Huntsville, Al. — This northeastern pocket of Alabama may actually get snow this weekend, and with the news Friday afternoon government employees will get paid it means the town can actually enjoy it.
The holidays were bleaker than normal, given federal employees and contractors make up a significant chunk of Huntsville’s white collar workforce. NASA, the FBI and the U.S. Army all have a big presence here and more than 2,300 of them were furloughed during the longest government shutdown ever that began Dec. 22.
But the gap without paychecks also gave the community a chance to shine, according to those affected by a lack of take-home pay and those trying to help them bridge the gap.
“What I’ve seen is the town and the people really reaching out to help us find a way through these times,” said one longtime NASA employee who, like several furloughed employees spoke only on the condition he not be named for fear of violating federal regs.
Indeed, affected government workers found their Redstone Federal Credit Union offering loans of $5,000 or one month’s pay at 2 percent interest. With a 60-day grace period before the first payment was due, that means Friday’s deal between Congress and the White House could allow workers to repay the loan entirely without any interest.
The First Baptist Church, which hosted a “Furlough Open House” on Jan. 17 that drew more than 2,000 people, handed out $50 gift cards for Publix Supermarkets — in fact, handed out $16,500 worth of $50 cards.
The church used its Disaster Relief Fund to buy the cards, and while church employees said the Fund was seriously depleted by the shutdown, Pastor Travis Collins said Friday evening they had thankfully called off another scheduled “Open House.”
“But the response was incredible,” Mr. Collins said, noting that after news spread of the “Open House” an Alabamian in Warrior, a town south of Huntsville, “called up and just asked where he could send $1,000 to the fund.”
The shutdown did expose a sort of vulnerability most of the well-paid federal employees in Huntsville rarely encounter, said Gayla Kidd, director of the Huntsville Assistance Program, a private non-profit that works closely with local relief agencies and offers counseling, a food bank and some small financial assistance to clients.
“We started getting phone calls for appointments and when we checked the databases we found that 75% of those calling had never been involved with any of the agencies,” Ms. Kidd said. “That’s a red flag.”
Mr. Collins said most of the First Baptist parishioners are more established in the community and thus “not in the red yet,” but Ms. Kidd said she found many of the younger workers are going paycheck to paycheck and were staring at problems with car payments and mortgages.
While some furloughed employees with local roots were able to lean on extended family during the recent stretch, the sprawling federal programs here have swelled Hunstville’s population to nearly 200,000 and it has become considerably more worldly.
“Most of them are young and married, and they were drug here to Huntsville kicking and screaming so they don’t have family around here,” Ms. Kidd said.
Those sort of expenses Ms. Kidd mentioned can be higher in Huntsville, given places like the Marshall Space Center and the various aerospace and aviation contractors clustered in office parks nearby offer jobs that don’t start with minimum wage.
Northrup-Grumman and Sikorsky Aircraft have Huntsville operations, as do dozens of smaller firms that said they had already shrunk their workforce in response to sequestrations that just stopped hitting defense budgets.
Employees were able to file for unemployment benefits during the shutdown, although any assistance is supposed to be repaid if the employees receive backpay, which government workers usually do when shutdowns end.
“As of 1/22/19 we’ve had 597 claims filed by federal workers since 12/21/18,” said Tara Hutchison, a spokeswoman with Alabama’s Department of Labor. “We cannot say that all of those are shutdown related, but based on historical claims data we can infer that the great majority of them are. So, yes, we have definitely seen a spike in filing.”
Friday’s deal should ease the crunch, some of Ms. Hutchison’s associates in Huntsville said. Normally, Alabama only sees a monthly average of 30-40 federal workers filing for unemployment, but they had double-digit such filings every day in 2019.
And should Friday’s deal fail to lead to a longterm solution in February, and bring another shutdown to swaths of the federal workforce and Huntsville, it will all begin again.
“We anticipate that to continue as long as the shutdown endures,” Ms. Hutchison said.