Issue 5 Magazine News

Shuttered on the Creek: The Impact of the United States Government Shutdown

From December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019, the non-essential operations of the Federal government of the United States of America were shutdown due to a lack of funding, in what was largest Federal government shutdown in American history. Other federal agencies considered essential operations remained functioning but left their employees without pay.

According to City Councillor Justin Wedel, the City of Walnut Creek depends on the Federal government for funds to operate various programs, directly and indirectly, “I’m sure that there are dozens of programs [where], in one way or another, the funding is provided by the [United States Federal] government… that goes through different layers of distribution.” These are Community Development Block Grants, a Department of Housing and Urban Development program funding programs such as affordable housing and anti-poverty programs for low-income individuals with Wedel stating “[Community Development Block Grants are] used for developing programs and services and housing for lower-income communities.”

However, Wedel emphasized the City of Walnut Creek wasn’t financially impacted by the shutdown, as the shutdown was too short to suspend funding for programs the Federal government funds. “I don’t think [the United States Federal government shutdown] lasted long enough for funds to be distributed.” Wedel was “not aware of any services or dollars that we are not meeting because of the Federal shutdown, nor am I aware of any services that were suspended because of the Federal shutdown.”

Cyntia Steiner, a Las Lomas parent, works for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that was deemed unessential and shutdown. As an EPA employee, Cyntia Steiner works as “an enforcement officer for [the] EPA… under the Clean Air Act [in the field of] chemical accident prevention… looking at facilities and making sure they’re operating safely.” Cyntia Steiner’s statements are solely made in her capacity as a private citizen.

Although unpaid during the shutdown, Cyntia Steiner said her “family was lucky because we have an emergency fund. [The shutdown] didn’t affect us from a financial perspective because we had money saved.” She emphasized her family’s luck, stating, “I’ve been working for the EPA for about 20 years… I know that [for] some people who have not worked for the government for that long, it was definitely much more difficult … or if… they don’t make as much money… they had more of a financial struggle.”

However, although her family didn’t struggle to cover expenses during the shutdown, she emphasized her family “slowed down in our spending because we didn’t know how long it was going to be before we got our paycheck. When something was…optional, like going out to eat, we would hold back on doing [it]. We made some changes like that, but we were able to pay our mortgage, our car bills, and things like that.”

However, although Cyntia Steiner was unpaid during, she worked for much of it: “I actually had to work for sixteen… days… The EPA had a mission assignment with FEMA.. [We helped] with the campfire clean up [in] Chico… The EPA [cleaned up] household hazadrous waste… things like paint cans, any kind of pesticides, or anything like that. Anytime there’s a fire, all that stuff gets… left over… Before you actually remove all that debris, you need to clean up… propane tanks, [asbestos work; gasoline.]”

Though the assignment was initially voluntary, it was later mandatory. “I got [a notice] that said that… it was mandatory to work, and if I didn’t work, I was considered AWOL and subject to disciplinary action. I volunteered for helping with this, and all of a sudden it became mandatory… Of course, it was something I wanted to do, because I felt it was necessary, but it was mandatory.” Steiner spent sixteen days away from my family. “I was with coworkers during the shutdown. I was not paid and still have not been paid for that time.”

Although Steiner did work, without pay during the shutdown she did not work in her capacity as an inspector “having a 35-day break means that are there are… [fewer] enforcement and inspection activities that were happening.” She emphasized the EPA “Definitely could not do as much as we had planned on doing, as many inspections and as much enforcement. We lost a whole month, [and] not only did we lose a whole month, there was chaos associated with when we got back to work, and then we had the unknown of a potential government shutdown last Friday.” Morale was another problem: “People are not feeling good about work. You’ve got work that you let sit for 35 days that you have to pick up again, and when you pick something up again, sometimes it takes a while to remember what was going on… it generally will slow down things and… if there’s less enforcement and [fewer] inspections, [there are problems]. There’s a reason we do those things, and [that’s] to encourage folks to be compliant with the environmental regulations.”

“Some of the long-term impacts will be [in terms of] hiring people, because [people] are going to be afraid that this might happen again. We’ve had a lot of people leave the EPA and we are short on staff.”

“It will be difficult in the long-term term to hire people to come to the EPA.”