The effects of the employee furloughs and service cuts that are part of the partial shutdown of the federal government that started late Friday could soon become apparent.
While the weekend and then Christmas, times when many people are off work anyway, came immediately after the funding lapsed, on Wednesday came a regular workday with no quick end in sight to the political stalemate.
So what might this mean for Idaho?
There were 13,300 federal employees in Idaho in October, according to the Idaho Department of Labor, representing 1.7 percent of the state’s workforce. According to an analysis by Governing magazine, the biggest chunk of civilian federal workers in Idaho, or 3,389, work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service. There are also 3,348 active-duty military personnel in the state, and 2,230 people working for the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
Some agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, are already funded by budget bills that passed in September and aren’t expected to be affected. Neither is the U.S. Postal Service, which is an independent agency.
For ones that are affected by the lapse in funding, services that are considered essential or are related to public safety are generally kept operating. However, new spending or activities or customer service-type functions are generally discontinued. Nationally, 400,000 federal workers are expected to be furloughed and another 400,000 who are considered essential will continue working without pay, according to Politico. People who work without pay have historically always been paid back when a shutdown ends.
The BLM manages nearly 12 million acres of public lands in Idaho, much of it in southwestern and south-central Idaho but including 3.7 million acres in eastern Idaho that are managed by the Idaho Falls office. According to the agency’s shutdown contingency plan, about 6,930 of its 9,260 employees are expected to be furloughed. Employees working in vital areas such as law enforcement and emergency response are “excepted” and will continue to work. Campgrounds, boat ramps and recreational sites will be open, but services such as bathrooms and water could be closed.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement last week that services that will continue, at least in the short term, despite the shutdown include Forest Service law enforcement and forest management and maintenance work. People enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will get their January benefits, and the school breakfast and lunch programs will continue into February. Perdue said 61 percent of Department of Agriculture employees would work through the first week of a shutdown, but more would start to be furloughed after that.
“There may be a lapse in funding for the federal government, but that will not relieve USDA of its responsibilities for safeguarding life and property through the critical services we provide,” Perdue said. “Our employees work hard every day to benefit our customers and the farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers who depend on our programs. During a shutdown, we will leverage our existing resources as best we can to continue to provide the top-notch service people expect.”
However, new timber sales won’t take place. And some farmers could feel the pinch soon — Perdue said farm loans and some farm payments such as direct payments, market assistance loans and disaster assistance payments would continue for the first week of a shutdown, but not after that. Farm service centers, which help farmers with their questions and with signing up for assistance programs, will be closed. Also, no new rural development loans or grants will be given out. And research activities will cease, although the animals and plants will still be cared for.
While people will still be able to visit national parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton, all government-run operations and facilities will be closed. Park entrance stations are closed and unmanned during the shutdown but roads are still open and accessible to visitors. Commercial services that are normally open will remain open.
Concessionaires in Yellowstone National Park will provide funding for road grooming so that over-snow access to the interior of the park is still possible. Guided snowmobile and snow coach trips with commercial operators will continue to operate in Yellowstone.
“Park staff will provide emergency service and law enforcement,” according to a Yellowstone Park news release. “All park regulations, including those regarding over-snow travel, are in effect as normal.”
In Grand Teton National Park, grooming of the Teton Park Road — popular with skiers in winter — will continue through a partnership agreement with Grand Teton National Park Foundation. Grooming for skate skiers and classic skiers is scheduled to occur twice a week.
Ranger-led snowshoe hikes have been canceled.
“Visitors will be able to access Grand Teton National Park, but should plan ahead and use caution as park staff will not be available to provide guidance or assistance,” said Grand Teton National Park Deputy Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail. “If visitors see something that jeopardizes visitor safety or park resources, call Teton Interagency Dispatch Center at 307-739-3301.”
Park websites and social media sites will not be updated during the shutdown.
Sleigh ride tours will continue at the National Elk Refuge. Ticket sales and shuttle bus service to the sleigh boarding area have been moved to the Home Ranch Welcome Center, starting Monday. For more information on sleigh rides, call 307-733-0277.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 265 people in Idaho work directly for the U.S. Department of Energy. This number doesn’t count the many more who work at Idaho National Laboratory and the DOE site west of Idaho Falls, since most of them are employed by Battelle Energy Alliance or Fluor Idaho, which run INL and the Idaho Cleanup Project, respectively. INL and Fluor are running on reduced staffing until after New Year’s, as they do every year at this time, and neither they nor DOE expects to see any impact from a shutdown since their budgets were passed separately in September.
Civilian federal workers who have been furloughed are likely to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits while they are out of work, according to a news release from the Idaho Department of Labor. However, there is a roughly three-week wait between filing and getting the first check, and if the federal government pays the employees back, they would have to repay any unemployment benefits they collected. More information is available at idahoatwork.com.
The U.S. Department of Labor was one of the agencies funded by September’s budget bill, so other unemployment claimants aren’t expected to be affected.