and utility companies.

“At what point do you start dipping into the funds that you have been saving for retirement and you get penalized?” Kern said. “Do you start throwing stuff on credit cards and start racking up debt that way?”

Her in-laws in Iowa, who are farmers, even offered to lend the family their spring fertilizer money.

“It’s adding a lot of stress to everybody,” she said.

This week she marks her 20th anniversary with the weather service. Kern said the situation can be even rougher for those earlier in their careers who are still paying off college loans and have yet to build up much savings.

“We signed up to protect lives and property,” she said. “We’re very passionate people about our jobs and we’re dedicated.”

And it’s hard for them to see what the current impasse has to do with weather forecasts.

“We’re definitely caught in the middle,” she said. “It’s unfortunate.”

After federal employees missed their first check of the year, J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, issued a statement calling on the Senate to take up House-approved legislation to reopen the government.

“Our members’ take-home pay is about $500 a week, and many struggle to make ends meet even without a missed paycheck,” Cox said. “This shutdown is putting these workers in the horrible position of trying to figure out how to survive without any income.”

Beyond federal workers, the shutdown is affecting businesses such as Proving Ground, an Omaha-based digital design agency that has been assisting on a restoration project at one of the museums on the National Mall.

Payment for that work has been held up by the shutdown.

“It’s putting pressure on us,” said CEO Nathan Miller, who started the company three years ago.

The company provides custom software and digital strategies to help architects and engineers. It is a subcontractor to a D.C.-area architect on the restoration project.

But that architect isn’t getting paid as long as the shutdown continues, which means Proving Ground doesn’t get paid.

“The same is true of anyone that’s working in a contractor kind of role,” Miller said. “I know it’s not just us.”

The amount they’re waiting for represents nearly three months of payroll for the four-person business, he said.

In the meantime, the business is covering expenses with revenues from other jobs and by dipping into corporate savings.

But if the shutdown continues, the company will have to reconsider plans to hire a fifth person. And Miller worries about the double-whammy of an extended shutdown and an economic downturn.

“That really can put a company at risk, especially a small business that is three years old and trying to make a name for itself,” Miller said.

He said he didn’t want to get political but doesn’t understand the dynamic behind the shutdown.

“I don’t know what a border wall has to do with keeping museums and national parks open and keeping people away from their paychecks,” Miller said.

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