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U.S. Government Shutdown Puts Squeeze On Florida Employees

Ray Coleman
Special to WFSU

Amid the U.S. Government shutdown now going on 20 days, federal employees and their agencies in Florida are feeling it in different ways. Still, the question of when the shutdown will end looms over the minds of many.

Kristan Morgan works in the Bureau of Prisons and is vice president of the local American Federation of Government Employees union.

“Not knowing when your next paycheck is going to come – no one really wants to go to work and know that they’re not going to be paid,” Morgan said. “So that’s really put us in a stressful position.”

Morgan says as she and many of her coworkers were leaving for holiday vacations, the robo call came in.

“There was a mass call that let everybody know that there was a lapse in appropriations and leave has been cancelled, you vacation has been cancelled – you need to return to work or face disciplinary action,” Morgan said.

Ray Coleman is president of the local federal workers’ union, and another of about 250 employees at the federal prison in Tallahassee.

“This will be our first complete paycheck that we will not receive. So we’ve been having to come to work day in and day out to do our jobs,” Coleman said. “And we’ve been kind of hoping things will get better, but the reality’s setting in that we’re not going to get a paycheck. And working at a federal prison, it’s already a stressful environment.”

Coleman and members of the union he heads held a rally Thursday, aimed at getting the attention of Florida’s leaders in Washington. Meanwhile, The Federal Emergency Management Agency will not be hindered by the U.S. government shutdown. That’s the word from spokesperson Deanna Frazier in the agency’s Tallahassee office.

“FEMA programs and services that are currently operating, including the emergency work and public infrastructure and mitigation projects, won’t be impacted by the shutdown – they continue,” Frazier said. “And there’s no disaster projects that are on hold presently.”

Frazier says the funding stream for FEMA comes from the National Disaster Relief Fund. That’s in contrast to other agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, which operate on funds from the federal budget.

As President Donald Trump continues the shutdown as a holdout for funding a U.S.-Mexico border wall, questions abound about Trump declaring a state of emergency. The New York Times and other outlets this week reported the President is weighing the possibility of diverting disaster funds from the Army Corps of Engineers to build the wall – some of which is earmarked for Florida. Newly-minted Governor Ron DeSantis weighed in on that during his first days on the job:

“My sense is just as somebody who’s studied the Constitution, the President wouldn’t be able to just appropriate his own money under any circumstances. You may be able to repurpose the money – I’m not sure how that works,” DeSantis told reporters this week. “Obviously anything that was done on the disaster front, we have people that are counting on that.”

Florida’s federal courts are feeling the squeeze as well. Pamela Marsh is a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida. Marsh supervised about 78 employees from Pensacola to Gainesville, including attorneys and support staff.

“In my opinion, the most difficult thing about these budget shutdowns is having to tell your workforce who is an essential employee and who is a non-essential employee,” Marsh said.

In the case of the U.S. Attorneys Office, essential employees are criminal prosecutors doing law enforcement work.

“But then you had to tell a good portion of your office that they are non-essential, and that doesn’t really feel so good,” Marsh said. And those are the folks that are doing the civil cases, the civil litigation – where the United States has been sued or the U.S. is suing someone else.”

Marsh says non-essential employees were furloughed, unable to do work on their cases. She adds the attorneys would file motions requesting a stay of the civil litigation – and most would be granted.

“So, for as long as the stay is in place and the civil litigation lawyers can’t work, there’s going to be a delay in those cases. So, gumming up the system – yes. But everything is stayed. So, all of it – it’s just like it comes back to life, once the shutdown’s lifted,” Marsh said.

But, as Marsh points out, federal employees who have missed paychecks have the chance to receive back pay, if Congress approves:

“Historically, when the shutdown ends, Congress has voted to give back pay to both the essential government workers who worked, and the non-essential government workers who stayed home from work.”

For federal prison employee Ray Coleman and many others, though their paychecks have been compromised, the expenses haven’t stopped.

“People have day to day bills that they have to pay. Healthcare expenses, childcare expenses. I’ve been telling a lot of media outlets that we have people still recovering from the hurricane,” Coleman said. “So, the morale is down. However, it brings us together as one – as one unit. Because we’re all in the same situation.”