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Airports, farms, school lunches: What is the shutdown affecting in Centre County?

Air travel may be less safe during the government shutdown, federal inspectors warn

FAA safety inspectors -- who haven’t worked in two weeks because of the government shutdown -- picketed Miami International Airport Thursday. They say safety risks for travelers increase every day they’re off the job.
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FAA safety inspectors -- who haven’t worked in two weeks because of the government shutdown -- picketed Miami International Airport Thursday. They say safety risks for travelers increase every day they’re off the job.

As the country slogs through the longest federal government shutdown in history, Centre County residents might wonder what’s being affected locally.

In the first quarter of 2018, the federal government was 10th largest employer in Centre County, with 55 participating agencies, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Here’s a look at what is and isn’t being affected by the shutdown.

Airports

At University Park Airport in State College, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers are still working and airport operations are unaffected, said James Meyer, executive director of the Centre County Airport Authority. TSA workers are considered excepted employees, meaning they are required to work during a partial government shutdown but don’t get paid until after the shutdown ends.

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STSO Charlene Barrett chats with a passenger as he places his items to be scanned at the TSA checkpoint at the University Park Airport on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

“From the University Park (airport) standpoint, you wouldn’t know that there was a federal shutdown going on,” Meyer said.

There are about 30-35 full-time and part-time TSA workers at UP Airport.

“Yes, they’re (TSA) working without pay right now ... they’re still coming to work and our lines are still as they are,” Meyer said.

Air traffic controllers at UP Airport are contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration; therefore, “it’s not affected at all, because they’re not federal employees,” said Meyer. However, federal government contractors do not get paid during a federal government shutdown.

“My guess would be that the (contractor) company would be covering their employees’ paychecks until the federal government ends up paying them,” said Meyer.

School lunch

The federally-funded National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced lunch to students whose families have qualifying income levels, is not currently affected by the government shutdown.

Megan Schaper, director of food services at the State College Area School District, told WJAC-TV that the United States Department of Agriculture said funding for free and reduced lunch is available through February if the shutdown persists. After that, they don’t know.

“The district has financial reserves available to continue the (free and reduced lunch) program should that funding become delayed,” said Randy Brown, finance and operations officer at SCASD.

SCASD is also reminding families that if their income is affected by the shutdown, they may apply for the free and reduced lunch program.

“We sent this notification because of the potentially significant numbers of families in our community who could be affected by the shutdown, however this program is always available for any family whose income would change in a similar manner,” Brown said.

At the Bald Eagle Area School District, Athletic Director Douglas Dyke said they haven’t seen any applications for the free and reduced lunch program from families affected by the shutdown. But, he said, “If you called in and said ... ‘I was just laid off or whatever, and we have no money coming in’ ... you can just turn (an application) in and there’s essentially no questions asked.”

National Weather Service

Many National Weather Service operations are continuing under “excepted” status, said a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesperson.

“With several storm systems impacting the country, staff continue mission-essential functions. In addition to forecasters at our local offices and national centers, appropriate technical and engineering staff are ensuring our Earth observations, high performance computing, modeling and other systems required to meet this mission are up and operating,” the spokesperson said.

The “majority of the National Weather Service staff” is still producing accurate weather forecasts and “the resources they need to perform essential operations are being provided,” said the spokesperson.

Staff at the State College NWS office referred all questions about the shutdown to the NOAA national office.

Farms and food

The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees the Food and Drug Administration) both have reduced operations due to the shutdown, meaning some funding for farms is stalled and there are fewer food inspections happening.

Bethany Coursen, a local dairy farmer and president of the Centre County Farm Bureau, said payouts from the Farm Bill have been stalled due to the shutdown.

“Those payments are critical for getting us ready for spring planting,” she said.

The Farm Service Agency of the USDA also closed due to a lack of federal funding during the shutdown, meaning applications for the Market Facilitation Program are not being processed or received. The MFP would provide direct payments to producers of certain commodities, like soybeans, sorghum, wheat, dairy, corn and hogs, affected by tariffs from the trade war with China.

On Jan. 8, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tweeted that the MFP program deadline would be extended beyond Jan. 15 for a period of time equal to the number of business days the FSA was closed, once the shutdown ends.

Though the USDA is still performing meat, poultry and egg product inspections, the inspectors are not getting paid during the shutdown.

“I think what makes it challenging is ... all fronts are being impacted,” Coursen said. “This is across the board. And it would probably be less impactful if we weren’t already dealing with a lot of issues with the depressed economy in general.”

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and education for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.

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