Employees talk on and off the record

By Zenaida Sengo &

Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent

How do local federal employees feel about the partial government shutdown? It’s mostly off the record.

Attempting to assess the local economic impacts of the furlough has become the rare news story where people have a lot to say, but they want to be anonymous. While many people, even those who do not work directly for the federal government, have had their livelihoods impacted by the shutdown, they are often afraid to speak out for fear of repercussions.

Moab residents who have chosen to speak with reporters usually have not wanted their names attached to the comments because it could put their jobs in jeopardy.

One local federal employee told The Times-Independent that she needed to take a training course this spring to continue working in her field. With the partial government shutdown, however, she said she is “not authorized for travel” and “cannot be reimbursed for the course” that she had already scheduled. She can take a later course when the shutdown ends, but she will have to travel a greater distance. Nevertheless, she feels she is better off than many of her peers.

Another federal employee who has lived in Moab for years just bought property and started building a home with his partner. He said, “At this point, it will be at least early February at the earliest before I get paid. That would suck pretty hard even if I wasn’t in the middle of building a house.” Asked if he may be needed for an emergency rescue, he said, “It’s possible” but that he’s “not allowed legally to work as a volunteer.” The parks are operating with “limited staff,” he noted, adding that, “People are working, they’re just not getting paid.”

One Spanish Valley resident affected by the shutdown talked about his financial challenges. He has found “limiting purchases” to be necessary. “My last paycheck was at the end of the year,” he pointed out. He also mentioned, “There are a bunch of automated payments coming up, so I’m hoping for a quick resolution on the budget shutdown.”

Other federal employees living in Moab are less burdened by the shutdown and don’t mind having been deemed “nonessential.” Some furloughed workers told The Times-Independent that they are enjoying the unexpected time off, using it for outdoor activities like skiing, visiting family or a tropical vacation. It’s unknown what percentage of Grand County residents work for the federal government, but it’s estimated that nationwide 800,000 workers are affected by the shutdown, either by being furloughed or forced to work without pay. The Utah Division of Workforce Services was unable to provide any information. The Washington Post reported that Utah has over 10,000 residents who are employed by a defunded agency, with the departments of the Treasury, Agriculture and Interior being the largest federal employers in the state.

The impacts of the shutdown on Arches National Park are still not fully clear. Arches has not had reports of accidents, or excessive littering and overflowing toilets like what is being recorded at other parks and monuments around the country. With no funds to plow the road, Arches remains closed for the time being, though some tourists are still venturing past the closed gate on foot.

Kate Cannon, superintendent of the Southeast Utah group of parks that includes Arches and Canyonlands, was unable to go on the record about the shutdown’s impacts on the parks. She could not share how many employees were furloughed but did note that “quite a few” were deemed essential.

Joette Langianese, executive director of the nonprofit group Friends of Arches and Canyonlands, said that Arches will probably be unable to obtain the International Dark Sky certification it is seeking. The application is due Jan. 28, but there is no one to submit the application to at this time. Langianese noted that the park was looking forward to the increased visitation that would likely come along with the certification.

Each day that the shutdown drags on, the economic impacts grow exponentially. Most agencies have enough in their reserves to cover a short gap in funding, but as the shutdown nears its third week, the coffers are starting to empty out. A large portion of the 800,000 affected federal workers will miss their first paychecks this week. The impacts of the shutdown are beginning to ripple out to people not employed by the federal government.

Canyonlands Natural History Association is a nonprofit organization that assists the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management in their education and visitor efforts. Sharon Kienzle, a CNHA employee who manages the Moab Information Center and the Arches Bookstore, acknowledged the shutdown has had an impact on the organization. Kienzle said they have had to lay off one employee, and that all the others have had to deal with reduced hours.

With the visitor centers at Arches and the Island of the Sky district of Canyonlands shuttered indefinitely, CNHA’s employees who work at the gift stores in those parks have had to share the limited hours available at the MIC. The shutdown has caused CNHA to lose its major revenue stream but has not really lowered operation costs. Kienzle noted that visitation at the MIC jumped up 50 percent after the shutdown, but the sales have remained level. She said the organization is now “spending money without making any.”

Roxanne Bierman, the executive director of CNHA, confirmed the organization has lost an estimated “$50,000 in gross sales.” Bierman pointed out that number would be higher if it wasn’t the slow season. “As soon as visitation starts picking up a bit more it will impact us quite a lot, which inhibits our ability to support our partners because what we earn this year, the profits are going to support Park Service interpretive programs for next year,” Bierman said. Though CNHA has only laid off one employee, Bierman said, “We will very likely lay off a couple more employees. I’m trying not to; I’m trying to find things for them to do and keep them busy, but since this is indefinite, I’m not sure how much longer we can do it.”

Meanwhile, at the Canyonlands Field Airport, the shutdown’s impacts are hardly being felt. When asked if shutdown has impacted operations at the airport, Director Judd Hill said, “In short, it has not.”

Hill said that the only possible impact is on employees of the Transportation Security Administration who were deemed essential and have to work without pay while the shutdown persists. Hill noted he has heard about problems with TSA agents calling out sick at other airports like JFK in New York, but that has “not happened” in Moab’s airport. Hill said all the TSA agents at Canyonlands Field Airport have “been really hardworking and doing what they need for our community.”

Also unaffected is the work going on at the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project. The project’s public affairs manager told The Times-Independent that the Department of Energy’s “fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill was approved by Congress and signed by the President in September, therefore a partial government shutdown does not impact the DOE.” The statement continued, “All DOE employees are expected to continue to report to work according to their usual work schedule.”

Fortunately, there are some resources available to those struggling financially under the shutdown. CNBC reported that some banks and credit unions are offering accommodations for federal workers. Wells-Fargo is one bank with such an offer.

The service manager at the Moab branch of Wells Fargo confirmed the bank is offering special services to those impacted by the shutdown. The bank will reverse monthly service and overdraft fees for those who are employed by a closed government agency. Those in need of such services can contact a Wells Fargo representative by phone or visit a local branch in person. The service manager said the bank will work with customers to develop a plan based on their individual circumstances, but as of yet, no one in Moab has come into the bank to inquire about these services.

With no end to the shutdown in sight, Moabites should be prepared for the long haul. The Trump administration claims tax refunds will still go out on time. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, has been funded through February. Parks are being asked to dip into visitor fees to pay for basic operations. These measures show lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are not planning to back down any time soon. Unless one side finally relents, the economic impacts of the shutdown will continue to spread throughout Moab and the nation.