In Oakdale, La., The Government Shutdown Is Having Ripple Effects

Jan 24, 2019
Originally published on January 24, 2019 7:37 pm
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Around 800,000 federal workers are off the job or working without pay right now. And despite negotiations between Senate leaders this afternoon, many of those federal workers will likely miss their second paycheck tomorrow. It's been more than a month since the shutdown started. And when people lose paychecks, it ripples out into the communities where those workers live.

Our co-host Ari Shapiro is reporting today from the small town of Oakdale, La., where it seems that everyone knows somebody who's been touched by the shutdown.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning.

JAMES KIRKLIN: Hey, good morning.

SHAPIRO: Hey, I'm Ari.

J. KIRKLIN: All right - James.

SHAPIRO: How's it going, James? Nice to meet you.

Let's start at the center of this crisis and work our way out. James and Tiffany Kirklin have both worked at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale for five years.

TIFFANY KIRKLIN: Matter of fact, we started the same exact day (laughter).

SHAPIRO: They're raising three girls in this one-story house on a corner lot with a trampoline in the backyard. And on this rainy day, there's nowhere to take the kids. No gas money means they can't drive anywhere. No new after-school activities either - fees are too high. Twelve-year-old Mandi is in the seventh grade.

MANDI KIRKLIN: We can't do softball. We can barely do basketball.

T. KIRKLIN: It's hard to hear the kids say things like that. You know, they don't understand. And their classmates don't understand. And a lot of the teachers don't know that both their parents work for the federal government, so they don't know that they're not getting a paycheck. And all my family's gone, so we have his family here to kind of help out, you know?

SHAPIRO: James, is it hard to ask for help from relatives?

J. KIRKLIN: Yeah, it is. It is very difficult. I mean, it's - kind of makes - make you feel like your self-worth is down when you can't support your own self, especially when you're used to having two government incomes and you have nothing...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

J. KIRKLIN: ...You know?

SHAPIRO: Tiffany and James are both working more than 40 hours a week at jobs that are paying them nothing right now. Tiffany has spent hours on the phone with creditors asking to delay car payments, insurance payments. She canceled the cable. She leads us to the kitchen and opens the deep freezer. It's mostly empty.

T. KIRKLIN: I know the other day, we were in the grocery store, and I want to say it was Natali asked for something. I kind of just broke down in the grocery store because we've never had - not had money for extra food, you know? Now, we might not have the extra money to go bowling, but we've never not had the extra money. I've never deprived my kids of food.

SHAPIRO: Now that this has been going on for some five weeks, how does this week feel different from two or three weeks ago when this was still just starting?

T. KIRKLIN: I think the biggest difference is when you look at your checking account and you see you - well, last week I had $2,500 in the checking account, and this week I have 900. And you know that you're spending more money, and there's nothing coming back in.

J. KIRKLIN: The longer it goes, you know, it's kind of like, you know, the lights dimming. You know, most people can hear the light at the end of tunnel. The lights going away for us, I mean, 'cause it doesn't seem like it's going to get any better.

SHAPIRO: So that's the view from the bullseye of the crisis here in Oakdale, La. Now let's follow the circles outward to Canal Coffee, where Rodrick James wears a bright-pink T-shirt with his nickname Coffee Man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILK STEAMING)

SHAPIRO: He's one of Oakdale's small business owners.

RODRICK JAMES: With the government shut down, when they start - it start out just - they thought that it just will affect just federal workers and everything. Now it's starting to affect our small business.

SHAPIRO: There's about 8,000 people that live in Oakdale, and the federal prison employs a few hundred. So explain why those few hundred people not getting paid has a ripple effect through...

JAMES: Oh.

SHAPIRO: ...This town of thousands.

JAMES: Well, I would say them few hundred had a ripple effect because they have to go a barbershop, get haircuts. They had to come to different kind of restaurants and eat. Oh, that's not got to cease when you're not getting a paycheck, so everybody start suffering on the back end of this.

SHAPIRO: The barbershop isn't just a hypothetical example. Rodrick James introduces us to Justin Germaine Boyd, the best barber in the entire parish, the Coffee Man says. This barber isn't cutting hair right now. In the middle of the afternoon, he's sitting in Canal Coffee, sipping a drink.

Are you seeing fewer people come and get their hair cut since federal employees stopped getting paid?

JUSTIN GERMAINE BOYD: Oh, in the last month, most of the guys that come in from the federal prison - it's been real slow for them, you know?

SHAPIRO: In Oakdale, a typical family makes about $30,000 a year. Compared to that prison, workers got paid well. Boyd says at his barbershop, the guys who worked at the prison always gave the best tips.

What does that mean for your income?

BOYD: On a average week before the shutdown, I would do at least 20 to 25 heads a day. I literally cleared $300 a day in the barbershop. Since this shutdown, my weekdays, I may get up to, like, 180.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)

SHAPIRO: When the barber, the Coffee Man and the federal workers aren't making the money they used to, people don't eat out as much. And Megan Crawford feels that. Her family owns the Burger Inn right in the center of Oakdale.

MEGAN CRAWFORD: Burger Inn's an icon. People who've moved away - when they come home, their first stop is Burger Inn.

SHAPIRO: So when you look at the amount of money that you've made this January compared to other Januarys...

CRAWFORD: It started to really fall off after that first paycheck was missed. And so it's definitely fallen off tremendously the past week.

SHAPIRO: We've been talking to people who have been working for the last month without getting paid. So how do you see that here at this restaurant that you own?

CRAWFORD: It affects us as a business down to our employees. We're cutting hours of our employees, having to cut workers altogether because we are not having the influx.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about that. How much have you had to cut back?

CRAWFORD: We're working short shift. So normally we work seven a shift. We work - we've cut back to six. Last week, I think we were down $400 on our payroll just from cutting.

SHAPIRO: Let's go out one more layer. The mayor's office is our outermost circle, encompassing the whole town of Oakdale. And even people here are feeling the pain. The mayor's administrative assistant is married to a prison employee who's working without pay. The mayor's own wife is one of the government workers not getting a salary right now. Mayor Gene Paul sits in an office full of football memorabilia. A clock on the wall interrupts us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUCKOO CLOCK COOING)

GENE PAUL: That's my Saints one.

SHAPIRO: That's your - is that your Saints cuckoo clock?

PAUL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Now that we're approaching the end of the month, people's bills are due. At least this is one place the mayor says the city can help.

PAUL: You know, we're going to work with them. We're not cutting no one's water off. I mean, we're just not going to do that. They're going to have services, you know, until this thing gets resolved. And that's how we survive. Oakdale survives on sewer and water. I mean, that's our income.

SHAPIRO: You mean the city's income.

PAUL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

PAUL: The city's income.

SHAPIRO: So if people aren't paying their water and sewer bills...

PAUL: So if they don't pay, it affects our operation.

SHAPIRO: Someday this crisis will be over. Government employees will get a check for these weeks they've been working without pay. But then the mayor says there's a broader fear.

PAUL: It's a long-term insecurity in a sense, you know, because you don't know what's going to happen a year from now. Are they going to play with me next year?

SHAPIRO: Who would make a down payment on a house or open a small business with that kind of insecurity, he asks. How can anyone build a life around this kind of uncertainty? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.