On New Year’s Eve, a deadly fire broke out aboard the cargo ship Sincerity Ace in remote waters about halfway between Japan and Hawaii, killing at least four of the vessel’s crew members.

The Hawaii-based U.S. Coast Guard personnel who helped rescue the survivors by dropping life rafts, rations and other supplies from two HC-130 Hercules planes did so having no idea when they’d receive their next paycheck.

They still don’t know.

“If there’s a threat to the safety of life and the environment, we’ll be there,” Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Sara Muir said Friday. “But the government shutdown does cause limitations to the service, and the longer it goes on the more impacts we’ll begin to see.”

As that partial government shutdown stretches into its third week, an analysis by the website WalletHub found Hawaii — and its large per-capita share of federal employees — among the states most heavily hit.

In this Dec. 31, 2018 photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircrew flies over the 650-foot Sincerity Ace on fire 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard is suspending its search for a crew member from a vessel carrying cars from Japan to Hawaii who went missing after the ship caught fire. The Coast Guard made the decision to suspend the search for the Sincerity Ace crew member on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, an HC-130 Hercules air crew flies over the Sincerity Ace as it burns 1,800 miles northwest of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean. AP

The Aloha State has nearly 22,500 federal employees, with some 2,700 of those employees working in agencies that are subject to the shutdown, according to a tally from the trade magazine Governing.

They’re among the nation’s 800,000 or so employees currently furloughed or working without pay, as the stalemate between President Donald Trump and the Democratic congressional leadership over a border wall continues with no end in sight.

Trump has said the government shutdown could last months — or longer — if Democrats don’t agree to about $5.6 billion in federal spending to help build either a wall or, as Trump recently floated, a “steel-slats” barrier along the southern border with Mexico.

It could lead to the longest shutdown in the nation’s history.

Bad Timing On Multiple Fronts

In an island state, that means big impacts on land and sea.

Some federal employees, including the nearly 3,000 shipyard workers who handle ship and submarine maintenance at Pearl Harbor, are already covered by previous spending agreements. They’re spared from any shutdown anxiety, according to Jamie Hiranaka, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Others, such as the state’s 82 Internal Revenue Service workers, face an uncertain future with no clear date when they’ll be paid.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, and everyone I’m sure is not spending like they wanted to for the holidays,” said John Johnson, president of the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Ten or so members of the IRS’ local criminal investigations staff have been deemed “essential” and continue to work unpaid, Johnson said. But agency staff members aren’t doing audits and collections, nor are they providing tax services to the public, Johnson said.

A NOAA Office of Law Enforcement boat plies the waters off Maui. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Furthermore, the staff has been sidelined just as the agency should be rolling out the nation’s new tax code, Johnson said.

“If we’re all furloughed, then how the heck are they going to implement that?” he said Monday. “IRS hasn’t even gotten to the point where we’re ready.”

“The next, upcoming Monday would be the first missed checks,” Johnson said.

The impasse further stymies the “critical” work done by some 700 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff working out of 30 offices in the Pacific region, officials outside of the agency said.

NOAA manages a wide range of responsibilities — running the National Weather Service, overseeing fisheries, sanctuaries and other marine services and conducting research.

On Monday, Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, flagged the impacts to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service as particularly significant. Fisheries staff members, who normally issue permits and help to protect whale species, aren’t on the ground and in the water to do those tasks during the shutdown, Sarri said.

“You lose all these services,” Sarri said. “In some ways they’re invisible to people but they’re very important.”

The shutdown also coincides with the annual migration of thousands of humpback whales to Hawaiian waters, at a time when there’s been a decline in the number of whales coming to the islands, Sarri said.

Normally, NOAA oversees the annual volunteer program to help gauge the number of whales returning to Hawaii. With NOAA sidelined, the foundation, which isn’t a government entity, is overseeing much of that work instead, Sarri said.

Similarly, private groups are filling in to help keep the USS Arizona Memorial accessible in place of the National Park Service, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

“It creates so much disruption,” Sarri said.  “If you don’t have the federal government working, you don’t have critical things getting done.”

Contractors Feel The Brunt, Too

The shutdown is hurting local federal contractors, too.

Michelle Baker, a Waikiki-based entrepreneur who helps scientists at NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies write reports more clearly so the public can better understand them, said she’s poised to lose a federal contract that was supposed to cover rent, debt service and utilities through March.

Baker said the uncertainty caused by the shutdown prompted her and her husband, Gary, to get a payday loan with exorbitant interest rates to pay for food this week.

If the impasse continues through Friday, the 8-week course she was supposed to teach for NOAA will probably be canceled.

“We’ll have to make some tough decisions about which utilities to pay … and just kind of negotiate with folks,” Baker said Sunday.  “Here’s what we can do now, here’s what we can do later and see what works.”

Baker previously endured the 16-day federal government shutdown in 2013. That year, under President Barack Obama, the political leadership was similarly entrenched, she said. What’s different this time, she said, is a “real lack of leadership” to end the dispute.

Government Shutdown. Michelle Baker stands near her condominium in Waikiki.
Michelle Baker, a federal contractor affected by the government shutdown, near her condominium in Waikiki. She and her husband, Gary, face difficult professional and financial decisions if the shutdown persists. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If the shutdown persists too long, Baker said she’ll have to change her business model altogether, focusing her writing services on private-sector clients instead.

Still, she considered herself fortunate compared to federal employees such as those in the Coast Guard, who perhaps don’t have the same flexibility to change jobs or careers as fast when paychecks stop arriving.

“They signed up for the government because they had a desire to serve and (wanted) the stability the government provided,” Baker said.

The Coast Guard’s 14th District, and its more than 1,000 active duty and reserve personnel in Hawaii, Guam and other parts of the Pacific, plays a crucial role in safeguarding the islands.

The district is responsible for a vast ocean territory spanning 33 countries and eight time zones. It’s charged with patrolling the world’s tuna belt, as well as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — the largest such monument in the Northern Hemisphere.

In an average week its crews respond to 20 vessels and save two lives.

“We’re still working,” Muir said. “The active duty members are still working.”

Currently, the unpaid Coast Guard crews are handling situations deemed “essential” — those related to search and rescue, marine safety, environmental protection and law enforcement, Muir said.

But with the shutdown, “there’s a lot that’s not happening,” she said, including boat-safety checks and routine inspections. If the situation persists, the Coast Guard will likely see fewer patrols in Pacific waters “in the near future,” Muir said.

Since the shutdown started Dec. 22 the Coast Guard’s 14th District branch has responded to 46 cases linked to its essential safety duties, Muir reported. But those cases corresponded to only four of the local Coast Guard district’s 10 congressionally mandated duties, she said.

It’s not clear how many more cases its personnel would have responded to, if not for the shutdown.

“It’s ridiculous,” Baker said. “I don’t see anybody coming forward and saying, ‘This has to stop. You have to take care of people, and this is how we’re going to do it.’”

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