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  • Craig Kohlruss / The Fresno Bee

    The road to Yosemite National Park’s Glacier Point is shut Tuesday.

  • Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee/ MCT

    Park ranger Jeff Gardner informs visitors of the closure of Yosemite National Park due to the government shutdown Tuesday, October 1, 2013. Day visitors were allowed to pass through Yosemite but were instructed not to stop or use any facilities.

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Sacramento endures Day One of the government shutdown

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013 - 1:55 am

A good portion of the Sacramento region’s 12,000 civilian federal workers began adjusting Tuesday to life without a paycheck, not knowing when they will get paid again. Their questions unanswered, customers walked away from the local Social Security Administration field office, which was operating on a limited basis. People seeking information on federal websites largely surfed in vain, with many government sites shut down except for a splash page.

On the first day of the federal government shutdown, the news still hadn’t reached some people that the federal government, except for those jobs considered essential, was closed for business. And no one – not here, not in Washington, D.C. – could tell people when the shutdown will end.

A few scenes from the first day of the shutdown in the Sacramento region:

Waiting for answers

The big parking lot at the Social Security office in south Sacramento was packed with cars on Tuesday morning. Visitors strode past a paper sign tacked to the door telling them that many services wouldn’t be available – and many walked out that same door, disappointed, a few minutes later.

“I’ve got to get a Social Security card so I can get a job,” said Vernon Tidwell, a 23-year Sacramento resident. He has applied for work with a moving company but lost his Social Security card.

Tidwell said Social Security workers told him that getting a new card likely isn’t possible until the shutdown ends. He’s concerned. “Somebody might get the job before me,” he said. “I need to be employed.”

Dolores Mirazo, 85, also was worried. A month ago, she received a letter from Social Security saying the agency needed to determine if she is still eligible for certain benefits. The letter made her anxious, and she was looking forward to getting answers to her questions at an appointment Tuesday.

Instead, she was told that her appointment had been canceled and officials would call to reschedule after the shutdown ends.

“It’s stressful,” she said. “I’m supposed to be resting.”

Stocking up on supplies

At the commissary at McClellan Park, where service members, military retirees and their families can receive discounted groceries and other goods, sales clerk Cindy Cory was checking customers’ identification cards at the front desk. She and other store employees were working without pay for one day, before the commissary closed until further notice.

“Things can change if they work something out in Washington,” she said. “And last time, they gave us retro pay.”

But retroactive pay isn’t guaranteed for federal employees during the current shutdown. Collectively, in the Sacramento region, they earn about $6million per workday, federal data show.

Greeting customers, standing behind a counter festooned with purple Halloween decorations, Cory, 57, sounded more worried than optimistic.

“I’m a single woman, and this is going to hurt,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “We’re thinking we can get unemployment after one week, but that won’t cover what I need. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Hopefully, my bill people will be understanding.”

The shutdown will hurt the commissary’s customers, too, she said. Because military retirees are paid on the first of each month, the first week is always the commissary’s busiest.

“There’s going to be a shutdown?” said Walter Williams, 63, a veteran who shops at the commissary twice a week with his mother, 87-year-old Lois Williams.

“Are you serious? No, that’s not good. It’s shutting down for now? I’m very disappointed. Very disappointed.”

Waiting a few customers behind him in line, Alfreda Christian, 80, said it didn’t surprise her that the federal shutdown was forcing the commissary to close.

“I have a light load today, but I should stock up,” she said.

When will we be paid?

Cheryl Byers, a secretary for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, didn’t worry much about a government shutdown before Tuesday. She’d heard the threats before: Talk of a shutdown has been common during federal budget negotiations for the past several years.

“Now, it’s really happening,” she said from her home Tuesday. “We have no idea when we are going to get paid.”

Byers is the breadwinner in her family, she said; her husband is disabled. Because she is not a high-ranking official, she and her husband often have little left over at the end of the month. “It will be a struggle,” she said.

Like other federal workers, Byers hopes she will get back pay for the days she is furloughed – but that is not guaranteed.

Closing up shop

Outside the leafy Federal Building complex on Cottage Way in Sacramento, a local TV news reporter and her cameraman prepared a stand-up for the noon news. Behind the sprawling complex, the parking lot – usually jammed with employees’ cars at midday – was only one-fourth filled. And more employees straggled from their offices to the parking lot, some pulling rolling briefcases.

“Really, all we did this morning was shut down,” said Mary Prinzbach, a 33-year federal employee who works as a budget officer for the Bureau of Land Management. “We put out notifications that we’re down and provided instructions to our staff.”

The California BLM office put 830 of 960 employees on furlough. Prinzbach’s younger staff members – part-time employees who often are paying for college and rent out of their government salaries – took the news hard, she said.

“It’s weighing heavy on their minds,” she said. “They’re asking me how long I think this will last.”

Government on hold

For the region’s representatives in Washington, D.C., Day One of the shutdown presented an immediate management decision on how many people to furlough as nonessential. Some, including Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, opted to keep their entire Washington and California district staffs employed. Some, such as Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, declared a handful of employees nonessential and sent them home, potentially for the duration.

Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both shut down most of their California operations and curtailed Washington staff activities. Boxer’s D.C. office was open on an appointment-only basis.

Reps. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, asked the House to withhold their pay until the shutdown is over. Members of Congress are paid $174,000 a year, or the equivalent of $3,346 a week.

Welcome to America

They were just beginning to recover after the Rim fire a month ago devastated parts of Tuolumne County as well as Yosemite-area tourist businesses. Gift shops, lodging and diners in picturesque foothill towns such as Groveland and Sonora suffered from the fire. And now Yosemite National Park – perhaps America’s most internationally famous park and certainly one of the most visited – is closing for the duration of the shutdown.

Chris Link, manager of the Best Western Plus Sonora Oaks and Conference Center, spent much of Tuesday on the phone, answering frantic tourists’ questions and helping tour operators reschedule long-planned visits.

“We’re being contacted by international tour operators to see if we can help people change their plans,” he said. “We’re helping them find places outside the area to visit or places in the gateway communities for people dislocated from the Yosemite Valley.

“Some of these people made plans to visit California years in advance. They’re in transit now from Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom. They don’t even know this has happened.”

Welcome to America, foreign visitors.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg right now,” said Link. “We have people looking at Plan B and Plan C. Right now, the shutdown is in its infancy.”

Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer

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