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Federal Gov. Shutdown Felt on Molokai

While the shutdown of the federal government for two weeks earlier this month didn’t affect the daily lives of many Molokai residents, it did have a marked impact on some. The National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other federal agencies with employees on Molokai all felt the federal actions directly.

Across the country, 800,000 federal civilian workers were furloughed for 16 days after the government faced a partial shutdown starting Oct. 1. More than one million members of the military remained on the job, as well as just over one million civilian federal workers involved in operations deemed essential, including air-traffic controllers and TSA inspectors, among others. The shutdown took place after unresolvable debates over funding the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as ObamaCare, led conservative “Tea Party” Republicans to threaten shutdown to block the landmark health coverage plan.

On Molokai, 47 workers are employees of the Kalaupapa National Historical Park (KNHP), according to Superintendent Erika Stein Espaniola — and 37 of those were furloughed for 16 days. Ten remained on to perform necessary functions within the Kalaupapa settlement, such as law enforcement, waste management, and utility personnel, said Espaniola.

“Because this national park is a different situation [than many other parks around the country because of its residential nature], we thought it was very imperative that health, safety and law enforcement be maintained for pretty much normal operations,” she said.

And while life went on as usual for many state employees and patient residents of Kalaupapa, federal workers were left with a lot of uncertainty during that two-week period.

“We knew no more than the general public through this,” Espaniola said. “We were just following the news like everyone else. So there was some anxiety… some folks were grateful for a little break, but there were a lot of unknowns about how badly it was going to affect us.”

Espaniola said she got the news about 7 p.m. last Wednesday evening that the shutdown was over and employees were to return to work Thursday morning.

USDA employees on Molokai faced the same situation during the shutdown. USDA inspectors at the airport were likened to TSA and considered “essential.” But even though they were still required to work, they didn’t receive pay until the federal government resumed normal operation, said one Molokai USDA airport employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“On Molokai, nobody’s going to let you starve — everyone would have been willing to help, so I didn’t have as much fear [as I might have on the mainland],” said the employee. “But at what point do you cancel your cable? It didn’t go on so long that people had to make those choices, but I looked at ‘what do I need to do?’”

For some federal employees, the shutdown served as a wake-up call.

“Some of us realized federal government isn’t as secure as it may appear,” continued the USDA employee. “The people making these decisions — their lives aren’t affected, they’re still getting paychecks. They’re playing chicken with our lives….They shook my faith in them.”

And though the last government shutdown was 17 years ago, some believe the next one may not be that far off.

Federal employees went back to work when the U.S. House and Senate agreed to pass a bill, which, among other things, raises the national debt ceiling. But enforcement of the debt limit is suspended until Feb. 7, 2014, after which another confrontation might take place, according to political analysts. In the meantime, federal agencies will be funded through Jan. 15, when they might shut down again if they can’t agree on an ongoing dispute over spending cuts known as sequestration.

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