Federal Budget

Tourists, workers turned away as shutdown hits South Florida

 
WEB VOTE Have you been affected by the shutdown of the federal government?

dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

“Closed” signs went up at national parks, and federal employees went home across South Florida on Tuesday as the federal government limped its way through the first day of a shutdown.

With a funding bill stalled in Congress, the national debate over a potential shutdown shifted to local consequences around the region. Managers of federal offices dispatched workers to unpaid furloughs while asking those deemed essential to remain at their posts without pay. Lawyers fielded calls from clients suddenly unable to use the government’s e-verify system to check employees’ immigration status. And national parks, home of the U.S. government’s largest local footprint, began the process of turning away the public.

“There’s lots of barricades,” said Linda Friar, a spokeswoman for the Everglades National Park, which attracts about 1 million tourists a year. “There are no buildings open, no facilities open, no restrooms.”

The first government shutdown in 17 years took hold Tuesday in ways large and small.

Government websites shifted to static pages, the secretary of labor scratched a trip to Miami, and 800,000 federal workers went home without pay — a number larger than the combined workforces of Target, Exxon, Google and General Motors. In Washington, a group of elderly veterans stormed the closed World War II Memorial in protest of its closure; in Doral, 700 civilian military employees began an indefinite stretch of unpaid furlough.

Even so, the partial shutdown left many government services functioning normally. Obama administration officials said air travel should not be affected, Social Security checks will be mailed as usual, and passport and most immigration requests will be processed. But with House Republicans unwilling to fund government operations if the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, remains intact, hundreds of federal functions essentially ran out of money Tuesday, the first day of Washington’s new budget year.

The Agriculture Department said no additional federal funds would be available during the shutdown for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. That program provides financial support for clinical services and food for needy mothers of young children.

The department said that states, which administer the program, might have some funds on hand to keep things going for a week, but “would likely be unable to sustain operations for a longer period.”

The Florida Department of Health provided no information about the WIC program, saying only that it “continues to monitor the situation in Washington, D.C.”

For the Lotus House in Miami, which provides shelter and services to more than 100 homeless women and children daily, the uncertainty adds “just one more challenge in an extremely challenging environment,” said director Constance Collins.

In addition to providing meals, counseling, access to healthcare and other support, the organization helps connect women with government support systems such as WIC. The previous budget sequestration has already taken a toll, Collins said.

“Already, all of us are resource-starved to do what we do,” she said. “Then to see this larger safety net sort of crumbling around you, that’s a little scary. That’s a lot scary.”

For about 800,000 federal workers, the first day of shutdown meant a last day of work until the U.S. government fully reopens. At the U.S. Southern Command in Doral, which runs military operations in Latin America, including Guantánamo Bay, all 500 uniformed personnel remain at their posts and are being paid under an armed forces exemption passed in recent days.

But of the 1,000 civilian employees, 700 were sent home on unpaid furloughs and 300 remained on unpaid duty — but with a promise of reimbursement for their work once government funding resumes, said Lt. Col. Kimeisha McCullum.

While the federal courthouses in South Florida continued to operate without interruption, the U.S. Attorney’s Office was forced to send home more than 100 employees because of the government shutdown. The Miami-based federal prosecutor’s office is one of the largest in the country, with about 230 lawyers and 200 support staffers.

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said the vast majority of furloughed employees are from the ranks of administrative assistants, paralegals and analysts. A small minority of non-criminal prosecutors are also being furloughed.

“In our office we’re going to fight for the safety of our community, but we’re going to do it with more than one-third of our staff furloughed,” Ferrer said. “I am devastated over the hard-working, dedicated public servants who were sent home today.”

Staffers at Everglades National Park who were not needed during the shutdown got their official notice Tuesday, closed down their work stations and left. Concession operators and those who hold permits to do business in the park were told to stop operating, and campers got word that they had 48 hours to move on. The closure of the park’s grounds and recreational waters means that the nearly 400 fishing, kayak and other guides who are permitted to bring individuals or tours to the park will have to cease operations until the government resumes full operation.

Before the gates were scheduled to close at 6 p.m., some visitors took one last chance to tour the park — for free, since the entrance fee wasn’t being collected.

Tuesday also revealed the complexities of a partial shutdown. While immigration offices will remain open to process visa applications — an exemption allowed because visa fees can fund the offices’ operations — lawyers warned there would still be problems. Visas tied to jobs require paperwork from a closed Labor Department agency.

“Employers will have to terminate people who can’t get their visas extended,” said Jorge Lopez, an immigration lawyer and partner at Littler in Miami. “It’s crazy.”

The shutdown also locked out employers from e-verify, the government website that lets companies verify that workers are legally able to work. Some states require companies to use the system, as do federal contracts.

“That’s what I’ve been dealing with all day,” said immigration lawyer Enrique Gonzalez, a partner at Fragomen in Coral Gables. “My corporate clients are using e-verify and asking, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

For about 12 million people, the shutdown comes during the tail end of tax season. Those who received six-month extensions for their 2012 returns still must file them by Oct. 15, but the IRS will not be staffing its call centers during the shutdown. Audits are suspended, too, and tax refunds will not be issued until the government resumes normal operations. But the IRS remains ready to accept money from taxpayers.

Voicemail at the Miami office said that “due to the current budget situation, all IRS offices are closed,” but warned that “people should file and pay their taxes as normal.”

Miami Herald staff writers Ina Paiva Cordle and Jay Weaver contributed to this report, which was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.

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