As shutdown drags on, bills start piling up for federal workers, tribes go without

grim reaper
U.S. Senate Majority Leader and self-described "grim reaper" Mitch McConnell. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the partial government shutdown hits nearly three weeks with no end in sight, households are about to go without paychecks, and tribal communities are shutting down services.

The shutdown began Dec. 21 after President Trump refused to sign a continuing resolution funding the government because it lacked $5.7 billion for his border wall. In a theatrical stunt, he walked out of negotiations with congressional leaders Wednesday. Some Senate Republicans say they are willing to break with Trump and vote for a resolution to keep the government open, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow a vote on anything without Trump’s approval.

If the shutdown goes beyond the weekend, it will surpass the 21-day record, set in 1995, for the longest shutdown. And the collateral damage includes people and communities who rely on federal funding for services as well as federal employees, approximately 800,000 nationally and an estimated 3,450 federal workers in Nevada.

“They says it’s only partial shutdown,” says says Andrew Perera, an administrator with the Yomba Shoshone Tribe. “Out here it feels like a complete shutdown.”

A little more than 100 tribal members live on the reservation about 50 miles east of Austin, Nev. The tribe has about 360 members altogether. Like most tribal communities in the United States, they get a substantial amount of funding from the federal government.

All 24 employees at the Yomba Shoshone Tribe — law enforcement officers, health professionals, maintenance staff — are paid through federal funding. Tribal financial reserves ran out after the first two weeks of the shutdown and all those employees have been furloughed since Monday.

“Our judicial department can’t hold court proceedings,” Perera says. “If pipes were to freeze, we have no employees to go fix it. We don’t have a community health representative to check on our elders and take their vitals.”

The tribe has other responsibilities, such as a requirement to submit monthly lab testing on its drinking water. “We will have to find a way to fund that,” Perera says.

“People ask why can’t our employees work,” he adds. “It would be irresponsible to require employees to work without a guarantee of when they would be getting a paycheck.”

The Walker River Paiute Tribe, which has a population of 900 people, is experiencing similar hardships. “People are enraged,” says Amber Torres, the chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe.

Torres says the Walker River Paiute Tribe is funded 95 percent through federal grants. “We are not a big casino tribe, so we don’t have any supplemental income coming in,” Torres says.

With almost 60 percent of the tribe unemployed, members rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and payments from the Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance program, which provides participants with cash for shelter, utilities and other basic needs. “People not able to work receive $183 a month (from the assistance program),” Torres says. “They are cut off from that program right now.”

If the government doesn’t open this week, Torres says the tribe will have to lay off 19 workers. Even if the government opens this week, the tribe will still have to repair from the harm inflicted by the shutdown. “We can’t just start over,” she says.

Working without pay as bills about to pile up

While many federal workers are furloughed, some employees, including Transportation Security Administration workers, are required to work without pay. Pay day was supposed to be this week for workers. Now they won’t get a paycheck until January 26 — assuming they get one then.

For Rebecca Esquivel and her Transportation Security Administration (TSA) colleagues at McCarran International Airport, paychecks missed this week should have included overtime and holiday pay from not one but two holidays.

This isn’t the first government shutdown Esquivel has had to endure — she has been with the TSA since 2006 and had to maneuver the 16-day shutdown in 2013.  “I actually thought it was going to happen,” she says. “I think I was more prepared this time around.”

Though she has more in her savings this time around, she just bought a house in August and has a new mortgage she has to worry about. “I’m OK for a little but, but this is still stressing me out,” she says. “The little money I have saved is going toward paying my bills.”

With the average TSA starting pay being around $30,000 per year, she knows not everyone has had a chance to save.

“You can barely survive on that, especially if you’re the head of a household and have a child or two,” she says. “There are people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck who can barely make it.”

What’s even more frustrating is the fact she still has to work without a paycheck — McCarran International Airport wasn’t sure how many TSA agents have called out during the shutdown, something other airports across the country have experienced, resulting in longer wait times.

Last week, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 44,000 TSA officers, sued the government for forcing employees to work without pay.

Steps to help people bridge the gap

There are resources available for federal workers having trouble paying bills. Locally, the United Labor Agency of Nevada provides rental and utility assistance and a food bank.

Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, executive director for the agency, says the organization has helped workers over the last 20 years who have fallen on hard times during layoffs or economic downturns. “We haven’t gotten a lot of referrals yet,” Carlton says. “By the end of this week, we may get more.”

Carlton has met with labor unions to let them know about the resources available for people in need. “They may not have needed to send a member or clients in a while so we are reminding them we are here in case people need it,” she says.

The City of North Las Vegas announced Monday that federal workers and contractors who receive water and sewer services from the city can get their utility payments deferred.

When the government reopens they can pay the owed balance without interest or penalties. But if customers have more than two late payments over the past year they are ineligible to participate.

“My job is to support and assist our residents, and if one government is making these people’s lives more difficult, our government will step in to help ease the burden,” Mayor John Lee said in a statement.

Some of the nation’s largest banks, including Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America, have offered payment assistance program or interest free loans — some have even said they’d reverse certain overdraft fees.

The United States Office of Personnel Management sent out sample letters that furloughed employees could send to creditors or landlords.

“Many of my coworkers laughed at the letter,” Esquivel says. She has heard some of her TSA coworkers complain that creditors won’t work with them.

Nevada U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto Wednesday announced her co-sponsorship of legislation to protect federal workers from foreclosures, evictions and loan defaults during the shutdown.

“Our public servants and their families shouldn’t be threatened with being thrown out of their homes because of a President who manufactured a crisis and shut down our government,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.

Meanwhile, services low-income communities rely on are funded — for now.

The Department of Agriculture recently announced funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will be guaranteed through February. Locally, Nevada officials have said they have about 90 days of reserves to fund Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 21 HUD project-based rental assistance contracts in Southern Nevada run out of funding in February.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

1 COMMENT

  1. Where are the enumerated powers in our United States Constitution whereby taxpayers given some $20-billion dollars per years to support the health, welfare, safety and benefits of a select group of 1.7-million enrolled tribal members with U.S./State citizens because of their “Indian ancestry/race” post passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924?
    “…and tribal communities are shutting down services.”

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