Uncertainty exists about what happens after Feb. 15 deadline
“I took down the Christmas tree and the ornaments,” said a staffer at the Methow Valley Ranger District on Monday (Jan. 28). That’s how long it had been since she and two dozen co-workers hadn’t been at the office, when they were barred from coming to work by the partial federal government shutdown.
The first day back wasn’t exactly business as usual at the ranger district. “It was administrative catch-up on Day 1. We weren’t delving into regular tasks,” said Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr.
Many employees found they were locked out of their email accounts or their security badges no longer worked, because they’d been on furlough when passwords came up for periodic renewal.
Although Furr had been on the job for the past five weeks as an “excepted” employee, his primary role was shutdown coordination. That meant keeping employees informed about the shutdown and unemployment benefits and making sure the snow was plowed in case of an emergency at the ranger station, he said.
By their second day back at work, people were returning phone messages and emails and reconnecting with partners on different projects, said Furr. They’re also resuming the hiring process for seasonal recreation and firefighting staff.
“Both locally in the Methow Valley and across the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, we’re focused on getting our employees paid and back on duty, as well as effectively resuming operations,” said Holly Krake, public affairs officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, by email. “This means everything from updating phone voicemail recordings or vehicle safety checks to resuming additional winter recreation activities and services.”
“With funding now restored we are assessing priorities for the remainder of the year and returning to the work of caring for the land and serving people,” said Krake. “We are glad to be back!”
On Friday (Jan. 25), Pres. Trump agreed to reopen the federal government for three weeks, until Feb. 15, while he and Congress negotiate over a spending bill and border security.
The current estimate is that U.S. Forest Service employees will receive their five weeks of back pay by the end of this week, said Furr.
The shutdown was tremendously stressful for Aspen Ostlie-Pritchard, a single parent who counts on food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and rental assistance to make ends meet. And the three-week reprieve didn’t relieve her worries.
“I’m still stressed out, because it’s only temporary,” said Ostlie-Pritchard. “I can be hopeful they come to an agreement,” but there’s no guarantee that food-stamp recipients will get another payment, she said.
Like most people in the SNAP program, Ostlie-Pritchard got her February benefit on Jan. 20, a few weeks early. “I have $440 in food stamps to last for who knows how long,” she said after getting the early payment.
As of now, there is no money appropriated for food stamps after February, said Kelly Stowe, media relations manager with the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). DSHS, which administers SNAP benefits for 900,000 children and adults in Washington, is still waiting for an update from the federal government, she said.
Pres. Trump signed an appropriation last week to fund Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but no action has been taken to extend the food benefits. “We’re hopeful — we’re awaiting guidance,” said Stowe.
“It’s terrifying. The only thing I can think positively about is living in the Methow Valley. People in the valley won’t let people go hungry,” said Ostlie-Pritchard. She was trying hard to keep everything normal so her 7-year-old son doesn’t pick up on the stress.
Ostlie-Pritchard was exasperated by Pres. Trump’s insistence on a wall he says will protect American citizens. “They’re affecting American citizens by literally taking food out of American children’s mouths,” she said.
Ostlie-Pritchard usually supplements her $299 monthly SNAP benefit with money from her part-time job so she can buy fresh produce and high-quality ingredients. She’d already cut back on fruits and vegetables to stretch her food budget and was researching recipes that use bulk rice and beans instead of chicken.
And she’s had to seek out other resources to cover expenses she normally pays herself, like gas money for travel to medical appointments.
“I’m trying to shove the stress into the back of my mind and live life as normally as possible,” she said. “If this happens again, somebody should write a bill so that food stamps and housing will still be covered.”
The soonest anyone will get another food subsidy is in March, since recipients already have their February benefits, said Stowe. “Maybe, with everyone back to work, we’ll hear something by the end of the day,” she said.