The bitter divide over President Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA) consumed Congress this week. An attempt to delay the implementation of the ACA was embedded in federal spending legislation, and as Congressional leaders batted bills between the House and Senate into the early hours Tuesday morning, the federal government shutdown took effect.
Here in Winona, at least one federal office was closing up shop on Tuesday morning: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) employees shuttered office doors and went home. The office in downtown Winona houses about 18 employees who work for the local FWS district, as well as for the FWS headquarters for its river unit covering a five-state area, and all workers there were furloughed. Only four FWS law enforcement officers are still in the field.
"All offices, boat landings, trails — any refuge facilities will be closed," said Winona FWS Refuge Manager Kevin Foerster, as he changed his voicemail Tuesday morning to state the same. "We can't work, can't volunteer, can't check voicemails or emails. We can't do anything," he explained. Upcoming FWS programming, such as educational events with area schools, canoe trips, and interpretive events, are cancelled.
Across the nation, all FWS refuges and national parks have also closed the gates, along with other federal agencies that have furloughed employees in nonessential positions.
The U.S. Postal Service is still up and running, and Social Security checks will still be mailed, although Social Security offices will only offer limited services during the shutdown. (See below.) Other federal agencies, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, receive project-based funding from the federal government, and are trying to make 2013 fiscal dollars last while keeping most operations going.
The Corps' St. Paul District Spokesperson Shannon Bauer said all Corps workers at the Fountain City, Wis., base were still working Tuesday, funded by project money from the agency's 2013 budget, as were dredge workers aboard the Dredge Goetz downstream in the Rock Island District. Dredge workers and those who operate the lock and dam systems are considered essential workers, she explained, and so even a prolonged shutdown will not mean those employees will be furloughed. At the Fountain City, Wis., base, however, maintenance and other kinds of employees could face furloughs if 2013 project money runs out. "Most of us are going to continue to work through the week and potentially into next week," she said. "As funding runs out, more and more workers will be furloughed."
"We know we work for the people of the United States; we very much appreciate having jobs," said Foerster, who said he was affected by the 1995 federal shutdown when he worked on the West Coast. "We know who we work for. This is part of being a public employee, at times. Unfortunately, we have a lot of employees who live paycheck to paycheck, and this is going to hurt."
One furloughed worker expressed frustration about the rift between federal leaders that led to the shutdown. "We shouldn't be held hostage. The point is to pass a budget to operate the government, not to discuss your differences and what you think of Obamacare."
According to the Social Security Administration's shutdown contingency plan, the following services will still be offered during the shutdown: applications for benefits (including appointments and some record corrections); requests for appeal; normal post-entitlement actions (change of address, supplemental security income living arrangement changes, non-citizen verification/changes, direct deposit, death inputs); non-receipts and critical payments; and payee changes.
The following services will be discontinued during the shutdown: original and replacement Social Security cards; benefit verifications; earnings record corrections and updates; requests from third parties for queries; request for Numi-lites (Social Security number verifications); Freedom of Information Act requests; public relations; and Medicare card replacement.