O'Malley: Anxiety hangs over Alaska federal workers

Julia O'Malley

Among the state's 13,000 furloughed federal workers, the people I talked to Wednesday were trying to make the best of their second day without work.

They were doing house projects, baking and spending more time with their kids. Anxiety hung over all of it, though, because there is no telling what will happen with the Republican members of Congress who are at the root of the government shutdown. Many worry the situation will go weeks, not days.

Every public employee was thinking about a plan for the worst case. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll say that half my family income comes from a government paycheck. The conversations I heard about in interviews are happening at my house, too.

A few days unpaid is one thing, but if the furlough goes beyond that, a time will come when finances start to get tight, and then they will get dire. And after that comes a hard question about whether to find a new job. (Depending on the agency, some federal employees have orders not to get other work while on furlough.) Most people talked on the condition I not use their name, because it is unclear whether talking publicly might cause them problems when they go back to their jobs.

A biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service told me that he and his wife sat down Tuesday night to calculate their family budget without his income. It wasn't pretty. His wife just sold her business and is now staying home with their two kids. Her mother recently moved in with them. Without his paycheck, her $1,000 pension is all there is outside of savings.

"Grandma is holding it down for us," he said.

They decided that if the furlough isn't over by Oct. 11, they would cancel their family vacation. If it goes beyond that, he said, "We did talk about a list of things we will be selling."

A friend of mine, an economist with a federal agency, told me he was reconsidering vacation plans and curbing eating out for now. Federal employees may sign up for state unemployment and will be spending less money at local businesses. So, the burden of the furlough was being shifted from the federal level to the state, local and household level. People don't think about the indirect impacts outside of the people who are furloughed, he said.

Another ripple for the Alaska economy is with government contractors, he said. His friend, who works at a company that has federal contracts, was asked to take time off each week because of the government instability, he said. The furlough also hurts the credibility of the federal government as an employer, and that can make it hard to recruit the most qualified employees, he said.

I talked to a Department of Agriculture executive assistant whose husband works in finance with the same agency. Both are furloughed. The couple has three children. She's enjoyed the last few days of being home, she said. I asked her how long until losing pay starts to strain their finances.

"It's probably going to be like four or five days, we will be, like, 'Oh my God," she said. "How am I going to make my car payment? How are we going to pull together money for the mortgage?"

They were planning to fix a water problem in their foundation with this year's permanent fund checks. Instead, they may end up living on them, she said.

A National Guard employee who works in emergency response, readying vehicles, weapons, radios, helicopters, and airplanes, as well as doing the administrative tasks related to training and deployment in Alaska, was deemed "non-essential" and sent home on furlough, he said. He was watching a friend's kid as well has his own two Wednesday afternoon.

His wife has a good job, and they have a few months of cushion, he said, but he works with young soldiers who are already worried about paying their bills.

"I've got soldiers working other jobs, moonlighting as security guards, that's how they are making ends meet," he said.

There were lots of military families that would be paid late because the people who process their paychecks were furloughed. Many of them were living paycheck to paycheck, he said. He used the word "frustrated" a lot when we talked. His ire was directed at congressional Republicans. He said he felt like he was being held hostage. The furlough also made him feel like the service he provides isn't valued, he said.

"I don't trust that I'm going to have a job, I can't count on it," he said. "We're looking at buying rental property and getting prepared to figure out what else we're going to do."

He has worked for the government for 25 years, he said.

A law enforcement park ranger at Denali National Park told me she was also deemed non-essential and sent home. She has savings, but if too much time passes, the loss of work will strain her finances. She said she'd read people saying that if the government had so many people who aren't essential, why not just get rid of them to cut costs? That isn't how things work, she said.

"I might not be essential, but without me, the park is going to be closed, because they can't open the park without me working," she said.

There are only two law enforcement officers, who are also EMTs, working in the enormous park right now, she said. That isn't enough to respond to a major incident, she said. She worries about that.

"What if people go in and they get hurt or they get lost?" she said. "Who is going to find them?"

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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