The federal government shut down Tuesday – and it had an immediate impact on people in the Buffalo Niagara region.
Workers felt the pain because, as one official put it, our area has an “unusually large” footprint with many federal offices.
Up to 1,000 local workers found themselves either out of work or working without pay because of the budget fight in Washington, while the shutdown also affected other people who depend on the daily services provided by the federal government.
“Everyone suffers,” said Danielle Thompson, a federal worker who lives in the area. “Not knowing if you’re going to get paid, it hurts, because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to support your family.”
Thompson said many people assume that federal workers “are set, that they’re fine.”
But Thompson, who had a baby three weeks ago, worries about what will happen because the long-term maternity leave pay she had arranged has stopped with the shutdown.
“There’s a lot of single parents out there, veterans, parents whose spouses aren’t working” who rely on their weekly checks, she said.
“In two weeks when they don’t get paid, they can’t buy groceries,” she said.
The federal government grinding to a halt also had implications for tourists who have planned their vacations around national historic sites.
History buff Trace Bond, of Vancouver, British Columbia, said he made a special trip to Buffalo while on a tour of New York State.
But he was disappointed to find the doors of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site on Delaware Avenue locked when he went there Tuesday morning.
Bond, who was visibly disappointed, begged a Roosevelt site worker to let him in the gift shop. When that didn’t work, he settled for a brochure.
‘So far, so good’ at bridge
Many other functions associated with the federal government – military operations, the U.S. Postal Service and federal courts – remained in operation despite the shutdown.
“We just keep moving forward,” said Capt. Brian W. Roche, commander of Coast Guard Station Buffalo. “Operationally, we will be ready to go. The taxpayers will see no loss of support for maritime activities as this is going on.”
The roughly 100 workers at the Coast Guard station on the outer harbor knew they would be coming in to work regardless of the shutdown and regardless of whether they would be paid, Roche said.
“Pay or not, we would have to be here, anyway,” he said. “The military isn’t allowed to not show up for work.”
Customs and Border Protection agents did the same, and the Peace Bridge crossing was relatively smooth just before noon Tuesday.
“We haven’t had a problem whatsoever,” said Gord Aide, a traffic officer for the Peace Bridge Authority. “So far, so good.”
Border agents on the American side shrugged off the dispute, confident that they would get paid when President Obama and Congress reach a resolution, whenever that might be.
“What are you going to do?” asked a border agent who declined to be identified by name.
“That’s how it goes. We’ll eventually get paid when they figure this out.”
University at Buffalo officials expected minimal impact to campus operations, including federally funded research and student aid.
An email memo Monday to UB employees from the office of UB President Satish K. Tripathi stated that recipients of federal grants would be able to carry out their research, although they likely would not be able to reach federal employees who administer grants and are responsible for contracts, processing of payments and support.
In addition, employees were told not to expect any new research awards to be issued during the shutdown.
The email stated that federal student aid should not be affected, either, although some federal staff connected with grants and loans will not be available to answer questions and process paperwork for aid disbursements.
Offices eerily silent
Although it was business as usual at the Peace Bridge and UB, other federal offices were eerily silent or locked as Tuesday wore on.
Some workers at the U.S. Attorney’s Office downtown received voice mail messages on their cellphones early Tuesday morning telling them not to come in to work.
Employees at the local offices of Housing and Urban Development and the Internal Revenue Service left messages Tuesday on their voice mail instructing callers that their calls would not be returned until the shutdown was resolved.
“Most HUD programs have been temporarily interrupted, and most HUD employees have been told they cannot work,” the message left by HUD employees in the downtown Buffalo office stated.
Callers were advised that HUD employees were not able to check their voice mail during the shutdown, and emails to HUD and IRS employees also generated an automatic “out of office” response indicating that the correspondence would not be read until the government resumes full operations.
The first day of the shutdown had no immediate impact on Buffalo’s federal courts, but that could change dramatically down the road.
