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Government shutdown has some SC workers staying home, Charleston tourists frustrated

As the partial government shutdown continued Wednesday, some federal employees worked without pay, others stayed home on furlough, most went to work, and citizens remained confused about what was open or closed.

"It's the uncertainty," said William Homer, who had hoped to get a new Social Security card in Columbia. "What’s open? What’s closed? It’s a mess.”

The Social Security Administration was actually the only office open in the Strom Thurmond Federal Building, but Homer arrived after the office closed at noon, as it usually does on Wednesdays.

In the same federal building, a VA employee arrived hoping to get some advice from the Internal Revenue Service. But while the Department of Veterans Affairs was open because its budget was approved previously, the IRS was closed by the shutdown.

In Charleston — one of the nation's top tourism destinations — visitors found historic forts managed by the National Park Service closed.

Pennsylvania residents Seth and Kristin Grant said they had spent time during the past six months mapping out their holiday trip to Charleston, including tours of Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter, only to find them closed Wednesday.

"We’ll find other things to do," Kristin Grant said.

Without a budget deal — an impasse that followed President Donald Trump's demand for $5 billion in border wall funding — roughly a quarter of federal agencies and departments have no money to operate or pay workers. Nationwide about 420,000 workers deemed essential, such as most members of the Coast Guard, were working without pay while about 380,000 others stayed home on furlough. The shutdown began Saturday.

Most federal employees in South Carolina work for agencies not directly affected by the partial shutdown because they have approved budgets, such as the Department of Defense. The Postal Service, a large source of federal jobs in South Carolina, is an independent agency unaffected by the shutdown.

Passenger screenings by Transportation Security Administration employees are among the ongoing services deemed essential.

"It looks like a normal, ordinary day" at Charleston International Airport, said state Sen. Paul Campbell Jr., the airport's executive director and CEO. “Everybody knows that when they settle (the budget impasse), they’ve always gotten back pay."

All 800,000 of the federal employees going without pay during the shutdown are expected, but not guaranteed, to receive back-pay when the impasse is resolved, whether they were at work or furloughed. However, those employees could have trouble paying their bills in the meantime, if the shutdown lasts long.

Bob Shear, president of the S.C. chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said the key date to watch is Jan. 11, when paychecks federal workers are counting on are due to arrive.

“You can imagine what that is going to do,” he said, especially for those without a lot of discretionary money on hand. Rents will be due, car payments have to be done along with utilities, he noted.

He estimated the actual number of those affected in South Carolina is under 5,000 workers.

“I don’t know how this is going to be resolved,” Shear said. “It looks like it’s going to be a terrible logjam.”

White House officials have said workers would be paid retroactively, whether they were at work as essential employees or had been ordered to stay home. The Senate has passed legislation ensuring that workers will receive back pay and the House is expected to follow suit.

Among the furloughed employees are nearly all of those with NASA and Housing and Urban Development, 52,000 staffers at the IRS, 41,000 from the Commerce Department, and about 16,000 National Park Service employees — 80 percent of the agency's workforce.

Hawaii resident Avalyn Amar, 13, settled for exterior photographs of Fort Moultrie on Wednesday during a holiday visit to Charleston. She hoped to return when the government reopens to get pictures inside the fort on Sullivan's Island to share with her friends.

"I’m trying to show everybody," Amar said. "You can’t just keep it to yourself. Not everybody gets to go."

The furloughs will slow IRS analysis and collection of hundreds of thousands of tax returns and audits, and that could mean delays in processing mortgage applications, according to the National Association of Realtors.

"This temporary shut down should pass before it derails a significant number of home closings," predicted Stacy Smith Jennings, broker in charge at Smith Spencer Real Estate in Charleston. "We have to deal with potential delays from time to time, mostly related to flood insurance, in recent years."

The Commerce Department furloughs mean that Census Bureau operations are on hold and economic reports such as updated data on U.S. home sales won't be coming as scheduled.

In some agencies, some services continue while others have been halted by the shutdown. The impact is expected to grow if the shutdown drags on.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to inspect meat, poultry and eggs but not to investigate packers and stockyards related to fraudulent and anti-competitive activities. If the shutdown lasts more than a week, farm loans and some farm payments would not be continued, according to the department.

Wednesday afternoon, Trump told reporters who traveled with him to Iraq that he'll do "whatever it takes" to get border wall funding. He declined to say how much he would accept in a deal to end the shutdown, stressing the need for border security.

"You have to have a wall, you have to have protection," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the wall funding will "never pass the Senate."

Lawmakers are away from Washington for the holidays and have been told they will have 24 hours' notice before having to return. The Senate is slated to come into session Thursday afternoon.

The impasse over government funding began last week, when the Senate approved a bipartisan deal keeping government open into February. That bill provided $1.3 billion for border security projects but not money for the wall. At Trump's urging, the House approved that package and inserted the $5.7 billion he had requested.

Rickey Dennis, Seanna Adcox, Schuyler Kropf and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

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