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Downtown Anchorage businesses feel pinch of federal furlough

Laurel Andrews
Casendra Bowen of Bottoms Boutique, in front of the boutique Circular, which is among Anchorage businesses that have taken a significant . All told, 9,117 federal workers were employed in Anchorage in 2012. That’s roughly 6 percent of the city’s workforce, accounting for $700,000 in annual payroll. Tara Young photo

Even as the government shutdown seems to be coming to an end, after more than two weeks of D.C. stalemates, federal workers remain at home while Congress will spend the next few days finalizing the details of the deal. In downtown Anchorage, most federal offices are still staffed only with skeleton crews. Are downtown Anchorage businesses within walking distance of federal offices feeling the pinch?

“Of course -- are you kidding me?” said Jose Martignon, general manager of Sacks Café. Sacks has lost around 25 customers a day, or between $300 to $500, Martignon said. Slow business has forced him to cut a shift from the café's work schedule. Employees rotate through the extra time off. Meanwhile he works every day, without extra compensation.

For the staff, “It’s demoralizing. We are all affected by this,” Martignon said.

Down the street, Crush Wine Bistro is suffering, too.

“We didn’t realize all our biggest office neighbors were federal buildings,” owner Scott Anaya laughed. “The first day [of the furlough] was a 69-percent decrease in lunch business.”

"Normally with PFDs this is a busy time for us," he added. After two weeks of the government shutdown, lunch business is down 50 percent. As a result, Crush has cut three shifts a week.

Employees are keeping busy with some out-of-season “spring cleaning,” Anaya said, re-organizing the wine store room. The extra work “costs us money, but we need to keep our Crush family employed,” he said.

Crush will weather the storm, Anaya said, leaving most of his worry for family, friends and neighbors. The federal shutdown “absolutely hurts not only the Alaskans without a paycheck, but everywhere they shop and throughout the community.”

Crush, like other businesses near downtown Anchorage office buildings will be happy to have the federal workers back on-the-job, should the House of Representatives accept a deal brokered in the Senate. House Speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled Wednesday it would.

The feds are a “big employer in this town,” state economist Neal Fried said.  All told, 9,117 federal workers were employed in Anchorage in 2012. That’s roughly 6 percent of the city’s workforce, accounting for $700 million in annual payroll. Alaska has more federal workers per capita than nearly every state, and those salaries tend to be high -- the average wage for a federal civilian worker in Alaska was $71,775 in 2012.

In addition, “there are private contractors, too,” who haven't been paid due to the furlough, Fried said. While some downtown federal buildings are still open, such as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the Federal Courthouse, National Park Service, U.S. General Services Administration and U.S. Social Security Administration are working with skeleton crews.

At the National Park Service building, deputy regional director Joel Hard was one of three people working on Tuesday, out of 150 employees who usually roam the halls. Across the street at Midnight Sun Café, the effects of the empty National Park Service building have been immediate and hard hitting. Barista Allison Padilla said that the café is “just a bunch of empty tables.”

Owner Lindsay Williams said regulars from the National Park Service account for 25 to 35 percent of daily business. “Being in business the last six years, we have gotten to know our regulars by name and their drink order. Our regulars are extremely dedicated, and these last few weeks we have greatly missed seeing many of them in the café,” she wrote.

Williams has cut one worker shift for Monday and Tuesday, and has decreased total employee hours by 20 hours a week. Meanwhile she has given most of her own shifts to employees.

Circular Boutique has also been feeling the pinch. “It’s been horrible,” said Casendra Bowen, who usually works nearby at Bottoms Boutique and was filling in on Tuesday for Circular owner Kim Stalder. “We’ve literally had three people in today.”

“I’ve been posting on Facebook like crazy,” trying to get folks to come down to the shop during the past week. But so far, feds aren't flocking downtown during their days off.

Even if the U.S. House passes the Senate’s bill to end the shutdown, some federal employees may not be back at work until the end of the week, as the agencies they work for gear back up for business.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews