Federal Employees on the Cape Tighten Belts as Gov’t Shutdown Continues

Jan 11, 2019


Falmouth Service Center director Brenda Swain, deputy director Kerin Delaney, and volunteer Barry Hall at the food pantry counter.
Credit Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI


As the government shutdown enters its third week, many federal employees living on Cape Cod are starting to feel the squeeze. Some are beginning to look to community resources for help.


  At the Falmouth Service Center, the food pantry's director Brenda Swain said they've seen increased traffic in the past few weeks because of the shutdown. On a busy Friday morning, she showed their shelves, stocked with everything from cornflakes to canned beans, and freezers filled with meat, dairy and eggs.


"We’re like the grocery store, except here, nobody pays," she said.

She said the food pantry asks for no qualifying paperwork to receive food and is for anyone in need. She added that many government employees have been using the pantry in recent weeks in order to save to pay for other, more pressing bills.


"Both out at Joint Base Cape Cod, down in Woods Hole, there are various organizations whose workers live in this community, who are most often either our donors or volunteers, but are finding themselves in need of being on the other side of the counter currently," she said.


According to a count by the Cape and Islands Workforce Board, just around 1600 government employees work and live on the Cape, a number that includes postal workers, the coast guard, air traffic controllers, military base employees and scientists. Director of the Workforce Board David Augustino says this number makes up about one percent of the workforce.

"There are around 100 thousand people in our workforce, so we’re down around 1 percent of the workforce," he said. "But 1600 families is a pretty large number to think about who are being adversely affected."

And the numbers may not just affect those families—the services these organizations provide are also being impacted. The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce reported that H2B visas may once again be tight for this summer, as plans to raise the H2B visa caps have been stalled. For everybody involved, so much of this depends on how long it runs.


"If it ended in another week or so, I think the impacts would be minimal even for the individuals, but if it goes longer than that, I’m sure there would be individuals and families who would be seriously affected," Augustino said.

One of those people affected is Rob Thieler, director of the United States Geological Survey’s office in Woods Hole. His office has around a hundred employees, all of whom have been furloughed since December 22. He said that for them, a shutdown that runs consecutive pay cycles is particularly difficult.

"We are a microcosm of a lot of issues that are associated with the shut down being reported nationally," he said. "We have people who may be living paycheck to paycheck. I suppose if it goes long enough, folks will start thinking about outside employment."

The shutdown has led him to re-evaluate his family’s finances.  

"I actually spent a couple hours the other day with a spreadsheet figuring out how long we can go before we need to undertake extraordinary measures to keep us going, before we need to take outside assistance," he said.

He added that he’s especially worried about his younger employees, many of whom have student debt to pay off and who are trying to publish papers to further their careers. He says he personally hasn’t reached a breaking point yet, a point where he’d have to quit and find employment elsewhere, and he hopes it doesn't get to that point.

"I’ve had a very productive and very successful and very rewarding career with the federal government," he said. "I think to the extent that we’re committed to keeping on doing what we’re doing, the situation is really unfortunate because it keeps a lot of people who really love what they do from doing what they do."

For now, he said he’s been filling his days catching up on housework and cleaning, and checking in with his staff to make sure everyone else is keeping their head above water.