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Government shutdown creates anxiety for workers at holiday time and closes Fort McHenry

Rob Merritt was taking his wife and two young daughters to tour Fort McHenry on Saturday when the family encountered — perhaps fittingly — a wall.

On the closed metal gates attached to the brick wall was posted a “Park Closed Today” sign and a small notice of explanation.

The makeshift paper notice explained that “a lapse in federal appropriations” had led officials to close the fort “for the safety of visitors and park resources.”

For the Merritts, who are tourists from Corpus Christi, Texas, the barrier became an instant symbol of the partial federal government shutdown that is itself about a wall — President Trump’s efforts to compel Congress to approve $5.7 billion for a wall to heighten security at the Mexican border.

With no deal in sight to end the shutdown, the Senate adjourned until Thursday.

The Merritts, who visited Washington tourist sites last week, had hoped to see the fort where U.S. soldiers withstood a British bombardment in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became "The Star Spangled Banner."

“I’m 39 years old and it had been on my list for life,” said Rob Merritt. “We’re going to roll the dice and go to Gettysburg.”

The shutdown began Saturday and affects one-quarter of the government and about 800,000 employees who will be furloughed or work without pay at such departments as State, Agriculture, Justice, Commerce and Interior, of which the National Park Service is a part.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Southern Maryland Democrat who will become House majority leader next month, said Saturday that he will push for bipartisan legislation ensuring that affected federal workers receive back pay. In a shutdown, paychecks for federal employees are temporarily suspended and retroactive pay must be approved by Congress, Hoyer said.

On Friday night, the Senate approved legislation by Democratic Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen guaranteeing back pay for furloughed workers.

Maryland particularly feels the sting of shutdowns because of its proximity to Washington. Thousands of government contractors in the area are also affected, and many don’t know if their employers will reimburse them for time and money lost, a union official said.

“We’ll find out when the government opens up whether the workers get paid or not,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, which represents 163,000 cleaners, security officers and other workers — including 18,000 in the Washington-Baltimore region.

“If it goes on for a couple weeks, it’s just unbelievably hurtful for them and their families, many of whom live pay check to pay check,” Contreras said. “They're playing with working people’s livelihoods.”

Lila Johnson, a union member who is a contract custodian at the Department of Agriculture, said Saturday that she did not know if she should report Monday for her four-hour shift beginning at 6:00 p.m.

Her supervisor said that if she doesn’t go in, “then I have to use a personal day or sick day to get paid,” said Johnson, 71, who lives in Hagerstown.

But she didn’t know if she would be able to work — and get paid — if she showed up as usual.

“I’m on a fixed income, but I work part-time to make ends meet,” said Johnson, who said she is raising two great-grandchildren, ages 6 and 15.

If the shutdown extends for long, she said she would struggle to buy food for the kids and pay her bills.

Democrats say they favor enhanced border security but have balked at Trump’s demand for $5 billion for the wall.

Trump tweeted Saturday: “The crisis of illegal activity at our Southern Border is real and will not stop until we build a great Steel Barrier or Wall. Let work begin!”

Not all federal employees in Maryland and elsewhere are being left without a paycheck during the holiday season, because previously passed measures have funded roughly 75 percent of the government, including the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs.

The largest group of federal workers in Maryland, some 11,000 employees of the Social Security Administration, which is headquartered in Woodlawn, are not affected, according to a union official.

But many national parks were visibly affected — as the Merritt family discovered.

The family, including daughters ages 7 and 11, had just visited the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington where they saw the flag that led Key to write the song that became the national anthem.

“We were kind of putting the pieces together,” said the father, who is a state park ranger in Texas.

“We knew the shutdown had happened,” he said. “We kind of figured most of it would be closed but we hoped we could get at a little closer.”

National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum advised visitors to check park websites or call ahead before visiting sites.

“During the government shutdown national parks will remain as accessible as possible while still following all applicable laws and procedures,” Barnum said.

But the Merritts were not completely without luck. The next stop on their tour — the national military park at Gettysburg — reported that the cemetery was closed but the visitor center, monuments and trails were all open.

jebarker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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