Wyoming businesses come to furloughed federal workers aid

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Across the state, locals are stepping up to help those affected by shutdown

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming businesses and organizations are coming together in support of federal employees who have been furloughed because of the record-breaking federal government shutdown.

Throughout the state, locals are offering discounts and interest-free lines of credit to help federal employees, who missed their first paycheck of the year between Jan. 11-17 — depending on their department. If the shutdown continues, furloughed employees could miss a second paycheck between Jan. 25-31. 

While the Washington Post reported President Donald Trump approved legislation Wednesday granting furloughed employees back pay once the government is reopened, Wyomingites are stepping up to help their neighbors in the meantime.

Teton County

Jackson Whole Grocer owner Jeff Rice kept a weather eye on the news prior to the shutdown, and when it became apparent federal employees could be in for a hard winter, Rice said he met with his employees to devise a plan to help.

“Clearly this was going to be a little longer and have a greater impact on folks,” he said. “A few days before the shutdown happened, it occurred to me that we should do what we can to help people out.”

With Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Shoshone National Forest nearby, several federal employees live in the Jackson area.

“I pulled my team together and we brainstormed what we could do,” Rice said. “We decided to offer (furloughed) federal workers essentially a line of credit, about $200 a week up to a max of $1000.”

The credit is interest free, and participants will have up to 60 days to pay back the loan after the government reopens, he said. Additionally, the store is offering furloughed employees a 10 percent discount.

“Our guiding principals include community support and being an active part of our community,” Rice explained. “This is the kind of stuff we do.”

As of Wednesday, he said about 20 people had taken advantage of the credit.

Laramie County

Colleen Zemelka and her husband, Charles, are no strangers to federal pay gaps. A recently retired U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class, Charles Zemelka said while he’s not personally affected by the shutdown yet, many of his friends are furloughed. 

“When the government shutdowns occur, the spouses of your lower enlisted personnel, who tend to work on the base for government entities, get hit pretty hard, creating a double jeopardy situation,” he said. “During a previous shutdown — I believe it was during (former President Bill) Clinton — it ran over a military payday, so we’ve seen what can happen.”

Colleen Zemelka, an independent hair stylist working out of New Wave Salon in Cheyenne, said she is offering furloughed employees and their families free haircuts and 50 percent off chemical treatments such as hair coloring and perms.

“Being from a family that is military, we’ve experienced a month or two when paychecks didn’t come through,” she said. “We’re not sure if at the end of the month my husband will get his retirement check, but either way, I believe helping the community is better than worrying about ourselves.”

The hair stylist said while no one had taken her up on the offer as of Thursday, she’d received some inquiries for openings during the weekend.

Converse County

Without pay, furloughed employees could struggle to pay essential bills — rent, heating, water — during the shutdown, so Converse County Bank is offering payday advances for those affected.

“At Converse County Bank, we truly believe that everyone is a friend and a neighbor,” said Breck Wagstaff, Converse County Bank’s community development officer. “We’ve reached out to our customer base and let them know if they are an active federal employee affected by the shutdown, we’ll loan them their next paycheck interest free.”

The offer started Jan. 8, and Wagstaff said the bank has already helped several furloughed employees — customers and non-customers alike. “It’s not about Converse County Bank, it’s about helping out people in need,” he explained. “We don’t have a great deal of federal employees in Douglas, but we’re happy to help where we can.”

Albany County

When the paychecks stop rolling in, some people might just want to sit back, have a drink and enjoy a burger — the Crowbar & Grill in Laramie is there to help. 

“We’re offering 20 percent off our entire menu to furloughed workers and their families,” Crowbar owner Andy Glines said. “I had seen other businesses were offering discounts, and we wanted to ease the burden on the people affected by the shutdown.”

The offer began Jan. 10, and though Glines said he wasn’t aware of any takers, it will stand throughout the duration of the shutdown.

“We understand the community makes us successful,” he said. “And we’d like to give back to that.”

Statewide

According to the Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies, about one in eight Wyoming residents experienced food insecurity in 2018, but the shutdown could significantly increase that number, a food bank spokesperson said.

“Food is the last thing these people need to worry about,” said Shanna Harris, Wyoming Food Bank of the Rockies director. “We’re not sure how long this will go on, because hopefully the federal employees will go back to work, but our pantries have a really solid base.”

In addition to the food bank’s regular visits throughout the state, Harris said the Evansville-based organization was conducting “emergency pantry” visits.

On Monday, it distributed approximately 30,000 meals in Jackson. Tuesday, its staff members visited Buffalo, distributing about 12,000 meals. And the organization plans to visit Medicine Bow in southeast Wyoming on Friday, followed by another delivery to Laramie next week.

“It’s not just federal workers, but the shutdown has a ripple effect for people who do contract work for the federal government,” Harris said. “If someone is hungry, then we respond. It’s our goal to make sure people who are food insecure have their next meal, and we’re very good at mobilizing.”

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