Pain from partial federal shutdown begins to spread across Tennessee

Pain from partial federal shutdown begins to spread across Tennessee

January 21st, 2019 by Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE — Air traffic controller Chris Grimes of Nashville is one of an estimated 6,700 to 7,300 Tennessee-based federal executive branch workers caught up in the ongoing partial government shutdown over a border wall and security on the U.S. border with Mexico.

He's not exactly thrilled about it, given that he is now one of at least 300 or so air traffic controllers statewide — some estimates run as high as 500 — who are working without pay as President Donald Trump demands $5.7 billion for border security and congressional Democrats object.

But Grimes, a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told reporters last week he's also worried about the effect on airport operations both now and in the future.

"We need the politicians in D.C. to recognize that this is going to have an impact," said Grimes, who was among several federal employee representatives attending a Nashville Central Labor Council meeting last week. "Even after they turn the light switch back on and open things back up, we are going to be impacted here in this city alone for years to come."

The air traffic controllers are among an estimated 800,000 federal workers or contract employees impacted nationwide in the ongoing shutdown, which as of Monday is in its 30th day with no end in sight. An estimated 380,000 have been furloughed nationally without pay, while 420,000 are deemed essential and must report for work but aren't being paid for now.

Agencies range from the Treasury, Agriculture and Transportation departments to the Homeland Security, Interior, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development departments.

According to the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy organization that presents a liberal viewpoint on economic and social issues, 6,700 federal workers in Tennessee are either furloughed or working without pay.

The Washington Post recently put the figure at 7,300.

Treasury Department workers, which include Internal Revenue Service employees, ranked No. 1 in the center's estimates at 3,100 affected, followed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at 1,000. That includes the Farm Service Agency office in Nashville and 59 county offices across the state.

Also impacted are an estimated 600 Interior Department employees, including workers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It wasn't immediately clear whether the Tennessee figures include the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park or whether that's included in the state of Georgia.

Brian Shoup, the Knoxville-based president of the American Federal of Government Employees Local 555, estimated the number of Transportation Security Administration employees in Tennessee working without pay at about 730.

He said about 57 TSA workers at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport were delivered food packages last week by the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. Also last week, the Mizpah Congregation delivered 60 $20 gift cards for TSA employees

"It's really starting to have an effect on the folks," Shoup said, noting people have "mortgages to pay."

TSA employees are "required to work through the furlough just like the air traffic controllers and other folks," he said. "So you're working without getting paid, which is an added burden.

"Plus," Shoup added, "we're charged with the security of the working public and you have to be pretty focused on your job. You have all these outside pressures and issues going on. You know, it's eventually going to show."

Operations of the state's three U.S. attorneys and their employees are impacted in civil matters.

And apart from the executive branch, federal courts are in danger of running out of money come Feb. 1 if the shutdown continues, raising concerns.

"We are extraordinarily fortunate to have in the Eastern District of Tennessee such a fine group of dedicated public servants that I am certain will continue to do their jobs — whatever it takes," said U.S. District Court Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice of Chattanooga.

Still, Mattice has concerns about the impact in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Greeneville on the nearly 200 employees in the Eastern District, which includes court clerk staff and probation office workers. There are also the 13 district judges and magistrate judges.

The figures don't include those impacted in the Middle and Western Districts of the state. That could ultimately affect cases involving both businesses and citizens.

"This needs to be resolved," Mattice said.

Pain spreads

Funding issues are already hitting some of Tennessee's non-governmental social aid agencies, which depend to varying degrees on Uncle Sam.

For example, CEASE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a nonprofit that operates a multi-county, Morristown-based shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, was forced to lay off 17 workers temporarily due to lost funding, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week.

In Chattanooga, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults' domestic violence shelter has lost its federal funding for now.

But LaTricia Schobert, director of the agency's Consumer Credit Counseling Service, told the Times Free Press last week the organization has enough funds in reserves to carry on with functions such as its Crisis Resource Center. Among other things, the center operates an emergency shelter and helps sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking victims with around-the-clock help.

