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Weathering the shutdown: Federal employees in state balance work, worry

January 4, 2019

Kerry Jones, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque, is going to work as usual. But because of the ongoing government shutdown, he doesn’t know when his next paycheck is coming.

“We still have to work,” Jones said in a recent interview. “But we may not be seeing a paycheck for some time.”

Employees of the Weather Service — part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce — are considered essential employees, Jones said. But its workers won’t be paid, he said, until President Donald Trump and Congress end a budget impasse.

“We’re guaranteed our paychecks,” he said of his agency. “But still, it could be a month from now, I don’t know. Meantime, we still have mortgage payments, vehicle payments, credit card payments. … These things don’t stop even though the government is shut down.”

Jones is among thousands of federal employees in New Mexico affected by the partial closure of the federal government that began Dec. 22. The Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and advocacy organization, recently published a report saying that more than 5,800 federal workers in New Mexico are affected by the shutdown.

Major federal agencies in the state include the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Park Service and the Department of Homeland Security.

Bill McCamley, secretary designate of the state Workforce Solutions Department, said Wednesday that more than 100 federal employees have applied for unemployment benefits since the shutdown went into effect.

“All New Mexicans have the right to apply for unemployment,” he said. But he added that if the federal government does end up paying the furloughed employees, those receiving unemployment benefits would have to pay back that money. And like everyone else who gets unemployment, recipients have to be looking for work while receiving the benefits.

Some federal agencies with a large presence in New Mexico, such as Veterans Affairs and the Health and Human Services Department, are not affected by the shutdown because Congress had already approved spending bills covering them.

Jones, who is married to a public schoolteacher and has three children, ages 12-19, said that if the shutdown goes on for several more weeks, he might have to dip into savings to pay bills.

Even without a shutdown, this time of year is stressful for the nearly two dozen Weather Service employees in the state, he said. “We’re a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week agency,” he said. “We have to work through the holidays. And it’s been busy with the snow and all. A lot is going on behind the scenes. The shutdown just magnifies the stress, especially not knowing how long it’s going to go on.”

And Jones, who has worked for the Weather Service for nearly 27 years, realizes that he’s one of the lucky ones. “The employees who don’t have to work are not guaranteed that they’ll be paid for their time off,” he noted. In past shutdowns, furloughed workers have been paid for their forced time off.

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