In the News
How the Central Coast weathered the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history
Chris McGuinnes, New Times SLO on 02/19/2019
Originally posted on New Times SLO
It was nearing noon outside the Internal Revenue Service's branch office in Santa Maria. After weeks of wet weather, it was sunny again, and the bright light coming from a cloudless sky warmed the cracked black asphalt of the building's mostly empty parking lot. An American flag hung limply from a tall pole. There was no wind to lift it.
Like the parking lot, the IRS office was completely empty. The doors were locked, and a large sign on the door announced, "In the event of a government shutdown this office will be closed" in large block letters.
It was Jan. 25, the 35th and last day of the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history.
Around the same time that day more than 2,700 miles away in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump announced an end to the shutdown, retreating from an attempt to withhold government funding in order to press congressional Democrats to approve billions of dollars to build a wall along the southern border. The concession was temporary, just three weeks, but it meant relief for an estimated 800,000 federal government workers—who spent the 35 days without a paycheck—and hope that a more permanent solution could be reached.
News of the shutdown's imminent end reached local labor leaders just as they were preparing to hold a press conference outside of the Santa Barbara airport to call for an end to the nearly five-week ordeal that left so many government employees and their families without a way to pay the bills.
"It's a strange feeling when you put all of this together ... then on our way down here we get 40 alerts on our phones telling us there's a deal," Central Coast Labor Council Executive Director Jeremy Goldberg told the crowd that gathered at the event he helped organize.
Such last-minute confusion felt like a fitting end to the shutdown, which left Central Coast cities scrambling to find ways to mitigate its impacts, nonprofits worrying about securing funding to continue to operate and provide services, and thousands of federal workers and their families considering tough choices as politicians wrangled in the nation's capital.
"This isn't about a wall. This isn't about immigration," Goldberg told the crowd. "This is about working families."
The shutdown most directly impacted the federal government and its various agencies. But Central Coast cities, counties, and their associated agencies had to assess what, if any, of their own services might be affected, as well as look for ways they might be able to soften the blow for the federal workers and their families.
In the early days of the shutdown, most local governments expected little, if any, interruption to their operations, mainly because they were primarily funded by local tax dollars rather than federal funds.
"We don't anticipate any significant impact," SLO County Administrator Wade Horton wrote in response to questions from New Times, on Dec. 20, 2018, just two days before the shutdown began.
As the shutdown wore on, that prediction mostly held true, with exceptions being areas or agencies where the operations and funding of local and federal government intersected. For example, uncertainty over the potential impacts of the shutdown prompted the social services departments in both SLO and Santa Barbara counties, as well as others in California, to release February food stamp benefits through the CalFresh Program, which is funded through the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Airports were among the most visible areas of those intersections, however, which contain two groups of federal employees: security screeners with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and air traffic controllers employed or contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Both groups were required to continue working without pay through the shutdown.
Many major U.S. airports experienced delays in operations because a number of those employees, from TSA screening particularly, started calling in sick rather than working without pay. However, the SLO County Regional Airport said its operations and federal employee staffing remained at normal levels throughout the shutdown.
"We've not seen anything measureable in the weeks this has been going on," SLO County Airports Director Kevin Bumen told New Times on Jan. 22, three days before the shutdown ended.
The Santa Maria airport also did not report any mass "sick-outs" of TSA employees or air traffic controllers during the shutdown. Operations, TSA, and control tower staffing were unaffected at the Santa Barbara airport as well, according to spokesperson Deanna Zachrisson.
"That was really not something we saw at the Santa Barbara airport," she told New Times on Feb. 14, weeks after the shutdown ended. "There was very little impact to the staffing during that period of time."
While it didn't affect airport operations, Zachrisson said that the staff and vendors understood the impact it had on the federal employees working without pay, many of whom commute from outside of Santa Barbara.
"Instead of causing a problem, it galvanized staff, and everyone tried to pitch in and help where they could," she said. "Some of our concessionaries were offering them free lunches or sending up food to air traffic controllers. ... There was a real showing of support and understanding that they were impacted."
Similar to the counties, cities like Santa Maria were unaffected by the shutdown.
"The partial federal government shutdown did not impact to the city's daily operations," Santa Maria city spokesman Mark van de Kamp wrote in an email response to questions from New Times.
While their operations may have continued smoothly, several Central Coast cities recognized the plight of federal workers, with some offering a break on their utility bills. On Jan. 17, 27 days into the shutdown, the city of SLO announced that it would offer federal workers leniency for late payments and help them create a payment plan for their water and sewer bills. Other cities considered going further. Members of the Lompoc City Council, who represent a city located near both an Air Force base and a federal prison, also passed a utility payment relief program. The city council agendized a discussion about offering further financial assistance to federal workers impacted by the shutdown for a Feb. 5 meeting, but the item was never discussed because the shutdown ended prior to the meeting.
"The shutdown is nonexistent at the moment," Councilmember Victor Vega, who originally asked for the issue to be agendized, said at the Feb. 5 meeting.
Although the shutdown was over, council members were concerned that it could happen again after the temporary government authorization ended in late February. Lompoc Councilmember Jim Mosby spoke about it at the same meeting.
"If it happens again, we are prepared, right?" he asked.
Efforts of the Central Coast's local governments did little to numb the sting of missing two paychecks. The region's federal government workers had to make tough choices during the weeks-long shutdown.
"You had to make decisions every day ... whether or not you were going to buy food, or buy gas, or buy medication," Erich Schmidt, a TSA employee at the Santa Barbara airport, said at the Jan. 25 press conference. "I had to decide whether or not I was going to pay for chemo for my degenerative condition or whether I was going to feed my family."
