Across the city and the state, thousands of federal workers uncertain of their immediate future started unpaid furloughs Tuesday against a backdrop of political discord.
The office of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich estimated that 13,000 Alaskans faced furloughs during the first government shutdown in 17 years.
While Head Start preschool centers in Alaska were open as usual despite fears they would be shuttered, many other federal programs closed their doors.
On Alaska military bases, the government shutdown was causing the furloughs of some 5,000 civilian workers, said Staff Sgt. William Banton, a spokesman on Joint Base
Elmendorf-Richardson. That includes about 1,600 on JBER, slightly lower than an estimate earlier on Tuesday.
“This Bureau of Land Management facility is closed because of the government shutdown,” said a note on the locked door of the BLM public information center at the Federal Building in downtown Anchorage.
Federal courts were open and prosecutors were on duty but civil lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s Office along with many administrative staff members were sent home. Courts will remain open for 10 days and will reassess the situation if the shutdown is extended, the federal judiciary announced.
Workers carried houseplants, teapots and other personal items out the Federal Building’s big glass doors Tuesday. The usually packed parking lot across C Street was half-empty by mid-day. A number of workers said they had been directed not to talk to reporters and none would give their names, furloughed or not.
“I’m a non-speaking federal employee,” said one man, a duffle bag draped over his shoulder.
A woman stopped at the Federal Grounds, a coffee and treats shop inside the building.
“We had a few hours to close things up properly and part of that process was getting ice cream,” she said.
Alaska’s congressional delegation is speaking out against the shutdown. U.S. Rep. Don Young voted with his House Republican majority for a budget bill that tacked on delays in President Obama’s health care law and was rejected by the Senate. That failure to pass a budget bill caused the shutdown. Still, Young also said in a written statement Tuesday that a shutdown will hurt constituents.
Begich, a Democrat who is proposing tweaks to the health-care law but generally supports it, called the shutdown “totally unnecessary.”
Before the shutdown, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, took to the Senate floor to say she doesn’t support the health-care law but didn’t agree with the strategy of shutting down government over it.
U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said the government closure is especially painful because the office is already low on staff. Automatic cuts through the budget sequestration process have left it down two attorneys, with a third about to leave. Twenty percent of the support positions are vacant, and there’s a freeze on hiring, she said.
About half of the 55 or so employees in the U.S. Attorney’s Office have been or will be furloughed, Loeffler said.
“For the most part, the criminal lawyers are deemed essential but all of the civil side, who represent the government in every civil proceeding, are furloughed,” she said. “This affects real people, and it is very hard on them.”
In federal courtrooms Tuesday, hearings to revoke probation and sentence defendants went on as normal.
“Obviously we cannot arrest people and let them go. Public safety is public safety,” Loeffler said. “We take very seriously our job of protecting the citizens of Alaska and we are not grinding that to a halt.”
However, “it is not business as usual,” she said.
In some jurisdictions, federal attorneys sought to delay civil cases during the furlough, but in Alaska, those matters will be dealt with case by case, Loeffler said. If a judge orders a furloughed civil lawyer to attend a hearing, that will happen, then the lawyer will be sent home again, she said.
In Anchorage, as many as 7,000 people may be furloughed, estimated Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. The impact on the city will intensify if the shutdown lasts weeks, he said.
“It will become more pronounced with each passing day,” Popp said. “Less shopping in retail. Less eating out. Less discretionary spending at the movie theater.”
Popp said: “It will take time for it to become really appreciable, but it definitely will be felt in some sectors.”
Furloughed federal employees can apply for unemployment benefits through the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. People can go to my.alaska.gov, click on unemployment insurance benefits and log in, the department said.
On Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, support offices staffed by civilians are closing or scaling back, said Staff Sgt. Banton. The library will close on weekends. The inspector general office is closing. Various housing offices are closing. The health and wellness center, where people usually can get help with nutrition and smoking cessation, is scaling back though will still offer Air Force fitness tests, Banton said.
Two private agencies that run federally-supported Head Start preschools in Alaska said the centers for low-income
3- and 4-year-olds will stay open — for now. Begich’s office had said they were at risk of closure.
Kids’ Corps Inc. operates Head Start programs at seven locations in Anchorage and has federal funding through Oct. 31, said executive director Dirk Shumaker.
If the shutdown extends into next month, the agency will have to temporarily close some centers, he said.
At national parks in Alaska, where facilities and roads were closed, skeletal crews were staying on to ensure pipes didn’t freeze and buildings were prepared for winter. But none of those doing the work knew if they’d eventually get retroactive pay nor did the hundreds of workers sent home, said John Quinley, spokesman for the National Park Service.
With the furloughs of two National Transportation Safety Board plane crash investigators and a supervisor in Alaska, reports of incidents will go to a slimmed-down Federal Aviation Administration operations center in Anchorage. It is trying to operate 24-7 with just three employees.
Around town Tuesday, Kaladi Brothers was offering free cups of house blend coffee to federal employees.
“This is just 'we’re here for you. You’ve been there for us,’ ” Dale Tran, Kaladi’s chief operating officer, said. “A lot gets soothed over a cup of coffee.”
Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER