- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2019

HUNTSVILLE, ALA. | A Saturn rocket looms like a technological steeple over this Alabama city, where a well-paid government workforce helps form the backbone of something like a boom town.

Toyota is about to open a new plant here, and the hotels around the airport are catering to batches of Japanese businessmen. The University of Alabama system has a Huntsville campus, and the population has swollen to nearly 200,000, according to the latest count.

But it’s NASA, the Army and the FBI whose presence, along with the clusters of aerospace and aviation contractors it attracts, has put Huntsville on the map — and the city breathed a huge sigh of relief this weekend when a stopgap measure was reached in Washington that will send paychecks out to America’s vast federal workforce.

“People are just glad it’s over,” said one government worker who has been in Huntsville for decades but asked that his name not be used because most offices have instructed employees not to discuss the topic with the media. “I think everybody wants to work, and everybody’s happy they found a solution.”

The shutdown created a short-term cash crunch, with furloughed employees filing for unemployment benefits — benefits they are required to pay back once they receive their back pay.

The state had 597 claims filed by federal workers between Dec. 21, the day before the shutdown began, and Jan. 22, wrote 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,” she said.

It was a bleaker holiday season than usual in Huntsville as the longest government shutdown in history furloughed more than 2,300 local workers.

“What I’ve seen [in] the town was the people really reaching out to help us find a way through these times,” said one furloughed NASA employee. “I think it goes beyond just those who are government employees because it impacts the whole community. Restaurants, hotels, whether you get paid by the government or not, people want to be at work.”

An array of special programs and offers sprang up to help plug local household budget holes. For example, the Redstone Federal Credit Union offered 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 without any interest.

Some local Chick-fil-A restaurants offered furloughed workers half-priced meals, as they do for firefighters and police officers, while some restaurants advertised free dinners for the first 25 furloughed families that arrived.

On Jan. 17, the First Baptist Church hosted a Furlough Open House that drew more than 2,000 people. Tables were set up by organizations offering help on utility and other monthly bills, while the church handed out $16,500 worth of $50 gift cards for Publix supermarkets.

That effort depleted the church’s Disaster Relief Fund, but Pastor Travis Collins said he was amazed at how Alabamians were ready to pitch in.

“The response was incredible,” Mr. Collins said, noting that after news spread of the Open House a man in Warrior, a town south of Huntsville, “called up and just asked where he could send $1,000 to the fund.”

The church was planning to host another Open House, and officials representing some half-dozen ecclesiastical and secular groups were meeting Friday when news of the short-term settlement broke.

Huntsville is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center, one of NASA’s top three locations — along with Florida’s Cape Canaveral and the Johnson Space Center in Texas. The FBI is building a new training center at the Redstone Arsenal, which already employs Department of Defense units, mostly with the Army.

In the professional office parks around the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and the Arsenal, some smaller companies said they are still reeling from the last of federal budget cuts that cut some of their staffs by more than half. Giant players such as Northrop Grumman and Sikorsky Aircraft can weather such storms, and many contracts were already paid up, according to people in the offices who spoke on the condition they not be named.

The shutdown did expose a sort of vulnerability that most of the well-paid federal employees in Huntsville rarely encounter, said Gayla Kidd, director of the Huntsville Assistance Program, a nonprofit 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 percent 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 First Baptist’s parishioners are more established in the community and thus were “not in the red yet,” but Ms. Kidd said she found many younger workers were going paycheck to paycheck and were staring at problems with car payments and mortgages.

Correction: The Washington Times initially referred to the University of Alabama in Huntsville as a “branch” of the University of Alabama. In fact, UAH is one of three independent institutions that comprise the University of Alabama system.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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