Wednesday morning, Stephanie Fisher and her husband, Roy Fisher Sr., hopped into their Ford Explorer and made the four-hour round trip from Ashland to Billings to apply for a $1,000 loan, which they hope will be enough to keep them afloat until she gets her next paycheck from the federal government.
Fisher has worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Northern Cheyenne Reservation office in Lame Deer for 15 years, and with no end in sight to the second-longest federal shutdown in history, her family’s budget is getting tight.
“We’re OK right now, as far as our bills and stuff, but as far as what’s coming up in the next couple weeks, when I’m supposed to get paid again, that’s when we’re going to be hurting,” Fisher said. “If it continues, what am I supposed to do? Stay home and not provide for my family? That’s impossible."
As the impasse between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats in Washington threatens to push the federal shutdown past the three-week mark, the effects are starting to hit home for many of the more than 13,000 federal employees living in Montana.
According to an analysis by the Washington Post, Montana has one of the highest shares of workers affected by the shutdown, with an estimated 7,200 workers temporarily furloughed or working without pay. Only the District of Columbia, Alaska and Maryland have a higher percentage of workers affected by the shutdown, the newspaper reported.
“I just paid for tuition for two college children of mine, and that took a big chunk out of my income. By next month I’m going to be scrambling, probably borrowing money to get through,” said Ellen Sullivan, a range manager with the Kootenai National Forest, in the northwest corner of the state. The Eureka resident added, “Federal workers constitute a large part of the community right here, so folks aren’t spending too much money.”
Sullivan’s husband retired from the federal workforce a few years ago, she said, and his pension has afforded the couple some breathing room for the time being. But like other furloughed federal employees who spoke with The Billings Gazette this week, Sullivan said they’ve cut back on any unnecessary purchases until she has a clear idea of when she’ll get her next paycheck.
“We had talked about doing some special things at Christmastime, like going for a little ski trip and staying in a motel, but we knew at that point we were headed for furloughs, so we decided not to,” she said.
Beyond its immediate impact on her own wallet, Sullivan said the prolonged government shutdown could also hurt the incomes of local private-sector workers who depend on services the U.S. Forest Service provides.
While the Kootenai National Forest is dominated by the densely wooded mountain ranges that extend from the west side of Flathead Lake to the Canadian border, Sullivan oversees the limited roadside rangeland and recently logged pastures that are leased out to local ranchers during the warmer months. She said she will need to start working again soon if she’s going to process applications from the roughly 15 leaseholders who depend on Forest Service rangeland in the area.
“Most of the permits start June 1, but everything has to happen ahead of time,” she said.
Billings resident Kerry Candy, whose husband is a furloughed federal health care provider, said the shutdown could wind up setting her own career plans back. On top of mortgage payments, car payments, private-school tuition and the “usual phone and utility” bills, she’s also wrapping up her nursing degree.
“I’m registered for two classes this semester, and I’m going to have to drop them” if the shutdown continues, she said. “We won’t be able to afford tuition in addition to household bills. … We have some resources to fall back on for a few months, but if it goes on much longer, we’ll probably have to look at changing jobs, taking a full-time job elsewhere.”
And like Candy’s and Sullivan’s, other families in Montana feeling the shutdown’s financial pinch are ratcheting back their spending in anticipation of a dragged-out showdown in D.C.
For Kevin Hodge, a federal employee based in Eastern Montana, that trickle-down impact doesn’t just affect his local economy.
Hodge asked that his job title not be disclosed publicly. The Gazette has verified his employment.
“We normally do a once-a-month trip to a big town, either Miles City or Billings,” Hodge said. “If it’s a Costco run, we’re talking six gallons of milk, about 10 dozen eggs, five to 10 pounds of cheese … big things that are really expensive in small communities.”
Those trips also double as family outings, he added — opportunities to dine out at restaurants and visit with old friends and far-flung relatives.
This time, Hodge said, they canceled the trip and his wife just ordered the family’s necessities online.
In the Billings area, numerous businesses are offering special deals for federal workers affected by the shutdown. Stockman Bank last week announced it would offer loan deferments until the shutdown ends, and Billings Federal Credit Union is providing interest-free loans for two months, with higher amounts available for those in good credit standing.
Local Kitchen and Bar is offering a 25 percent discount for those workers, and Limber Tree Yoga Studio’s “Community Warrior” discount for federal employees is being further reduced for those who are currently laid off.
And Red Lodge-based Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary stated in a Thursday social media post that it’s even offering temporary gigs like fencing or repair work for unpaid federal employees.
Fisher, the BIA employee, said the $1,000 loan she and her husband secured Thursday from Billings Federal Credit Union is interest-free for the first 60 days. She hopes the shutdown doesn't outlast the grace period, but like her family’s financial buffer, Fisher’s optimism is dwindling.
“Right now, it doesn’t look like either side is budging at all,” she said. “When they say they’re using us as pawns, I feel like that’s true.”