Schmidt is also a member and political coordinator for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1260, a union that represents more than 1,900 TSA officers at several California airports, including those in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and SLO.
AFGE Local 1260 President Bobby Orozco Jr. said that many of the TSA officers in the union had faced similar hardships during the shutdown.
"This is not what these folks signed up for," he said. "Already many of our members have had to make tough decisions."
While union employees were able to air their concerns about the shutdown, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a station in Morro Bay, were prohibited from speaking to media. Some of them did, however, relay their own stories of shutdown hardships to U.S. Rep. Salud Cabajal (D-Santa Barbara). On Jan. 19, 29 days into the shutdown, Carbajal visited the Morro Bay station, later characterizing the situation as "shameful." Many Coast Guard members were furloughed or, like the TSA officers, forced to work without pay.
"On top of that, the Coast Guard station crew are not getting paid meal and housing allowances," Carbajal said.
As furloughed federal workers worried about putting food on the table for their families, at least two nonprofit organizations in SLO and Santa Barbara counties stepped up to help them out.
During the shutdown, both the SLO County and Santa Barbara County food banks opened their doors to federal workers and distributed food to any of them who needed it.
Food Bank of Santa Barbara County spokesperson Judith Smith-Meyer compared the situation to the unexpected and increased need for food after the county's recent floods and fires.
"It was an unusual need in that it came from a population that doesn't normally use the food bank," she said. "It fell into the category of a disaster that reached into the community beyond the daily disaster of hunger."
During the 35-day shutdown, the Santa Barbara County food bank distributed a total of 21,296 pounds of food to 458 families of unpaid federal workers in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Lompoc. The greatest number of individuals seeking food from the food bank were correctional employees from the federal prison and individuals associated with Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, Smith-Meyer said.
The Food Bank Coalition of SLO County also sought out areas with large concentrations of federal workers during the shutdown, including taking food to the SLO airport for TSA workers, Morro Bay for Coast Guard personnel, and to areas of North County to help furloughed U.S. Forest Service workers.
"We tried to target where these pockets of federal workers were," Food Bank Coalition of SLO County CEO Kevin Drabinski said. "We wanted them to know that wherever they lived [in the county], they qualified and could get access to food."
Drabinski said the food bank also saw an immediate and strong response from the larger SLO County community, with many people coming in to ask if they could donate food or money to help the federal workers and their families.
"I think there was a very public acknowledgement of how intimately food is woven into the fabric of our lives," he said. "They saw the impact [of the shutdown] and their first reaction was to realize that these people need to be able to feed their families."
As food banks jumped in to help struggling families, area nonprofits that rely on federal dollars to provide services to needy populations worried about how to cope without critical funding. That included organizations like RISE SLO, which provides support and services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in SLO County. The organization receives more than 50 percent of its funding through federal grants. The money goes directly to support the organization's programs, including two shelters, crisis hotlines, and legal support for victims, according to RISE Executive Director Jennifer Adams.
Speaking to New Times on Jan. 23, 33 days into the shutdown, Adams said that RISE only had enough funding to last through March 1.
"We have some cash reserves, but that can only take us so far," she said. "Past that, we'd have to look at things like furloughs. ... We don't want to send people packing. We want people to know that we are going to do everything we can to continue to provide services and keep our doors open."
The shutdown also put a financial strain on Peoples' Self-Help Housing, which helps provide housing for low-income individuals and families in SLO, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. Peoples' Self-Help relies heavily on government subsidies to provide tenants with rent vouchers, as well as a program that provides funding for individuals to help build their homes. In a an interview with New Times before the shutdown ended, People's Self-Help Housing President John Fowler vowed that the organization would not evict anyone due to the shutdown, but he admitted that the nonprofit was having to dip into its own pockets to continue providing some services at a cost of about $100,000 a week.
"We can operate comfortably through February," Fowler said at the time. "But after that, we will have to make some hard calls."
Nearly one month after the final day of the shutdown, Congress passed a bill to permanently fund the government past Feb. 15.
Government workers are back on the job, but missing two paychecks set many of them back. Santa Barbara County food bank spokesperson Smith-Meyer noted that even into early February, many federal workers continued to come back to get much-needed food for their families. Data showed that after Jan. 25, the food bank handed out more than 10,000 pounds of additional food to federal workers.
"When they weren't getting paid, a lot of expenses, like bills, got postponed," she said. "When the shutdown ended and they got paid, there were a lot of backlogged expenses they had to take care of. They didn't disappear overnight."
And that was for those government workers who actually did get the pay they missed out on. Back pay for federal contractors wasn't included in the bill to fund the government past Feb. 15.
While once furloughed workers are again receiving paychecks, the uncertainty, worry, and hardship of the shutdown has left deep wounds. Local TSA union president Orozco made that point clear during the Jan. 25 press conference in Santa Barbara.
"While certain members of Congress are patting themselves on the backs for their work in ending this shutdown," he said, "it's an empty boast, as the effects of this massive shutdown will have long-lasting effects on our members' lives."
TSA officer Schmidt echoed similar sentiments and voiced a growing sense of resentment over the shutdown being the result of political brinksmanship over immigration and the president's demand for the border wall. Schmidt's demand was simple:
"Stop using us as pawns."
Even as the shutdown retreats into the past, and new heated political battles take its place in the public eye, it's likely to remain a sore spot for people like Orozco, Smith, and many of the other 800,000 federal workers who suffered through its impacts, particularly as the 2020 election looms.
"Labor will remember your names and faces," Orozco said. "We do not easily forget."