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Sumter resident, meteorologist says government shutdown has been painful for National Weather Service staff

Federal agency workers in Columbia still doing essential services unpaid

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 1/25/19

He describes it as being "caught in the middle," unfortunate, unfair and stressful to continue to work without pay, but he considers himself luckier than many of his younger co-workers.

Sumter resident Doug Anderson, a meteorologist with the …

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Sumter resident, meteorologist says government shutdown has been painful for National Weather Service staff

Federal agency workers in Columbia still doing essential services unpaid

Posted

He describes it as being "caught in the middle," unfortunate, unfair and stressful to continue to work without pay, but he considers himself luckier than many of his younger co-workers.

Sumter resident Doug Anderson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Columbia, and his co-workers at the federal agency are continuing to deal with a partial government shutdown as it enters a second month. He's also the steward of the local workers' union of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

The Columbia weather forecast office is one of three in the state for the agency and consists of 25 employees, Anderson said. Twenty-four workers - including the 16 staff meteorologists - are working without pay, and one administrative support person is furloughed without pay.

They are part of some 800,000 federal workers from nine of the 15 federal Cabinet departments across the U.S. who now have not received two consecutive paychecks as of today.

Anderson said all weather service employees have been guaranteed back pay once the shutdown is over - "whenever that may be" - but the political stalemate over President Donald Trump's proposed $5.7 billion border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is still affecting employees and their families.

The Senate swatted down competing Democratic and Republican plans on Thursday for ending the now 34-day shutdown, leaving Trump and Congress with no obvious formula for halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies, according to The Associated Press. The Democratic proposal got one more vote than the GOP plan, with six Republican defectors and only faint signs that lawmakers on both sides were looking for ways to resolve the impasse.

The job of a forecast meteorologist is already a stressful one anyway, Anderson told The Sumter Item Thursday, where one has to be at his or her best. Speaking as a representative of the union, he said the shutdown is causing additional stress.

He said no one ever expected this shutdown to go on this long.

There have been 21 lapses in federal government funding since 1976 that have caused departments to shut down or furlough employees. The now second-longest lapse was during President Bill Clinton's tenure in 1995-96. It lasted 21 days.

"We're staying focused, but it is still a distraction," Anderson said. "It's hard to work under these conditions. We go to work, aren't getting paid but don't qualify for unemployment."

From Sumter, Anderson has a 55-minute commute to his office in Columbia.

During the shutdown, the weather service can only conduct core mission activities, which include issuing forecasts and warnings to protect lives and property.

Equipment maintenance and repairs have been severely slowed, waiting for approval, according to Anderson.

The radar system at Columbia Metropolitan Airport that provides direct radar service over the Midlands region has been down for six days. Usually, repairs to it are made in less than 24 hours, he said.

Staff typically use this time of year to prepare for the severe weather season - hurricane season - by meeting with local, state and federal emergency management agencies, but that has all been halted. Severe weather spotter classes have also been canceled, and staff can't conduct post-weather damage surveys.

Also gone for staff is any community outreach to schools and providing expert forecast analysis to large farmers and the media.

Anderson describes his office team as "an outstanding group of meteorologists and technicians who are dedicated public servants." The office is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is a 365-day operation, running three shifts per day.

Shifts can be eight to 12 hours, depending on weather conditions. Fortunately, there have not been any severe weather systems in the Midlands region since the shutdown began in late December, he said. Those conditions result in the longer work days.

Anderson said he is lucky, though, compared to many of his co-workers - especially the younger ones. The 56-year-old has a dual-income household, receives military retirement pay and is currently using money from savings.

Some of the younger staff members only have one income source and young children and could now have their credit ratings hurt just to finance bills and day-to-day necessities.

Some employees are selling their belongings to make ends meet, he said.

If the shutdown continues another three to four weeks, even his own financial picture could change, he said, and he might seek a zero percent interest rate loan or try to defer mortgage payments, to which so many federal employees have already resorted.

He said he stopped watching news coverage of the shutdown and gave up on predicting an end to it.

"There seems to be no end in sight," Anderson said. "It's like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' But I hope it ends soon."

He said he thinks this shutdown will have a long-term impact on recruitment and retention for the National Weather Service and for many other federal jobs.

"The stability of having a consistent job in the government sector, which for a long time has been considered a perk, has been shattered," Anderson said.

He said his agency has been grateful for the outpouring of support it has received from the local community, especially in the form of meals delivered to the office. On Wednesday, a Columbia TV meteorologist provided meals for the day and night shift at the weather service, Anderson said.

Everybody is just taking it one day at a time, he said, and the staff has found humor to be helpful.

"A few of us looked at each other the other day and said, 'You know, I ate a lot of ramen in college, and who would have thought we would be back to our ramen days?'" Anderson said. "For some of our employees, that is rapidly becoming more and more of a reality."