SHERIDAN — Leslie Horsch has no idea when she’ll receive her next paycheck. She struggles to contain a feeling of constant frustration — and sometimes anger — about her employer telling her she is not “essential” and many of her friends and acquaintances just not “getting it.”
Sheridan resident Horsch and her husband, Clarke McClung, have worked for the federal government through several shutdowns — some lasting weeks, others days.
McClung is now retired, but his wife faces a furlough that has no end in sight. She works as a writer and editor for the U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one of the departments not funded for the current fiscal year. Others affected include Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Interior, Justice, State, Transportation, and the Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to reports, about 800,000 federal workers are either furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown. Wyoming is home to 4,997 federal employees, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The Department of the Interior — which includes agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Park Service — employs the most workers in Wyoming, with 2,034.
In Sheridan, more than 40 people work in the local office for the U.S. Forest Service. In the past, McClung said, only law enforcement, the district ranger and the forest supervisor were deemed essential. McClung worked as the district ranger for the Tongue District of the Bighorn National Forest before retiring.
He said while going through the 2013 shutdown — which lasted 16 days — he struggled to help his coworkers. Some were millennials going through a shutdown for the first time. Some were seasonal employees who struggled financially. Others, like him, had spouses who also worked for the federal government.
“There is nothing you can say or do to make it better,” McClung said, adding that he never tried to hide the fact that he was unhappy with the shutdown, too.
McClung noted that some local federal employees have filed for unemployment but are hesitant to use those funds unless they are in dire straits because they will pay it back if Congress passes a bill allowing for backpay. Being unsure of how long the shutdown will last, though, employees may not be able to wait for the backpay to process to cover their expenses. Friday marked the first missed paycheck for most furloughed government workers.
At least two local USFS employees were supposed to retire at the end of 2018, but were furloughed, McClung noted. It’s unclear where that stands given the shutdown; they haven’t received their last paychecks and it’s unclear when they’ll receive their first retirement check.
Still, other employees have had to cancel plans to attend or teach at trainings, which are sometimes only offered once per year. Those cancellations impact not only the employee not receiving or providing training, but the communities in which those events are held, which will not realize the economic impact of those visitors. Furloughed employees who stay home are also likely spending less money than normal in their communities, which could hurt small businesses in places like Sheridan.
Other stories from around the country indicate federal employees are struggling to make house payments or pay rent, cover child care costs, pay utility bills and generally avoid debt.
One local business, Lee Metal Works, posted a notice on its Facebook page this week that it would delay “payment for any service work that is performed by” the company for federal employees until the shutdown ends.
“It wasn’t a reaction to one person or one situation,” said Alex Lee, owner of Lee Metal Works. He added that his company provides one of everyone’s basic needs — heat — and he and his staff felt like helping federal employees during this time was just the right thing to do.
Lee said he visited with his staff and had conversations he imagined were similar to what thousands of other families are having across the country. What if this lasts a long time? How will we manage our own expenses? In the end, though, Lee and his coworkers felt they should have their neighbors’ backs.
Horsch expressed frustration with individuals who do not have empathy and make comments such as “they should manage their money better,” when speaking about furloughed workers.
“It’s not a rational expectation,” she said, acknowledging her genuine concern for some furloughed employees’ financial situations, which could be dramatically impaired due to the shutdown.
The frustration felt by the McClung, Horsch and others, though, doesn’t stem only from the lack of a paycheck. McClung noted that most people who work for government agencies aren’t in it for the money, they enjoy what they do and want to work as civil servants. His wife agreed, emphasizing that she believes in the mission of the USFS and the need for land conservation and management.
With no employees in the office, contracts cannot be processed, permits cannot be reviewed and safety checks and inspections on things like ski lifts cannot be completed. McClung and Horsch noted that many contracts and projects likely won’t be completed in time for the 2019 field season due to the delay. Overall productivity will also decline. Horsch had scheduled to utilize paid leave over the last couple of weeks. In the past, leave scheduled before a shutdown occurred has been restored. That means that in addition to not being allowed to work during the shutdown, Horsch will have to use her leave at another time in the next two years, or lose it.
Horsch noted that many have said to her that she should look at the shutdown as a paid vacation.
“When I take leave, I get a rest from work. I get a chance to recharge. I don’t think about work,” she said. “This is not leave. It’s a personal insult that my job be held hostage. It’s not time off.”
She continued, saying she struggles to watch the news without becoming angry. She’s even fired off “blistering” emails to Wyoming’s congressional delegation, hearing back only from Sen. Mike Enzi by the time this story was published.
Enzi and Sen. John Barrasso, along with seven other senators, introduced legislation Friday that would permanently prevent the federal government from shutting down in the future. The End Government Shutdowns Act would create an automatic continuing resolution for any regular appropriations bill or existing CR, keeping the federal government open when budget negotiations falter before key spending deadlines.
As of Saturday morning, the partial government shutdown is the longest in American history.
Editor’s note: Kristen Czaban’s husband works for the U.S. Forest Service and is currently furloughed.