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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Forest Service Employees Want Permanent Solution To Government Shutdown

File photo of Forest Service helicopter crews practicing medical evacuation west of Missoula, MT. The government shutdown has put a halt to much of the Forest Service's wildfire training.
Lane Lamoreaux (PD)
File photo of Forest Service helicopter crews practicing medical evacuation west of Missoula, MT. The government shutdown has put a halt to much of the Forest Service's wildfire training.

Union representatives of Montana’s 7,000 federal workers impacted by the federal government shutdown say they’re pleased President Donald Trump has agreed to put them back to work for three weeks and authorize back pay. But they say questions still abound and damage has already been done.

Bob Beckley represents U.S. Forest Service workers with the National Federation of Federal Employees.

"I think we're happy to go back to work. I know we're happy to go back to work," Beckley says. "I know we’re looking to pick up the pieces and try to catch up and do the job to meet the mission that we were hired to do. I don't think anybody's happy with only a guarantee of three weeks. We want a permanent solution, a permanent fix."

Beckley says the shutdown’s impacts will be long felt by Forest Service employees and their communities.

"There are a lot of Forest Service employees that live paycheck to paycheck, and it's not because they can't save or they haven't saved. It's because they're young. They’re trying to pay off that student debt plus build a career, build a family. They’re the ones that I feel sorry for. They’re the ones that are hurting," he says.

Beckley says he’s heard some of his members had a hard time accepting donations from food banks they normally donate to. Some struggled to pay for childcare to hold onto coveted spots even as they stayed home with their kids. He says signing up for unemployment was a catch-22.

"We're not allowed to go to work and get on our computer to print off proof of employment and paystubs, to print off what the state needs to sign us up for unemployment," Beckley says. "On the flip side of that, we know we're going to get paid when we come back to work. If you get unemployment benefits, you’re going to have to reimburse the state for that once you go back to work."

Beckley says the shutdown prevented people from retiring because their paperwork couldn’t be processed and he worries about the message the shutdown sent to the next generation of federal workers.

"The federal government in itself touts itself as trying to be the model employer. We want to the be the employer that people come to. They should want to work for the federal government. I think it sends the wrong message, especially to the younger, the smartest and brightest people that we should be trying to recruit. When they look at what's happening with the furlough, they think, boy do I really want to work for the federal government if I'm just a political pawn and I can get furloughed through no fault of my own, and told to go home and no idea when I’m going to go back to work and when I’m going to get paid?"

Along with the financial strain of the month-plus shutdown, Beckley is thinking about longer-term impacts to federal workers’ sense of self.

"We're active, we're proactive. We're involved in our communities. To be kind of put on the sidelines as "non-essential," that's hard for us. We don't know how to ask for help when we're the ones that give the help," he says.

In an address Friday afternoon, President Trump thanked furloughed workers and their families for their devotion during the shutdown and threatened another if Congress fails to pass a funding measure for his proposed wall along the southern border.

"If we don't get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on February 15, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the Constitution of the United States to address this emergency," Trump said.

If that happens, Al Ekblad with the Montana State AFL-CIO says his union members, federal or not, are ready to take action.

"If he actually is foolish enough to close it down in three weeks, there will be rallies — not just government workers, but all of our members and people that support workers — at their offices, instantaneously," Ekblad said.

Trump did not announce on Friday when federal workers will return to work or when backpay will be distributed.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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