ST. GEORGE — With the government shutdown on its 26th day and 800,000 federal employees still furloughed or working without pay, national parks have been experiencing the effects. However, until recently, reporters from St. George News have been stymied in their attempts to find out how the shutdown is affecting Zion National Park’s most valuable resource: the people who run it.
Across the country, national parks are either unstaffed or short staffed, leaving parts of some parks damaged by visitor use and in many cases, closed off completely. However, Zion National Park has remained open with minimal staffing and services, keeping the visitor’s center and bathrooms open, as well as providing some trash cleanup and law enforcement, thanks to funding from the Utah Tourism Office, the Zion Forever Project, Washington County and the city of St. George.
Park employees have been instructed to direct media inquiries to the park’s chief of interpretation, who, because of the shutdown, has been told to direct reporters to the National Park Service. However, a Zion employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity was able to share with St. George News what it’s like in the park during the shutdown and how employees have been affected.
Federal employees, whether working as an essential employee or not, missed their first paychecks on Friday.
How employees have had to make do varies from person to person. Some employees have been just fine, the Park Service employee said, depending on a spouse’s income or savings account, while others have had to seek outside help to cover personal expenses through loans or credit.
The Interior Federal Credit Union, a financial institution for those involved with the Department of the Interior, is offering up to $15,000 net paychecks, credit cards, skipped payments and zero percent APR on all new and existing lines for the duration of the shutdown for affected employees.
The employee who spoke to St. George News said that while they personally haven’t had to borrow any money so far, if the shutdown lasts much longer they will have to take some sort of action to keep up with expenses.
So far I haven’t had to do much. I have just kind of reined everything in a little bit. For me, just those kind of personal expenses are all back-burnered for right now. That said, if it goes on much longer I’ll probably change some things.
While most park employees live in nearby communities, some live in the employee housing within the park. These employees pay rent to the National Park Servce and have to pay for utilities and other bills like a renter outside the park would.
Since housing is limited, seasonal workers, who work during the park’s busy season between April and October, and emergency service employees such as law enforcement rangers and paramedics, are given preference to the employee housing.
The Park Service is prepared for situations like this, however, knowing that government shutdowns do occur from time to time and that many seasonal employees go on a natural furlough period each year anyway as part of their contract. During that time they are not allowed to work and do not receive pay but are still allowed to stay in park housing and pay back the rent as a debt to the park service once they are paid again. Similarly, park employees will pay back their park housing rent once their back pay is received.
Similar to paying rent, park employees’ insurance bills are on hold until after they have been paid, but they still have insurance coverage during this time.
An appropriation bill guaranteeing that federal workers will receive the paychecks they would have received had the government not been shut down has already been passed by Congress and has been sent to the president’s desk who is expected to sign it, according to the Associated Press.
The checks would be sent out after the government reopens, and all employees will be paid regardless of whether they worked during the shutdown.
Only about 15 percent of the normal January workforce is working during the shutdown, while the remaining 85 percent have been sent home and are not allowed to work. That 15 percent of the workforce is not at the park every day; some are just called in as needed for jobs like plowing snow.
However, those who are not permitted to work still have to remain in the area so that when the government reopens they can report back to work the next day.
“Some people have suggested it’s paid vacation. I don’t know that that’s the appropriate way of looking at it,” the Park Service employee said. “It’s paid twiddling your thumbs and worrying about how you’re going to pay your rent.”
Many of those who are working are only putting in about half of their usual hours, though law enforcement, dispatch and some maintenance workers are still on their normal schedule.
Staff numbers are normally lower in the winter than they are during the summer anyway. The employee, who has worked at Zion for several years, said the weeks between Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day are usually the slowest time of the year, so they haven’t had too much trouble keeping up with visitors. Over the holidays, however, park visitation usually rivals that of a busy summer day.
“That 10 days from the time the shutdown started to the first of the year was incredibly stressful,” the employee said. “Once we got past that and into our normal three weeks of quietude it’s been a little less stressful. We’re stressed out for other reasons, but it has nothing to do with visitation.”
The exact number of visitors is hard to determine since the entrance stations are not in service, but the visitors who have been there have, for the most part, been very careful to do their part by packing out their trash, and some have paid their entrance fees in the form of a donation.
“We’ve been very, very careful in our messaging to visitors who have come in and specifically chatted with us to ask them to pack out what they’re packing in because we’re not able to collect trash from upcanyon as often as we normally would. And so I think people are being very, very careful,” the employee said.
Some trash buildup has occurred in areas with a lot of foot traffic, like the Zion Lodge, the Grotto and the Temple of Sinawava, but even that has been minimal.
The park employee said they had not noticed a lot of visitors illegally accessing areas of the park where they are not allowed, like areas requiring backcountry permits, and speculated that one reason may be that these areas are generally harder to access in the winter months anyway because of snow and ice.
Zion normally has volunteers who come out on a weekly basis to perform various tasks for the park, but as with regular employees, these volunteers have not been allowed to work during the shutdown. However, some small groups of community members have stepped in to help by picking up trash, which has been “very lovely” for the understaffed park.
Because of the funding that allows employees to perform minimal bathroom cleaning and trash pickup, the park has not seen as much destruction as some other parks in the nation.
“Parks that are accessible, but there’s no staffing, are seeing I think a lot more damage and destruction and issues in that realm than we are because we have some presence,” they said. “And so for that we are very lucky.”
In addition to cleanup, members of the community have also stepped in to help federal employees while they are not receiving pay. The Rotary Club of Zion Canyon, along with volunteers from Springdale and Rockville, have organized a potluck and food drive.
Community members are asked to donate shelf-stable food items to the Canyon Community Center at 126 Lion Blvd., in Springdale, Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
They are also asking for community members to drop off a potluck dish between 5-5:45 p.m. on Thursday to provide a potluck dinner. And Great Harvest Bread Co. is offering free loaves of bread at its bakery in St. George to federal workers affected by the shutdown.
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.