Food stamps, school lunch programs

A million or more Tennesseans could be impacted in February, March and the start of April if Trump and Democrats, who now control the U.S. House, don't come to some type of resolution.

This month, the Tennessee Department of Human Services joined other states in issuing February's food stamp benefits early due to the partial government shutdown. Some 900,000 low-income Tennesseans are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Benefits are usually distributed at the first of each month. But U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, told states to issue February benefits early.

Recipients won't receive another benefit payment until further notice. Nearly 40 million Americans are enrolled in the program nationwide. According to Tennessee's Department of Human Services, more than $100 million in SNAP assistance is distributed to eligible participants here monthly.

Tennessee school districts, meanwhile, are bracing for potential federal funding impacts on free and reduced lunch programs if Washington doesn't get its act together.

Agriculture Secretary Perdue tweeted Friday that "child nutrition programs are funded quarterly and are fully funded through the end of March." The programs include National School Lunch, School Breakfast and the Child & Adult Care food programs.

Tennessee Education Department spokesman Chandler Hopper said in an email it was announced as an "orderly partial shutdown. We understand the uncertainty that these circumstances present for [federal Food and Nutrition Services] customers and partners."

Hopper said he could provide no figures on how many Tennessee children might be impacted if the budget standoff continues. But the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics handily provides historical figures that provide a picture. In the 2014-2015 school year, 55.9 percent or 542,953 Tennessee students were enrolled in federal school food programs.

Hamilton County Department of Education spokesman Tim Hensley said, "we are right now thinking we're going to be OK through the month of March. Hopefully something has happened between now and then. But if it went beyond March, then we would need to start looking at alternatives and there are some options they're looking at."

He said local schools may "get to the point of pulling" money out of its "reserve fund food balance. They may have to postpone equipment purchases."

CARTA and public transportation

If the showdown isn't resolved by the end of March, Tennessee's public transit authorities, including the Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority, could take a hit on their federal funding.

"We have cash flow through January and February and we're working with the city to help us to access funds that we have assigned to us for the rest of the fiscal year for our budget," said CARTA Executive Director Lisa Maragnano.

She said the federal government accounts for 17 percent of CARTA's $22 million annual budget.

Maragnano said she doesn't want to be an alarmist. If the shutdown "goes on much longer than January or February, then we'll have to sit down and look at some outcomes as far as where we're at revenue wise and what we can and cannot do. Our hope is it doesn't last that long and it will be done sooner rather than later."

CARTA is working with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's office on the city filling at least some potential gaps in the event of a worst-case scenario, with the city making additional payments up front from its annual appropriation to the agency.

Cutting back on service "will be the last thing that we look at," Maragnano said. "I want to make sure people understand that. I don't want people to be afraid. It's not worth it. Everybody's already stressed as it is over all this and we don't need to add to that."

Maragnano is also president of the Tennessee Public Transit Association, which includes the state's biggest cities as well as nonprofit entities such as state-created agencies that provide transportation in rural areas.

She said she's worried about the operations in rural counties, where financial resources are thin, should the budget impasse not be resolved.

Berke: "We need to reopen the government"

Berke said he's "upset that our [federal] government isn't working for the people they serve. As someone who is charge of city government, we report to work every day to pick up trash, police our streets and make sure our roads are available for Chattanoogans."

He called it "a huge problem when government doesn't work for people."

CARTA, the mayor said, "is concerned about being able to cover their expenses in February. It is causing deep cash-flow issues for them. We rely on those dollars to fund our budget. Sometimes there are other issues. When we're slow getting other dollars, it tends to eat into reserves as well. So the double whammy is something that could cause an inability to make the payments we need to function."

"We need to re-open the government," the mayor said. "We need to make sure that American citizens are getting the services that they need.

"We want planes to be inspected so that they're safe," Berke said. "We want TSA agents to show up because we want to make sure our airplanes are secure. We need funding for our buses so that residents can get to and from work. We need our housing initiatives funded so that people can live in the community they love."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.


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