Monday was a cliffhanger for staff at federal agencies across the territory as they tried to prepare for a federal government shutdown.
Angeline Muckle-Jabbar, a senior policy advisor at Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen’s office, said the federal government employs 695 people, not including U.S. Postal Service workers, across the territory. If a shutdown happens, as appears likely, the impacts will be felt across the Virgin Islands.
“The park closes, and 46 employees will be furloughed,” V.I. National Park Superintendent Brion FitzGerald said, including himself on the list of those who won’t work until Congress hammers out some sort of agreement.
While St. John park personnel were still figuring out Monday morning how they would block entrances to the park’s beach parking lots, FitzGerald said they definitely would be closed. He said sawhorses and signs are the most probable, but the park staff was checking to see what it has on hand to block the entrances.
Should people decide to go for a swim despite the closure, FitzGerald said the enforcement rangers who will remain on the job will ask them to leave.
FitzGerald said no concession operations such as weddings and boat trips will be allowed to operate within the park. Annaberg Plantation will close, and the children’s playground next to the Visitor Center as well as the Visitor Center will be closed.
According to FitzGerald, the park will keep people off its property because if people got injured while visiting a beach or other facility while the park was closed, the park would be liable.
The North Shore Road will remain open because it’s a public road.
FitzGerald said in addition to the enforcement rangers, one person will remain on the job to operate the water system and wastewater treatment plant, and Deputy Superintendent Mike Anderson will stay to be the point of contact for the park.
On the plus side, he said that unlike some stateside parks, which are at the height of the fall leaf peeping season, the St. John park is at its slowest time of the year. Caneel Bay Resort and Cinnamon Bay Campground, which both sit on park land, are closed for the very slow season.
On St. Croix, Joel Tutein, who serves as superintendent for all three national park facilities, said Fort Christiansvaern and the Steeple Building in Christiansted National Historic Site will close by Wednesday should a federal government shutdown happen. However, he said Buck Island Reef National Monument, which sits off shore and has no visitor center, will remain open and privately-operated boat charters will be able to make trips. However, he said the park will not do any of its tours.
The visitor center at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve is closed for the season and will remain closed if a shutdown occurs. Tutein said the nearby beach is owned by the local government and will remain open.
He said 20 people work at park service facilities on St. Croix. If the shutdown happens, law enforcement rangers, a person to operate the facility and an administrative person will remain on the job. Tutein won’t be on the job.
“I’m first on the list,” he said.
Across the territory, federal agencies were preparing Monday for a shutdown they hope won’t happen.
“It’s put a strain on us,” Keshema Webbe, a life scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on St. Thomas, said.
The agency canceled meetings planned for the rest of the week because of the uncertainty. Webbe said organizing them was complicated because they involved multiple agencies.
EPA has two employees on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix. She said they received instructions that if the shutdown happens, they’re to report Tuesday to their jobs for four hours to shut down operations and fill out their furlough papers. Webbe said furlough usually means they don’t get paid, but she’s not sure what will happen this go round.
Not all federal agencies will be forced to close. Post offices would remain open because they are self-funded, nationally published reports indicated. No one from the U.S. Postal Service on St. Thomas returned a phone call requesting information.
It will be business as usual at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas, Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix and the territory’s seaports.
“It doesn’t affect essential services,” V.I. Port Authority spokesman Monifa Marrero said, noting that the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection will continue to operate.
A request for information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection both got kicked up the line to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which did not respond.
As for the U.S. Coast Guard facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix, the staff will still be on duty.
“It does not impact military personnel,” Coast Guard spokesman Ricardo Castrodad said, adding that he will stay home because he’s a civilian employee.
At U.S. District Court on St. Thomas, attorney Glenda L. Lake, who serves as clerk of the court, said the agency has a 10-day window in which to operate using currently available funds.
“In 10 days, they’ll reassess,” she said.
She said the Federal Building will be open so District Court staff can work.
Edgar Hernandez, director of the Caribbean Service Center for the General Services Administration, said from Puerto Rico that Federal Buildings will remain open.
U.S. Attorney Ronald Sharp will continue to work, spokesman Kim Chisholm said. As for the rest of the attorneys and staff, Chisholm referred questions to a document that came from department higher ups. It said “excepted employees are needed to address ongoing criminal matters and civil matters of urgency throughout the Nation. Criminal litigation will continue without interruption as an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property. Civil litigation will be curtailed or postponed to the extent this can be done without compromising to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
Published reports indicated that Medicare and Social Security payments would continue but there might be delays.
There are many unanswered questions. Tutein said his staff has asked about what happens to their health insurance. Britt Weinstock, who handles those matters at Christensen’s office, emailed that “the impact of any possible shutdown on federal employees’ health insurance is contingent upon the content (in terms of add-ons) in any legislative package.” Those terms won’t be known until Congress deals with the matter.
And will they ever get paid for time off from work? Tutein said that in past shutdowns, Congress approved the budget retroactively, but he said it remains unknown if people will “be made whole” this time round.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said.