'You feel trapped': The shutdown's impact on Minnesota's weather service

Unpaid but unable to take time off, Chanhassen's NWS workers are finding the shutdown tough.
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National Weather Service Chanhassen

Their paychecks are frozen just as the ground is in Minnesota this time of year, but 38 employees of the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen continue to show up to work every day as mission-critical government employees. 

Each day they arrive at the office knowing their next paycheck might be weeks or even months away, but they continue educating and informing the public about pending weather events, like the winter storm preparing to layer the ground in southern Minnesota with 5-8 inches of snow on Friday. 

For some employees, the shutdown threatens their ability to pay bills on time, forcing them to make a few extra bucks through side hustles they never thought they'd need, all while hoping their applications for unemployment benefits are accepted. 

"There are employees who have gone to file for unemployment and there are employees who have taken out personal loans," said National Weather Service Employees Organization representative Lisa Schmit. 

"Some employees have charged expenses to credit cards because they don't have the savings built up."

Unemployment for employed workers? 

"We're still not completely sure whether or not that will be granted since we are still working," says Schmit. 

Side hustles are anything but easy for NWS employees

The first issue is that meteorologists are specifically trained to deal with the weather, so it's not like they can just hop on the web and find another job that fits their skillset. 

"We can't necessarily find other non-government work, but in the meantime we certainly have people picking up Uber and Lyft shifts, trying to find things on the side to make ends meat as long as they can," Schmit says. 

Easier said than done. 

NWS staff work rotating shifts, sometimes in the office for early, midday, late and overnight shifts. The irregular hours make sleep a challenge as is, so finding a part-time job on top of it is nearly impossible for many. 

And they can't just stay home.

"We have no choice but to report to work, even if it’s a quiet weather day," said Schmit. 

Thirty-eight of the 40 employees at the NWS Chanhassen office fall into a category the government classifies as "expected," meaning they're mission-critical and are needed at work daily, even during a shutdown, to protect life and property. 

The two employees not considered mission-critical are furloughed, meaning they've essentially been sent home during the shutdown and like their mission-critical colleagues, aren't getting paid. 

Shutdown could weaken Minnesota's warning services

Severe storms could be erupting in Minnesota within months, with June and July the most active on average, and Schmit is concerned that the team of warning forecasters in Chanhassen won't be adequately prepared if the shutdown lingers. 

The warning forecasters include four new hires, and new hires typically go through a rigorous radar training course to ensure they're ready to issue warnings when storms reach severe limits. 

That training course, however, isn't considered mission-critical, so it's been eliminated until the shutdown ends. 

"As long as the shutdown continues, we're probably going to be heading into the warning season down four warning meteorologists," says Schmit. 

"My analogy is the Minnesota Twins: if they were down four pitchers, they're still going to be able to field a team but if they get into a rough patch they don't have all hands on deck."

It could spell trouble in the event of a deadly tornado outbreak like the one that produced a record 48 tornadoes in Minnesota on June 17, 2010. Three of those twisters were extremely powerful, rated EF-4s with winds in excess of 166 mph, resulting in three deaths and 45 injuries. 

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the shutdown is keeping high tech computer models from being maintained as they normally are, and an issue with the top American model, the Global Forecast System, hasn't been fixed and won't be until the shutdown ends. 

That means one of the key models meteorologists trust daily isn't operating at its best. It hasn't had a major impact on forecasting yet, but it could if the shutdown continues. 

Lastly, Skywarn training sessions the NWS holds throughout the state have been put on hold, meaning there could be fewer trained spotters notifying the NWS of what the radars can't see.

Stress rising with each day the shutdown continues

For experts trained in dealing with uncertainty and Mother Nature's mood swings, the uncertainty built into the a shutdown that President Donald Trump has said could last for months or years, is agonizing. 

"There are stresses associated with not getting paid, and over time the anxiety continues to grow," Schmit says. "We aren't able to take any leave. Employees are having to cancel health appointments ... because we can't take leave during the shutdown and because we're unsure how our insurance is going to be covered throughout the shutdown.

"If we were to take leave or get sick on our shift, then we go into the furlough status. We don't know if we would ever get reimbursed for that time gone." 

Schmit noted that one of her colleagues has a newborn baby but can't leave for routine appointments because of this risk. 

"It's definitely stressful, especially if you have children," she said. "You kind of feel trapped." 

It's not clear if the bill President Trump signed this week to ensure furloughed workers receive backpay includes mission-critical staff who fall ill or take time off for scheduled appointments or family emergencies.

Similar impacts are being felt at all 122 NWS offices across the country, including locally at offices in Duluth, La Crosse, Sioux Falls and Grand Forks. 

All the while, the forecasts keep coming and no details are skipped. 

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