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First Floods, Now Furloughs Take A Bite Out Of Boulder’s Wallet

Grace Hood
Hundreds of federal lab workers are fuloughed on the U.S. Department of Commerce Boulder Labs campus.

Hundreds of Colorado federal lab workers including two Nobel Prize recipients are furloughed during the government shutdown. Other university and contract workers are shut out of federal buildings and labs.

The interruption of scientific research and transition to new workspaces is having an impact on the local economy. The change is perhaps most clear near the U.S. Department of Commerce Boulder labs, which includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
No deliveries at NIST during the government shutdown. Only essential employees are allowed in the building for work right now.

“Right now I think everyone’s just watching the news and crossing their fingers,” said Alexander MacDonald, director of the Earth System Research Lab at NOAA.

A Trickle Down Effect

The U.S House of Representatives has passed a bill ensuring that furloughed workers receive back pay. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate.

The uncertainty means that furloughed lab workers like Research Chemist Andy Langford are spending more time close to home and avoiding expendable purchases like restaurant meals.

“I suspect like a lot of people, my credit card is going to see a lot of action here in the coming weeks until things get resolved,” said Langford.

Restaurants like May Wah in south Boulder near both NOAA and NIST are already starting to feel the pinch. They’ve seen a 50 percent decrease in lunch business since the shutdown started.

“For a month, we can handle it, but I think longer we have to figure out something,” Manager Megan Loi said.

Once a lunch is skipped, it’s not something people will go back and buy later.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Megan Loi greets customers at May Wah in Boulder. “The traffic is a lot quieter. We haven’t seen any of our regular customers for the last week.”

A few doors down, Anthony Goffredo, barber and owner of Everybody’s Hair, says students returning to the nearby University of Colorado campus have helped offset some of his lost business. He’ll hit the panic button if the shutdown continues through the end of October.

“It’s a big portion of our economy here. And it will trickle through everywhere,” Goffredo said.

Broad Impacts, Uncertain Future

Economic activity associated with Boulder federal labs totaled more than $743 million in fiscal year 2012 [pdf]. That includes everything from salaries to operating expenses and rent.

“We notice that employees live in a majority of the counties in Colorado,” University of Colorado-Boulder LEEDS School of Business Research Associate Brian Lewandowski said. “So as the wages get turned off during a government shutdown, those wage impacts are felt much more broadly.”

Lewandowski says the longer the shutdown continues, the deeper the impact could be.

"As the wages get turned off during a government shutdown, those wage impacts are felt much more broadly."

The National Ecological Observatory Network is a nonprofit that relies solely on National Science Foundation dollars. Chief operating officer Krista Laursen says her organization is continuing operations through October. But beyond that?

“If the government shutdown continues beyond midnight of Oct. 31, then NEON will need to furlough employees,” Laursen said.

That’s also when construction of a new $430 million climate change observatory would grind to a halt — meaning more negative trickle down for restaurants, construction workers, and barbers.

It’s yet another reason why scientists and businesses here are hoping for a swift end to the budget impasse.

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