Thousands of civilian federal-government employees throughout Washington state, including as many as 10,000 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, were sent home with the shutdown of the federal government Tuesday.
Critical services will remain operating — for now — but a prolonged shutdown would eventually affect government operations from building maintenance to the courts, according to local officials.
Joe Piek, director of communications at JBLM, said his office of nine was working with a skeleton crew of three, including the harried editor of the base newspaper “trying to keep civilians and their families advised of what’s happening.”
He said all nonessential civilian employees were sent home Tuesday without pay, with no guarantee of when they’d be back to work or whether they would collect the lost money retroactively.
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Piek did not have a specific number but said there were roughly 16,000 civilian employees on the base and up to 10,000 of them were “susceptible” to the shutdown. The others are essential or contract employees.
The Washington State Military Department announced that it was furloughing 850 federal civilian workers.
“These employees do everything from maintaining our vehicles and aircraft to fighting cyber attackers,” said Maj. General Bret Daugherty, commander of the Washington National Guard. Gov. Jay Inslee is still authorized to place Washington National Guard soldiers and airmen on active duty if there’s an emergency.
Jarring “lesson in civics”
The shutdown affected more than just federal employees. In Pioneer Square Tuesday, Jenny and Rohan Brooks, of Australia, and Franz and Barbara Reich, of Germany, stood in front of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and read the closure sign taped to a window.
The Brookses walked to the museum from Pike Place Market because friends had told them it was excellent — they just didn’t realize the shutdown would affect their vacation plans. They also were surprised the country was still locked in its budgetary stalemate, despite the dire consequences of its going on too long.
“The negative effects this could have — it just can’t justify anything,” said Jenny Brooks, 58. “There has to be a better way to resolve this.”
The Klondike park is one of 401 national parks closed by the shutdown. At Mount Rainier National Park, all visitor facilities, park hotels and roads — except for Highway 410, Highway 123 and park thruways — are closed. Instead of welcoming its average visitor population of 130,000 for October, the park will lose about $2,000 in entrance fees each day of the shutdown, and the National Park Service overall will lose about $450,000 daily.
Mount Rainier National Park visitors in all overnight facilities have been given until 6 p.m. Thursday to leave the park. Mount Rainier’s Paradise Inn, which until Monday was scheduled to end its 2013 season on Oct. 7, was notifying visitors to its reservations website that the inn is now closed until May.
A continued shutdown will also alter the field-trip plans of 35 eighth-grade students from Everett. After the St. Mary Magdalen School class spent 14 months planning every detail of a long-anticipated trip, they’ll be flying to Washington, D.C., Wednesday morning with a much different itinerary.
The school principal, Bruce Stewart, said they have had to cancel a private tour of the Capitol they arranged 12 months ago, as well as trips to the Holocaust and Smithsonian museums.
“This was something they thought they could count on, and now they can’t — what does that mean to them as American citizens?” Stewart said. “They’ve had a lesson in civics that they will not forget.”
Planning for the shutdown started on Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Piek said, when directors of every office on the base were “told to look at their mission and what their absolute essential requirements were.”
Some offices have shut down entirely. Others, like his, remain open with skeleton staffs “focusing on the life, health and safety” of the soldiers and workers and ensuring that military training and deployments are not interrupted.
Army Col. David Johnson, the head of I Corps public affairs at JBLM, said all military personnel were being paid and were on the job. Regardless, he said, JBLM would be affected.
“We rely on our Department of Defense civilians for a lot of stuff,” he said.
Like the military, the federal judiciary will stay open — at least for the time being. The U.S. courts, through a variety of fees and other cost-saving measures, have money to operate as usual for 10 business days, through Oct. 15.
“We will provide additional information if a shutdown continues beyond October 16, 2013. All court business will continue as scheduled, unless otherwise advised,” according to a posting on the website for U.S. District Courts in Western Washington. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Defender’s offices will remain open, but not without sacrifices.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said her office has focused on the most pressing issues and cases — priorities that she said would change from day to day.
The real toll has been on the support staff, some of whom were sent home Tuesday until the shutdown ends.
“We have to focus on the work that protects public safety, life and property,” she said.
According to a post on the Department of Justice website, criminal cases “will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property.”
Civil litigation “will be curtailed or postponed to the extent this can be done without compromising to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property,” the DOJ posting says.
Here is how the shutdown is affecting other operations:
• The park grounds at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard were closed at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and cyclists and walkers won’t have access to or through the park until funding is restored.
Vessel navigation will remain available through the locks, but reduced staffing could cause longer locking times.
• Department of Social and Health Services clients will continue to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Basic Food benefits through the end of October. Medicare, Medicaid and child-support payments are not affected at this time.
• Federal food-assistance programs in Washington state will likely have funding through at least October, according to nonprofit Food Lifeline. Food stamps, free or reduced-price school lunches and monthly boxes of food for seniors through Commodity Supplemental Food Program will be funded through October, and WIC (Women, Infants & Children) has funding now but could be cut if the state runs out of federal money.
• The federal Passport Agency (including the Seattle office) is processing applications. The agency is supported by user fees — what you pay to get a U.S. passport — so can keep going despite the federal-budget shutdown.
• Funds from Pell Grants, student loans, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and federal work-study programs will continue to be paid out during the shutdown, according to the University of Washington.
• Amtrak announced on its website that it would continue normal operation.
• Border checkpoints seemed to be operating at or near normal. At 11 a.m. Tuesday, traffic entering the United States at Blaine was backed up 30 minutes for I-5 alongside Peace Arch Park, and 20 minutes for Highway 543, the Pacific Crossing. There were no delays to enter the U.S. at Sumas, according to a British Columbia website. A Border Patrol spokesman in Seattle was off duty Tuesday due to the furlough.
• Air traffic controllers continue to work, but the FAA’s Aviation Safety Organization, a department of approximately 7,000 nationwide, reduced its staff to 310 Tuesday. The FAA said that if the furlough extended more than a few days, it would begin to recall as many as 2,500 employees, including safety inspectors, engineers and technical support staff to meet safety needs.
Mike Lindblom and Kristin Jackson, Seattle Times staff reporters, contributed to this report.