Groups rallying to help address needs where possible
Photo by: 
Will Shoemaker

Each day upon waking, Joe Laughlin checks the news for an indication of whether the partial shutdown of the federal government is still in effect.

But the news doesn’t help.

“It’s this anxiety,” Laughlin said of political posturing that continues to play out. “It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re fighting.’ The next day, they’re fighting even harder.”

This past Friday, it snowed. Laughlin figured he’d go shovel. After all, it’s a task that doesn’t require much commitment.

This is the state of limbo in which many furloughed federal employees residing in the Gunnison Valley find themselves. The lack of a paycheck is taking its toll, but U.S. Forest Service employees such as Laughlin hesitate to seek other work because they don’t know when they may be called back to regular service.

“That’s the pickle of it — not being able to plan,” Laughlin acknowledged. “I don’t want to start a big project. It’s sort of touch and go.”

Still, making ends meet is becoming difficult. The shutdown has now surpassed 30 days — the longest in the nation’s history. Locally, it’s forced federal employees to fall back on savings. Others have begun seeking assistance through local food banks or traditional government programs — but even the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, relies on federal funding that’s not expected to last much longer.

 

‘I’m not going to give up my job’

Laughlin, a father of two who shares custody with his children’s mother, has been living off his credit card. He admits it’s not the wisest decision but recognizes “that’s kind of what I have to do.”

Recently, he filed for unemployment with no end to the shutdown in sight.

“If I can get some unemployment rolling in, then I can skate for just a little while longer,” he explained. “I’m not going to give up my job. I love it.”

Laughlin started as a seasonal employee with the Forest Service in 1998 but has worked to become a year-round employee. Laughlin’s role during the colder months is that of a winter backcountry ranger. He conducts outfitter inspections, contacts visitors at trailheads, checks snowmobile registrations, collects data and helps ensure public safety.

With plenty of time on his hands, however, Laughlin wonders about the conditions to which he’ll return when the shutdown ends.

“Some of the issues that we were working on are now sort of going unchecked,” he said. “I’m thinking about bathrooms that are still open and not being maintained.”

Yet, amid the uncertainty and plight of neighbors, groups in the Gunnison Valley are organizing to help fill the void — through food assistance and other basic needs, as well as to compensate for work on the landscape not being performed by federal employees during the shutdown.

On Wednesday, the One Valley Prosperity Project’s basic needs team — a group chaired by the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley, but which includes representation from the faith community, law enforcement, the Gunnison Country Food Pantry and others — planned to meet to discuss ways of connecting the dots.

“What we do hope is the efforts would be coordinated,” Maryo Ewell, director of Community Impact for the Community Foundation, said of the team’s intent. “If the real urgent need is for money so that the Food Pantry can buy fresh produce and meat, then we want the community to know that’s the need.”

 

‘It will essentially stop’

In fact, local assistance may be the best option if the shutdown continues, though even that will further strain groups such as the Food Pantry.

Recipients of SNAP — the only program operated by Gunnison County impacted by the shutdown — received benefits for both January and February this month. Federal funding for the program ends Jan. 31, after which a reserve account will be utilized for either new applicants or those who’ve missed a filing deadline, explained Brad Wheaton of Gunnison County Health and Human Services.

That reserve “bucket” is expected to be exhausted in February. Once the reserve account is depleted, SNAP benefits won’t be available until the shutdown ends and federal funding is restored.

“Even for ongoing people who have all their ducks in a row, at this point in time, there will be no March food assistance for anyone on the program,” Wheaton explained. “It will essentially stop.”

Those benefits will be paid retroactively once the shutdown ends, but question remains how recipients will make ends meet until then. Approximately 500 families in Gunnison County receive SNAP benefits, accounting for about 1,500 people — in addition to 40-50 families in Hinsdale County.

Furloughed federal employees have been guaranteed back pay when the shutdown ends through a bill signed last week, but what to do until then?

Wheaton said late last week that he’s seen “a handful” of federal employees seek SNAP benefits thus far. However, any new applicants must be processed by Jan. 31 to be eligible for the reserve funds.

“Right now we’re trying to do real-time interviews and process those applications same day so we can get as many people as we can on the program before our time runs out,” he said.

 

Lending a hand with upkeep

Recognizing the importance of federal workers to the area, businesses also are extending special offers — including interest-free loans without standard underwriting requirements such as tax returns or a credit check.

“We see people in our community hurting,” said Tyler Dahl, president of Alpine Bank in Montrose, noting the financial institution has set aside $5 million for furloughed federal employees. “We want to help them as best we can.”

Yet, aside from helping with basic needs, there’s also work not being accomplished during the shutdown. For that, members of Montrose-based Friends of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park are helping keep clean the popular winter playground off South Rim Road.

“A lot of us are going up there about once a week,” said Executive Director Melissa Alcorn. “We go up with garbage bags and with toilet paper, and so far we haven’t had to do a lot up there. It seems to be taking care of itself. It helps it’s largely inaccessible.”

Similarly, J&K Services of Gunnison received approval in recent days from the National Park Service to help tidy up Curecanti National Recreation Area. Co-owner Jarib Magdaleno said the idea of the company lending a hand with upkeep was first raised by an employee. J&K plans to begin cleaning up trash, restocking toilet paper and disinfecting restrooms today, Jan. 24.

“When it’s not getting done, it doesn’t take long to get out of hand,” Magdaleno said. “Whatever we can do to help.”

 

Work without pay

Not all federal employees in the Gunnison Valley are furloughed. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport return to work each day despite not receiving pay.

Julia Organek, who’s been employed by TSA in Gunnison since last March, considers herself lucky. She’s getting by on savings that she had stashed away for a possible move.

But to ensure that her savings last, Organek has avoided non-essential expenditures. For example, she’s put off going to the movies with friends or making a trip to Montrose. So long as no unexpected expenses arise, she should be able to make it another month or two.

Organek is part of a team of 10 TSA officers in Gunnison — and for some the lack of pay has been more difficult than others. Still, passengers and community members have helped by offering kinds words, sending the crew pizzas or offering gift cards.

Yet, the hardest part is coming to work everyday not knowing when the shutdown will end.

“The tough part is, we do still have to be here,” Organek said. “If people have part-time jobs they could take on, we’re not able to do that. We still have to commit to our normal hours here.”

 

(Will Shoemaker can be reached at 970.641.1414 or editor@gunnisontimes.com.)