Shutdown creating uncertainty for VISTA members

Cris Ritchie — Editor

October 15, 2013

HAZARD—Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. continue to debate the ongoing federal government shutdown, with news breaking on Tuesday that senators are nearing a possible agreement.

But in the meantime, a slew of federal workers are feeling the effects, including members of the AmeriCorps VISTA program, who serve in low-income areas such as Central Appalachia. Some VISTA members are actually working without pay while the government remains in shutdown mode. Others might be receiving pay but still face some uncertainty, especially if the shutdown persists.

Carla Davis traveled from North Carolina to work as a VISTA in Perry County, where she serves with the Housing Development Alliance, a nonprofit organization aiding local residents with housing issues. Her term expires next month, leaving her to await word on another VISTA position she applied for in North Carolina. But while the government remains shut down her next steps are not definite.

“They can’t let me know one way or another until the government opens,” Davis said. “It’s kind of up in the air.”

Aly Cooper is feeling the effects of the shutdown. The Colorado native first came to Hazard in November 2012 as a member of the AmeriCorps VISTA program. She currently works at the Little Flower Clinic in Hazard with nutrition education, smoking cessation, diabetes prevention, and community gardens.

Cooper recently applied for an extension to her position, which was granted about a month before the shutdown began and will keep her in Hazard for another year. But with the shutdown persisting she is left in a limbo of sorts.

“I’m trying to stay for another full year, but the government has to open for me to be able to do that,” Cooper said.

To make matters worse, if the shutdown persists longer than 30 days, both their positions may be terminated all together.

“What our supervisors have been told, if the shutdown lasts until the end of October, then the federal government will bring in just enough people to process our termination of service,” Davis said.

VISTA members aren’t exactly making a lot of money to begin with, and are paid a stipend based on the median income level of the area in which they work. In some cases, they could be living check to check, and the shutdown is leading to issues with VISTA members across the nation, of which there are roughly 8,000.

Davis said both herself and Cooper are receiving their stipend from funds received prior to the shutdown by the Appalachian Coal Country Team, the umbrella organization overseeing about 16 VISTA members in Central Appalachia. Several others however, are currently working without pay.

Davis said the point of arguing over who is right or wrong in the shutdown is over, and she is hopeful Congress can come to a deal sooner rather than later to re-open the government.

“Whether you’re right or whether you’re wrong, whatever your stance is, there are real people who are working hard that aren’t getting paid for it and are suffering because they can’t come to an agreement,” she said.

While a deal is reportedly close in the Senate, it doesn’t necessarily mean the shutdown will end. Any resolution will also have to pass the U.S. House of Representatives, a prospect that itself is not definite.

“I love my job and want to stay here,” Cooper noted. “I love Hazard, and I would hate to have to go home because the government can’t get its act together.”