Shut down hits local pocketbooks, federal prison workers scrambling to make financial plans

January 18, 2019

What has been the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States is now contributing to the normal stressors of a federal prison employee. Long hours of working with inmates ranging from murderers to white collar criminals just got compounded as prison employees have officially gone without a paycheck beginning this week.


The most notable local federal agency affected by government shutdown, which began on December 22, is the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Sandstone where all employees are considered “essential” and required to show up for work.


Mike Weber, union president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 683, says the shutdown is beginning to take its toll on the employees as some have begun to suffer already while others are making plans for an extended shutdown.


“We have talked to Northview Bank, and they have been phenomenal,” said Weber. “They are working with employees and will give them 30 or 60 day loans or lines of credit. The terms they are offering are unbeatable with payments due after the shutdown ends and employees receive their back pay. They also waived the origination fees. This is what is great about having a small town bank relationship.”


Lara Wilkinson, marketing director for Members Credit Union in Sandstone said, “As a not-for-profit organization, we always work to help our members when they are experiencing financial hardship. At this point, we are asking our members to contact us if they are being impacted by the shutdown. We deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis to determine the best resources to help each member. We offer short-term and consolidation loans and lines of credit for members who need funds until they receive a paycheck. For those who hold qualifying personal loans with us, we offer a skip-a-pay option which allows them to apply to skip one loan payment (that payment is tacked on to the end of the loan, extending the payoff date). Other options may be available, and we will work with members to support their needs in the best way we can.”


Overall, Weber said, the general morale is getting worse and worse every day as employees will be disciplined or lose their jobs if they don’t come to work, but the staff are some of the “best staff in the Bureau of Prisons” in his mind. “People are still coming to work,” said Weber. “The warden has been great with raising morale and lightening things up.” Weber noted that the warden said he will approve employees taking additional work when they are not working at the prison.


Weber noted that even though staff members are not getting paid, the inmates who work within the low-security prison are still getting paid for their work doing tasks such as kitchen work, cleaning or shoveling. “It’s mind boggling and you wonder how you’re not getting paid and the inmates are,” said Weber.


Associate Warden Ernie Frie said, “We are continuing to deal with issues as are they come up. We have an employee assistance program that offers advice to us. We are looking at carpools (38 percent of the employees work outside the county) and helping out as much as we can, but there are concerns with our younger staff. But people are still showing up for work, and we’re protecting society. Local banks are working with our folks as several of our staff have contacted their creditors. I think as a whole, the general public is understanding and has been helpful.”


“Morale has been affected; however, I think people are looking out for each other and understand,” added Frie. “Anytime you take someone’s paycheck, it’s going to cause problems. But we’re trying to offer as much support as we can.”


One prison worker stated that they are fortunate to have other sources of income but feel for others who are living paycheck to paycheck. The family is now thankful they have savings to live on but will be turning to credit to cover expenses if the shutdown drags on.


Other agencies

Other local organizations were contacted and said the government shutdown had no affect on how they operate. A spokesperson for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe said there has been no impact on the Band.


Pine Technical and Community College President Joe Mulford said, “There are no issues on federal financial aid applications or loans that we are seeing. Things are being processed and students being served so far. We have not received any communications that indicate a change in the current situation.”


Local efforts to boost morale: $5 Pizza giveaway

To help keep spirits strong, Jill Warner of Sandstone’s $5 Pizza, is offering a free pizza to federal prison employees with federal employee identification when they stop in the store. “At $5 Pizza we get the privilege of speaking to a lot of people who work at the prison, and I keep saying ‘thank you’ to them because they are making a sacrifice with not getting paid right now as a federal employee,” said Warner. “So we decided that we need to show them that we do appreciate the sacrifice they are making, even if it is in a small way by providing pizza. We can not control what is happening but we can show support for our local FCI staff members that are part of our community.”


Local efforts to boost morale: Chris’ Foods discount on groceries

Chris' Food Center will offer Federal Government Employees who are affected by the government shutdown a 5% discount at Chris' Food Center on their grocery food purchases by showing their Federal ID Badge during the shut down period.

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