Lingering effects reverberate six months later
WASHINGTON – On a cold morning last January, President Donald Trump declared at a hastily arranged news conference in the White House Rose Garden that a deal had been struck to end the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, lawmakers breathed a sigh of relief that the gravity of the 35-day shutdown would soon be over.
“I know the pain this episode has caused,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But it wasn’t really over.
Six months after the government reopened, the effects of the partial shutdown that ended Jan. 25 are still being felt – in airports and national parks, by international travelers, by government agencies who have seen an exodus of employees, and by government contractors who say missed paychecks meant personal sacrifices like skipping mortgage payments and forgoing needed medicine.
“The tendency is to see (the shutdown) as a one-shot deal, and you can move on,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan organization focused on improving government effectiveness.
“It’s more like the tornado that destroys the community,” Stier said. “Yeah, the tornado’s immediate damage was bad. But it takes a long time to come back.”
Federal agencies and communities are still feeling the effects of the shutdown even as Congress appears on track to pass a fresh two-year budget hammered out this week by Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If that agreement passes, it would reduce – but not eliminate – the risk of another government shutdown this fall when Congress is tasked with other difficult spending decisions.
‘Expect significant delays’
The last shutdown, triggered by a budget fight between the White House and congressional Democrats, shuttered a quarter of the federal government from Dec. 22, 2018 through following Jan. 25 and forced some 800,000 federal employees to go on furlough or work without pay.
Some are still recovering.
“The extended partial government shutdown has resulted in a substantial backlog,” reads an advisory still posted atop the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.
The notice is referring to a backlog in applications and renewals for the agency’s Trusted Traveler Programs, including the Global Entry program designed to help U.S. citizens quickly navigate the customs process after returning from abroad.
Applicants should “expect significant delays in application processing times and limited appointment availability,” the website warns.
The agency is working to reduce the backlog, a spokeswoman said, but some of the agency’s employees have been reassigned to deal with the large numbers of migrants crossing the southern border. Roughly 70% of Global Entry applications and renewals are processed within 15 days, she said, but a quarter still have a processing time of more than 90 days.
The aviation industry also is grappling with the shutdown’s effects.
The lapse in appropriations disrupted the hiring and training of new air traffic controllers, forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to adjust its hiring target for air traffic controllers this year from 1,431 to 907.
Hiring and training enough air traffic controllers is always a challenge because controlling air traffic is a stressful job. The number of fully certified air traffic controllers is already at a 30-year low, and getting new hires trained and fully certified can take from two to four years, said Trish Gilbert, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
The closure of FAA’s academy in Oklahoma City during the shutdown further delayed the training of new air traffic controllers. “A couple of months creates a backlog and a logjam for those controllers in our facilities,” Gilbert said.
In addition, the shutdown resulted in significant delays and backlogs in responding to aviation safety issues, certification efforts and accident investigations. An estimated 5,000 on-site safety inspection items were deferred, the FAA said.
Dozens of aviation projects also have been delayed, including the opening of a new control tower in Charlotte, the completion of a new digital communications system for air traffic controllers and pilots, and upgrades to a complex cooling system for critical equipment used to safely guide air traffic.
Uncollected park fees
National parks lost as much as $14 million in uncollected entrance fees during the shutdown and faced other financial challenges due to lost labor and stalled maintenance projects.
Parks already were facing nearly $12 billion in maintenance needs before the shutdown. Because they were directed to use fee revenue to stay open, there will be even less of that money for the National Park Service to address the backlog of projects, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, an independent advocacy group for national parks.
The loss of fee revenues delayed road projects and visitor center repairs and added to the growing backlog of projects, said Kristen Brengel, the association’s vice president of government affairs.
At the Internal Revenue Service, every division, including the Taxpayer Advocate Service, was affected by the shutdown. Only a handful of taxpayer advocate employees who help answer taxpayers’ questions were expected to work during the shutdown, and that work was limited to checking the mail and processing checks.
Initial estimates from the National Taxpayer Advocate indicate it could take a year or longer to fully recover.
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The shutdown’s most lasting impact might be its effect on the federal workforce.
