The shutdown aftermath

To the editor,

I met a woman from Durango last week whose story said a lot about how the federal shutdown affected the people in District 59.

She was serving hors d’oeuvres at a party. A federal employee with a doctorate degree, she works to support her three boys and disabled husband. This gig, she hoped, would help keep her family together. She was grateful to find someone who would take a chance on hiring her for one day. Or six months. Not many did.

It had been a while since she had a paycheck and, like many others, she was using her savings to stay afloat by simply not shopping. The small businesses she used to frequent in town were hurting, but she needed to keep her purchases minimal. Her boys complained, though they were learning to do without.

She wasn’t alone – her friends from work faced the same dilemma. Even though they had good jobs and some savings, 35 days without pay was taking a toll. They spoke of depression and anxiety. Not knowing when the longest shutdown in history would be over made things worse.

Leaders in Washington re-opened the government Jan. 25, but just until Feb. 15, when it could get shut down again.

Federal employees should receive their well-earned back pay, but federal contractors and the small business owners will not. They all rely on each other. Ironically, because of the shutdown, federal numbers on the effect are not available; most data is anecdotal.

Colorado’s economy lost about $201 million during the shutdown, according to a report. More than 1,000 federal employees applied for unemployment assistance.

Some people told me their government paperwork for requisitions just stopped. The orders and printing necessary to make life after the shutdown flow smoothly won’t happen for a long time. They missed filings for grants and making important deadlines. They are sifting through a backlog of hundreds of emails and phone calls, hoping they don’t miss important messages. The IRS reported 5 million pieces of mail remained unopened; the refunds so many depend on will no doubt be delayed. And who knows for how long?

Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said several hundred local employees were furloughed. The Gunnison Times reported an increase in the number of SNAP, or food stamp, recipients as people struggled to feed their families. Food banks in several towns reported serving more and more people every day.

Responsible businesses like Alpine Bank allocated $5 million to lend, interest free, to laid-off federal workers. They almost ran out.

Another federal government employee I spoke with works in forest management. The worst part of the long 35 days, she said, was being unsure of how our prized public lands were being treated without protection; many national parks were vandalized and trash piled up during the shutdown.

“I was watching my money start to disappear,” she said. “It was such a weird feeling that through no fault of your own, you were out of a job.”

That’s no way to treat a hardworking person – let alone the 53,000 federal employees who call Colorado home.

“And now,” she said, “all of a sudden people are using my job as a pawn on the board. And I didn’t even have it the worst. People I know were running out of insulin. I couldn’t even imagine what that would feel like.”

No one she works with, she said, has any faith that federal employees won’t be out of work again next week. Everyone in her office returned, but she doesn’t believe they can handle it again.

The governmental tug-of-war at the federal level had no winners, but plenty of losers: the people. The people who work every day to feed their families and pay their mortgages. The people who are protecting our public lands or, as National Guardsmen, protecting our country. The people who provide airport and border security. The people who live paycheck to paycheck.

“I can’t express how angry I am,” the forester said, “how sad I am.” It’s wrong “to be using employees’ livelihoods as chess pieces for political gain.”

The shutdown may be temporarily over, but the scars will remain for a long time.

– Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango