What a government shutdown would mean for Kansas workers, families and businesses

photo by: AP File Photo

In the Nov. 6, 2020, file photo, shades of red and blue light of dawn fills the sky behind Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WICHITA, Kansas — Wide-reaching disruptions could come to Kansas if the federal government shuts down this weekend.

An Oct. 1 shutdown would put paychecks on hold for tens of thousands of federal employees across the state. Experts say it could also jeopardize services critical to meatpacking and other industries.

And, depending on its duration, it could threaten federal assistance programs relied on by low-income Kansas families.

But much remained uncertain on Friday, less than 48 hours ahead of a looming shutdown, as federal agencies scrambled to update their contingency plans and warned workers of potential furloughs.

As with previous shutdowns — including a 35-day closure in 2018 and 2019, and one lasting 16 days in 2013 — the consequences for Kansas would likely mount the longer it stretched.

Military personnel and federal workers

Kansas is home to around 20,000 active-duty military members and around 17,000 federal civilian workers. Most would stop getting paid if the government shuts down.

Many would be furloughed — asked to stop reporting to work — but others deemed essential would continue to work without pay. Both groups are guaranteed back pay once the shutdown ends, although that does not extend to federal contractors who don’t work.

Furloughed workers can apply for unemployment benefits, but would likely have to repay the state once they receive back pay.

Members of the military, air traffic controllers and TSA agents are among those who’d be required to work without pay. The pause in military pay would be a departure from some previous shutdowns when Congress had already passed defense spending.

Kansas food banks are bracing for increased demand from families struggling to make ends meet. The Kansas Food Bank, which serves 85 counties, did special food distributions for federal employees during the last government shutdown, according to community relations manager Debi Kreutzman.

“We are prepared to assist in any way needed,” she said. “We do understand that there are many households that are one paycheck away from needing support from a local food bank.”

The strain on federal workers and their families could also translate into economic losses at restaurants, stores and businesses across Kansas.

“The service members who used to be able to spend some of their paycheck at dinner on a Friday night are not able to do that anymore,” said Nathaniel Birkhead, an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University.

Birkhead said the impact could be particularly noticeable in communities around military bases — including Fort Riley, Fort Leavenworth and McConnell Air Force Base — and those with higher concentrations of federal workers, including the Kansas City metro area.

Kansas City, Missouri, is home to a number of federal agencies with workers living on both sides of the state line. That includes the country’s second-largest Internal Revenue Service building, employing more than 4,000 workers. A union representative told KSHB that a shutdown would significantly impact the area, and one IRS employee called the last shutdown “devastating.”

Meatpacking, farming and aerospace

Food inspections essential to daily meatpacking and farming operations are expected to continue.

Federal meat inspectors are particularly critical to continuity of the state’s large meatpacking industry, according to Kansas State University agricultural economist Ted Schroeder. He said they’ve always been considered essential in previous shutdowns — and the consequences of disruptions became more apparent during the pandemic.

“It would be catastrophic,” Schroeder said. “It would be magnitudes worse than (COVID) because all of these plants would have to shut down.”

But it’s unclear whether other U.S. Department of Agriculture services, like price data that Kansas ranchers rely on, would continue during a shutdown. Daily livestock data was deemed essential during the 2018-19 shutdown, but not during the 2013 shutdown.

“The industry relies on those price reports very strongly to continue doing commerce,” Schroeder said. “There’s some anxiety around that. Will it be considered essential? Will it not?”

Kansas farmers face a number of uncertainties. They could see payments from certain federal assistance programs stall. During the last two shutdowns, the USDA also did not publish its monthly crop report.

Schroeder said it comes at a particularly inconvenient time.

“We’re in harvest season. It’s a very busy time of year for Midwest crop farmers,” he said. “Will it stop us from harvesting? No. Is it disruptive? Yes.”

Any impact to Kansas aircraft manufacturers would likely depend on the length of the shutdown. Some companies reported issues delivering planes during the last 35-day shutdown due to the closure of federal aircraft licensing.

Birkhead, the political science professor, said those disruptions could lead to economic setbacks for a state recovering from pandemic turmoil.

“The economy has been rebounding quite nicely since COVID,” he said. “(A shutdown) could cool inflation, but hurt a lot of people while it’s doing so.”

Food stamps and housing assistance

While Kansas agencies aren’t anticipating immediate impacts to families who rely on nutrition assistance programs, that could change in the event of a prolonged shutdown.

Earlier this week, the White House warned of swift consequences of a shutdown on the millions of Americans who depend on the WIC program to buy food. In Kansas, 47,399 women, infants and children rely on the program.

The Kansas health department says the state has funding to continue operating the program through late November.

“We remain hopeful of a resolution and will maintain contact with our federal partners to ensure transparent communication with our local agencies and WIC participants,” spokesperson Matthew Lara said in an email.

But WIC officials for Reno and McPherson Counties said some WIC benefits would change if the government shuts down, including a reduction in fruit and vegetable benefits.

Kansans relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would continue receiving assistance for October, but could see SNAP disruptions if a shutdown stretches longer.

Kreutzman at the Kansas Food Bank said local organizations like hers could be left doing damage control.

“Federal nutrition programs work hand in hand with local food banks to help people access the food they need for themselves and their families,” she said. “If these programs are disrupted by a government shutdown, food banks like ours will be left to fill in the gap.”

A prolonged shutdown could also impact housing programs, including those that serve low-income renters and rural communities in Kansas.

Section 8 and other monthly programs operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will continue as long as previously allocated funding is available, according to the department’s latest contingency plan. The same is true for the USDA’s rental assistance program for low-income rural tenants.

What stays open?

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries would continue receiving benefits as usual.

Veterans Affairs hospitals would continue to operate and the department would continue to distribute benefits to veterans.

The U.S. Postal Service is not directly impacted by government shutdowns because its funding is not part of the annual budget.

The state’s three federal courthouses – in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas – would be able to continue operating for at least two weeks into a shutdown, according to Justice Department plans.

— Rose Conlon reports for Kansas News Service.


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