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Government shutdown leaves Mississippi’s NASA employees, contractors without pay

By LISA MONTI

NASA’s name is on Stennis Space Center’s front gate but nobody in the space agency is working inside its sprawling facility in Hancock County.

NASA employees and their contractors haven’t been on the payroll since the partial government shutdown began Dec. 22. Phone calls to offices go to voice mail and some parking lots are empty. The nearby Infinity Science Center, the official visitor center for Stennis, is open but bus tours of the space center are not running.

Services such as the switchboard and security are still in place, supporting the 40 or so government agencies, aerospace industries and other companies located at the facility which has a total of about 5,000 employees.

The most recent workforce summary in 2015 showed NASA with 438 civil servants and 1,434 contractor personnel. The largest employer at Stennis was the Department of the Navy with about 2,000 federal and contractor employees. They are not affected by the shutdown.

There were three government shutdowns in 2018 impacting NASA and the current one is the longest ever. As the stalemate drags on, those not getting paychecks are toughing it out and figuring out what to do next.

People directly affected by the shutdown are willing to talk only without being identified. One federal contractor said the financial burden is forcing many to file for unemployment benefits.

“Unemployment compensation is an option to everyone, but if they pass a bill to pay everybody back pay, which they have done in past, the employees will owe the compensation back,” the employee said.

The uncertainty is wearing on those who are worried about their future. One furloughed employee was aware of a coworker resigning and expected more to follow. “We’re just waiting. That’s all we can do.”

The local business community is showing its support of the workers plight in some creative ways. The Mockingbird Cafe in Old Town Bay St. Louis has come up with a Furlough Friday special valid until the shutdown ends. Any government employee affected by the shutdown can get a free “Not Your Momma’s Fried Bologna Sandwich” and an ice cold PBR every Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. until the government reopens.

The Mockingbird’s Facebook posting said, “We love our community and the hardworking folks in it. We hope that this gives you a chance to relax and enjoy a meal with us.”

The post quickly got more than 400 likes and was shared more than 400 times. A typical comment showed gratitude for the offer: “God bless y’all! I am sure I speak for all of us on Furlough at this time this means a lot!”

Other nearby businesses jumped on board with their own offers. The French Potager owner Martha Whitney Butler will design a free small flower bouquet to “bring a little cheer into your heart and home.” Photographer Ann Dinwiddie Madden of Ann Madden Photography & Design is giving away free natural light headshots at Smith & Lens on Saturday. And Brenda Curet Cuevas is giving free haircuts at her Strandz Salon Monday through Friday.

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