The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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October 8, 2013

Morrison man's frustrating week through the shutdown

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MORRISON, Ill. — Dave Harrison does not work for the federal government. He's not on furlough because of the federal government shutdown. He doesn't have to worry about his paycheck even as the shutdown enters its second week, and no one has told Dave Harrison not to work since the shutdown took place on Oct. 1.

Regardless, Harrison realizes day-to-day life for him will continue being inconvenient until Congress resolves its issues and the government is up and running. Even then, a week spent away from his office -- which is less than two miles away from his home — has already set costly repercussions in motion.

 



"We'd have people who'd walk in our door and say, 'I've got this problem, how do I fix this?' " he said. "There are people working on projects who may need to reach for different reasons, but they can't."

He is a resource conservationist for the Whiteside County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), a job that mostly entails educating youth, landowners and the general public about environment friendly farming practices. Harrison works apart from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but his work and the department's are so entwined that the SWCD in Morrison even operates out of a government-owned building.

"I don't work for USDA," he said, "so there's a whole different realm there. In Illinois it's very common for SWCD's and the USDA to be co-located."

When Congress failed to agree to raise the debt ceiling, it meant "non-essential" government workers -- people who don't immediately affect the safety of the general public — were given unpaid leaves of absence. For the USDA, this meant furloughing roughly 14,000 of the department's 30,000 workers, including all four of the USDA employees at the Whiteside County building (Harrison's coworkers).

It also means Harrison can't do his job effectively. His office uses USDA phones, which are currently inoperable; he taps into USDA databases and resources on a daily basis, which he can no longer access. People who need to reach him — landowners wishing to improve the quality of their land use — have no foreseeable way of contacting him, unless, by chance, they know his cell phone number, or that he even works with the SWCD. Even then, Harrison has a very difficult time informing them, since most of the information he requires is no longer at his fingertips.

"I can receive calls on my cellphone on a limited basis where I'm reacting to those," he said. "I've almost had to start a network to get people to me. The assistance I can give is based on my knowledge versus maybe a pamphlet or instructions I could print out to somebody."

In Harrison's line of work, the shutdown also comes at the worst possible time. When local producers finish their harvest, there's limited time between when the ground is clean of crop and when the ground is too cold to manipulate. If the shutdown lasts into November, it could mean Harrison (and others like him nationwide) will get to fewer (if any) projects designed to prevent sediment runoff and erosion (both contributors to unhealthy ecosystems).

"We're getting to a point where it may start to be too late for some of those," Harrison said.

It's also forced Harrison into inconvenient work circumstances. For the time being, he works out of home, his car and a non-USDA-owned shed next to Morrison's facility. He's able to take calls and use what resources he has left to him. It's not enough, he said, to get certain work done.

His biggest fear pertains to his new found lack of availability. He estimated he deals with a dozen landowners per week, and said it's likely the same for most people in his position. Will those unable to reach him be turned away from sound land use for good?

"There's landowner anxiety as well as there is employee anxiety," Harrison said. "Okay, I've got this project, where do I go now? That builds up and eventually they get discouraged. They may even walk away from the project."

It leaves him in a somewhat unique, but familiar, state in the American affair. Harrison maintains status quo financially, but his livelihood is nonetheless difficult with its absence. He's worked 25 years to build up local conservation, something he now finds to be a direct casualty of a federal government shutdown.

But Harrison doesn't have an answer for who's to blame for all of this. He also sympathizes with the government employees he works with who don't receive paychecks until their furloughs are finished

"I think there was some anxiety over pay," he said. "They're not getting paid right now. They may in the future but right now there's not a check coming in. ... Even a two to three week period without a paycheck, there's going to be some strain."

He can appreciate how much easier life for him was before the shutdown.

 

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