It’s the third week of the federal government shutdown. For the Upper Lynn Canal, this means the federal employees at the Klondike Gold Rush National Park aren’t going to work or receiving pay. But a few jobs can’t be put on hold.
Over 5,000 Alaskan jobs are affected by the federal government shutdown. At Skagway’s Klondike Gold Rush National Park, 33 employees are furloughed. A furlough is a temporary layoff: they aren’t working or getting paid. They could be among the hundreds of Alaskans applying for unemployment relief this week.
“As the shutdown has continued, we have certainly seen a pretty good spike in federal workers that are not working calling in to file a claim for benefits,” says Patsy Westcott. She is the Director of Alaska’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s Division of Employment and Training Services.
“We definitely have several hundred more claims this week than we would have otherwise had without the shutdown, ” she says. “The longer the shutdown goes, the longer these individuals are without wages. That impacts their ability to pay basic, non-deferrable expenses and put food on the table.”
Westcott cautions that if employees receive back pay they will have to repay their unemployment benefits. But those dollars could get local families through weeks without a paycheck.
Except for “essential” employees.
Karl Sommerhauser and Cory Thole are on duty at Klondike through this federal shutdown. They are working without pay to keep up security and maintenance. They declined recorded interviews, but as Chief Ranger and point of contact during the shutdown, Sommerhauser answered a few questions. When he spoke to KHNS, he was unsure whether or not he qualified for unemployment benefits.
Westcott says: probably not. “If they’re working full time, whether they are receiving compensation or not, they wouldn’t be available for other full time work. So the short answer is no.”
So essential employees are working without pay, but do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Sommerhauser is the park’s only law enforcement and is on-call to respond to emergencies threatening life and safety. Thole is tasked with daily maintenance for the park’s historic buildings. Without this upkeep there’s a danger of costly damage to the buildings: burst pipes, for example.
They’ll be waiting until the government reopens for a paycheck. Historically, National Parks employees get their back pay when work resumes after a federal shutdown. It is uncertain whether or not that will be the case this time.