OGDEN — While hard data will not be available for months, dwindling lunch crowds and an unsettling abundance of open parking stalls signal that downtown businesses in Ogden could pay a heavy toll for the federal government’s extended shutdown.
More than 4,000 Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Forest Service employees in Weber County have been out of work since Dec. 22 due to President Donald Trump’s fight with Congress — and particularly the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives — over his demand for $5.7 billion to build a physical wall along the nation’s southern border.
But politics aside, people are starting to fear the financial hole they could find themselves in due to circumstances beyond their control.
“We are concerned,” Ogden City Chief Administration Officer Mark Johnson said Thursday. “Our restaurants are not very full, especially at lunch time. … If you take out the IRS and the Forest Service, that’s a lot of federal workers who aren’t going to work. So it’s having a pretty good-sized impact on us.”
How devastating that impact could get remains to be seen.
“We don’t know yet how big it’s going to be because we don’t know how long the shutdown is going to last,” Johnson said. “And we won’t know the impact for a couple of months,” when quarterly sales tax reports come out.
Weber County Commissioner Jim Harvey also noticed the lack of midday foot and vehicle traffic downtown, and figured it would mean reduced sales tax revenues for local municipalities.
“I’m sure it’s affecting the local businesses,” Harvey said. “Ogden has a lot of government buildings, some occupied by the federal government — the Forest Service, the IRS, the Federal Building on 25th Street.”
Unemployment requests up
Friday marked the first missed paycheck for an estimated 800,000 employees nationwide, and heading into the weekend with no end in sight, this shutdown became the longest in U.S. history.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services reported a startling uptick in unemployment filings in December 2018. In 2017, the agency logged 5,867 average monthly claims and that number fell last year to an average 5,588 claims each month — until December.
“In 2018, we had been experiencing a decrease in the volume of unemployment claims due to the strong economy,” Christina Davis, spokeswoman for Utah DWS, said by email. “However, in December 2018, a total of 9,269 claims were filed.”
In comparison, in December 2017, a total of 8,228 claims were filed.
Davis attributed that spike to federal workers impacted by the government shutdown, along with the typical winter lull related to cold weather and seasonal work.
She also contrasted total claims during the two weeks since the shutdown to the same time frame a year ago: From Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 7, Utah took in 6,535 claims compared to 4,889 from Dec. 22, 2017, to Jan. 7, 2018.
“We don’t have any statistics specific to Ogden,” Davis said, “but we have definitely been seeing IRS employees coming into the office for help applying for unemployment benefits.”
The impact along 25th Street
Kym and Pete Buttschardt own and operate two restaurants in Ogden’s downtown: Roosters on Historic 25th Street and Union Grill a block north on 24th Street.
Kym Buttschardt reported a 15 percent drop in sales, noting that Roosters is taking the brunt of it.
“It’s more the 25th Street businesses that are feeling it because we get so much walk-over traffic,” she said. “All those people that work in those buildings are not in those buildings.”
Kym Buttschardt likened the blow to the great recession a decade ago. “We’ve cut back staff and hours where we can, and delayed some projects we were going to do.”
For the past 3 ½ years, Karen Larrabee has operated Bickering Sisters, a breakfast and sandwich eatery conveniently located across the street from the Federal Building. When the shutdown began, Larrabee began closing two hours early “so I could cut my payroll but not cut my staff.”
“The one thing I really don’t want to do is lose workers,” Larrabee said, noting a 58 percent drop in sales Friday over the same date a year ago. “We miss our friends that work for the federal government. We hope the shutdown ends soon, and we hope they’re all OK.”
The Good Life Cafe at 274 25th St. also recently posted its need to cut hours. And a barista at Grounds for Coffee a block away noted a drop in morning customers.
“I think it’s been slower, because there’s been more parking out on the street,” Kens Taylor said. “I have some customers who work at the IRS, and since its been shut down they’ve been out of a job for three weeks. We haven’t been seeing them often.”
Along with loss of sales tax revenue, Johnson and Harvey also lamented the shutdown’s human impact.
“People’s lives are at stake, their incomes are at stake, rent payments are at stake,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty serious to go 21 days and not have a job, not have money and not have been able to plan for it.”
Harvey voiced concern for families. “Unfortunately, a lot of people do live paycheck to paycheck, and it puts a strain on a lot of things,” he said.
Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah quickly responded to that stress by waiving requirements for federal employees to receive food at its Joyce Hansen Hall Food Bank at 2504 F Ave. in Ogden.
“All they need to do is provide proof of employment,” said Danielle Stamos, spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization. “Because of (the shutdown), we have definitely seen an increase in federal employees seeking our services. We are lucky to have such a supportive community and have been able to meet the demand. We feel very grateful to provide this much needed food so that no one goes hungry.”