What Mainers Need To Know About The Partial Government Shutdown

Jan 15, 2019

As the partial government shutdown continues, its effects on states are becoming more and more apparent, and are likely to become broader if it goes on for any length of time.

Maine’s tourist industry has been feeling the pain, as we reported last week, and the state’s burgeoning beer industry is also suffering. The Small Business Administration stopped processing new loans on Dec. 22.

For the rest of us, here are a few of the ways our state is feeling it, and some of the ways federal employees and others can get help during what’s likely a difficult time.

According to the most recent data available, there are 15,344 federal employees in Maine, including postal workers. Of those, about 800 are active-duty military, mostly in the Coast Guard.

In Maine, the top three federal employers, outside of the military and the post office, are the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.

Since the military has already received its funding appropriation, active military aren’t affected by the shutdown. Neither are employees of Education, Energy, Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor, Veterans Affairs and some others — a full list can be found here.

However, the Coast Guard is part of Homeland Security, which is part of the shutdown. So Maine’s hundreds of Coast Guard members are affected.

The Postal Service and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. aren’t reliant on federal funding, so no shutdown there.

Agencies that don’t have their funding sorted out for next year include the USDA, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and several others. Right now, those agencies — which have contingency plans for just such an event — are partially open using money left over from last year’s appropriation, and some say they’ll have to furlough more employees if the shutdown continues.

In Maine, 11 percent of federal employees — 1,195 people — work for those agencies. Those employees may be eligible to receive unemployment insurance.

In a statement, a Maine Department of Labor Acting Commissioner Laura Fortman said unemployment claims from affected Mainers would be processed as quickly as possible. She says people with claims should call 1-800-593-7660 for help.

If federal employees do receive unemployment benefits, however, they may have to pay it back later if the federal government comes through with their pay for the period of the shutdown. But it may be worth it for many people who don’t have the cash on hand to cover their bills during the shutdown.

It seems likely that those employees will eventually get paid. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office announced that a bill she co-sponsored to ensure federal workers affected by the shutdown receive retroactive pay has passed the Senate. A similar bill has passed the House, and Collins’ office says President Donald Trump has said he’ll sign the bill into law.

And those “essential” employees in the agencies that haven’t been funded? They’re not getting paid right now, either, although they probably will be later.

Most federal employees’ health insurance will continue during the shutdown.

But if you’re not a federal employee, what the shutdown means for you depends on how much you use the federal programs that are woven through many aspects of life in Maine.

Added Jan. 15, 2019, 5:50 p.m.: Richard Brzozowski with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension said on Maine Calling Tuesday that the shutdown means Maine farmers are missing out on technical assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

"So advice on whether it's engineering or how to set up stuff on their own farm, you know, whether it's storage area or manure storage or things like that," he said.

And Brzozowski says farmers are also unable to get loans through the Farm Service Agency.

Social service programs

People who use programs administered by Health and Human Services — like Medicare and Medicaid, Temporary Assistance For Needy Families or TANF, the Heating and Energy Assistance Program or HEAP, and Head Start — won’t see immediate effects.

But according to Community Concepts CEO Shawn Yardley, it’s still a concern. Community Concepts administers HEAP and Head Start in Androscoggin County, and Yardley says when there’s any break in federal services, vulnerable people can be hurt.

For example, although the Trump administration has said the IRS, which is mostly closed, will give people tax refunds during the shutdown, it’s not actually clear if this will happen. Many low-income people depend on their refunds to make ends meet, and Yardley says not getting a refund could create a cascade of need that would create more demand for the services Community Concepts provides.

He says as the shutdown goes on, the organization may have to reach into its reserves and maybe even take out a loan, which would cost it money in interest.

Added Jan. 14, 2019, 6:49 p.m.: Maine's chief federal judge announced today that as of Friday, the federal courts in Maine will be out of money. They're still required by federal law to operate (that is, process new and pending civil, criminal and bankruptcy cases), but, as Chief Judge John Levy told us, "we'll be doing it with fewer people, and fewer resources."

Housing

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is one of the agencies most affected by the shutdown, and one of the agencies that are most woven into the everyday lives of Americans.

Right now, HUD is very close to entirely closed, and that means it’s not completing the loans it usually offers to help people buy homes. These include Federal Housing Administration loans, which are designed to help people buy or improve their homes and enable some first-time buyers to get a home they might not be able to afford otherwise.

HUD’s closure also means funding for rental assistance for low-income families, older people and people with disabilities, known as Section 8, has or will soon expire, which puts families at risk of eviction. More than 3,800 Maine families use Section 8.

House Democrats have launched an investigation claiming HUD has mishandled the shutdown.

Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs is still issuing loans under its housing programs, because the agency has been fully funded for FY19.

Many lenders also rely on the IRS for income verification for mortgages — that agency is also closed.

Travel

Added Jan. 14, 2019, 6:35 p.m.: Federal employees missed their first paycheck on Friday, and airports around the country are reporting longer waits and some terminal closures, as TSA agents (who are working without pay) haven't come to work. In Maine, the union that represents the agents says things are getting tough. Gabriel Pedreira with the American Federation of Government Employees district office for New York and New England says the average TSA agent only makes about $35,000, and that's not enough to live without a payday for long. But at the Portland Jetport, at least, there haven't been any delays or issues so far.

The Transportation Security Administration has kept on TSA agents, air traffic controllers and customs and immigration officials as essential personnel. There haven’t been any reports of slowdowns at Maine’s airports, but there have been reports around the country of agents calling in sick so they can go to other jobs.

All of this could mean delays for travelers, and although airports are taking steps to avoid this, it could affect safety.

The union that represents the air traffic controllers at Portland’s Jetport says that important trainings have been put on hold, and that this shutdown is exacerbating what’s already an ongoing staffing crisis.

More resources

Parents who are affected by the shutdown can apply for free or reduced-price meals through their local school district.

The Good Shepherd Food Bank has food pantries around the state.

Some credit unions and banks in Maine are offering loans and other services for employees who aren’t getting paid during the shutdown. For example, Town and Country Credit Union in South Portland is offering loan deferments and low-interest “furlough loans.” And Down East Credit Union is offering similar loans, payroll advances and other services.

How have you been affected by the shutdown? Please email us with your experience, at nflaherty@mainepublic.org.

Originally published Jan. 11, 2019, at 3:36 p.m.