The effects of last October’s government shutdown, which closed off access to the world’s first national park and impacted numerous agencies for 16 days, are still hitting the town of West Yellowstone hard four months later.
Many residents work multiple summer jobs when there is more than enough employment to go around, but rely heavily on unemployment benefits to get through the winter, when jobs are scarce.
Since the government shutdown occurred roughly a month before the actual end of the summer season, many businesses closed early and didn’t reopen for the end of the season. This ended employment for many residents a month earlier than expected, forcing them to start collecting unemployment. Those benefits ran out for many in January and February, rather than the usual March timeline.
Last year, Congress extended unemployment benefits, but the extension was filibustered in the Senate this year, leaving many West Yellowstone residents with few options to make it through the winter.
“We have a number of people whose unemployment ran out,” West Yellowstone Job and Social Services coordinator Jack Dittmann said.
Unemployment benefits generally last between 12 and 16 weeks, and emergency unemployment that came with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more commonly known as the stimulus act, is now a thing of the past. Some still qualify for the additional eight weeks of unemployment income, but Job and Social Services assistant Kathi Arnado said tiers 1 and 2 of the service have been eliminated, leaving many without the option.
She added that winter is a tough time to find employment, and her office’s job board is currently empty. The only positions they have listed this winter are a few small temporary jobs.
“There’s nothing,” she said. “In the summer, our job board is saturated.”
To make matters worse, Congress also separated the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, from the Farm Bill earlier this year. This reduced funds for SNAP for the second time in two years, resulting in around a week’s worth of food being cut from local residents who rely on this service each month. Despite the cuts, the local food bank is still distributing 30 pounds of food per person, per month.
Add in the highest energy prices of all time and a bitterly cold winter, and you can see why many West Yellowstone residents are hurting right now. Many depend on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance for energy costs. But federal funding for LIHEAP in Montana has decreased from $31.6 million in 2009 to $16 million in 2014. With less financial assistance to go around and rising energy prices, the money just doesn’t go as far for individuals who rely on this service.
Lack of unemployment, energy assistance and food stamps has made life difficult for many locals, and Dittmann assumes that some have left town to try to make a living somewhere else. He bases his theory on the absence of familiar faces coming into Job and Social Services to file for unemployment or visit the food bank.
“People who would normally tough it out are finding they can’t make it, so they have to move out of town,” he said. “And they don’t have a lot of resources to move.”
The decrease in the local workforce this summer could pose major issues for small employers, who may have to start relying entirely on foreign workers to fill shifts. However, many foreign workers don’t arrive until late May and leave in August. That could result in months of the summer season where small businesses have much smaller staffs than needed to operate.
“If what I’m seeing this winter (correlates) to this summer, there will be more jobs than we can fill,” he said. “Large companies will be ok, but small employers will have a hard time this summer.”
Dittmann says many of these problems have to do with the poor state of the nation’s economy in general, which directly affects the tourism destination of West Yellowstone.
“We’re a tourist town, so every dollar that comes in is discretionary,” he said. “That’s what we depend on. If we’re in high unemployment nation-wide, fewer people with discretionary income will come to West Yellowstone.”
Arnado added that visitors who are coming to West Yellowstone are not buying high-end items, but looking for sale items to get more bang for their buck.
“Stores are selling a lot of little stuff instead of high-end items,” she said.
“This is going to be a difficult summer for employers,” Dittmann added.