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Jan. 29, 2023

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Clark County federal employees anxiously await shutdown news

If there's no D.C. deal by the end of the week, the partial government shutdown will resume

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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The United States Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory is one of the Clark County federal sites hard hit during government shutdowns.
The United States Geological Survey Cascades Volcano Observatory is one of the Clark County federal sites hard hit during government shutdowns. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

A looming deadline that would again close the federal government has created some white knuckles in Clark County, where both federal workers and ordinary citizens are still in recovery mode from the first shutdown.

If lawmakers in Washington, D.C. fail to strike a deal by Friday evening, the partial government shutdown that lasted 35 days and delayed paychecks to 800,000 federal workers will resume.

“We’re still waiting — I was just looking at the news to see what the latest is,” said Sam Tunes, administrative officer at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver.

With 80 employees, the observatory was one of the hardest-hit operations in Clark County during what became the longest government shutdown in the country’s history. Last month, Tunes told The Columbian that his wife had gone back to work when he was furloughed on Dec. 21. The couple had to scramble to find child care for their 2-year-old when the government reopened Jan. 25, abruptly calling him back to work.

“A lot of times, we find out at the same time as everybody else,” Tunes said. “As far as we know right now, there’s no appropriations in place.”

The last shutdown, by the numbers

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$584,847

Lost wages per week for Clark County workers, according to a county-by-county study from the Washington Employment Security Department following the last federal government shutdown.

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$2.92 million

Total wage loss over the course of the five-week shutdown.

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3,398

Federal jobs in Clark County, employing about 0.7 percent of the population.

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333

Estimated number of employees who were directly impacted by the shutdown and would be again if the government were to close once more.

These figures did not count the Clark County residents who commute to Portland for federal government jobs. The study also didn't account for the private government contractors impacted by the shutdown, who unlike furloughed government employees did not receive back pay.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the outlook looked optimistic but wobbly. President Donald Trump had expressed that he wanted to avoid a second shutdown over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, though he was dissatisfied by a bipartisan border deal that fell more than $4 billion short of his initial demand for wall funding.

According to The New York Times, the president had suggested that he was eyeing the deal with some skepticism and that his White House aides would be “looking for land mines” when it scoured the legislative text.

The Ridgefield, Steigerwald Lake and Pierce national wildlife refuges in Clark County employ about a dozen staffers facing a second furlough. Brent Lawrence, a public affairs officer for the National Wildlife Refuge System, said refuges are following guidance from the Department of Interior on how to prepare for a potential government shutdown, again.

“It’s all very similar to the last time,” Lawrence said. “There’s always maintenance stuff, whether it’s working fields or various facilities. … Of course, those would have to be caught up on in the event of a shutdown.”

A second shutdown could also prove a headache for people in the private sector who still need to access services run by federal agencies.

Regulatory quagmire

Bryan Shull, co-founder of Vancouver’s Trap Door Brewing, told The Columbian on the one-month anniversary of the shutdown that he was struggling to obtain federal approval for new beer can labels. Although the government has reopened, at least temporarily, the backlog is still so bad that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau functionally feels closed to craft brewers trying to get their packaging OK’d.

“The reality for all of us is pretty similar to during the shutdown,” Shull wrote in an email. “We have received notice from the agency of their commitment to redirect staff to address this, and I believe they are doing their best.”

In order to cross state lines, beer labels need to be approved by the federal agency.

“The TTB website posts a projected backlog time of 48 days, today. Approvals used to be within 10 days,” Shull wrote.

Trap Door had an appointment with a traveling cannery booked about six months in advance, Shull said. Though still waiting on federal approval of its new labels, the business went ahead with its appointment. But now the onus is on the brewery to make sure that unapproved labels don’t leave Washington (the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, which was unaffected by the shutdown, has approved the cans for sale within the state).

“We did not reschedule our canning dates, we just have to keep unapproved labels in WA state to be compliant with federal law, which is still an impediment to our business strategy and adversely affects our profits,” Shull wrote.

A second government shutdown could worsen the backlog, Shull worries. He was already concerned about how the first shutdown might have impacted the timeline on his next project, a satellite Trap Door Brewing taproom in Ridgefield scheduled to open in spring 2020.

Playing catch-up

In both the public and private sectors, people are still playing catch-up from the first time around. Tunes said that at the volcano observatory, he’s still so caught up in making up for the lost month that he barely had the headspace to consider a second encroaching shutdown.

“I’m speaking more for myself here, (but) we’re kind of focused so much on the work itself that we don’t spend enough time thinking about where we’re going to be in two weeks,” Tunes said.

In the meantime, staff at the CVO are doing what they can to keep from getting caught off guard by a shutdown sequel, Tunes said. There’s a checklist — employees need to update their time cards, send all their formal letters and correspondences, and ensure that all of their collaborators outside of the federal government know that the CVO staff might soon be furloughed. Last time, they dropped down to a skeleton crew of about 20 part-time people working essential operations only. Longer-term products and research stalled.

Then there’s the housekeeping stuff.

“Simple things like emptying the fridge. Things like that. Taking your plants home,” Tunes said.

“We’re definitely preparing for it. It’s such an uncertain thing. It’s kind of hard to convey the feeling,” he continued. “I think we’re worried it might be another long one.”

Calley Hair: 360-735-4558; calley.hair@columbian.com. Twitter: twitter.com/calleynhair

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Columbian staff writer