01 October 2013

Welfare Benefits To Be Paid, But Lengthy Shutdown Could Affect State Services

Story first appeared in The Detroit News.

Lansing — -- The state took action Monday to ensure food stamps and cash assistance will be paid in October if there is a long federal government shutdown, while thousands of federal workers in Michigan prepared today to go without pay.

President Barack Obama, the Republican-controlled U.S. House and Democratic-led U.S. Senate missed a midnight deadline to agree to a new federal budget to avert a shutdown of an array of government agencies and programs today.

So the state Department of Human Services, through a front-ended payment system, began disbursing millions of dollars that will be loaded onto Bridge Cards for the more than 100,000 Michiganians receiving cash assistance and 1.75 million residents who get federally funded food stamps, DHS spokesman Dave Akerly said Monday. State officials previously feared cash aid might get cut off as early as this weekend for some recipients.

"We're good to go for October," Akerly told The Detroit News. "If (a shutdown) goes further than that, there could be problems."

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised the state Monday that monthly food stamp benefits still will be disbursed in October through a continuing funding mechanism in the 2009 Recovery Act, Akerly said.

Michigan gave out a monthly average of $241 million in food assistance in the past fiscal year, Akerly said.

Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy that advocates for the poor, said a government shutdown will hurt, but the effects could take some time to be visible.

"It's not going to be like a spigot that turns on and off," Jacobs said Monday. "Tomorrow we're not going to have people walking around homeless."

Workers brace for worst

As the specter loomed of the first federal government shutdown since the 1995-96 closings -- which lasted 28 days -- many of Michigan's more than 30,000 civilian federal workers prepared to be furloughed with no guarantee of back pay.

About half of the Department of Defense 800,000 civilian workforce -- or 400,000 employees -- is expected to be furloughed, but they may not get paid retroactively.

The impact will be felt especially hard in Macomb County, where nearly 8,000 full-time Department of Defense civilian employees already were furloughed for six days this year under budget reductions known as sequestration. Workers at the U.S. Army's Detroit Arsenal and Tank Automotive Command, or TACOM, in Warren and Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township were bracing Monday for another reduction in pay.

At the Selfridge base, about 650 members of the 127th Wing could face furloughs, said Sgt. Dan Heaton, spokesman for the 127th Wing.

Fearing furloughs

Security and fire personnel will remain at the base during a shutdown, Heaton said.

"One thing about military folks is they're good at taking orders and doing what they're told," he said. "That's the position we're in."

A union spokesman for civilian military workers said more furloughs would be "devastating."

"People aren't going to be able to pay their bills," said Jon Suminski, president of AFGE Local 2077, which represents about 240 civilian workers at Selfridge. "People are now just catching up. A lot of them had to skip their mortgage payment with those six days of lost pay."

About 900 Michigan National Guard military technicians would be furloughed until funding is restored, said Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard.

State Budget Office spokesman Kurt Weiss said a prolonged government closing would lead to some federally funded state workers being furloughed. Union contracts for some state workers require 14 to 30 days advance notice before employees can be furloughed, he said.

Many services continue

Many essential services will continue under a shutdown such as border patrols and federal prisons. Other programs funded outside the current budget process will still operate, including the mail delivery, payment of Social Security checks and federal health care exchanges set to open today.

Federal courts will remain open for at least 10 days, meaning Detroit's bankruptcy court hearing will proceed as planned Wednesday. However, if a shutdown continues beyond a 10-day window when all operating funds are exhausted, a scheduled Oct. 15 hearing may be affected, said federal court spokesman Rod Hansen.

Rochester Hills resident Carl Wellenkotter expressed frustration at the inability of politicians to come to an agreement but said perhaps a shutdown would force changes.

"Maybe a shock to the system is what it will take," said Wellenkotter, 79. "If all those clowns in Washington say the shutdown is bad, maybe it's good they've gotten us into this problem, and now they're supposed to get us out."

Furlough notices are being prepared for workers staffing Michigan's five national parks -- River Raisin National Battlefield Park, Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The fall colors are peaking this week at Sleeping Bears Dunes, said Dusty Shultz, park superintendent. But people won't be able to travel on park roads, and the park west of Traverse City will be closed.

At the River Raisin, organizers may be forced to cancel an event Saturday commemorating the 200th anniversary of Battle of the Thames. Staffers are "hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," said Scott Bentley, River Raisin superintendent.

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