From firefighters to farmers: How the federal shutdown impacts Yolo County

The USDA and U.S. Forest Service are among the agencies furloughing employees during the partial government shutdown
The front of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building is seen in a photo taken in Davis on Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express

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has a year-round fire season (consider the Camp Fire, the largest and most-destructive fire in state history, broke out in November). A fire with the size and strength of the County Fire and others could easily break out anywhere, including Yolo County, and if it does, it wouldn’t be unusual to see U.S. Forest Service firefighters joining the fight. Except this time, those federal firefighters would be working without pay. Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced it was one of dozens of federal organizations affected by a partial government shutdown. Since then, press reports have largely focused on an increase in garbage and vandalism at national parks, including Yosemite, because those parks are operating with skeleton crews that are unable to accommodate the increase in holiday visitors (the parks are technically closed but still accessible to the public). Little has been made about the other Agriculture Department employees that are forced to work throughout the shutdown despite a lapse in federal funding. Among the Agriculture Department employees that are expected to work without pay: Firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service; meat, poultry and egg inspectors and grain inspectors and weighers (the latter is funded through outside sources). Until the government shutdown is resolved, some 5,000 U.S. Forest Service firefighters are expected to continue working without pay. Studies have shown that the number one cause of low morale among workers is a lack of adequate pay; add to that the stress and pressures of fighting a wildfire, and it could mean disaster. Even without a major wildfire, a lot of work happens behind-the-scenes to prepare for the hotter months. In Alaska, firefighters there say now is the time of year when state and federal firefighters come together to prepare for summer wildfires. But right now, it’s hard to find federal firefighters at the Alaska Fire Service. “They’re working on cooperator agreements with local fire departments that we have in communities around the state, so that when there’s a fire we can call on them to help us out and they are reimbursed for their time and use of equipment,” a fire official told Alaska Public Media. Federal firefighters, who are classified as “excepted employees,” will receive backpay when the shutdown ends. In the meantime, a number of local credit agencies — including Yolo Federal Credit Union and Golden1 — are offering payment assistance loans to impacted federal workers. The loan offered by Yolo Federal comes with a zero percent interest as long as its paid in full once the shutdown ends; Golden1 did not reveal terms of its loans, but said employees must be members of the credit union and that loans were subject to approval. While federal firefighters and other excepted employees might be able to pay back those loans in a quick manner once they get paid, some employees may not be so fortunate: Many other workers aren’t getting paid because they’re not allowed to come to work during the shutdown. Those staffers include employees at the Agriculture Department’s various county offices, which closed last month in anticipation of the shutdown.

No grants for farmers

The closure of regional offices and others within the Agriculture Department means community grants earmarked for housing and business development won’t be approved, and ongoing payments for grants approved before the shutdown have been halted. In a phone interview with the Express last week, Rep. John Garamendi said that could have a dangerous impact on a community that has already suffered through climate and economic woes over the last few years. “There’s a question of whether the food safety inspectors are able to do their work, and so local food processing companies may not be able to have their timely inspections so they can continue to produce or manufacture whatever they’re manufacturing,” Garamendi said. “There’s more than a few [that are impacted] in the Winters area. It is a problem all the way down the line and those people who are not working.” Garamendi placed the blame squarely on President Donald Trump’s insistence that Congress provide money in the federal budget for a steel barrier along the southern border shared with Mexico. Despite a campaign promise that Mexico would “pay for the wall” — something Garamendi is quick to point out — Trump has shifted to insisting that Mexico would pay for the wall over the long-term with taxpayers initially footing the bill (Trump has since said that he never directly asked Mexico to “write a check,” though plans on his campaign website revealed an extortion attempt that would block money from being sent from people in the United States to individuals in Mexico, with a promise that the ban would not go into effect “if [Mexico] agrees to come up with the cash to pay for the wall.”)

Social services bracing for impact

Over the weekend, the crisis became the longest federal shutdown in American history. That has some agencies preparing for the possibility that hundreds, if not thousands, of federal workers could soon turn to social, food and financial assistance programs where the workforce and the budgets are already stretched thin. Last week, the Yolo Food Bank announced a new weekly initiative where federal workers would be allowed to take up to 30 pounds of nutritious food home for free, as long as they bring a paystub or other proof of federal employment. The program is open to all federal workers who live in Yolo County, regardless of where they are employed, and the offering is intended to make sure those families who need it do not go hungry. But it’s not just federal workers who could be turning to food banks: Millions of food stamp recipients could soon see their federal SNAP benefits cut off because the program is funded through the budget that Congress has yet to pass. In Winters, the Yolo Food Bank serves around 560 individuals through the group’s various direct distributions and partner organization program. But that number could increase after next month if the federal agency that provides SNAP benefits — known in California as CalFresh — can’t scrap together more cash to fund the accounts of food assistance recipients. “Right now we know there’s been funding located that will keep SNAP benefits in place and CALFresh benefits in place through February,” Joy Cohan, the spokesperson for Yolo Food Bank, said in a phone interview. “We know that there’s already efforts going into locating ways to keep that program funded for another 30 days into March if need be.” But if the shutdown goes through March, “we could see a shift in what we could expect,” Cohan said. “The challenge for us is more on the end of trying to make sure that we have adequate and enough distribution options available should we have an increase, an uptick, in food insecure people caused by this shutdown,” Cohan said. Any uptick could be a problem because of the lack of food inspections happening with the suspension of operations at the USDA. No inspections means no food coming into area food banks, as the executive director of the Merced County Food Bank recently said in a news interview. It’s a nightmarish scenario that seems to have no end: Firefighters who aren’t getting paid can’t buy food, so they go to the food bank. And they’re not the only ones — hundreds of food stamp recipients are also in line because their CalFresh funding ran out. Worse, the food bank is short on supply because famers can’t get their meat, dairy, eggs and produce inspected and green-lit for distribution. There is one glimmer of hope: Earlier this month. newly-minted Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that some 144,000 federal workers in California could be eligible for unemployment benefits, a move that is meant to help some of the many workers who didn’t receive paychecks last Thursday. The most federal workers can claim is $450 a week — a far cry from what the majority of federal employees no doubt bring home on their regular paychecks. And that money isn’t free — just like the special zero-interest payday assistance loans offered through the banks, workers will be expected to pay back their unemployment funds if they are paid by the government retroactively. But in a time of great uncertainty for federal workers, many of whom aren’t sure when they’ll get another paycheck, at least it’s something.]]>

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