The Ripple Effect of the U.S. Government Shutdown


D.C. with trash D.C. with trash
Trash has accumulated along the National Mall in D.C. because of the partial shutdown of the federal government. The shutdown has continued for more than two weeks as Congress and Trump disagree on funding for a border wall. Win McNamee/Staff/Getty Images

No matter how long the current U.S. federal government shutdown lasts — or, in an optimistic view, how quickly it's over — people are going to be affected. They always are. They always have been. They, realistically speaking, always will be, every time the federal government throws a fiscal hissy fit.

Some 800,000 U.S. federal workers have been feeling the pinch of Washington politics since the wheels of government ground to a halt Dec. 22, 2018, after Congress failed to pass a federal spending budget. The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) workers at the airport, the park rangers in the National Park Service (NPS), the docents in the Smithsonian, the prison guards, some FBI agents, the tax man at the IRS are all affected (among others). Many of those 800,000 continue to work without pay (though they can expect to get paid once Congress and the president get their stuff together). Many others — hundreds of thousands — are forced to go on unpaid leave, not working at all. They may never be paid for the missed time.

To think that those who rely on the federal government for a paycheck, though, are the only ones that get rolled in these shutdowns is flat out wrong.

Caught in the Middle

Consider, for one example, Springdale, Utah (population somewhere just shy of 600), which sits on State Route 9 at the south entrance to Zion National Park. It is a town almost completely reliant on tourists trekking to Zion. And, yes. The residents there are worried.

Most who visit Zion to take in its stunning red rocks and breathtaking canyons — more than 4 million people went in 2017, making it the third most-visited park in the nation, behind only the Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon national parks — roll northward through Springdale. They stay in the town's couple-dozen hotels and inns, and eat at its restaurants, explore the back country via Jeeps and helicopters, and hike the trails and canyons with experienced guides.

Every business owner, every front-desk worker, every housekeeper, every guide, and every local in town has a stake in the most recent shutdown, now the third-longest in history, and soon could become the longest ever.

"It's sad that there are a lot of families that work at the hotel, families that are reliant on that business and for us to have enough people visiting ... They need those hours," says Gillian Trammell, the guest services and group coordinator at the Desert Pearl Inn in Springdale. "But from the hotel's point of it, if our occupancy is really low, how can we afford to staff it? We're really lucky the owner of the Desert Pearl really does care about our employees. It hasn't impacted our staffing so much. But you never know. It is projected to be a very long shutdown, unfortunately."

This is the slow season for Zion, but Trammell — and you'd have to guess others in other businesses in Springdale — is fielding calls from potential visitors about how the shutdown is affecting the park. If things are bad, simply put, they don't want to come. Reservations already have been canceled. Business is down. It may not be the worst case yet. But it soon could be.

"If tourists don't come, that affects our budget," Springdale mayor Stan Smith told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, pointing out that business taxes fuel the city's $5 million budget. "Where do I start cutting?"

Zion, luckily, is still open, unlike some parks across the nation. (On Jan. 2, campsites at Joshua Tree National Park closed because toilets reached capacity.) That's because several local entities — including the nearby city of St. George, Washington County, the Utah Department of Tourism and the Zion National Park Forever Project — have chipped in to provide money for some basic services.

But Zion during this shutdown isn't at its best. The park's popular shuttle buses, as of Jan. 5, are not running. And future funding for even limited services, despite an unprecedented move from NPS to unlock some money collected from entrance fees, is far from guaranteed, and controversial.

Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association released a statement on Jan. 6 in response to the NPS decision to release funds:

"National parks were already struggling before this government shutdown, operating with fewer staff and smaller budgets to sustain our parks. Rather than giving parks the funding they need, the president proposed slashing the parks' budget, which would have cut thousands of ranger positions. Now he wants to pilfer from entrance fees, depleting these badly needed resources to the point of wiping them out entirely."

Others Feeling the Squeeze

Then there are those who work at government facilities, like parks and museums, but are not government employees. They work for contractors who, if the government's not paying them, can't pay their workers. From Buzzfeed:

"Government employees usually receive back pay once shutdowns have concluded, but workers who are paid by companies that have contracts with the government don't receive pay for services that can't be billed to the government while facilities are shut down."

That can cause some major financial strain for many low-wage workers. "This is going to turn into a dire situation shortly," D. Taylor, the international president of labor union Unite Here, told Buzzfeed. "We're dealing with people that are going to be faced with going to public assistance. They're worried about rent, food, bill payments, and it's not like our folks are living exorbitant lifestyles."

Even those civil servants who do work for the government can only hold out so long without paychecks. TSA officers across the country, for instance, are required to work without pay during the shutdown, though many have reportedly been calling in sick in protest. Captain Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) sent Donald Trump a letter on Jan. 2, urging him to end the shutdown because DePete warned it is "adversely affecting the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system."

And it only gets worse. The federal government also helps find lenders for all sorts of people, too, but with the shutdown, money is near impossible to come by. That affects many not on government payrolls. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's "new rural development loans and grants for housing, community facilities, utilities and businesses" have been stopped. The Small Business Administration is inactive, according to its Facebook page. Even the IRS is closed in the midst of tax season, meaning people's tax returns aren't processed and their tax refunds could likely be delayed, as well.

Is there an end in sight? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said the House already passed bipartisan legislation to reopen federal agencies, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won't bring any bill to the Senate floor that Trump won't sign. And Trump, who will address the nation tonight from the Oval Office for the first time in his presidency, is threatening to declare a national emergency to build the wall without approval from Congress.

So there may not be an end in sight, but there is one big lesson we've all learned during these government shutdowns (other than Congress and the president still get paid) and that is they hurt a lot of people outside the government.