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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal workers in Spokane receive help as paychecks held

Hundreds of federal workers in the Inland Northwest will wake up Friday without a paycheck, for many the first monetary consequence of a partial government shutdown in its third week.

Unemployment claims in the state of Washington have ticked up, and lending institutions are offering several programs to their members in an effort to bridge the gap not only for salaried federal employees, but for contractors whose work has been stopped by the impasse between Congress and the White House over border security. Lenders are advising their customers to contact them quickly to avoid further complications from unpaid bills.

“If you’re a federal worker, contact your credit union,” said Lynn Heider, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Northwest Credit Union Association. “Maybe they can open a membership, and get one of these (emergency) loans.”

Spokane Federal Credit Union, which was founded by local federal employees in 1956, announced Thursday it will provide interest-only loan payments and extensions on existing loans without fees for members affected by the shutdown.

“We’ve had a couple of members that we’ve helped,” said Susan Cerutti-Jensen, marketing director for the credit union.

Representatives at STCU and Gesa Credit Union, based in the Tri-Cities, said they’ve received inquiries from federal employees about services available while they are either working without pay, as is the case for Transportation Security agents at airports and Border Patrol agents, or those who have been sent home absent federal funds to cover payroll.

Employment statistics in Washington and Idaho estimate there are about 6,100 federal workers living and working in the Inland Northwest. That number includes some workers whose paychecks are not affected by the partial shutdown, but it doesn’t include those working under federal government contracts that may have been halted as a result of several departments being shuttered.

“We have a lot of federal contractors down here,” said Richard Waddle, senior vice president of finance and marketing for Gesa, which has 17 branches throughout Eastern Washington. The institution, first founded by General Electric employees working at the Hanford nuclear site in the 1950s, is waiving a $35 fee it charges members to participate in its short-term skip-a-payment program, as well as extending zero-interest short-term loans to members affected by the shutdown, Waddle said.

STCU is also instructing its staff to direct members concerned about the shutdown to similar payment deferral programs, said Dan Hansen, communications manager for the credit union. Many of those programs were set up in response to the recession begun in 2008, and the lender also offers free counseling on budgeting and the importance of an emergency fund to weather unexpected financial hardships, he said.

“What we often see is people wait until they’re past due,” Hansen said. “There’s just so much more that can be done if the financial institution knows in advance.”

Federal workers affected nationwide by the shutdown, estimated by congressional researchers to number 800,000 employees, also are seeking help beyond their personal financial institutions. About 700 GoFundMe accounts have been created online since the federal shutdown began on Dec. 22, company officials told the Washington Post on Wednesday.

Furloughed workers have also been out of work long enough to begin receiving unemployment benefits. About 1,000 applications believed to be tied to the government shutdown were received by the Washington Department of Employment Security from the beginning of the shutdown to Tuesday; from Tuesday to Thursday morning, an additional 1,000 applications were received, said Janelle Guthrie, communications director for the agency.

“That’s a significantly higher number than we usually see,” she said.

Those interested in applying for benefits must provide proof of employment and wages, a process that usually takes about two weeks. Also, in the likely event federal workers receive back pay for the length of the shutdown, the law requires them to pay back any received benefits to the state.

“Those benefits are available, and we also have payment plans for people,” Guthrie said.

There also is help available for those not working who are starting to receive their utility bills for January. Avista Utilities, the region’s public utility, will work with individual ratepayers to establish payment plans in cases of financial hardship, said David Vowels, communications manager for the utility.

Like lending institutions, Avista encourages furloughed employees to contact the utility sooner rather than later.

“It’s much easier to take care of a smaller problem than a larger one,” Vowels said.

SNAP is available to help furloughed government workers with utility bills through its energy assistance program, said Nicole Bishop, spokeswoman for the human services agency. SNAP can work with furloughed employees to obtain short-term lines of credit with little to no interest, she said, and provide free financial planning services to those affected.

The location at the East Central Community Center, 500 S. Stone St., provides foreclosure prevention services for those concerned about paying their mortgage. SNAP can be reached by calling (509) 456-7627.

In past government shutdowns, including the 2013 closure that lasted 16 days, Congress moved quickly to pass a law ensuring furloughed employees would be compensated for work missed. The measures are usually bipartisan, and have enjoyed unanimous votes in Congress during past shutdowns, even though there can be delays on the pay being issued to affected employees.

Bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to provide back pay to furloughed workers once the shutdown ends. The Senate passed its version of the legislation Thursday evening.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell co-sponsored back pay legislation in the upper chamber. Murray has continued to share stories on social media of federal workers affected by the shutdown, which she blamed on President Donald Trump. In a statement released Thursday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said she’d support back pay for workers while accusing Congressional Democrats of “gridlock” in their opposition to additional funds for a border wall.

“I absolutely support back pay for federal workers impacted by the shutdown to ensure people get paid for their work,” the congresswoman said. “I have consistently voted to institute back pay every time a shutdown has occurred.”