President Trump invited reporters into the Oval Office on Christmas morning to listen to him call military troops overseas.  The New York Times reported that the President also commented that federal workers are happy to work for free during the government shutdown until the wall he’s demanded is fully funded.

President Donald Trump speaks at the Project Safe Neighborhoods conference in Kansas City on December 7, 2018 (photo courtesy of Joyce Boghosian at the White House)

“Many of those workers have said to me — communicated — stay out until you get the funding for the wall,” the Times quoted Mr. Trump as saying. “These federal workers want the wall.”

The President’s claim is not echoed by Laura Pounders, who has been placed on unpaid leave with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Housing Service.

“When I went into the office this morning and we did our shutdown procedures, there was nobody in there saying, ‘Oh, this is great, this is great,’ nobody was saying that,” said Harrison.

St. Louis is home to the Customer Service Center within the national Rural Development Service.  It’s charged with servicing mortgage loans and grants extended to low-income individuals in rural areas.  The timing of the partial government shutdown, which is impacting the St. Louis operation, could not be worse.

The loans and property taxes it services on are not being processed.  Wil Grant with the agency says homeowners who’ve made their payments on time are going to be unfairly penalized.

“We cannot make that payment for the homeowner at the end of the year because we’re stuck,” said Grant.  “They’re going to be hit with their state on penalty charges and interest charges.”

Grant is president of the local chapter of the union – the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) – that represents employees who work in the St. Louis Rural Development Service facility.  He says the workers do not know if they’re going to receive back pay for the forced unpaid leave they’re taking because of the government shutdown.

Congress and the White House must determine whether government employees will be reimbursed.  In past shutdowns, workers were later paid. Legislation has already been introduced in Congress to provide back pay during the shutdown.  The U.S. Senate is scheduled to be in session Thursday and could conceivably address the issue.

Mr. Grant says low-income homeowners being serviced through the Rural Development Service will likely take a hit to their credit through no fault of their own.

“Not being here and posting that payment, the credit bureau’s report, that’s going to be another negative effect on the homeowner,” Grant says.

The Rural Development Service also works with contractors to build homes for low-income individuals who qualify for loans.  The contractors have frozen work on those houses because they’re not getting paid during the shutdown.  Also, homeowners who qualify for loans or grants to make repairs on existing houses cannot receive services during the current situation.

The Rural Development Service operates under U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is one of nine federal agencies impacted by the partial shutdown.  Its employees are among the estimated 380,000 on unpaid leave.  Another 420,000 who have determined to be essential personnel are required to work without being paid.

A closed sign greets visitors to the Gateway Arch due to a partial federal government shutdown in St. Louis on December 24, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

Another agency affected by the deadlock is the Department of Interior. It operates the National Parks Service. Perhaps the most high profile example of the shutdown in Missouri is the closing of the national park in St. Louis – the Gateway Arch.

The Parks Service also announced Wednesday there will be no federally provided assistance to visitors’ at Ozark National Scenic Riverways in southeast Missouri, including public information, restrooms, trash collection, and facilities or roads maintenance.  The agency also announced there would be no services for campgrounds, including maintenance, janitorial, bathrooms, or showers at Scenic Riverways Park.

Kally Coleman is a member of the Leadership Council for Friends of Ozark Riverways, which promotes respectful management of the park. She notes winter camping and paddling have become more popular activities in recent years and said visitors and private concessionaires could be affected by the shutdown.

“In the past, those concessionaires aren’t allowed to rent a canoe or a kayak during a government shutdown,” says Coleman.  “Of course, there would be an economic impact for those concessionaires.”

In addition, she says there are negative ramifications because of the unpaid leave being forced on roughly 25 full-time employees at the Riverways park.

“During the holidays, that’s kind of a big hit for them personally, but also for the local economy when you consider they’re getting groceries, they’re getting gas and they’re spending money,” Coleman says.

She notes some National Park Rangers would continue to work during the current shutdown.  During the government shutdown in January, a pregnant elk was poached in Utah’s Zion National Park and tourists in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming snowboarded dangerously close to the Old Faithful geyser.

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