Employees are keeping eye on shutdown news
Furloughed workers at Haleakala National Park have been “glued to the news” and eager to get back to work as the government shutdown ended its second week, park workers said.
“We’re not allowed to work at all,” said Melissa Chimera, volunteer coordinator at the park Thursday. “There’s just a handful of people that are trying to tell people that are coming up there that they’re not permitted to come in. . . . I’m not one of those people.”
Chimera is one of 75 employees at the park who have been furloughed due to Congress’ failure to agree on a government spending bill. The park, which has a total of about 85 workers and is typically open all day, every day, has been closed since Sept. 30.
“I’m spending a lot of time at home with my 9-month-old baby, just waiting,” Chimera said from her Makawao home in a phone interview. “It’s the difference between a planned vacation and one where you’re forced into unemployment. It’s definitely not a good situation, and I think it’s fair to say that a lot of my co-workers feel the same way.”
In the first two days of the closure, the park had about 15 workers locking gates and shutting down buildings, but that number has since dwindled to about 10. Furloughed employees are working in rotations at the park and “have been told to be on standby and ready to work at any time,” said Polly Angelakis, park chief of interpretation.
“The recurring theme I hear is everyone wants to go back to work,” said Angelakis, who also has been furloughed but is a part of the working rotation. “Most say they’re taking care of chores around the house, catching up with family, worrying about paying the bills – there’s all those worries when you’re on furlough when you weren’t expecting to be.”
Workers have been told to call an employee hot line daily for information regarding the shutdown and to keep in contact with their supervisors. The handful still working at the park are maintaining daily operations, such as drinking water testing, feeding livestock, staffing the front entrance and patrolling the more than 30,000 acres of the park.
“We have more endangered and threatened species than almost any other national park,” Angelakis said. “We have researchers that can’t get into the park and cultural resources sitting unprotected.”
Chimera, a coordinator at the park for the past seven years, filed for unemployment compensation a few days after the closure. She said that her husband is a biologist and works for the state but previously worked for the park.
“One of us has to work,” she said.
Since the closure, Chimera has run into several co-workers around town and called it a “weird situation” to see “us all out of work.”
“Just speaking for myself, I really thought this was going to get resolved rather quickly,” she said. “To be perfectly honest, though, our parks have already been hit really hard by federal sequestration cuts, and I have friends that just got off of furlough for a day, and they’re right back at the unemployment office.
“It’s really difficult when you’re relying on that income, and you’re not sure when you’re going to get that next paycheck.”
Angelakis said that she has had limited time at the park and is primarily working out of her Makawao home, answering calls.
“My house has never been cleaner,” she joked. “I have a lot of Park Service friends on Facebook, and I see their statuses saying how many recipes can one person try in one week.”
In addition to the Park Service workers, 29 companies with commercial use permits at the park are not allowed inside, including Pony Express Tours and the Pacific Whale Foundation. Angelakis estimated that anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people visit the park per day during the fall season.
“That’s a huge economic hit for people,” Angelakis said. “We called every single one, and again, they were all so gracious and worried but knew this was bigger than the park system.”
A Boston native, Angelakis studied at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and began working at the park just over a year ago.
“This was the first national park I ever hiked so it was kind of cool to come back and work here,” she said remembering her hike more than 25 years ago. “I think for all the parks it’s just unfortunate that the government shut down.”
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.