With federal funding frozen for a program that feeds infants, young children and their mothers, South Carolina has decided to pay the bills, but may cover those costs by furloughing thousands of state workers.

For 122,000 low-income South Carolina families, the decision means that county-level offices for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, will remain open for now. Food vouchers for those families to buy specific items such as fruit and milk are funded through Oct. 31 even if the federal shutdown drags on through the month.

“So, we have a little bit of a breather,” said Sandy Clair, executive director of the non-profit Charleston Area Senior Citizens, which also operates an emergency food pantry that’s expected to see unusual demand if WIC runs out of money.

This week the organization was already working on efforts to stock the food pantry — which is hardly more than a large storage closet — with things appropriate for infants and toddlers.

“We’re trying to be prepared,” said Clair. “Everybody in social services is scared to death.”

The WIC program serves nearly 9 million nationwide. In South Carolina, funding to operate WIC was expected to run out in mid-October, prior to Friday’s announcement.

For the roughly 3,500 S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control employees, the decision to keep funding WIC and other programs through Halloween could mean they will all have to take furloughs, unless the federal government reimburses the state after the shutdown ends.

For every week WIC and other unfunded DHEC programs continue, starting Monday, employees could have to take 1.5 days off without pay. If the federal shutdown lasts through October, that could mean every DHEC employee would have to take 6 days off without pay.

DHEC Director Catherine Templeton called the plan a “win-win for the citizens of South Carolina” because it would keep programs running without asking more of state taxpayers.

The plan will keep hospital certification and nuclear oversight programs operating, as well as WIC.

“No one is confident the federal government will be back next week,” Templeton said. “Hopefully, when the federal government does comes back, they will pay back our funding to Oct. 1.”

The department has not asked for additional state funding.

“I can hope the Legislature would take care of it, but they aren’t in session right now, and that (next state budget) wouldn’t take effect until July 1,” she said. “If I can avoid furloughing, I will avoid furloughing.”

The federal shutdown began Oct. 1 and will continue until Congress approves legislation to fund the government. The shutdown furloughed roughly 800,000 federal workers, and in South Carolina left DHEC without funding for 784 employees.

Templeton said she couldn’t just shut down programs to feed infants, monitor nuclear plants, and certify hospitals. And, she said, if a state employee is furloughed for more than 10 days, their employment must be terminated under South Carolina law.

If the federal shutdown were to last past Halloween, then the state would refer WIC clients to food pantries, Templeton said. Clients who tried to use vouchers — which are issued for three months at a time — could learn in checkout lines that the funding had dried up.

WIC clients have to visit program offices every three months for mandatory education classes, and to get new vouchers. Some get counseling about breast-feeding, and tests such as iron level checks. Those who last visited a state-run program office in August or September may be unaware of the possible effects of the federal shutdown.

At Charleston Area Senior Citizens, Clair said she believes the economic impact of the shutdown will be felt more widely than many people may expect.

“I think there will be less income in the community, and that means more demand for meals,” she said. “It’s tough out there, and getting tougher.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.