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Government shutdown changing local lives

Posted: October 4, 2013 - 6:34am

Since her childhood days growing up in Brooklyn, Patricia Hill had a simple plan: go to school, do what’s right, don’t get in trouble and then get a job with the federal government.

“No other place is supposed to have the safety and security of that job,” Hill said.

That’s why she dug deep into her savings two months ago to relocate herself from Georgia to Juneau for an upward transfer in a federal agency — the risk was minimal, savings could be rebuilt over time, she thought.

But when Congress failed to reach an agreement this week to continue funding government, that all changed.

“All of the sudden this furlough came and I have nothing,” Hill said. “I came with nothing and by myself. I even sold my car in the lower 48.

“I’m kind of left high and dry,” she said.

She’s one of many federal employees living and working in Juneau who showed up to work Tuesday only to be promptly sent home.

The furloughs are the result of a political impasse in Washington where Republicans in the House of Representatives refuse to pass a government spending bill without Democrats making some concessions. On the other side of the aisle, Senate Democrats have refused to negotiate delaying or defunding parts of the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare.

The stalemate has left Hill and other Juneauites in tough places financially.

“My car payment is still due. My rent, insurance, electricity...are all still due,” Hill said. “If we don’t get paid, or back paid, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

Local businesses have begun offering discounts for furloughed employees with identification to help ease some of the financial burden caused by the shutdown.

For example, the new ice cream shop Coppa is offering half-priced coffee and free day-old bakery items, and the Pie in the Sky Bakery and Cafe is offering free coffee with any food order, or a free cookie with any coffee order, to furloughed employees.

Savvy decision-making by leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in the weeks and days leading up to the shutdown helped mitigate some of the potential ramifications of the governmental halt, one federal contractor said.

“(Leadership) began to make decisions early such that the integrity of the science would not be compromised by any shutdown,” said Connor Pihl, a biochemist at the institute. “We did what we needed to at the time that once Monday night did hit, there weren’t any loose ends to tie up without the ability to tie them.”

Many projects at the NOAA facility are processes that take days or even weeks, so advance planning by the leadership helped stave off some of the losses being felt elsewhere as a result of the furloughs.

“My thinking was, ‘It won’t happen. Oh, just a few days — well, maybe a week.’ Now it’s, ‘Oh, this could be two weeks,’” Pihl said. “In the end, it won’t affect the professional integrity of what we do.”

The unexpected time off means more time to ready the house for winter and take care of things overdue, Pihl said.

“I’ll be getting all sorts of fall cleaning done and other personal tasks taken care of,” he said. “I will be well poised to go back to work and not have anything else at home waiting for me when that happens.”

Even though he received emails for several weeks about the possibility of a shutdown, it was still a surprise for Pihl when he realized Congress had failed to pass a spending plan.

“I did not think it would be a reality,” he said. “I had a little too much faith in Washington.”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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