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Extended government shutdown taking toll on Maryland-based workers, the state — and even breweries

The Maryland Food Bank is offering "Pantry On the Go" food distribution for federal workers affected by the shutdown. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun video)

Federal workers affected by the government shutdown lined up Wednesday in Lansdowne to receive free groceries from the Maryland Food Bank.

The number of Marylanders seeking shutdown-related unemployment insurance benefits surged to nearly 4,000 — up 50 percent in less than two weeks.

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State farmers expressed growing anxiety about a delay of crop reports critical to making decisions about their budgets and how much to plant.

The partial shutdown of the federal government reached its 33rd day on Wednesday, a record-long impasse stretching many Maryland-based federal workers and contractors past their financial limits. The shutdown's ripple effect is also exacting a toll on state government — and even potentially on a Halethorpe brewery that needs federal government approval for labels it plans to use for canning a new beer.

With fewer commuters traveling to Washington, the Maryland Transit Administration said Wednesday it saw a decline of about 18 percent in January monthly pass sales for MARC rail service. The agency didn't estimate a dollar-loss figure and said the shutdown's full impact would be evaluated next month.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office estimated 172,000 Marylanders are affected by the shutdown, including federal employees and contractors who aren’t being paid. His office said those workers typically receive a combined $778 million in salary every two weeks, and pay a total of $57.5 million in state and local income taxes for each of those pay periods.

Halethorpe-based Heavy Seas beer proposed labels in December for a new raspberry lemon beer called Sunburst that it plans to start selling in July. But, for now, the approval process through the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau is on hold. To make the new beer in time for summer, Heavy Seas needs to place the order for Sunburst cans in about four weeks.

Otherwise, “I'm going to take a hit,” said Hugh Sisson, founder of Heavy Seas. Right now, “there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.”

The brewery sent the proposed labels to the government in December for a process that typically takes three to four weeks, Sisson said.

He said he’s wondering not only how long the shutdown will continue, but “how big is the back-up going to be when they finally do break the logjam?”

In the absence of a speedy re-opening, he is hoping for a temporary waiver on label requirements.

“This is affecting spirits people and winemakers too,” he said. “We’re all dealing with the same thing.”

The shutdown is caused by a dispute between President Donald Trump and Congress over whether to fund a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

Maryland counties have been stepping up efforts to help affected workers.

Howard County said Wednesday it will hold free weekly food distribution for government workers pinched by the impasse. Families of affected workers can receive snacks and a bag of groceries at the Bain Center in Columbia on Friday between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Several county executives and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh decried the shutdown at an Annapolis news conference. They said they are planning to spend more money on emergency assistance to families affected by the shutdown. Some residents who normally help at food banks and other charitable efforts are now finding themselves on the receiving end, the local leaders said.

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The partial shutdown affects one-quarter of the government and about 800,000 employees who are furloughed or working without pay.

With no end in sight, Linda Grey found herself in line Wednesday at a pop-up pantry provided by the Maryland Food Bank in Lansdowne, picking up salad, potatoes, bacon, apples and other free groceries.

She is an equal-opportunity specialist at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Baltimore, reviewing complaints by people alleging unfair housing practices for more than three decades.

“It’s been a little rough,” she said of the furlough. “I’m just trying to keep afloat.”

The shutdown, Grey said, doesn’t just hurt the wallets of furloughed government employees, it halts all the work they do each day.

“I’m not able to process fair-housing complaints,” she said. “We’re not able to pay nonprofits for the work they do. Everything is at a standstill.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, who dropped by the food giveaway to thank the organizers and the federal employees working without pay, said the longer the shutdown goes on, the more of a toll it takes on the country.

A government scientist wrote Cardin a letter saying she had taken out an advertisement to work part-time as a babysitter — who also could tutor children in physics, he said.

“This person’s not going to stay around much longer,” Cardin said. “We’re going to lose her talent in government service. She can clearly get a job someplace else. We’re going to lose the talented workforce carrying out the important missions of keeping us safe.”

The Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO Unions hosted the pop-up food pantry in the parking lot of its headquarters.

Jermaine A. Jones, president of the union council, said hundreds of his members are furloughed or working without receiving paychecks.

“We’re talking about workers who already don’t make a lot of money, who already have to choose between child care and health care while they’re receiving a paycheck,” Jones said.

The longest previous shutdown lasted 21 days in 1996 during President Bill Clinton’s administration.

The length of this one means that Mahasin Mohamed, 57, a contract security officer at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, is nervously watching the supply of frozen food in her refrigerator dwindle. Bills are coming due, and she is afraid to go to the doctor because of the cost — she doesn’t have health insurance.

"I never imagined this," said Mohamed, of Oxon Hill, who stopped earning her $17.62-per-hour paycheck when the Smithsonian museums closed Jan. 2. "I didn't think it would be more than two weeks. It's really crazy."

She said she recently borrowed enough to pay her $1,800 mortgage, but the electric, water and phone bills are looming and "I don’t know what to do."

Mohamed, who usually sends $200 a month to help support her mother in Sudan, said she hasn't been sleeping much and often feels dizzy.

Her union, 32BJ SEIU, represents 163,000 cleaners, security officers and other workers — including 18,000 in the Washington-Baltimore region.

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Congress has approved legislation assuring back pay for federal employees. But contractors like Mohamed have no similar guarantee.

The shutdown also has delayed the federal government’s release of domestic and world crop reports that help farmers gauge what and how much to plant.

"This is a critical time of year to figure out your cash flow and budget," said Evan Miles Jr., a Queen Anne’s County farmer who is president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

"We need to know where the market is going to trend," said Miles, whose crops include soybeans, corn, lima beans and peas.

"It's an anxious feeling for us and a lot of people because they don’t know which way the market is going," he said. "It's running a little risk of having a surprise."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood and the Howard County Times contributed to this article

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