It was the evening of Jan. 14 when the call came in to Coast Guard Air Station Sitka. A five-year-old boy fighting a viral infection with breathing complications needed medical transport from Hoonah. A crew mobilized, flying an MH60 Jayhawk helicopter to take the boy and his mother from Hoonah to Sitka, where emergency medical services personnel were waiting.
The crew members of that helicopter missed their first paycheck the next morning.
“To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time in our Nation’s history that servicemembers in a U.S. Armed Force have not been paid during a lapse in government appropriations,” Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Shultz wrote in a letter to the 42,000 men and women he oversees.
A total of about 1,900 of those Coast Guard members are in Alaska, about 1,100 of whom make up nearly a fifth of Kodiak’s population. None have been paid since Jan. 2, and some have little savings or credit upon which to fall back. Small businesses such as restaurants and stores that depend heavily on those service members are hurting, too. One Kodiak diner owner said she’s losing hundreds of dollars in business per day.
And the Coast Guard is the tip of the iceberg here in Alaska. More than 15,000 Alaskans are federal employees, and approximately 5,700 of them — and their families — are affected by the shutdown, more per capita than any other state. That’s more employees than the 4,000-plus who work at Alaska’s largest private employer, Providence Health and Services.
Data indicates almost four-fifths of Americans are short on savings and long on debt. They can’t make it long without getting a paycheck. Fortunately, their fellow Alaskans, as well as many businesses that provide services here, have done what they can to lend a hand, whether in food donations, deferred utility payments or short-term loans to help bridge the gap until Congress and President Donald Trump reach an agreement to reopen the government.
But this has become the longest shutdown in history. Those aid efforts won’t hold them forever. It’s not just the federal workers and their families who will feel the pinch. Like the restaurant in Kodiak, there’s a trickle-down effect that could endanger efforts to pull the state out of a multi-year recession. If the shutdown is not resolved, the impacts will spread, with projects delayed because work can’t be done to access the federal funds they require.
This isn’t how government is supposed to work. Putting thousands of Alaskans out of work over a single, minor budget item is damaging to our state and its people, as well as America’s reputation as a world leader. It’s also disproportionately damaging to Alaska.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as Rep. Don Young, cannot solve this shutdown on their own. They have made steps in the right direction, with Sen. Sullivan authoring a bill to pay Coast Guard members, Sen. Murkowski speaking out in favor of ending the shutdown and Rep. Young saying he may cross party lines to put Alaskans back to work. They must do what is possible given their positions: Vote for bills that would reopen the government, and work within their respective caucuses to get others to do the same. There is a worthwhile debate to be had about border security, but that debate can’t take place in a reasonable way while thousands of Alaskans are out of work, treated as economic hostages and political pawns.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, Julia O’Malley, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.