Boulder County Federal Workers Brace for Another Shutdown
For many staff at federal labs in Boulder County and across Colorado’s Front Range, Friday likely brought a sense of deja vu as workers braced for a threatened federal shutdown.
They have been here before, the most recent shutdown taking place during three days in January, sparked by immigration issues in Congress. But this time the potential furloughs carry a new twist, triggered by President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign any Congressional spending resolution that did not provide $5 billion for a wall at the country’s southwestern border.
The largest collection of federal workers in Boulder County is at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which share a large campus on Broadway just south of downtown Boulder. The same facility hosts the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. All are under the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Those workers considered essential would continue to work — but not be paid. With a possible post-Christmas winter storm on the horizon for parts of Colorado, it should be noted that those would include 23 forecasters at the National Weather Service in Boulder.
Also still on duty would be 12 forecasters at the National Space Weather Prediction Center, who track activity emanating from the sun such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which have the capacity to significantly impact airline pilots’ ability to maintain radio contact, the terrestrial power grid, and much more.
Beyond Boulder, a shutdown would make an impact at the other end of Colo. 93 in Golden, home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory — which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Energy. NREL’s sprawling campus is home to about 2,200 employees, postdoctoral researchers, interns, visiting professionals and subcontractors, according to its website.
Federally funded research facilities in Boulder and the rest of the state contributed about $2.6 billion to Colorado’s economy in fiscal year 2015, and supported more than 17,600 jobs, according to a February 2017 report prepared for Boulder-based CO-LABS by the business research division of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado.
That report showed that Boulder County was responsible for $1.1 billion of the $2.6 billion figure, boasting 3,883 full-time, part-time, student and contract lab workers. Those jobs supported another 7,627 jobs elsewhere in the local economy.
In the same CO-LABS report, the fiscal year 2015 economic impacts figures for Jefferson and Larimer counties were $654 million and $195 million, respectively
“In this case, the shutdown is government writ large,” said CO-LABS Executive Director Dan Powers.
“There’s not necessarily a target on the labs per se, which speaks perhaps even more to how egregious a dynamic this is, the government being still this dysfunctional that all the activities of the government — or at least those that are determined to be ‘non-essential’ — are able to be sort of written off and allowed to be put into some kind of limbo while political debates are attempted over the course of a holiday break.”
Although previous shutdowns have been followed by legislation to ensure federal workers affected by shutdowns received back pay, Powers spoke to the short-term ramifications.
“The immediate effect that we could see locally is, in addition to just some anxiety over the unknown, there is a ripple effect into the economy,” Powers said.
“Very practically speaking, if your employer suddenly says ‘I can’t pay you now and I don’t know when I will,’ you will not be purchasing things like restaurant meals, or recreational items, or perhaps gifts for the holidays, as well as having the cash for rent and groceries and regular living expenses.”
The same CO-LABS report showing the laboratories’ statewide impact showed that employees’ average annual compensation is $99,840.
National security considerations
A closure of the labs would not only affect federal employees in Boulder.
CU’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, not a federal facility, has about 840 employees, but 380-plus typically do their work each day at NOAA, where about 250 federal workers also are based, contributing to a total workforce in the David Skaggs Research Center of about 850.
Because they are not federal employees, the CIRES staff based at NOAA could continue to work during a shutdown — but would have to do their jobs elsewhere. The same would apply to a far smaller number of researchers from the Colorado State University-affiliated Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, who also ordinarily work at NOAA.
The shutdown did not exactly sneak up on the federal labs. A 172-page plan by the Department of Commerce, titled ” Plan for Orderly Shutdown Due to Lapse of Congressional Appropriations ” dated Dec. 17, shows that about 435 NIST positions nationally would be considered essential — roughly 100 of those being in Boulder.
The justification for 16 of those slots — pertaining to personnel at its facilities in Boulder, Fort Collins and Kauai, Hawaii — states those positions are “required to continue for reasons of national security (universal time coordination), national economy (e.g. Security Exchange Commission requirements), and national timing and synchronization infrastructure (e.g. millions of radio-controlled clocks).”
National parks, too
Other federal employers on the Front Range also would take a hit in the event of a shutdown. Staff at Rocky Mountain National Park, also a very popular draw in the wintertime, on Friday directed questions about its status to the National Park Service office in Washington, D.C., where the budget drama was unspooling toward a 10 p.m. MST deadline.
A statement attributed to National Park Service chief spokesperson Jeremy Barnum said, “In the event of a government shutdown national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures.
“For example, this means that roads that have already been open will remain open (think snow removal) and vault toilets (wilderness-type restrooms) will remain open. However services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds and full-service restrooms, will not be operating.”
Rocky Mountain National Park in 2017 registered 4,437,215 visitors, and 112,830 of those passed through in December, the third-lowest month for visitors in the year. January showed the fewest passing through its gates, at 95,602.
The park service statement offered, as an example of what would not be open, “a gift shop inside a visitors center would not be open because a park ranger would not be available to unlock the visitors center or to staff the visitors center.”
Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, email@example.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan