Shutdown spreads financial pain across Southeast
WRANGELL — Local U.S. Forest Service employees express frustration with the ongoing government shutdown this week.
The Wrangell Unit of the Tongass National Forest has been closed for 15 days following negotiations between the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate Oct. 1. The office’s 28 employees have been instructed call a 1-800 phone number each day to determine whether the office will be reopened, according to Forest Service Ranger Bob Dalrymple.
Dalrymple himself and one other person in the office’s law enforcement branch are both exempted from the furlough, meaning they must show up to work each day. Employees at the office received their last paycheck – for the pay period ending Sept. 30 – on Oct. 10, Dalrymple said.
Government employees had also been instructed to seek unemployment insurance payments during shutdown, Dalyrymple said.
The US Customs office and Transportation Safety Administration employees – listed among the government’s essential employees — were also affected. TSA employee and newly elected Wrangell Borough Aseembly member Daniel Blake, widely reported to be working without pay at the airport, declined to comment for this story as did the Wrangell customs agent Michael Smith.
Some employees contacted by the Sentinel said the situation was frustrating.
“My personal situation, it’s not nice,” said Matt Jurak, a Natural Resource Specialist who works at Anan Bear observatory. “Personally, I don’t think I’m as affected as smaller folks. I’m a single guy. I have a little money saved up.”
A shutdown longer than two months could mean he seeks work elsewhere, Jurak said.
“After about a two-month thing, I’m going to start looking,” he said.
At this point in the season, Jurak would typically be doing data entry related to his cruise season duties as the flight coordinator for the observatory. Instead, he’s contemplating moving up a planned vacation to Hawaii.
In the meantime, federal employees in the area are waiting to re-open for business, Jurak said.
“We’re just waiting around to see what’s going to happen,” he said.
Nor are the effects of the shutdown limited to people in the government’s employ. Timber companies and contractors have also been told they won’t be paid.
Chief among those affected: logging companies like Ketchikan-based Alcan Forest Products, who were told earlier this month that timber sales out of Tongass were closed.
Brian Brown, a partner with Alcan, said the company currently had 16 employees on Zarembo Island immediately affected by the Forest Service’s cessation of timber sales.
“It’s illegal, for one thing,” he said. “It’s just a way for the Obama administration to make this as painful as possible. They have no basis for shutting us down.”
“We’re just paying those guys to do nothing,” he added.
Brown said he blamed Washington officials, and not local forest service personnel, for the impasse.
“It’s not the guys in Wrangell or Petersburg,” he said.
The shutdown could damage both Alcan’s bottom line and its relationship with the Tongass, Brown said.
“We basically don’t care at this point,” he said. “We’re moving out of federal land. At this point, we can’t afford to be bouncing around all over the place at the whim of somebody in Washington D.C.”
Brown’s company wasn’t the only one affected. Petersburg-based Rock-N-Road Construction has ceased construction on its Wrangell roads resurfacing project until the shutdown comes to an end, said owner Richard Burrell. Seven employees had been laid off as a result, almost half of the company’s payroll.
“We have a lot more work to do,” he said. “They’re laid off until we resume.”
The Wrangell project is worth more than a million dollars, and structured such that only $100,000, or 10 percent, had been paid out to the company, Burrell said.
“It’s quite a bit of money, but what are you going to do?” he said. “You don’t know when they (federal legislators) are going to settle. It’s kind of discouraging that you have to wait for someone else to get their job done, but that’s the American way.”
Burrell was more guarded about his political opinions than Brown.
“I actually do blame one party, but I’m not going to tell you which one,” he said.
In the meantime, Rock-N-Road is focused on its remaining municipal contracts, Burrell said.
“We have a couple of contracts with the city of Petersburg,” he said. “Thank God, because they will pay us.”
Other area contractors don’t have the option to postpone seasonally driven construction work, like family-owned and operated Reid Brothers Construction, which has a contract to perform rock and gravel work at the Seal Point Recreation Area.
Corporate secretary Tracey Reid estimates the government owes her company — and a subcontractor working with them — about $600,000 altogether, though she was hesitant to provide specific figures about how much that amount will affect the company’s bottom line.
“It is affecting us because we can’t get paid,” she said. “The boys were just out there. They’re going to go back for another week or so, and then we’ll come back in the spring.”
The shutdown has added to an already tough year, Reid said.
“It’s just another terrible thing that’s happened,” she said.
Reid reserved blame for all parties involved in the federal impasse.
“I blame them all, because they’re all just politicians, because they’re all just playing a game,” she said. “Nobody’s taking the condition of the country seriously.”