As the federal government shutdown hurtles through its third week with no end in sight, many Maui residents are wondering how the standoff in Washington, D.C. could delay or suspend services here at home. Yet with Haleakala National Park remaining open, there are few visible markers that life is different on Maui. By far, the strongest effects are felt privately.
For federal employees who live here, the potential length of this shutdown is definitely “more nerve-racking,” said Evan, an air traffic controller at Kahului Airport, who asked that his real name be withheld to protect his job. “This is the one where people are like, ‘crap, this could last a long time.’ A lot of people are frustrated at being used as a bargaining chip,” he said, referring to President Donald Trump’s threat that the government will stay closed until Democrats in Congress fund $5 billion for a wall at the Mexican border.
Coming up on his first missed paycheck, Evan said, “Some people have savings, but a lot will have to go straight to a credit card. I’m one of those, and I am not looking forward to that.” For others, the financial stress is even more immediate. Also speaking anonymously to protect her family’s livelihood, Laura is the spouse of an airport employee considered “essential” and therefore required to report to work without assurance he’ll ever get paid. “Historically they have been paid back, but there is no guarantee,” said Laura. “I just paid off a credit card the week before the shutdown, because I thought we’d have his paycheck for the mortgage.”
All of Laura’s family plans for the holidays had to be cancelled because of her lack of income. “I rented out our minivan to tourists to make an extra $500,” she said. “I am not going anywhere with six kids by myself.” Laura and her husband have three children of their own and are currently fostering three children of a friend who is receiving treatment on O‘ahu for cancer.
“The uncertainty of not knowing how long this is going to last has been incredibly stressful,” she added. Indeed, Evan said he’s heard that air traffic controllers at some other airports are calling in sick because they are “over it. But Maui is pretty tight-knit. We come to work to support the other guys and not let them down.”
In addition to air traffic controllers, airport technicians and Transportation Security Administration employees are working without pay during the shutdown, as well as Coast Guard, military, and many others, including some staff at national parks. One employee of Haleakala National Park declined to comment on the situation when approached, referring media requests to the park spokesperson. Contacted for comment on how the shutdown is affecting park employees working unpaid, the written response from Information Officer Nancy Stimson was terse.
“I’m sorry, due to the federal government shutdown, we don’t have the staff resources to research that question. We can respond to you once normal government operations resume,” Stimson replied in an email.
With 31 of 80 park employees furloughed, the entrance station at Haleakala is staffed for the sunrise reservation period, 3am to 7am, but can be found empty after that. The diminished park protection provided at Haleakala sparked concern in Native Hawaiian activists. “When we heard there wouldn’t be coverage, that raised a red flag for us,” said Joyclynn Costa, who sent a kahea, a call or summons, on Facebook for help, gathering more than a dozen people together at noon on New Year’s Day to place a kapu on the mountain. “A kapu is a spiritual ceremony that prohibits desecration,” said Cody Nemet Tuivaiti, a Maui native who felt compelled to attend. “Haleakala is the most sacred area on Maui because it’s where water meets the aina first. We felt the mauna was left exposed.”
When Taivaiti arrived, “we saw a lot of cars piling in without being stopped, and nobody was managing where people were going.” In addition to the protocol and the placing of ki (ti leaf) on a flagpole, men in the group formed a line at the entrance and acted as kia‘i, or guards, for cars entering the park.
“We explained the code of conduct: don’t take anything away, stay on the trails, use the bathrooms, don’t litter,” he said. “Most people were positive towards us, but a few seemed to feel entitled, like they didn’t need to listen because we weren’t workers. That keeps me up at night; are people going to listen?”
Taivaiti and Costa said the park superintendent, Natalie Gates, came out to thank them for what they were doing because the employees “don’t have control over what’s happening,” according to Taivaiti. She “understood our mana‘o,” said Costa. “This is our kuleana to protect.”
Maui’s other large tract of federal land, Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, is also closed and a sign warns that “all public access to this refuge is prohibited” including the boardwalk, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “personnel will not be able to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance or emergency response.” Some residents indicated they’d respect the closure but are deeply disappointed. “I go to Kealia Pond boardwalk every day for my walk,” wrote Lisa Morrone Hamman in a post on Facebook, “and with it being closed there isn’t a quiet, beautiful place to compare. I wish we had other protected reserves with a boardwalk to protect the species.”
It’s uncertain what resource protection is being provided during the continuing shutdown. Attempts to contact Kealia Wildlife refuge personnel lead to standard voice and email replies: “Due to the lapse in funding of the federal government budget, I am out of the office. I am not authorized to work during this time, but will respond to your email when I return to the office.” The refuge website refers visitors to a U.S. Department of the Interior memo that states “only a relatively small number of ‘excepted personnel’ will be on duty during the shutdown period. Those personnel are not sufficient to provide a full range of public and resource protection services.”
Already the third-longest shutdown and on track to top the record books as the longest if it continues through the weekend, the shutdown shows no sign of concluding soon (last week, Trump threatened the shutdown could last “months or even years”). The Internal Revenue Service has already declared that tax refunds will be delayed if the shutdown stretches into late January. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps, has funding to last only through mid-February.
A study released last week by personal finance website WalletHub ranked Hawai‘i 4th place for states most affected by the federal shutdown. Two metrics that put Hawai‘i near the top are its share of federal jobs compared to all jobs and its high percentage of real estate as a share of gross state product.
Photo 2 courtesy of Joyclynn Acosta