Chili feed is first effort to aid federal workers going without pay
It wasn’t just the spicy chili that warmed members of Coast Guard Station Bayfield last week.
Members of the station, whose duties include lifesaving efforts among the Apostle Islands and border security on Lake Superior, joined other federal employees Monday who have been affected by the partial shutdown of the federal government, for a free chili feed at Bayfield’s Presbyterian church.
Local federal employees from the Coast Guard, Park Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs are among the 800,000 federal workers affected by the shutdown.
For the Coasties, the shutdown has been particularly hard to deal with — they remain on duty, but they won’t get their paychecks Jan. 15 — and likely not until the budget impasse between President Trump and Congress is resolved.
So the expression of community support, brought forth in steaming bowls of chili, was as welcome for what it symbolized as for how good the chili tasted on a cold winter day.
“It has been truly surprising and a little bit humbling to find that the community wants to support us that much,” said Boatswain’s Mate First Class Justin Sickler, who serves as second in command at the Bayfield station.
The chili feed was just the first step in a grassroots effort to help out local federal employees who are affected by the shutdown, which on Friday was in its 20th day, the longest in U.S. history.
Presbyterian Church Pastor Lawrence Lee said Monday’s meal was intended not just to help federal workers stretch their budgets, but also to demonstrate that the community is behind them in an uncertain time.
“It was particularly good for the National Parks people, because some of them haven’t seen each other in a couple of weeks, so it was kind of a reunion for them. It was nice to sit around the table, have some chili and catch up a bit,” he said.
Lee said the effort has touched off discussion about what else can be done for federal employees, many of whom are young and have families to support. With no paychecks and bills and mortgages or rent payments coming due, their prospects are uncertain, and more than a little unnerving.
“There is nothing definitive right now, but we are having a meeting on Monday at 11 a.m. at the Bayfield Presbyterian Church, where we are inviting members of the community and other churches to sort of coordinate and try to figure legally what we can do,” Lee said.
The question of how best to help furloughed federal workers and remain within the boundaries of federal law is a real quandary. There are strict ethics guidelines about what Coast Guard members can accept, Sickler said. One initial idea — gathering donations and giving out gift cards — had to be nixed when organizers learned of the regulations.
“Generally, we can’t receive any form of cash donation or money, or any form of gift cards that would be considered a gift in kind,” Sickler said.
Sickler also said that gifts with a value of over $20 could not be accepted.
“Larger donations to the unit as a whole can be received by our officer-in-charge, but depending on the size of the donation, if it’s too large we have to run it up our chain of command and get it received for us by our sector.”
Sickler said donations could best be sent to organizations like the Presbyterian church, which are aware of the limitations and can act appropriately.
Barb Gover, a deacon at the church, said the idea of the chili feed started with another deacon, an employee of the National Park Service herself.
“It was more than just giving them a meal,” Gover said. “Letting them know that people were aware of her situation was a big part of it. We wanted to acknowledge that while the rest of us don’t really feel the effects of the shutdown, for some of those people, they really are feeling it.”
She said the fact that there appears to be no end of the shutdown in sight was “troubling.”
Gover said the Coast Guard members’ plight is particularly vexing, and evidence that a distant political battle takes a real toll locally.
“A lot of them are younger down at the station, and we were concerned about the financial implications of what they were going through,” Gover said. “Now other churches have become interested and that is why we are meeting Monday, to see if we can help.”
Lee said the group still is trying to determine what it can and can’t do within the bounds of federal ethics laws. The church has been in communication with the Coast Guard to learn more. One idea is to stock a food pantry for those affected by the shutdown.
“But that is just a part of it. I’ve met with some of these young men, and they are living from paycheck to paycheck, so when that disappears, it really rocks their world, and I am worried about them,” he said.
Sickler said the prospect of going without pay for the shutdown — which Trump said he is prepared to extend “months or even years,” deeply concerns those who serve at Coast Guard Station Bayfield.
“Obviously anytime you are looking at not receiving a paycheck, there are some concerns and worry, but we do have options in place to assist members,” he said.
Sickler said it was obvious that the community was behind them.
“We appreciate all the outreach that we’ve received so far, even just the phone calls of support. It goes a long way for the crew,” he said.