“For the next two weeks, its business as usual,” said Federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano.
Criminal and civil proceedings continued as scheduled Tuesday but with the understanding that furloughs in several offices, including that of the U.S. attorney, could eventually hamper the flow of investigations and prosecutions.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. declined to comment on the shutdown, but Mariano and others said they understand that his office could be significantly affected by furloughs.
One area might be civil litigation, which the Department of Justice has indicated will be “curtailed or postponed to the extent this can be done without compromising to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
In other cities, federal prosecutors have already started asking judges for stays in their civil cases.
One agency that seems to have escaped the shutdown is the Buffalo office of the FBI, where all personnel have been deemed essential.
“Employees of the FBI have taken an oath to protect the American people, and we will continue to do so,” Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the office, said in a statement.
Gap in priority programs
Mariano thinks her office will be spared, as well, although the lawyers and support staff may have to work without pay.
“I would consider everyone here essential, because we’re already understaffed because of sequestration,” she said.
Like Mariano, the local court system is forecasting a relatively trouble-free two weeks, but it’s uncertain what could happen beyond that.
“During the initial stages of the shutdown,” the local court system said in a statement posted on its website, “the federal judiciary will remain open for regular business for approximately 10 days.”
The shutdown also meant a gap in some federal environmental and human services programs that have a high priority here.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weekly bulletin updating the public about harmful algae blooms on Lake Erie has been suspended. The agency announced Tuesday morning: “Due to the shutdown of the Federal Government, NOAA will not be providing the Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin and related information until further notice.”
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service’s Facebook page stated that during the shutdown, its page would “remain active, but will be maintained on a limited basis.”
“Only posts that reflect information critical to protecting lives and property will be made,” the agency said.
‘Orderly shutdown’ at corps
The $44 million restoration effort on the Buffalo River – on which the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies are involved – will continue, according to early reports from Jill M. Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
“The project is still moving forward because the source funds came from the FY 2013 budget, and that is not impacted by the shutdown,” Jedlicka told The Buffalo News.
Mary Beth Giancarlo, the Chicago-based EPA scientist assigned to the Buffalo River project, was unavailable Tuesday. An email to Giancarlo was automatically returned with the following statement: “I am out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown. I will not be checking messages, but will return your email upon my return to the office.”
Similar messages greeted visitors at the Corps of Engineers’ district office on Niagara Street.
“We have updated our plans to prepare for an orderly shutdown, as outlined in the guidance received from the Office of Management and Budget,” said Bruce I. Sanders, public affairs officer for the corps.
Sanders said the planning “was consistent with what was done in previous instances where a potential lapse in appropriations was approaching” and “was based on current law regarding a lapse in appropriations, and the requirements of an emergency furlough in response to a government shutdown.”
Michael J. Basile, the spokesman for the EPA in Buffalo, said officials were in the office Tuesday morning to attend to some brief housekeeping matters.
“We were in for four hours and are just putting our messages on our out-of-office email,” Basile explained.
Concerns about WIC
Catholic Charities of Buffalo officials were fielding calls Tuesday from concerned clients about the status of Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, a federally funded nutrition program that the agency administers for about 20,000 clients in Western New York.
The program’s 10 offices in Erie and Niagara counties remained open and operating Tuesday. Catholic Charities spokeswoman Rose C. Caldwell said it was unclear what impact the shutdown would have on the program, which provides monthly checks to income-qualified pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers for the purchase of healthy, nutritious foods at area grocery stores.
Women with infants and children younger than 5 are also eligible, based on income. In addition to food, the program provides health and nutrition counseling and breast-feeding support and assistance.
Some government employees are showing an unusual dedication to their jobs, despite the shutdown.
A handful of civilian employees at the Coast Guard station say they want to work through the impasse, no matter how long it takes.
“It’s very humbling, that they would come in on a day when they’re not getting paid,” said Roche, the commander. “They say, ‘Well, I’ll stay here, anyway,’ but we just can’t do that.”