Ripple effect if impasse continues
Without paychecks, Pa. workers, some businesses in for tough times.
HARRISBURG —The federal shutdown is now in its 24th day, making it the longest closure in U.S. history.
The shutdown hit the record Saturday, one day after paychecks were supposed to go out to the federal government’s 1.2 million workers. Not all of them got paid, however, due to the cost and politics of building a wall along the nation’s southern border.
That gridlock means paychecks were not delivered to about 800,000 or 66 percent of the federal workforce.
About 420,000 employees are required to work without pay because they perform front-line security and safety jobs at the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, State, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce and Interior. Others are furloughed with no guarantee
they will get back pay.
How does the impasse affect Pennsylvanians who work for Uncle Sam?
Roughly 12 percent to 13 percent of the state’s 97,174 federal workers did not get paid, according to interviews and a Morning Call analysis of employment data at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. That equals 12,000 to 13,000 people — not including government contractors not getting paid, too.
“The general consensus where I work is you are just a pawn in the game of those [politicians] who work in D.C,” said Lisa Thomas, who is working without pay as a recreation specialist at Allenwood federal prison in Union County. “They don’t think about us.”
It began with Trump’s Dec. 22 decision to partially close the government when Congress did not allocate $5.7 billion to build a wall along the Mexican border as he requested. Democrats, who took control of the U.S. House this month, refused his request, leaving some agencies without money. The Republican-controlled Senate, so far, has pleaded for compromise, because Trump has threatened to veto bills that do not contain wall money.
The shutdown’s exact financial impact in the households of federal workers could not be determined for each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. L&I data list aggregate employment data by public and private sector, not by individual government agencies or businesses. So it’s unclear exactly how many federal workers — including the 5,170 who reside in the Lehigh Valley and Poconos — are working or are furloughed without pay.
One thing is certain, however. When the federal government is the biggest or one of the biggest employers in town, a freeze on pay has a ripple effect. The impact on some counties will be worse than others when those workers cut back on purchases or get into financial trouble with their mortgage, rent and credit card payments if the shutdown continues for months or years as Trump warned.
In Pennsylvania, the average federal salary is $74,249 compared to the overall statewide salary average of $62,657, according to L&I and U.S. Census records.
In Lehigh County, there are just 858 federal workers, so low Uncle Sam is not a top 10 employer, based on L&I records. The federal government is the 10th biggest employer in Northampton County with 1,072 workers.
Uncle Sam is the top employer in six counties — Butler, Cumberland, Franklin, Lebanon, Luzerne and Monroe. Most of those counties also are home to military installations, which are funded by the Department of Defense through a different federal flow of money.
The federal government is the number two employer in Union and York counties at 1,568 and 4,227, respectively.
It’s the third-ranking employer in Philadelphia (29,759) and Allegheny County (12,903). It’s the fifth highest (680) in Adams County, home of Gettsyburg National Military Park.
Small businesses are a staple of rural communities and they rely on repeat customers to stay in business, said Chad D. Meyerhoefer, a Lehigh University economics professor. If federal employees in those communities don’t have money to spend, those businesses are going to suffer more than businesses in cities and suburbs, he said.
“There’s going to be a heterogeneous effect across counties,” Meyerhoefer said. “Even major cities can be hurt by this but their flexibility to adapt is [easier] than rural counties and that’s what the difference is.”
A lot of the workers going without pay are conservative voters and supported Republican candidates of the House in their narrow election wins in November, said Philip Glover, leader of the American Federation of Government Employees. Those GOP congress members and Trump will need those voters in 2020, he added.
Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, needs to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to vote on the Democratic House’s funding package or face the possibility of losing union support in 2022, Glover added, especially considering Democratic Sen. Bob Casey’s wide margin of victory in November.
“We have a lot of conservative voters in the middle of Pennsylvania and they are not supportive of not getting a paycheck,” Glover said.
Toomey, of Zionsville, has a tight relationship with most federal unions. He co-wrote a bipartisan bill, now law, to reduce taxes on retiring federal law enforcement officers. He also spearheaded a bill that passed into law to allow federal correctional officers to carry firearms to and from work.
“There is a deal to be made here given that Senate Democrats repeatedly supported billions for this objective prior to President Trump’s election,” said Toomey’s spokesman, Bill Jaffee.
On Thursday, a group of state Senate Democrats sent a letter to banks asking them to give federal workers a reprieve on their mortgages and other bills while the shutdown is in effect.
Asking for leniency doesn’t work, said Thomas, the prison worker. She said she tried it on the advice of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
“Creditors said they didn’t want to hear it,” Thomas said.
If the shutdown continues, the effects will only get worse for nongovernment workers, said Meyerhoefer, the economist. Private companies and universities could lay off employees if they are unable to apply for new federal contracts and grants as part of their research and operations.
“It’ll be a delayed effect,” he said.
THE MORNING CALL An interactive map showing the number of federal workers in each county is at themorningcall.com.