Alaska federal employees prepare ahead of looming shutdown

Alaska federal employees prepare ahead of looming shutdown
Published: Sep. 28, 2023 at 4:40 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2023 at 6:29 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Government funding will run out this weekend if the Senate and House are not able to forge together legislation to avert a government shutdown.

If a shutdown does happen, federal union representatives here in Alaska said many of the people who are living paycheck to paycheck could be struggling even more.

Additionally, they said there is very little they can do to prepare because their status is still in limbo.

“Right now, we’re hearing not much. They are planning on handing out the paperwork, if things don’t go right this weekend,” said David Williams, vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1101 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Williams’ union represents roughly 1,300 federal employees. He said a government shutdown would be the toughest on those with young children.

“I’ve lived through that. It’s extremely difficult when it goes more than a week. It hits two weeks, it’s even getting worse and the longer it goes, the worse it gets,” Williams said.

The options are limited for federal employees. They can be furloughed and collect unemployment, or go to work but not get paid until Congress reaches a deal.

“When you got to think about putting food on the table and you’re not getting paid and bills are stacking up, that certainly has an effect on your well-being,” said John Cowen, regional chair for the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

Furthermore, Cowen said the weather service is mostly furlough-exempt — meaning he still has to show up for work and not get paid. Cowen said he is already planning as though he won’t get paid for the next month

“So just like last time. We got ahead of it by calling our credit card company and mortgage company and letting them know what’s up. That’s really all we can do at this point,” Cowen said.

David Owens, who is the national representative of the American Federation of Government Employees, said his union is basically telling its members to have at least two months of pay in an emergency fund.

But Owens is concerned a prolonged government shutdown might drive employees out of the federal sector and into the he private sector where they can potentially make more money.

He is also concerned a shutdown could hurt areas that are already dealing with staffing shortages, like air traffic controllers.

“After the shutdown starts, they’ll stop the training. You’re going to have less air traffic controllers, you’ll have more backups in the airports, and you’re going to complain because your planes aren’t flying,” Owens said.

David Traver, the Veterans Affairs employees president for the AFGE Local 3028, said his union negotiated two years ago for its employees to be paid in the event of a shutdown.

“Something that maybe the other unions need to put in their playbook is don’t take this for granted. This is a big deal. Luckily for the bargaining unit that I represent, that means that the employees will be able to continue to provide the services that have been promised,” Traver said.

The union representatives said there is fear that if a shutdown does happen it could be a longer than the one four years ago. The government shutdown in 2019 lasted 35 days.

Additionally, they said they will band together and put together resources to help federal employees struggling financially during a shutdown. Williams said the last time a furlough happened the unions got together and set up a place downtown for the local members who were in need of assistance.