Federal shutdown affects employees, programs in Alabama

Talladega federal prison

Feeling like a “political pawn,” Takara Shelton reported to work Friday at the Federal Correctional Institution at Talladega.

“We’re upset, frustrated,” said Shelton, a cook foreman at the federal lockup. “We are coming to work, putting gas in our cars, keeping the public and the inmates safe, and we are not getting paid for it and don’t know when we will.”

Shelton is among more than 700 Alabama residents who are employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which operates three prisons in the state, and were supposed to be paid this weekend. But no pay is in sight for them because of the partial federal shutdown that began Dec. 22.

Alabama has about 50,000 federal workers, including post office employees, and an estimated 5,500 of them are on unpaid status because of the partial federal shutdown. Among the unpaid are employees of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Transportation and Homeland Security, plus a dozen smaller agencies.

Most of those who are not being paid are on furlough, meaning they are not working. These include 2,200 NASA employees in Huntsville and most of the employees of departments of Agriculture (1,028), Commerce (318) and Interior (149).

But the prison workers are among employees who are required to continue working – even though they are not being paid during the shutdown – in jobs that are deemed essential because they are safety and security related. These include employees of Transportation Security Administration, Federal Bureau of Prisons,and Department of Homeland Security.

Many Alabama federal employees are not subject to the shutdown because they work either with the Army (17,500 Alabama employees) or the Department of Veterans Affairs (6,300), both of which are covered by earlier funding agreements. Also, employees of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are not subject to the shutdown, and those services continue as usual.

Nationwide, about 420,000 federal employees continue to work in essential jobs, while 380,000 are on furlough. Congress on Friday agreed to provide back pay to furloughed workers once the shutdown ends, according to The Washington Post.

The partial shutdown became the nation’s longest ever on Jan. 12 at 22 days. Prompted by a standoff over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S. southern border, it has shuttered a number of federal offices around the state. It also threatens federally funded programs for home loans, low-income housing and SNAP, the food-assistance program used by more than 800,000 Alabama residents.

Blaming both sides in funding standoff

At the federal prison at Talladega, Shelton supervises inmates who prepare three meals a day for the 1,000-plus male inmates at the medium-security prison and its adjacent minimum-security satellite camp. She said the prison’s 300 employees are worried about how they will pay their bills and how long the shutdown will last.

Federal employees’ payday would normally be Jan. 17, with direct deposits hitting employee bank accounts on Friday or Saturday of the week before. Shelton said she and others are already feeling the economic strain.

“They – Congress and the president – are getting paid, and we are not. It’s not fair and it’s not right, and I’d want them to know how it feels to be in our shoes.

“Some people are putting up go-fund-me pages,” said Shelton, who is secretary of Local 3844 of the American Federation of Government Employees, Council of Prison Locals. “Others are using their savings or retirement savings or getting loans — things they shouldn’t have to do.”

At the Federal Correctional Institution at Aliceville, a prison in west Alabama that has more than 1,500 female inmates, case manager Angie Acklin said morale is low among the 300 employees.

“We all come to work, doing what we need to do, what we took an oath to do, and we are not getting paid,” said Acklin, who is vice president of the AFGE Council of Prisons Local 0573. “But Congress is coming to work and getting paid, but they are not doing their job.”

Acklin said she does not blame one side over the other for the standoff.

“I’m blaming both. I’m less concerned with a wall and more concerned about my wallet. I believe we need border security, but it seems like security should include hiring more officers in the solution. I know federal prisons are understaffed, too.”

Many employees in the federal prison system have spouses who also work with prisons or with other federal agencies affected by the shutdown, Acklin said. “They are not getting paid from either side.”

Many people live paycheck to paycheck, the case manager at FCI Aliceville said. Some do have some savings, “but we all have bills to pay.”  With the first missed paycheck, Acklin said, she is trying to reach out to creditors and is cancelling the auto pays – bills that would normally be paid automatically from her bank account. “There’s no check to auto pay from.”

“It’s a sad situation for a lot of staff members. People do not understand how this affects us. It’s hard,” said Acklin, whose job at the women’s prison includes case and program reviews with all inmates.

Alabama’s other federal prison is the Federal Prison Camp at Montgomery. Employees in charge of about 800 male inmates remain in shutdown mode, too, working without pay.

Loans, financing and technical assistance unavailable

The shutdown’s impact on federal services available in Alabama mirrors the situation nationwide, with many state and local offices of federal departments closed.

Alerts posted at the websites of some affected agencies acknowledge the impact of the shutdown with messages similar to this one on the home page of the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “This website will not be updated during a lapse in federal funding. Content on this website will not be current or maintained until funding issues have been resolved.”

Access to loans, financing and technical assistance provided by the Small Business administration, the Federal Housing Administration and rural development agencies is not available because of the shutdown. Departments that administer USDA loans and low-income housing programs are not being funded, causing ripple effects in home buying and federal housing benefits.

Locally, the Birmingham offices of the FBI and the Small Business Administration, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency office in Montgomery, have voice and website messages saying that they are closed and “we will respond to your message as soon as we are able to return to work.”

One exception to the closure of Agriculture Department offices is the National Resource Conservation Service, which assists farmers and landowners in conservation improvements.

Alabama state conservationist Ben Malone saidNRCS is among agencies that receive mandatory funding or have money that was appropriated in prior years and carried forward. “NRCS is in this category and is open for business.” Malone said.

While the U.S. Department of Transportation is affected by the shutdown, the Federal Highway Administration within that department is operating as usual. This agency funds many road and bridge projects.

Because this agency is funded separately through a Highway Trust Fund, the Federal Highway Administration is open and projects continue, according to an administration spokesperson. Current projects in Alabama, funded through the Federal Highway Administration and being managed by the Alabama Department of Transportation, are underway and continue. These include the replacement of the Interstate 59/20 bridges in downtown Birmingham.

SNAP funding for February

The political standoff over border security funding also threatens the availability of money for federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The program, managed by the Alabama Department of Human Resources with federal funds appropriated through the Agriculture Department, has funds for February benefits for 800,000 people in Alabama. Those payments are scheduled to be distributed by Jan. 20, The Montgomery Advertiser reported.

However, advocates say that any lapse in funding can cause disruption for the state’s most vulnerable populations. If the shutdown continues, “what is going to be a problem will turn into a catastrophe,” Carol Gundlach, a policy analyst for Alabama Arise, told the newspaper.

Government statistics show that one in six Alabamians depend on SNAP benefits to some degree. More than 70 percent of those who use them have children and 35 percent have family members who are elderly or have disabilities, according to the report. More than 25,000 Alabama veterans use the program.

Furlough pauses most immigration hearings

Since the shutdown, the nation’s immigration courts and proceedings are limited because of furloughed judges and staff members.

“The shutdown has prevented the majority of immigration cases from going forward,” said Jeremy Love, a Birmingham immigration attorney. “The only cases proceeding at this time are cases of detained immigrants.”

He said judges for other cases on furlough, and most cases are being postponed. “Right now, the backlog in immigration court is approximately three years, so all these cases will be added to the backlog,” Love said.

One case that particularly concerns Love, he said, involves an unaccompanied immigrant child, abandoned by his parents, who is eligible for permanent residence.

“Because of a recent Department of Homeland Security policy change, he can only request permanent residence by appearing in immigration court,” Love said. “His case is one of many at risk of being continued indefinitely. Without being able to appear in court, he has no way of pursuing the legal process of becoming a permanent resident.”

(Michelle Love contributed to this report.)