Visitors look at the Mendenhall Glacier near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in August. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Visitors look at the Mendenhall Glacier near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in August. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Shutdown disruptions would be widespread in Juneau

What the looming federal shutdown could mean for the capital city.

This is a developing story.

Tension is rising across the country as the days quickly tick down for a divided Congress to agree on a spending plan before the federal fiscal year ends Oct. 1.

If lawmakers can’t come to an agreement before then, the federal government will shut down at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, meaning potential widespread furloughs of federal workers, delays to government food assistance benefits and national parks closures.

Here’s what this means for Juneau.

Can I still catch a flight?

Yes. Juneau International Airport is municipality-owned, meaning if the shutdown happens it won’t stop the airport from operating. But it will still have a “major” impact on the airport’s federal employees, according to airport manager Patty Wahto.

“Travel should be normal,” she said Thursday afternoon. “What we will tell passengers is everything is going to continue to run, continue with travel and getting people to where they need to go.”

According to Wahto, there are more than 100 federal employees who are deemed “essential” that work at or in connection to the Juneau airport. If the shutdown occurs that means those workers — such as Transportation Security Administration, air traffic and flight service station employees among others — will be asked to perform their duties without pay until the shutdown ends.

Wahto said during previous shutdowns the impacts of working without pay were devastating for some employees. The most recent shutdown, in late 2018 and 2019, was the longest in U.S. history at 35 days.

“​Some of them rely on every single paycheck, so whether it’s trying to make the mortgage, trying to get food, trying to pay child care, there’s a lot behind the scenes,” she said. “They’re living from paycheck to paycheck and then suddenly they’re called upon to continue working without pay. OK, but how do they pay to have child care? Where are you getting the money for that much less food?”

Wahto said if the shutdown is prolonged it could mean negative impacts on federal grant funding the airport receives and hinder its ability to move forward with new projects, among other concerns.

Can I still visit the Mendenhall Glacier?

It’s unclear what impacts to the Tongass National Forest and Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center could come from the shutdown. Inquiries by the Empire to local and national U.S. Forest Service officials for a response were unsuccessful Wednesday and Thursday.

However, on Friday morning the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the majority of national parks will be closed completely to public access if a shutdown occurs.

During the recent shutdowns in 2018-2019, and October of 2013, the National Parks Service furloughed about 21,000 employees across the country, leaving only 3,000 employees to carry out essential activities, according to a report released last week. For the Tongass that meant furloughing nearly all of its 400 employees at the time, according to past reporting. It also resulted in the halt of garbage collection, the closure of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and no new reservations to forest service cabins.

According to Alexandra Pierce, the City and Borough of Juneau tourism manager, if the shutdown occurs, she thinks the biggest impact on tourism in Juneau would be felt at the Mendenhall Glacier. She said because the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is operated by federal workers it could mean the center’s operations would likely stop, as was the case in recent shutdowns.

“The public would of course be allowed to be out there, but the visitor center wouldn’t be open, it wouldn’t be staffed or maintained,” she said. “Our tourism season is very much winding down, but even so it’s an impact on visitors and that’s unfortunate.”

According to Tongass National Forest spokesman Paul Robbins Jr., the visitor center currently employs 18 federal workers. He could not share as of Thursday evening how or if those workers would be affected.

Unstaffed national parks during past shutdowns have resulted in problems like damage from vandalism and overflowing trash cans, among others. The closure of some parks during the 2013 shutdown also resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue nationally, significantly affecting smaller communities in particular that relied on visitors.

Will the U.S. Coast Guard remain in service?

There are an estimated 150 Coast Guard members in Juneau and 270 in Southeast Alaska who, like other military service members, will remain on duty. However, enlisted service members with the Coast Guard will face “the most significant hardship” according to the Department of Homeland Security, as members could go without pay during the shutdown.

A bill co-sponsored by Alaska U.S. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, among others, seeks to guarantee all military members are paid during a shutdown. The bill, introduced Sept. 18, had not advanced to a Senate as of Thursday and would still need to pass the House, where infighting among Republicans who have a slim majority is a root cause of the impending shutdown.

Across the country it’s estimated that more than a million active-duty military service members would work without pay if the shutdown occurs. However, veteran benefits like health care and pensions would continue, according to a contingency plan from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Can I still mail in my ballot for the Oct. 3 municipal election?

Yes. The government shutdown is not expected to affect mail delivery because the U.S. Postal Service is largely funded through the sales of products and services, and is not reliant on taxpayer dollars.

According to incoming City Manager Katie Koester, residents should be able to mail in the ballots without issue. Koester said CBJ operations should remain largely unaffected if a shutdown occurs.

How will a shutdown affect my Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits, or other federally funded assistance?

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, in an announcement Tuesday, said departments are evaluating federal programs administered by the state, with the intent of “continuing essential government services funded by the federal government and administered by the State where it has the authority to do so. Alaska would seek reimbursement following a shutdown.”

Critical life, health and safety programs such as Medicaid will continue, according to Dunleavy. Unemployment insurance will still be available, including processing of new claims, according to an FAQ published by the Alaska Department of Labor.

SNAP recipients will receive their October benefits if a shutdown occurs, although it is possible November benefits will be delayed if the shutdown is prolonged, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center. The Biden administration, in a press release, also stated more than 18,000 people in Alaska who receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could lose those benefits if a shutdown occurs.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651) 528-1807.

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