Nevada’s Elko County is a sparsely populated area occupying the northeast corner of the state. Mining and ranching are major sources of income. While it’s not hard to find people there who are sympathetic to fellow-Nevadan Cliven Bundy and other law-challenging proponents of local land rights, hundreds of people in the county work for federal-government agencies, including the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Agriculture. Many of those people have been furloughed during the partial government shutdown, which is nearing the end of its third week. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump reportedly “stormed out of a meeting” with Democrats about the shutdown, asserting that no resolution was foreseeable.
That same afternoon, I spoke to a wildlife biologist in her late thirties who lives in Elko County. (She asked that I not use her name, fearing retaliation from her agency.) For two decades, she’s been on the Forest Service’s local “wildlife crew,” which tries to manage and protect wildlife habitats. Earlier in the week, we had exchanged e-mails about the shutdown. On Wednesday, as she drove with a friend taking a child to the doctor in Twin Falls, Idaho—“because, I don’t really have anything else to do,” she said, and the friend covered gas costs—she spoke with me on the phone about her work and the potential for personal catastrophe if the shutdown continues. “I won’t get paid this Friday,” she had explained in an e-mail, before describing what that could mean for her in the coming weeks. The account that she provided, first by e-mail and then on the phone, has been edited and condensed.
“I recently got divorced and have no savings and maxed-out credit cards. My credit union has interest-free loans for federal employees, but I didn’t qualify since my credit isn’t good enough after the divorce. I’ve never missed a mortgage payment, but I had to borrow money from my elderly parents, who live on fourteen hundred dollars per month, in anticipation of bills, and mortgage payments, knowing my next paycheck wasn’t coming. With my mortgage, there’s no way to skip a payment or do a forbearance or anything like that. My parents are almost eighty years old, on a fixed income—they can’t help me out for the next missed paycheck. So I’m still trying to work with unemployment, looking for jobs, trying to figure something out, because I’m not optimistic about getting a paycheck on the twenty-fifth. I feel like a huge piece of shit right now.
“Unemployment is probably not going to happen. I got a letter saying they need a bunch of forms and every paystub since July, 2017. They said they requested the forms from my agency, but, of course, since most of them are furloughed, no one responded. I got permission from my supervisor to find a job without a conflict of interest. But no one wants to hire me because they know once the shutdown is over I’ll have to quit. The one temp agency is a hundred-mile round trip and they’re overloaded with other furloughed feds.
“I’m trying to find telecommuting jobs since I’m in a rural area, but there isn’t a whole lot. I have a loan on my Thrift Savings Retirement Plan for the divorce settlement and am only allowed two missed payments before I have to pay over eight hundred dollars per month. With no job and no unemployment, I can’t do it. I’m worried about how long my health insurance will last with a prolonged shutdown.
“With the divorce and severe depression, this shutdown is kicking my ass. I have a mood disorder—similar to bipolar. Meds don’t really work for me. I have a really good therapist, but she’s in the town of Elko, a hundred miles round trip for me, and I just don’t have the gas money. My friends are taking turns babysitting me, so I’m not at home alone. My job kept me occupied and independent. Now I am even more of a burden on my poor parents and friends.
“I don’t see any good coming from this situation and there does not appear to be any end in sight. I wish I could go to work so at least I’d feel some sense of accomplishment. Right now, I need to be doing winter eagle surveys. In January and February, I was signed up for a lot of eagle-counting routes in the state. Other raptor surveys as well. Using a truck with snow chains, we go out, drive a route, using binoculars and a bird guide to record every raptor that we see. It’s a huge workload and there’s a short window. I’ve done them for ten years, and now there will be a lapse in my data.
“There’s a lot of people within Elko that are furloughed or impacted right now. At my office, there’s seven of us. Counting other agencies, there are probably hundreds of furloughed government workers in Elko County, out of about fifty thousand people. The shutdown is impacting our hiring—in the summer, that number of federal employees balloons to thousands, because of all the firefighters and seasonals.
“My boss in Elko, he’d just moved there with his wife, a stay-at-home mom, and bought a new house. They’re worried about making their mortgage payment. And he’s an essential employee, so he’s reporting daily, without pay. One co-worker, who used to work two jobs, she can’t collect unemployment. She has a part-time job, so she doesn’t qualify. She’s trying to get by on working sixteen hours a week for fourteen dollars an hour.
“The Sagebrush Rebellion was big here. People support the Bundys. A lot of the community is kind of happy about the shutdown. At the same time, they like some of the services that the Forest Service provides. Like, we’re working to repair roads. So, they don’t like federal government but they enjoy some of what we do.
“It’s just frustrating because the Republicans had control of the House and Senate for two years and why didn’t they work more on border funding then? It would have been easier then. Now Trump’s throwing a big tantrum because he can sense he doesn’t have as much support. Trump said he’d keep it shut for months to years. I hope it won’t go that long, but I’m not optimistic. Things will get worse before we’ll get compromise.
“Everyone I work with really cares about what we do, and the land, and we just want to get back to work and get back out there again.”