Impact of 35-day partial government shutdown still felt as families try to catch up

A truckload of food stocked with everything from bread to snacks, canned goods and other grocery items took off Monday from the back parking lot of Aldi supermarket in Canandaigua.

The food purchased by the local branch of Blue Star Mothers of America Inc. headed to U.S. Coast Guard families in Buffalo. Blue Star Mothers had also sent goods to Coast Guard families stationed in Rochester during the 35-day partial government shutdown that ended Friday.

Some 800,000 workers were furloughed or required to work without pay during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, including members of the Coast Guard. They will receive back pay, but it's unclear when. The White House tweeted that it will be "in the coming days."

“It’s very traumatic,” said Joyce Mader, president of the N.Y. Chapter 1, Blue Star Mothers of America who was outside the Aldi store Monday with other volunteers to fill the truck. The nonprofit had so far put about $4,000 into purchases for Coast Guard families. That included about 126 members out of Buffalo and 25 in Rochester.

The Coast Guard was the only branch of the armed services affected by the shutdown, as it is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security rather than the Pentagon. Mader said Coast Guard members going without pay for more than a month included those who did not get retirement checks. She said families are stressed financially and anxious, too, as it’s unclear what could happen next.

“You are dealing with people’s lives,” she said. It will take awhile to recover from this and the donations should at least help the families not have to worry about groceries, Mader said. Donations also included toys and stuff animals for the children and Valentines.

No one knows what will happen after Valentine’s Day. The clock is ticking on the deal between President Donald Trump and congressional leaders that ended the shutdown only through Feb. 15. Trump, in a weakened negotiating position, will try again to persuade lawmakers to finance the border wall with the Feb. 15 deadline looming as he holds out the potential of another shutdown.

“I feel that our elected government officials should be able to better compromise, communicate and come to a solution — without holding hard-working Americans’ paychecks hostage,” said Landon Pelkey, a federal prison correctional officer who was forced to work without pay during the shutdown. “It’s just plain not fair. We are pawns to them,” said Pelkey, who is a nephew of Naples Library Director Judy Schewe.

Last week, on day 33 of the shutdown, Landon and his wife, Kristin, had already begun digging into their savings. Fortunately, Kristin is not a government employee and they at least had one paycheck. But they were worried.

“Not getting paid is stressful,” said Landon, 33, who works at Ray Brook, a medium-security prison for male inmates in the Adirondack region. Kristin is office manager at Tupper Lake Hardwoods. They have three sons, age 9 and 5-year-old twins.

Landon said they were used to seeing their bank account slowly dwindle each month with anticipation it would be replenished with his next paycheck. That didn’t happen for more than a month. If the shutdown continued they’d face living off one paycheck for their family of five to cover basics such as food, gas and heat — without money for mortgage or car payments, for paying off student loan debt or for child care.

Still, he said his family was one of the lucky ones.

“I work with plenty of married couples that are both employed by the prison and I can only imagine their hardship. Being forced to work at the prison, and work side jobs in their off-duty hours to survive, it’s an awful situation that no one should have to endure,” he said. He noted there were many financial institutions, individuals and businesses in their area providing meals and donating food. A food pantry was set up at the prison for employees to bring food home to their families.

“In my eyes the government shutdown will not be defined by Democrats or Republicans bickering over how to best secure our borders, but by the resiliency of the affected employees and the communities that support them.” Pelkey said.

During the shutdown, a sign on the door of the Freihofer’s Bakery Outlet in Geneva read: “Stand Together! All Federal Employees are entitled to one free loaf of bread per day during the government shutdown period. Simply show your federal ID card.”

“We started this to help,” said Stephen Freese, senior regional outlet manager for the bread company that runs 70 outlet stores across the Northeast selling Freihofer’s, Stroehmann and Entenmann's brands. Freese said response in the communities was positive and federal workers were taking the company up on its offer.

In the Rochester/Finger Lakes region, the local United Way agencies and regional food bank, Foodlink, ramped up efforts to help families in need. Kari Buch, regional director of United Way of Ontario County, said Thursday that those needing help could call 211 to be connected with resources. She was in contact with other United Way and community leaders about ways to help affected families. Foodlink partnered with Monroe County Department of Human Services, United Way of Greater Rochester and 2-1-1/LIFE LINE to ensure no one would be left hungry or otherwise in dire straits during the shutdown.