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Colorado Feels The Shutdown: How Workers, Farmers Are Faring

Mummy Range, Rocky Mountain National Park
Mark Jarvis
Flickr Creative Commons
Mummy Range, Rocky Mountain National Park

Thornton resident Jennifer Hubby is worried about paying her family's mortgage on time.

Her wife, a former Army medic, gets a monthly housing and education stipend from her GI Bill. Hubby said it's "very unclear" what's going to happen to that income as the shutdown — now on its 20th day — drags on.

"That's $2,600 a month of income for us that we may or may not get and there's no communication because they shut down the (customer service) offices," she said.

Hubby is not alone in feeling the anxiety amping up. The partial shutdown, nearing historic length, has had wide-ranging effects on people living in Colorado.

A statement on the Department of Veterans Affairs' website says the agency's main operations are unaffected by the partial shutdown. But Hubby said she has tried for several days and can't get a straight answer from the VA benefits hotline about her family's stipend.

"It's like this looming, ominous feeling," she said. "I can't call and ask questions because their customer service is out."

Hubby, a former teacher and stay-at-home mom, said she is considering looking for full-time work to make up the potential slack.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 furloughed federal workers have applied for unemployment assistance with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

National Park Shutdown Affects Local Businesses

In Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park is still open but basically inaccessible to the general public. Roads are unplowed. Bathrooms are shuttered and emergency services remain limited.

Amy Hamrick is the owner of Kind Coffee in Estes Park. She said the effects of the shutdown have been playing out in her shop.

"The morale feels really low right now," she said.

Hamrick said business is taking a slight hit with fewer people visiting Rocky. And furloughed park service employees who live in town are stopping by in droves to commiserate.

"And we're like, 'Hey, can we buy your coffee today?'" she said. "It's a small town so we all know each other and kind of know if someone's in a position that's directly affected."

John Nicolas, president of the Estes Park Economic Development Corporation, said he's worried the shutdown will have a chilling effect on hotel reservations for the summer, the town's busiest season for tourists.

"If (the shutdown) influences people's decisions about summer bookings, they may see softening in bookings and it might be because people are thinking 'Well, the national park is shut down so let's think about other things,'" he said.

Denver Airport Security Personnel Work Without Pay

Transportation Security Administration workers at Denver International Airport are working without pay, but airport operations are running smoothly.

Emily Williams, DIA spokeswoman, said reported mass TSA worker "sick-outs" haven't manifested and security wait times have been normal.

"We're really grateful for them coming to work every day and ensuring that we continue to stay normal in terms of operations," she said.

Food Stamps May Run Out Of Funding In Extended Shutdown

Around 40 million low-income Americans rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program every month to put food on the table.

Funding for SNAP, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was set to expire at the end of 2018. This week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that he found a way to fund the program through February.

"It works and it's legally sound. We want to ensure states and SNAP recipients that the benefits for February will be provided," he said.

However, should the shutdown stretch into March, the USDA could not say how it would find additional money. Officials estimate the program costs about $4.8 billion per month.

Food Safety Inspections Continue With Fewer Workers

An estimated 1,027 fewer USDA food safety inspectors are on the job after five days of the shutdown. About 8,000 inspectors continue to work without pay, carrying out services considered essential to public safety, like overseeing animal slaughter plants and egg farms to keep contaminated goods out of grocery stores.

Federal Payments To Farmers Delayed

It may not be planting season for Colorado farmers, but that doesn't mean they aren't relying on USDA services.

Paul Schlagel with the Colorado Sugarbeet Growers Association is a fourth generation sugar beet farmer. He explained that sugar beet factories, which are collectively owned by the farmers, use loans from the USDA to pay farmers before their sugar sells. He said January's payments have already been made but if this shutdown continues, it's not clear how they'll fill that gap in funding.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC, Harvest Public Media
KUNC, Harvest Public Media
Sugar beet farmers are paid by USDA loans until their sugar sells.

"We may have to pull some money from a lender, you know, an alternate lender to make payments if we can't continue to get those loans," he said.

Schlagel and many other commodity farmers are also getting anxious about data. Normally the USDA compiles reports, such as the WASBE, to help farmers understand the current market. It's how they know what price to expect for their products and how much they should plant in the coming spring.

Dave Eckhardt, president of the Colorado Corn Growers Association, farms several crops, including wheat and corn. He said farming without that USDA data is like watching a pressure cooker that's ready to pop open.

"You think it's one thing, it comes out another and you explode one direction or another on price. So that's extremely concerning," he said.

Before the shutdown, a trade war was brewing between the U.S. and other countries, namely China. President Trump promised to pay farmers for the millions of dollars in losses they suffered, but Farm Service Agencies are closed and for some those payments are delayed.

Farmer Jeff Self, also with the Colorado Corn Growers Association, said he received his payment already, but for his fellow farmers caught in a bind, his advice is to hang in there. He believes President Trump will act before the situation for farmers gets any worse.

"I think he realized that middle America got him elected. He's gonna have to do something. What he does, I don't know," he said.

Two days before the shutdown, Congress and the Trump administration passed a $867 billion farm bill which funds everything from ag research to safety net programs. However, none of those updates can implemented until the government reopens its doors.

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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