Politics & Government

Bills are piling up for SC federal workers, benefit recipients during shutdown

Federal employee Thomas Talmadge still is working despite the federal government’s partial shutdown. He just isn’t getting paid.

Talmadge, a drug-treatment specialist at the Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution, is considered an essential employee like others in the federal prison system. So he is commuting back and forth to the work at the prison, even as he missed his paycheck this week and his bills pile up.

“I’ve got an 86-year-old father, one child in college and another in middle school,” Talmadge said Thursday. He worries his co-workers could start leaving their federal job “because the bill collectors don’t stop working.”

Talmadge was one of a half-dozen federal employees who protested Thursday outside U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Columbia office as the federal shutdown dragged on for a third week. The workers want the federal government to reopen and give them their pay.

They aren’t the only ones.

If the shutdown continues, thousands of South Carolinians could see federal benefits — that guarantee they have enough to eat and a place to live — disappear. Tax refunds even could be delayed.

In December, 617,516 South Carolinians were part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP — program, which distributes food stamps through the S.C. Department of Social Services. Another 21,305 South Carolinians received cash assistance from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in November — 16,974 of them children.

SNAP is currently funded through January. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans Tuesday to cover SNAP recipients in February by asking states to request the money before Jan. 20.

Because the previous federal spending resolution required federal departments to honor payment requests for the next 30 days, the workaround allows money for the food program to continue for another month.

But no funding would be available for March, if the impasse were to last that long.

Likewise, funding for Section 8 housing will continue through the end of February, allowing 4,000 recipients in Richland County and 2,000 in Lexington County to continue to make their rent payments next month. After that, it is unclear if any money will be available for the program which subsidizes housing costs for low-income citizens.

“It’s at the discretion of the landlord,” said Taleshia Stewart, administration director of the Columbia Housing Authority. “Right now, we’re just watching and waiting, and hoping there’s a resolution as we move closer to March 1.”

The S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority, which administers Section 8 payments in Lexington County, is more concerned about the mortgages it handles for low-income homebuyers.

Loan processing at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has slowed to a crawl, potentially putting house sales at risk, said spokesman Clayton Ingram.

“If it’s not a problem, it’s at least extremely inconvenient,” Ingram said.

This week, taxpayers got a reprieve as the White House announced the Internal Revenue Service will issue tax refunds beginning later this month, despite 88 percent of the agency’s staff being furloughed during the shutdown.

Federal courthouses also have continued operating through the shutdown as an essential service. But money that has been paying the courthouse bills — from fees and other sources — is expected to run out as early as Friday, meaning courthouse staff would join prison staff as working without pay.

As of Thursday, the federal government partially had been shut down for 20 days. There is no end in sight to the shutdown as President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress continue to debate money for the president’s proposed border wall.

That economic anxiety is what drove federal employees to Graham’s Columbia office to express their concerns, said Johnny Allen with Local 1915 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

“They need to put this aside, this supposed crisis, and stop using federal government employees as pawns,” Allen said. “If (politicians) weren’t getting paid, they would find a way to fund the government.”

Reached for comment, Graham’s office said the senator is committed to ending the shutdown. But the Seneca Republican insists Democrats must agree to wall funding as part of any deal.

By the end of the day, however, Graham had abandoned efforts at a resolution to the shutdown, telling Washington reporters, “We’re stuck.”

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.