No one’s job was eliminated as a result, and workers received their back pay. But advocates say the government will suffer long-term scars not only because the shutdown convinced some workers it was no longer a stable employer committed to a mission they believe in but also because prospective employees appear less likely to sign up.
“A lot of people who otherwise would have stayed and contributed in all kinds of important ways have walked out the door,” said Stier with the Partnership for Public Service. “And much of the talent that you would hope would be coming in to refresh the work force got chased away because of the brand damage that was done to the government.”
In tracking employment trends, Stier’s group found:
– The number of applications for jobs at federal agencies affected by the shutdown fell by 46% from late December through late January.
– The number of civil servants from those agencies looking for jobs on job search site Glassdoor after January 11 (when federal employees missed their first paycheck) rose 10%.
– There was a 22.5% decline in average daily visits to USAJOBS (the federal job application site) during the shutdown, compared with the same period in December and January of the previous year.
Matthew Davis, who worked at the Environmental Protection Agency as a congressional liaison until he left a few months ago, said he witnessed the departure of many long-term employees already fed up with what they considered the anti-science bent of the Trump administration.
Among those that Davis, now the legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, saw leaving were long-term EPA workers who saw the shutdown as the last straw in a series of issues.
A similar exodus played out at the National Park Service, where the shutdown hurt employee morale, said Brengel, of the parks conservation association, which works closely with Parks Service staff.
“There was an enormous destruction to the capability of the government to actually bring in the talent that it needed on an ongoing basis to stay healthy,” Stier said. “That’s something where going to see for a long time to come.”
Missed paychecks: Today should be payday for hundreds of thousands of government workers. But the shutdown means they’re not getting paid
Months after the federal government shutdown ended, Tamela Worthen was still struggling to pay her bills.
A security guard at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Worthen got behind when she missed several paychecks.
Unable to afford her mortgage or medication, she was rushed to the hospital at one point when she had trouble breathing.
“I’m worried about keeping my home being so behind on my mortgage payments,” Worthen told a congressional committee in May. “It’s very hard to get back on your feet.”
Unlike federal employees, contract workers like Worthen did not receive back pay when the federal government reopened.
Some who used their sick leave or other personal time they hadn’t yet earned to stay on the payroll had to make up that deficit.
“The idea of time off with family or taking a trip for the celebration of a wedding or a birthday may not be a reality any time soon,” said Roger Krone, chairman and CEO of Leidos, a federal contractor headquartered in Virginia.
Other workers have struggled to build savings back up and are anxious about losing security clearances needed to do their jobs if their credit ratings are damaged by bills paid late or not at all.
Many of the hundreds of impacted contract workers who clean and secure federal offices, museums, airports or serve food to federal employees were already living paycheck-to-paycheck, and the shutdown pushed their lives to the brink, according to Jaime Contreras, an official with the Services Employees International Union.
One worker had to ration her children’s asthma medication, Contreras testified. Another lost her car, leaving her without a way to get to work after the government reopened.
An estimated 1.5 million federal contractors may have been affected by the shutdown, according to the Government Operations panel of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Wesley Ford, president of a cafe located in a federal building in Washington, D.C., had to lay off 40% of his staff and reduce hours for the rest.
Ford expects his unemployment insurance rates will rise as a result of his workers filing for benefits. And one employee lost his housing as a result of the shutdown.
“These lay-offs were brutal,” Ford said, “both financially and to morale of the remaining staff.”
Human pain: Faces of the shutdown: Deal to end standoff comes as federal workers’ hardships grow
Tough decisions ahead
Groups still dealing with the effects of the last shutdown fear another one could happen this fall.
That seems less likely now because of a two-year budget deal announced earlier this week by Trump and congressional leaders. The agreement not only provides a broad outline for government spending over the next two years, it lifts the national debt ceiling for two years – and in the process removes a contentious issue that could have tied up budget talks this fall.
But other hard choices remain. The budget deal provides only a spending blueprint. Lawmakers still have to decide how much they will spend on individual program – a process that will almost certainly provoke more partisan battles and is already stoking fears of another impasse and another shutdown.
“What we don’t want to do is see another shutdown,” said Gilbert of the Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We are still trying to recover from the last one.”
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