Lisa Schmit has nervously ignored the brake alarm light flashing in her car for a month, uncertain about having enough money for repairs.
On Friday, Schmit and her husband, both meteorologists with the National Weather Service, were relieved to hear the news of a temporary end to the 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest ever. The political standoff in Washington, D.C., had left them — and thousands of other Minnesotans — working without pay, dipping into savings to pay bills and postponing spending on car repairs, dinners out with family and day care. The deal calls for three weeks of funding to reopen the government while Congress and President Donald Trump negotiate a longer-term deal on border security.
“It’s just a temporary relief,” said Schmit, the local union representative for the National Weather Service meteorologists in Chanhassen, adding that they are still worried the government will shut down again Feb. 15. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”
The deal announced Friday by Trump gives a reprieve to about 5,500 of the 32,200 federal workers in Minnesota — from airport screeners to immigration judges and prison guards — who have been furloughed or working without pay.
No corner of Minnesota was left untouched by the shutdown. Breweries faced delays in approvals for new labels and expansions. Farmers were unable to apply for federal loans or cash checks. And the state’s 11 American Indian tribes had to cut staff pay, freeze hiring and lay off staff due to the lapse in federal aid. The state picked up costs of some federal government programs during the shutdown, planning to ask for reimbursement later.
“Now we’ll look at what this means for the state,” Gov. Tim Walz said Friday. “Certainly this is the best news we’ve heard in a while.”
During the shutdown, furloughed workers picked up jobs driving for Lyft or Uber and passed the time working on house projects or cleaning.
“Federal employees must be the most organized and have the cleanest refrigerators,” said Lori Nordstrom of Minneapolis, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was furloughed until this week but organized volunteer shifts once a week for two hours at the nonprofit Feed My Starving Children. Still she was glad for Friday’s news. “Everyone is ecstatic and relieved. People were getting desperate to pay their bills.”
As of Thursday, the state had 1,220 applications for unemployment benefits from federal furloughed employees during the shutdown, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which will have to be repaid once federal workers get back-pay.
Other Minnesotans also tried to show support for federal employees during the shutdown. People dropped off pizzas or meals at the National Weather Service in Chanhassen. A food pantry was set up to help TSA workers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In Rochester, strangers came together to buy gas gift cards and do a food drive for federal workers.
“Nobody is quite out of the woods yet,” said Sandy Parr, a food service supervisor at the federal prison in Rochester and a local union leader. “For people who live paycheck to paycheck, it will take a while for them.”
Bill Axford, a teacher at the Rochester prison, isn’t celebrating yet, wary about the government shutdown resuming Feb. 15. “There’s no relief in the anxiety,” he said.
Federal prison staff haven’t received two paychecks and some workers couldn’t make it to work, unable to afford gas to fill their cars or pay child care, leaving others like Parr working 90 overtime hours during the shutdown.
On Friday, Sandstone prison employees frustrated to be missing another paycheck turned jubilant as the prison control center blasted out the news of the shutdown-ending deal on officers’ radios.
“I’m relieved to get my pay,” said Steve Denzine, a drug treatment specialist at the Sandstone prison. “But it’s just two or three weeks until politicians use us for leverage again.”
Researchers at the University of Minnesota, where some projects are supported by federal funding, were also cognizant that it may only be a three-week reprieve.
“We have lots of people whose schedules are very screwed up now,” said Dan Gilchrist, communications director for the office of the vice president for research. “Our researchers have lost time.”
Gilchrist noted that two U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities on the St. Paul campus were closed down.
“We don’t know if those folks had experiments. Their samples may be dead now,” he said.
Federal courts employees in Minnesota haven’t had to work without pay yet, but the budget impasse has been a massive disruption for the courts. To save money to pay staff, Chief U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim said the courts froze contracts, stopped hiring, banned nonessential travel and abandoned training.
Hundreds of immigrants have had their court hearings canceled because only two of the five immigration judges at the Bloomington Immigration Court worked during the shutdown — without pay — on cases of people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The rest of the pending immigration court cases of people not in custody, such as those seeking asylum in the U.S., were not processed, adding to a mounting backlog.
Those scenes will greet many federal employees when they return to their jobs.
“There’s still a little stress that this could just happen again,” said TSA agent Celia Hahn, who is president of the local union that represents TSA screeners. “It’s unfortunate they’re going to keep using us as pawns.”
Staff writers J. Patrick Coolican, Liz Sawyer and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493