Utah’s IRS workers protest the government shutdown and some seek help from a food pantry

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Internal Revenue Service employee Jill Fleming expresses her sentiments about the government shutdown with fellow IRS employees during a rally outside Federal Building in Ogden, Jan. 10, 2019.

Ogden • Before Krystal Kirkpatrick rallied Thursday with fellow furloughed workers of the Internal Revenue Service, she made another stop that is now crucial for her family’s survival: visiting a food pantry.

As she pushed a shopping cart full of free bread, apples, eggs and canned goods to her car on a snowy street, she explained, “Things are getting pretty tight.

“I talked to our mortgage company. They don’t want to work with us. They said I could pay late and get a ding on my credit. Normally with the paycheck coming up, I would pay my mortgage. But instead I’m dipping into my savings to do that.”

She added, “When you are dipping into your saving $1,000 at a time, it doesn’t go far. Aren’t savings supposed to be for when you have a medical emergency or something like that? It’s not supposed to be for when you are stuck in the middle of a fight you didn’t start.”

That would be the ongoing partial government shutdown spurred by President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign a budget deal that doesn’t include $5.7 billion for a border wall. Congress, at least so far, has been unwilling to provide any money for a border wall. It is poised to become the nation’s longest-ever budget impasse. It began Dec. 22.

Kirkpatrick has sought other work without luck. “Temp agencies aren’t interested in us. When the shutdown finally ends, we have four hours to report back to work. Temp agencies know that.”

So Kirkpatrick, who helps with communications for the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) Chapter 67, said IRS workers in Ogden want to send a simple message: “It’s time to shut down the shutdown. Americans deserve to have their government open.”

About 150 furloughed federal workers and their supporters gathered at Ogden’s federal building in a snowstorm Thursday to chant, wave signs and commiserate.

NTEU Treasurer Shelly Carver asked the crowd, “Are you worried about paying your bills?” It responded in unison with a loud “yes.”

“Are you cutting back on spending?” A louder “yes” erupted. “Is your family feeling the stress of this long shutdown?” That brought the loudest shout.

“We need Congress and the administration to take us out of the political game. We don’t ask to be pawns,” Carver said to applause and cheers.

Homemade signs in the crowd ranged from “Furlough Trump’s Presidency,” to “I can’t live on IOUs” to a picture of Trump as a crying baby throwing a tantrum.

Maybe the youngest protester was 6-month-old Luke Fralia. He was bundled under his father’s umbrella in a stroller with a sign saying “Formula Ain’t Free.”

Tyler Fralia, a furloughed IRS employee, said he had used most of his modest savings just before Christmas to pay for needed tires and car registration. He’s tried to find part-time work during the shutdown without success. “I’m looking at driving for Uber,” he said, and maybe donating blood for money.

He also was planning a trip to the food bank Friday. His story is similar to many of Utah’s roughly 9,000 impacted workers.

Before the rally Thursday, business was brisk at the food pantry of Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah — which recently started serving unpaid federal workers.

“We usually average serving about 100 families a day,” during the three hours a day the pantry is open, said Maresha Bosgieter, director of the charity. “This week, so far, we’ve had about an extra 50 to 60 families” each day.

She adds that many of the 5,000 people who work at the large IRS center in Ogden “are in more entry-level or clerical positions, so there’s definitely a lot of the lower-wage jobs here. There are many who definitely are living paycheck to paycheck, and so for them not to know where their next paycheck is coming is scary.”

Carver, with the labor union, said the median salary for IRS workers in Ogden is $44,000 annually. “We’re middle-class working people.”

She adds that many furloughed workers continue to pay for child care to hold their space with providers, especially needed if they must return to work quickly when the shutdown ends.

Pam, a furloughed employee who feared that giving her last name could endanger her job, said at the pantry that she has regularly participated in food drives held at the IRS.

“This is the first time I’ve had to come here for myself,” she said as she loaded her car. “I hope we go back to work soon so I can donate all of this back.” She said she had no savings and needed the free food to help make ends meet.

She lamented, “I do everything I am supposed to do. I work for the government. I served in the military. I obey the laws. ... Why doesn’t the government do what it is supposed to do?”

Federal workers are not the only ones hurting in Ogden. The Bickering Sisters restaurant across the street from the federal building has a sign explaining that it cut back its hours because of lost business from its federal-employee customers.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Businesses in Ogden are also suffering from the government shutdown. A sign on The Bickering Sisters restaurant across from the Federal Building in Ogden told customers that the eatery would be scaling back their hours of operation due to the lack of customers, Jan. 10, 2019.

“It’s been really slow,” said cook Sherri Stutzman. “I’d say our business has been cut by about half.” She adds she doesn’t depend on tips, “but our server does. And she hasn’t been getting much lately.”

Many other businesses in Ogden similarly have lost business because of the shutdown, said Tom Christopulos, Ogden’s director of community and economic development.

“How long it goes really is the determining factor” on how it will affect the city budget from loss of sales tax, he said.

“We take in about $300,000 a week in sales tax,” he said, adding the amount lost as furloughed workers cut back “could be significant. If it goes on another week, it’s not a big deal. If it keeps going, it could be a fairly significant portion of our budget” and bring spending cuts.

Besides losses from IRS employees furloughed in Ogden, Christopulos said many others have been furloughed “by the Forest Service and other federal departments. We are also greatly affected by those who are furloughed at Hill Air Force Base. They also come into town and spend money — at least they did.”