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Fed workers cope with record shutdown

January 12, 2019 GMT

As a longtime employee of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, David Cernicek has endured government shutdowns before. Despite that familiarity, this shutdown is causing far more unease for the forest’s river ranger.

“Most of them feel like they’re going somewhere toward resolution, and everyone on both sides of the fence have a goal of getting us back to work,” Cernicek said. “But there’s a sort of general feeling out there that this is very different.”

That’s frustrating for Cernicek, who said his views are his own and do not represent his employer or colleagues.

“We’re sort of hostages attached to an issue that really doesn’t involve us,” he said. “We’re not connected to a border wall. This is just collateral damage.”

The stalemate in Washington, D.C., that has about 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay nationwide stretched into a record 22nd day Saturday, surpassing an impasse that shuttered the government in late 1995 and early ’96.

An estimated 300 Teton County residents draw paychecks from the federal government, and not all of those workers have money squirreled away to sustain the blow of direct deposits that don’t arrive. According to the Office of Personnel Management FedScope database and Bureau of Labor statistics, Wyoming has the fifth-highest number of federal workers impacted by the shutdown behind Washington, D.C., Alaska, Maryland and Montana.

The loss of paychecks is particularly problematic for families that earn two incomes from the federal government. Cernicek and his wife, Mary, fall into that camp, supporting themselves and their daughter, Petra, with two Forest Service jobs.

Bracing for the unknown, the couple this week filed for unemployment through the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to have a fallback of up to $1,000 a week.

“Mine went through flawlessly, but for some reason David’s was hung up,” Mary Cernicek said. “I had a 1-hour, 56-minute hold time. I thought that either the state wasn’t ready for this kind of influx and was understaffed or there are just too many people flooding the system.”

The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services is seeing an “uptick” in residents applying for unemployment. The department has had roughly 673 federal employee claims filed since Dec. 23, according to spokesperson Ty Stockton.

“The week after Christmas and the week we got back, it was swamped,” he said.

A voicemail informs callers that wait times will “surpass an hour” and Stockton acknowledged a glitch was kicking people off hold. He encouraged those interested in filing for unemployment to do so online at www.wyui.wyo.gov and said he hopes an unemployment check will help bridge the gap, even though it will need to be paid back.

Jay Pistono, the Teton Pass Ambassador, said he’s working without pay. But as he continues to carry out the dirty work of emptying trash cans full of dog poop, he’s hurting financially.

“I really don’t think a lot of folks realize how many folks live paycheck to paycheck, especially here,” Pistono said.

He called the offices of Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi on Thursday.

“I said, ‘Is there any way I can text you a picture of my bank statement so you can see how real it is?’ ” Pistono said.

A staffer told him his bank statement wasn’t their responsibility. But nine U.S. senators, including Barrasso and Enzi, introduced legislation Friday to permanently prevent future federal government shutdowns, according to a press release.

“Shutting down the government, even partially, never benefits anyone,” Barrasso said in the release. “Americans shouldn’t have to suffer uncertainty or go without a paycheck because Congress failed to fund the government.”

The End Government Shutdowns Act would keep the government open when budget negotiations break down by automatically continuing funding to programs for which a budget has not been approved by the Oct. 1 deadline.

If the government fails to enact spending bills after 120 days, the programs’ budgets would be reduced by 1 percent, and by another 1 percent every 90 days after that until Congress finishes the appropriations process.

Luckily for Pistono, his former employer, the nonprofit Friends of Pathways, is helping somewhat pad the lack of paycheck. In addition, some attendees of a Keep Teton Pass Open community event Wednesday night said they wanted to steer some raffle proceeds to Pistono, too. But he’ll soon be in the negative again.

“When you miss your first check, that’s one thing,” Pistono said. “But when you miss two? If I wasn’t getting help from my friends, a few buddies with loans, the repossession man would have my truck. You gotta pay that mortgage.”

For David Cernicek, working unpaid isn’t allowed. He even received a Forest Service reminder that violating the rules can trigger a $5,000 fine and even prison time.

On social media and around town, both Cerniceks have heard unwelcome jokes about their involuntary time out of the office.

“The hardest thing that I have heard is, ‘How are you enjoying your vacation?’ ” Mary Cernicek said. “That stings like nobody’s business. It’s not a vacation. There’s nothing relaxing about this.”

— Cody Cottier contributed to this report.