Most of fed's 90 Johnson County employees wait to go back to work

BLM ranger Jessica Korhut is one of the few BLM employees still on the job following a partial shutdown of the federal government. As the only BLM ranger who is based out of the Buffalo field office, Korhut patrols large areas of federal land in northeast Wyoming.

Nearly 90 families in Johnson County have missed a paycheck due to the partial government shutdown that is now the longest in American history.

While the local economic impact has yet to be felt, there is a human toll. ANB Bank President Steve Reimann said the federal government is a large employer in the community, and each of those furloughed workers is a wage earner for their family.

“It doesn’t take a lot of folks for it to affect a lot of people,” Reimann said.

ANB’s Buffalo branch has not yet had customers request loan deferments or the set up of alternative payment plans, but Reimann is aware that it is a possibility as the shutdown continues.

“Generally speaking, a lot of people do not have the three to six months squirreled away that is recommended,” Reimann said. “It really is deeply impactful to the families.”

At the Bread of Life Food Pantry, the impact is already starting to become evident. Food pantry president Pam McFadden said that two families affected by the shutdown signed up last week to receive food at the pantry.

“The sole reason is that they don’t have a paycheck,” she said.

To date, most federal employees have only missed one paycheck, but if the shutdown drags on and employees continue to miss pay periods, the effects will be compounded.

“So far, I’m just hearing concerns and what-ifs,” Reimann said. “I know that we have a message on our website that says if you are impacted by the shutdown to call your local branch. There’s an awareness that if things start to happen, our approach is going to be take it on a case-by-case basis. Who knows what we’ll be looking at there.”

Under the shutdown, which began Dec. 21, funding has lapsed for nine of the 15 federal departments – Justice, State, Treasury, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation – as well as several agencies. About 420,000 federal employees deemed essential are working without pay; another 380,000 have been placed on unpaid leave, or furlough.

The federal government is the largest employer in the state with nearly 5,000 employees, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management – 2,200 more than the next largest employer, the University of Wyoming with 2,800 employees. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, Wyoming has the fifth-highest rate of federal workers impacted by the shutdown behind Washington, D.C., Alaska, Maryland and Montana.

Approximately 75 employees work in the BLM Buffalo Field Office and another 12 work in the Powder River Ranger District of the Bighorn National Forest. Through Jan. 13, all but essential personnel – like law enforcement – were either not working or working unpaid. Though some BLM employees charged with permitting drilling returned to work on Monday, most of the functions the BLM performs are on hold during the shutdown.

Calls to the local BLM and Forest Service offices went directly to a recorded voice message indicating that the offices were closed due to a lapse in federal funding. In response to a request to the USDA Forest Service, an automated response was received, stating, “We are unable to speculate on specific impacts – to include individual districts – while the government shutdown is ongoing and ever-changing.”

Numerous local BLM and Forest Service employees contacted by the Buffalo Bulletin declined to comment on the government shutdown because they were uncertain of what they were allowed to say.

Sen. Mike Enzi’s, R-Wyo., spokesperson Coy Knoble said in a written statement, “Senator Enzi has always maintained that a shutdown is not what he wants. It does not benefit Wyoming, and he has cosponsored legislation to prevent government shutdowns. He supported legislation in December that would fund the government. He also voted to move legislation forward that would fund the government and included additional funds for border security, but the Senate did not pass a final bill and the president has said he would veto what the new Democratic House has passed. He hopes Congress will work with the president to soon reach an agreement that helps provide solid border security and funds the parts of the government that have been shut down.”

On Monday, a limited number of BLM Buffalo Field Office returned to work processing applications for permits to drill, with a limited staff, a two-month time frame and a narrow definition of what work can be done, according to a memo from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

Wyoming Department of Workforce Services spokesperson Ty Stockton said that furloughed workers are eligible for unemployment benefits. Since Dec. 23, 673 federal workers have submitted claims.

“With the timing of it right during the holiday season, I’m sure a lot of people bought presents or went on trips and then they get furloughed and realize, oh no, I’ve got bills to pay and nothing to pay them with,” Stockton said.

He cautioned that any unemployment benefits that a federal worker receives would have to be paid back if the government opts to pay employees back pay, which is virtually assured. The goal, he said, would be to use those unemployment benefits to keep current on bills and not incur costly credit card debt or other penalties for late payments.

“If someone collects unemployment benefits and then if they do get back pay, hopefully they’ll be able to pay that back without any problem,” Stockton said. “It becomes a problem if people are falling behind on their payments, so hopefully if they’re able to take advantage of unemployment benefits, it’ll help them out.”

Stockton said that most employees can expect to receive unemployment benefits within a week of acceptance.

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