As Congress barrels toward another annual budget deadline without an agreed upon spending plan, thousands of Marylanders employed by the federal government are bracing for a halt to their incomes and a suspension of critical government services.
The pause would be the first since the 35-day partial shutdown that ended in early 2019, the longest in history, which left about 300,000 workers furloughed and cost the country an estimated $3 billion in gross domestic product.
Lawmakers have until the end of Saturday to move a stopgap bill through both chambers. Their success would mean federal agencies stay open and workers’ paychecks keep flowing. But some question whether the strict demands of a few far-right Republicans to further cut spending have crippled the process too far for even a short-term patch.
Halting government operations would affect more than just federal employees, but also Marylanders who rely on vital government services to meet their most basic needs, such as food benefits, safety inspections, student loan payment processing and child care grants, to name a few.
While most of the state’s congressional delegation expressed frustration and state leaders hold out hope Republican leadership can avoid a shutdown, all say they have begun making contingency plans for Marylanders.
At the office of U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the staff is busy creating a website with resources for workers and others who will be affected by a shutdown. They already mailed out letters to constituents who receive Social Security benefits to assure them that their checks will arrive.
For Ruppersberger, a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, it’s been frustrating to see the shutdown politics play out once again, to the detriment of working families. Ruppersberger blamed House Republicans for “essentially holding the nation hostage” for their “ridiculous demands.”
“It’s as if a small group of people are controlling what’s happening and they don’t seem to care about the constituents and the issues,” said Ruppersberger, a Democrat from Baltimore County.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen called out the small group of Republicans in the House that waved off a Senate stopgap offer Wednesday.
“In the Senate, we are working on a bipartisan basis to keep the government running, while MAGA Republicans in the House are putting politics over people and driving us straight towards a shameful — and avoidable — shutdown,” the Democrat said in a statement.
Plenty of federal workers and contractors live in U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes’ district, which covers Howard County and parts of Anne Arundel and Carroll counties.
The stress on those workers, wondering whether they’ll be off the job or working without pay, can be “devastating,” said Sarbanes, a Democrat.
”What I always emphasize in this situation is the disruption element of it, how much it throws the federal government and the federal workforce into this space where they can’t operate in the way the public expects them to and benefits from,” Sarbanes said.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican, was unable to respond to questions before publication.
Federal retirees and workers ‘feel the pain’
Around 144,165 federal workers in Maryland could be furloughed and more than 48,236 active duty and reserve military personnel could be forced to work without pay should Congress’ actions pull the plug, according to numbers released by House Democrats on the Budget Committee. That doesn’t include contractors who could also face layoffs, lose hours or get furloughed.
“People are nervous,” said Jason Coleman, a federal employee who manages a Facebook group he started in 2019 to connect furloughed government workers to food and financial help during that year’s shutdown.
The group has since grown to more than 30,000 members and is gaining around 200 federal workers a day as the possibility of another shutdown nears.
The D.C. resident expressed frustration that Congress continues to use the livelihoods of hardworking government employees as political bargaining chips, and said legislators should instead be advocating for federal workers.
“There’s no one out there really driving the point home that government workers are feeling the pain,” he said.
Now, every August Coleman starts posting gentle reminders in the Facebook group, warning members of Congress’ approaching annual budget deadline.
“Some people have the idea that this always gets settled before September 30th, and they aren’t prepared,” he said.
Learning from past shutdowns
”There was a time when federal employees were really valued,” said Anita Autrey, who recently retired from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn after four decades. “We are living in very sad times.”
She feels lucky she won’t be affected this time. But as a national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees, she’s worried about the millions of workers still on the job who will go without pay during a shutdown.
Some Americans — and maybe some politicians — don’t understand the impact on government workers, who are just trying to make a living, she said. “We’ve got to elect people that understand how the federal government works,” she said. “The average federal employee — they’re not wealthy.”
Union leaders have been busy publicizing the plight of federal workers and marshaling resources to help them, such as stocking up food pantries.
Even the prospect of workers getting back pay after a shutdown is resolved doesn’t do much to relieve the stress now.
“You see all the devastation that’s caused,” she said. “You get the money paid back, but at what price?”
Distributors of emergency food resources are reviewing their response to the 2019 government shutdown, which lasted over a month. Joanna Warner, spokesperson with the Maryland Food Bank, said the nonprofit saw a nearly 100,000-pound increase in food distribution to network partners compared to the previous year’s time frame.
Critical federal benefits funding at stake
A federal shutdown could slow or halt essential benefits for some of Maryland’s most vulnerable families, including food benefits such as nutrition programs for low-earning mothers with infants, and child care grants.
Should a shutdown drag on, Congress’ failure to pass a stopgap would mean just under 671,000 Marylanders would lose access to food benefits through the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP.
Separately, around 123,101 state residents — low-income women, who are pregnant and breastfeeding their infants — would quickly lose access to special food supplements through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program.
Child care resources may also become more scarce. The Maryland Family Network partners with nonprofits across the state to administer Early Head Start, a federally funded child care program that serves low-wage earning families with children up to age three.
While the Early Head Start teachers are not federal employees, program funds come from the U.S. government. Cutting them off could have “dire consequences on a workforce that is mostly comprised of women of color,” Maryland Family Network spokesperson Doug Lent wrote in an email.
And how any one of the organization’s 12 Early Head Start partner organizations will fare during a shutdown depends on the size of the sponsor nonprofit’s bank account.
Smaller centers with smaller budgets will face greater risk of having to cut staff or reduce the number of children served, Lent said — ”Depending on the family, that could mean they can’t go to work and could lose their jobs.”
Moore: ‘Our state is going to be ready’
Back at the state level, Gov. Wes Moore on Tuesday said his administration has for weeks been preparing an “all-government strategy” in advance of what he called a “needless and senseless potential shutdown.”
”I want people to know that our state is going to be ready,” Moore said.
However, when asked to provide details, the Moore administration declined to do so before publication.
The Maryland Department of Labor did not respond to questions on their readiness should the state see a spike in unemployment requests. Past high-demand periods, such as during the pandemic, have overwhelmed the state’s ability to process claims.
The Maryland Department of Human Services, the state agency that administers federal food benefits programs, did not respond to a request for comment about the state’s plans.
Following the last partial shutdown, Maryland lawmakers created a state fund to give no-interest loans to federal employees who have to work without pay. It’s up to Moore to decide whether to transfer money into that fund.
State Comptroller Brooke Lierman’s office said in a statement a shutdown would negatively affect not just the nation’s economy but “hundreds of thousands of Marylanders and hundreds of Maryland companies.”
Federal wages and pensions make up about 10.5% of Marylanders taxable income in 2021, according to the state comptroller. Even a temporary halt in that income could delay state tax receipts and slow the state’s already slowing economy.