Which bill should be paid: the insurance or the electrical?
That is one of the questions facing many federal workers now as the partial federal government shutdown prompted by Congress’s failure to approve critical funding last year stretches beyond its third week.
With Democrats in a stand-off with President Donald Trump over his demands for $5 billion in funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, Congress missed a Dec. 21 deadline to pass appropriations bills for the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the State Department, and other federal departments and agencies.
In a published staff report, Senate Appropriations Committee vice chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) estimated that the partial shutdown would affect about 800,000 federal employees with more than 380,000 people put on furlough and an additional 420,000 people required to work without pay.
At 21 days on Friday, the current ongoing shutdown tied a shutdown that lasted from Dec. 5, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996 as the longest on record.
The effects of the shutdown go beyond the federal government employees it directly affects and will likely reverberate for weeks to come, particularly in a region like Northern Virginia that boasts a large number of federal workers and contractors.
“This is not just affecting federal workers,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “Senator [Tim] Kaine and I have been talking to a number of contractors and small business owners, a couple of them who are closing their doors this week because they have now gone for weeks without being paid. You can’t put a business back together after you’ve closed your doors.”
Many furloughed employees are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, but some who have been deemed essential and are therefore still obligated to show up to work despite not knowing when they will get a paycheck have been calling in sick.
The American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents more than 44,000 Transportation Security Administration officers, reported in a statement on Tuesday that some workers have already quit and are contemplating leaving the federal workforce altogether.
Warner, Kaine, and 28 other legislators introduced legislation on Jan. 3 that would ensure back pay for federal employees who are not getting paid during this shutdown, but that assurance would not extend to affected contractors.
To give an indication of the presence that government contractors have in Fairfax County, 26 of the government technology contractors on the 2018 Washington Technology Top 100 list are headquartered in the county. 77 of the top 100 companies have offices here.
According to Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Boylan, up to 70 percent of the businesses in the Town of Herndon count as small businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
“Those kinds of contractors cannot withstand missing out on getting paid,” Boylan said. “Their employees will probably have to go on unemployment, and that will trickle down very quickly to the local economy for restaurants, entertainments, so that’s one of the reasons we’re concerned.”
Boylan says it is too soon to gauge the extent to which the shutdown will affect Northern Virginia’s economy, but the impact will be widespread, particularly for restaurants and the hospitality industry that might be casualties of reduced tourism and customers tightening their budgets.
The Smithsonian Institution has closed its museums, including the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, and sites under the National Park Service remain open but with limited access and reduced amenities, such as ranger tours, according to Visit Fairfax, the official tourism site for the county.
To assist local businesses and workers, the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce organized a free panel of accountants, bankers, insurance experts, and lawyers at the Hilton Washington Dulles in Herndon on Thursday.
The chamber is also working with local elected officials to find ways to assist people and businesses to minimize the shutdown’s impact, Boylan says.
“The paychecks will stop on Friday,” Boylan said. “It’s already been an impact to contractors and subcontractors, so we need to start getting this together for folks very quickly.”
As of Wednesday, Fairfax County operations had not been affected by the shutdown, but the county says individuals in need can contact its Coordinated Services Planning staff at 703-222-0880 for assistance in connecting to resources.
Fairfax County Public Schools announced on Jan. 8 that meals for breakfast and lunch will be provided to all students regardless of their ability to pay, and unpaid balances will be allowed to build up without immediate repercussions for the duration of the shutdown.
The public school system is also hosting a hiring event on Friday from 2:00 to 4:30 p.m. that might give furloughed federal employees an opportunity for a substitute teaching position.
Interested substitute teaching candidates are directed to complete an application for employment, and they should bring documents required for an I-9 employment eligibility verification form to the event.
“The Fairfax County School Board and I know there are many talented people in our community who work for the federal government,” FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said. “We want to show support for federal employees who have been furloughed and may be looking for work during the partial shutdown. There is always a need for substitute teachers, and we pledge to work with qualified people to expedite their hiring.”
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who was sworn into Congress on Jan. 4, says joining the House of Representatives right as the federal government is reeling from a shutdown has not been ideal, especially given the high number of federal employees and contractors in the 10th District.
The House passed a series of appropriations bills on Jan. 3 that would reopen nine unfunded federal departments, but Senate leaders have so far refused to bring the legislation to their chamber’s floor.
“We got right to work on day one passing an appropriations bill, which would reopen the government,” Wexton said. “Now it’s up to Senator McConnell and the president to do the right thing and reopen the government.”
In a statement released on Jan. 9, the Office of Management and Budget said that moving the four proposed appropriations bills that would fund the closed agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 “without a broader agreement to address the border crisis is unacceptable.”
Advisors to the president would recommend that Trump veto the bills if they reach his desk, OMB said.
Wexton says she has heard from hundreds of constituents concerned about their ability to pay their bills.
One couple that contacted Wexton had to return Christmas presents. Since they work for the same federal agency and are now both furloughed, they are now worried that they will not be able to pay their mortgage or the cost of their son’s preschool.
“They’re considering asking for forbearance on their student loans, because they don’t know how long this shutdown’s going to last and what impact it’s going to have on them,” Wexton said. “We owe them better than that.”