While no one knows how long the shutdown of the federal government will last, Air Force Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill Air Force Base, said two things are certain. The effect locally will be severe and will get worse the longer the shutdown goes on.
Standing outside MacDill’s main gate to address the media Wednesday morning, DeThomas said more than 1,500 civilians who work at the base were given four hours notice to go home Tuesday, with no idea of when they would return. That will amount to a cumulative loss of about $400,000 in pay every day, with a strong ripple effect on the local economy that depends on the base and its employees.
“That’s a pretty incredible number on the backs of our civilian airmen,” DeThomas said, adding that there may be even more furloughs down the road if the shutdown drags on.
DeThomas said he and other base leaders are reviewing the list of civilians to see if more employees will be forced to take unpaid time off.
“The list will be reviewed every week until we get this resolved,” he said,
Despite the loss of so many workers, the main Air Force missions at MacDill, flying KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, will still go on “in support of war fighters,” said DeThomas. But the longer the shutdown, the more certain training may be affected, DeThomas said.
Officials from U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command said it was too early to determine exactly how the shutdowns will affect them. About 120 of Centcom’s civilians, roughly a third of those employed by the command, and all but 33 of Socom’s roughly 900 civilians have been furloughed.
The civilian employees aren’t the only ones taking a hit as a result of the shutdown, which went into affect because Congress couldn’t agree on provisions of the Affordable Healthcare Act.
Because of the shutdown, the 6th Air Mobility Wing issued about $9 million less in base service and minor construction contracts for the current fiscal year compared to last year, said MSgt. Bryan Gatewood, a spokesman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing. That money represents a nearly 25 percent reduction from the $42 million spent on those types of contracts last fiscal year, he said. Other local businesses that rely on clientele from the base say they are hurting as well.
And even though Congress created a last-minute law, signed into law by President Barack Obama, allowing military personnel to be paid despite the shutdown, MacDill’s military personnel and their families will still suffer, DeThomas said.
“One of the downfalls is that every time something like this happens, we find ways to get through it, sometimes on the backs of airmen who have to work longer hours making up for the great airmen who aren’t here today,” he said.
Another burden on the military personnel and their families is the shuttering of the base commissary, DeThomas said.
“The average grocery bill at our commissary is 30 percent less” than off base, said DeThomas. “Thirty percent less is a lot of money for folks struggling to make ends meet, and that will have a big impact across the base and the community.”
In addition to closing the commissary, when the shutdown became official, base officials closed the Education/Training Office, base library, youth programs and the youth center.
All of this, on top of the six days of unpaid days off civilians were forced to take starting March 1 when the Congress and White House couldn’t agree on how to handle the national debt, is creating a great deal of stress, said DeThomas.
“I would like to think morale is high, but I think I would be lying,” he said. “There is a great deal of stress across the system. The civilian force is bearing an extraordinary load of that stress in the face of sequestration and furloughs.”
There is a glimmer of good news for those facing the loss of pay, said DeThomas. Because of the great relationship with the Tampa-area community and the base, a number of banking institutions have come forward to offer help in the form of bridge loans to cover the loss of pay. And local businesses have been “calling every day” with offers of part-time or temporary work for those who have been furloughed. The base LinkedIn page has a list of job opportunities as well, he said. If the shutdown goes on long enough, some of the employees may be eligible for unemployment compensation as well, DeThomas said.
But some local businesses that rely on the base for customers are seeing a huge drop in business with no safety net.
“Usually we would be packed,” said Toni Morales, owner of Toni’s Barbershop at 5241 S. Dale Mabry Hwy., as he stood in his business, the three barber chairs normally filled by clients empty on a Wednesday morning.
Morales blamed the shutdown for driving away customers.
“This is the worst it has been in my five years here,” he said. “We have to fire the politicians.”
A few blocks away, at Bay Check Cashing, owner Nancy Ramroop said her business was off 50 percent on Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown.
Being the first of the month, the store is usually very busy with people cashing paychecks and paying bills.
But because of the shutdown, she said business has been off dramatically.
“We usually have about 100 people come in on the first of the month,” she said. “Yesterday we had less than 50. This is real bad. If this keeps up, I may have to close down.”