IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Alabama city struggles as shutdown enters Day 26 with no end in sight

Federal workers, residents and businesses in Huntsville said they're feeling pain from the stalemate in Washington.
Server Dawn Killoran pulls up the shades as tables sit empty during dinnertime at Rocket City Tavern
Dawn Killoran, a server at the Rocket City Tavern in Huntsville, Ala., pulls up the shades amid empty tables during dinnertime on Jan. 9, 2019. Business at the restaurant, which is near several federal agencies, is off at least 35 percent since the government shutdown began.David Goldman / AP

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — As federal workers worry about missing another paycheck, members of the community said they are also feeling the effect of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

In Huntsville, nicknamed Rocket City after German engineers began building Army rockets here in 1950, the federal government fuels the local economy. The city has grown around the Redstone Arsenal, a sprawling military installation that is home to 70 federal agencies and Army units and 40,000 employees.

It's also where NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is based, but most of its approximately 5,000 federal employees have been furloughed without pay. Last week, many missed their first check.

"The worst part of this is just not knowing if this is going to come to an end and not being able to work every day," Marlyce Alexander, a NASA employee, told NBC News on Tuesday.

"It's been a little tight," she said, "just not knowing if I will get another paycheck."

As the partial government shutdown entered day 26 on Wednesday, residents and businesses are feeling a trickle-down effect in their daily life.

"I know it's really pissing off a lot of people in the community," said Tom Hartley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “If it goes on any longer, it's only going to hurt, hurt, and hurt.”

Restaurants outside of the arsenal's main gate said that revenues are down by a third. At a pawn shop closer to downtown, business has doubled.

"Yesterday we probably did 25-30 pawns, which is not typical," said Angela Huffman of Buster’s Pawn Shop. "Any other time that there's not a furlough, we've probably done 10 or 15 a day."

First-time customers walk in sheepishly, looking to trade treasured items for quick cash at 25 percent interest. On Monday, one woman came in to part with her wedding ring.

“When a furlough hits, a lot more of these government contractors get affected,” Huffman said. “People really get scared because they have mortgages and stuff like that.”

Workers monitor research operations aboard the International Space Station from NASA's Payload Operations Integration Center in Huntsville, Alabama, on Jan. 9, 2019. Of the roughly 800,000 federal employees affected by the shutdown, more than half are deemed essential, and are working without pay. David Goldman / AP

An estimated 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or are working without pay across the country, throwing everything from airport security to environmental protection to federal resources for low-income housing into jeopardy.

For the federal employees working without pay here, emotions ranged from anger to frustration as the White House and Congress seemed no closer to ending the stalemate over the wall President Donald Trump promised to build on the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump has threatened to keep key agencies shuttered for months or even a year if Democrats don't agree to allocate billions for his border wall.

“I'm angry when I have to pay a bill and I don't have the money to pay it,” said Sandra Snell, one of the 60 Transportation Security Administration officers in Huntsville she said are working without pay. "We have a duty to the flying public,” she continued. “We’re doing our job, and I just want them to do theirs.”

Some have already taken on a second job. “I work on cars on the side,” said Joey Martinez, another TSA officer. “Oil changes, it's heavy work.”

“You have to do what it takes to support yourselves and your families,” he said.