White River National Forest employees are mostly all on furlough during the federal government shutdown.

Air traffic controllers at the Aspen airport tower are among the essential federal employees who are still coming to work despite the Trump-border wall shutdown of the federal government. They just don’t know when, or if, they will get paid for the work they are doing during this busy time of year.

    “The government shutdown is not affecting our ability to run the most traffic we can run,” said Matthew Schlottman, a controller in the Aspen tower and the local union representative. All staff are coming to work, and the tower is fully operational, doing its job of keeping airplanes separated and safe, he said.

    The trouble is that getting paid for the work controllers are doing during the shutdown depends on Congress. When an appropriation bill is finally passed to reopen the government, if history is any guide, those who worked will be paid. But that is cold comfort, Schlottman said.

    “Look at the political climate now,” he said. “We just don’t know. … We have a little uncertainty now, which is unsettling.”

    If the shutdown goes much longer, the paycheck federal workers expect on about Jan. 12 will not show up. That puts air traffic controllers and all other federal workers with bills to pay in a hard place.

    Morale is pretty good right now, Schlottman said, “but if this lasted another two weeks and we started missing paychecks, you would see that change quickly.”

    The whole situation is ridiculous, he added.

    “We have nothing to do” with the political debate, he said. “We just come to work and keep the planes moving.

    “I don’t care which side is right or wrong,” he added. What bothers Schlottman is when politicians — and both sides have been guilty — “use our jobs and our pay as a bargaining chip.”

Forest Service faces furloughs

    White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, as one of only a few forest employees permitted to work during the shutdown, spent part of Monday morning shoveling the sidewalk outside the Glenwood Springs headquarters. During what is looking to be a prolonged work stoppage, he comes to check on things in the office and make sure the heat is still working.

    That is a surreal and lonely duty, he said.

    What is most concerning and frustrating to the supervisor of the nation’s most visited national forest is that nearly all of its 150 year-round employees have been forced to take a furlough, one that will last until Congress makes an appropriation that will reopen the government. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. (“Trump digs in, darkening hopes for a deal to end the shutdown,” a New York Times headline read on Monday afternoon.)

    Until then, rank-and-file employees are staying home. The next federal payday is Jan. 12, but it may come to pass without a paycheck. For public servants who already may be struggling to make ends meet, that is difficult, Fitzwilliams said, made more so by the high cost of living in ranger districts like Aspen-Sopris.

    “It’s not fun,” he said. “I know people want to come back to work and start doing their jobs again but they can’t. And the burden of not getting paid is just around the corner.”

    This is the fourth or fifth shutdown Fitzwilliams has endured. Each time before, when Congress restored funding, employees were compensated for the pay they would have earned if the shutdown hadn’t happened.

    “That doesn’t necessarily feel right to me, either,” Fitzwilliams said. “But at the same time [the shutdown] certainly isn’t the employees’ fault.”

    Some personnel, including Fitzwilliams and district rangers, are on call during the shutdown in case of an emergency — such as a search and rescue or an incident at a ski area. For example, a chairlift in Breckenridge had to be evacuated Saturday, which requires reporting and paperwork from U.S. Forest Service officials.

    But short of that, there is little public service the Forest Service can provide during the shutdown.

    That won’t be as noticeable as in the summertime, when hikers and rangers interact on a daily basis, but “certainly if someone wanted some info on the forest, we would not be available, or able to provide that.”

    Any work on permitting or project applications is on hold, as well. Fitzwilliams said that the 45-day objection period currently underway following the draft decision approving snowmaking and a terrain expansion on Aspen Mountain will be extended, depending on the length of the furlough.

    Jim Stark, the former winter sports administrator for the White River National Forest, said that this time of year is a critical planning time for forest employees. Having to sit on the sidelines is difficult and leads to compounding backups once everyone comes back to work.

    “If they are off 20 days, it will take them 40 to get back” and catch up to where they were before the shutdown while handing day-to-day duties, he said.

    He noted that during one prolonged shutdown in the ’90s, he took a construction job to keep food on the table.

    Across the forest and the federal government, “people would much rather be working,” he said.

    Fitzwilliams noted that during the shutdown’s first week, which spanned the Christmas holiday, many employees took paid time off anyway. As the shutdown drags on into January, when folks would normally be working, the situation changes.

    “As this goes longer there are more and more things we are not able to provide,” he said.

    Fitzwilliams said it is likely that the longer the shutdown drags on, the greater the pressure will be to end it — “especially when the paychecks stop,” he said.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.