Politics & Government

With another government shutdown looming, federal employees in SC brace themselves

Supporters for federal workers rally at Columbia airport

Tangela Graves has worked at a federal prison for more than a month without pay. Hear her point of view on what needs to be done next.
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Tangela Graves has worked at a federal prison for more than a month without pay. Hear her point of view on what needs to be done next.

After surviving the longest government shutdown in U.S. history only a month ago, federal workers in South Carolina are bracing themselves for Round 2.

The 35-day federal shutdown ended Jan. 25 with a short-term spending deal that expires at midnight this Friday.

Democratic and Republican negotiators in Congress have reached a tentative deal to keep some 800,000 federal employees paid and on the job after that deadline. But it is unclear if the agreement is acceptable to President Donald Trump, who initially demanded $5.7 billion for border security to restart the federal government.

The deal reached by negotiators calls for $1.4 billion in new barriers along the southern border — enough for about 55 miles of new border fencing.

Talmadge Coleman says his co-workers at the federal prison in Edgefield still are recovering from January’s shutdown, when a month’s worth of missed pay strained family budgets.

“You have to pick and choose what bills to pay,” Coleman said. “If you use credit cards, your interest rates go up, plus you get hit with late payments and fees.”

Before the last shutdown ended, some prison workers were sleeping overnight at the prison to cut back on the cost of travel. Then, when they received their back pay in a lump sum, some workers were stuck owing more of their income in taxes.

Allen Rawlins, an air traffic controller at the Florence airport, said he still is waiting for his holiday pay for working Christmas and New Year’s during the shutdown. But he thinks he is in a better position than some newer hires. One worker had his start date pushed back until after the shutdown — and won’t receive any pay for the time he spent waiting.

Tangela Graves, a counselor at the federal prison in Williamsburg County, spent this week in Washington lobbying lawmakers with other members of the American Federation of Government Employees. Their visit focused on other funding issues, but the shutdown deadline loomed over the trip.

“It’s kind of scary right now because he hasn’t signed anything yet,” Graves said, referring to President Trump.

Some workers turned to food pantries to deal with the last shutdown.

Harvest Hope Food Bank reports it distributed 51,545 pounds of food to 845 federal employees in January — at a cost of $89,172.85.

“We treated this like it was a disaster,” said Harvest Hope spokeswoman Taylor Davids. “It just takes more resources, staff worked more hours and more volunteers were needed.

“We’re just hopeful it doesn’t happen again, especially since we’re doing things for Allen Benedict Court now,” Davids said, referring to the recent forced evacuation of a Columbia public housing complex.

For the last three weeks, prison counselor Graves said she has been watching her spending and setting aside money, just in case she found herself without pay during another shutdown.

“I’m not doing a lot of entertainment right now,” she said.

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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.