Columbia federal employees affected by government shutdown

ccope@thestate.comOctober 1, 2013 

Maj. Cindi King

— Maj. Cindi King, a public affairs officer with the S.C. National Guard, is monitoring the news and watching her budget.

King and her husband are two of the approximately 1,200 federal technicians for the S.C. National Guard and thousands of other federal employees across the state affected by the federal government shutdown. For instance, Fort Jackson, with an annual payroll of $155 million a year, employs 3,500 civilian workers, most of whom will be furloughed because of the shutdown.

The shutdown resulted after a growing standoff in Congress came to a head Monday when lawmakers failed to agree on a budget for the fiscal year that began Tuesday. Now, local federal employees feeling the sting of the shutdown can only wait for lawmakers to reach a compromise.

“We’re hoping, with everyone else, the decisions will be made and this won’t last for a long time,” King said.

Even though King’s husband, Maj. Dave King, is also furloughed, she said they won’t feel a significant financial impact from the shutdown unless they have to go a couple of weeks without paychecks, she said.

Maj. Gen. Robert E. Livingston Jr., the state’s adjutant general, said the Guard will remain on duty and prepared to respond to any state of emergency for South Carolina, according to a news release. There are 11,000 total soldiers and airmen who serve in the Guard.

Despite the shutdown, the Guard remains fully available, ready to respond for active duty, the release said.

Late Monday, Congress passed and the president signed a law that would ensure that U.S. military troops would continue to get paid despite the shutdown.

In a statement released Tuesday, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said anyone who stood in the way of paying the troops would “make an enemy of me for life.”

The stopgap military legislation applies to active-duty military and not those, such as King and her husband, who are considered dual-status military federal technicians, paid by the federal government.

Ron Robinson, a senior veteran service representative for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said if the shutdown continues until Friday, he will have to work without getting paid – at least for now – since he is on the essential list. Nonessential people will be put on furlough, he said.

“Just think if you may not get a paycheck and you have bills,” Robinson said.

And this comes in addition to previous pay freezes and the anxiety of working certain jobs, he said.

“Our country needs to do better,” he said.

The time without pay is a fresh sting for King, who was furloughed in the summer under the government sequestration. That furlough affected about 20 percent of the couple’s pay, King said.

King and her husband told their children, ages 14 and 10, that the family could feel the pinch if the shutdown continues.

“We just let them know ahead of time that we have to be careful with spending,” King said.

She said she was able to plan ahead because she has been getting information constantly from the chain of command. She knew immediately at midnight the shutdown occurred, and she and others in the office were given four hours to go into work and make appropriate notifications, set up emails and make sure they had a handoff to individuals who were not affected, King said.

King said she spent Tuesday as if it were a weekend day, getting things done but also watching the news.

Anna Huntley, who has never been through a time without pay in her job with the U.S. Small Business Administration, is having to adjust.

“This is my first time at the furlough rodeo,” Huntley said. She said she felt like she was in limbo, not knowing if the situation will be resolved the next day or in weeks.

Huntley helps support her mother and sister financially, so she is not the only one affected by a reduction in her income, she said.

But her dog, who is used to Huntley being gone all day, was excited that she was home.

“At least somebody was happy,” Huntley said.

Midlands reacts to shutdown

For many in the Midlands, the first-day fallout of the federal government shutdown ranged from mild inconveniences in recreational activities to greater concerns about securing such things as passports and home loans. Meanwhile, many other activities potentially threatened by the shutdown continued as normal. Here is a sampling of the fallout locally and what is expected in the coming days:

•  The Congaree National Park in Hopkins was closed Tuesday. That included public access to all trails, roads, campgrounds and Cedar Creek. An outgoing message at the park said it would remain closed indefinitely and that messages would not be checked until it reopened. Most park employees will be furloughed, but three law enforcement rangers will remain on duty.

•  The 11th annual Congaree Swampfest 2013 is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, with many of Saturday’s events scheduled inside Congaree National Park. Event organizers could not be reached Tuesday, and it was not clear if the activities originally planned for the park would be relocated or canceled.

•  Many federally regulated outdoor agencies in the state, including the Santee National Wildlife Refuge in Summerton and other federal land and monuments in South Carolina, including Fort Sumter, were closed Tuesday and will remain closed during the shutdown.

•  Friday is National Visit a Park Day, and City of Columbia Parks and Recreation is encouraging people to get outdoors and enjoy the benefits of city parks and green spaces. Even if national parks remain closed Friday, local officials say residents can still take advantage of the many recreational and educational offerings within the city’s park system. City of Columbia Parks and Recreation maintains over 600 acres of land that includes walking and nature trails, tennis and basketball courts, disc golf courses, playgrounds, swimming pools, community gardens and several dog parks. “It’s an opportunity for us locally to encourage people to visit our facilities,” said Terza Hair, of the Parks and Recreation Department.

•  At the main Columbia Post Office on Assembly Street, the mail drop-off lines were moving freely throughout the day, and postal employees said passport applications were still be accepted. But the State Department may have to halt some processing of passport applications in federal offices not run by the agency that have shut down. Columbia’s Katie Beck is grateful she recently sought an expedited passport approval after her old passport expired. Beck is planning a trip to Italy later this month and said she was unnerved when she heard about the shutdown. “My initial thought was, ‘Oh my, what am I going to do.’ I never let things like this lapse, but the one time I do, the government would shut down.”

•  At the Strom Thurmond Federal Building on Assembly, a child care center operated inside the facility was up and running as normal on Tuesday. Other offices, however, were dark.

•  Riverbanks Zoo and Garden announced Tuesday that it will offer free admission to all federal government employees Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Riverbanks officials said the zoo appreciates the work of federal employees and is extending the complimentary admission offer in the midst of the partial shutdown that has left many workers furloughed. Federal employees will be asked to show their federal ID at the gate. Family members must pay the regular admission price.

•  For many awaiting approval for government backed home and small business loans — whether through the Federal Housing Administration, Veterans Administration or U.S. Department of Agriculture – questions still linger as to whether the government shutdown will delay processing and approval.

Reach Cope at 803-771-8657 or on Twitter @cassielcope.

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