Nonprofits step up to help furloughed workers.


With the longest government shutdown in U.S. history past them, local nonprofits are seeking a way to ensure they can continue to meet the needs of those affected – while maintaining their day-to-day operations.

Hundreds of Florida’s nonprofits stepped up during the shutdown to help federal workers cope with financial and emotional stresses. In many cases, nonprofits offered immediate support to furloughed employees and left for later thinking about the impact it would have on their own budgets and bottom lines.

Now, many organizations are trying to figure out how they can keep supporting those affected by the shutdown, who have since continued to need aid, while meeting the needs of the people and communities they regularly serve.

“With additional people comes additional need on our side,” said Gussie Flynn, communications director for Farm Share, a nonprofit that recovers fresh and non-perishable food and redistributes it to Floridians in need. “Meeting the need is a thought that truly keeps me up at night.”

According to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida has approximately 141,100 federal employees working at places from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the TSA to the national parks. Thousands of them missed two paychecks during the 35-day shutdown. Many contractors and state employees who’d normally receive pay from the federal government were also affected. As a result, food pantries, financial services organizations and other nonprofits stepped in to meet the need.

Gussie said the unexpected bump challenged Farm Share, a hurricane recovery grants-funded nonprofit, which was assisting thousands of people still in the process of rebounding  from Hurricane Michael – and some rebuilding from Hurricane Irma. As Farm Share expanded operations to aid affected federal workers, the deliveries to hurricane survivors didn’t stop.

“We have continued our efforts to feed hungry people no matter if you have a badge on your shirt or not,” Gussie said, adding that the extra need for deliveries, funding and volunteers means 2019 “is going to be a difficult year.”

The shutdown also challenged nonprofits because it delayed funding they receive from the federal government. Domestic violence shelters that rely on grants administered by the Department of Justice, along with healthcare programs and food pantries for Native American tribes, were among the kinds of nonprofits most affected, according to the Florida Nonprofit Alliance.

At Branches, a South Florida-based nonprofit that assists students, families and adults with college preparedness and financial wellness, about 10 percent of funding comes from federal and local agencies. Executive director Brent McLaughlin said his group still expects to receive the federal money eventually. In the interim, he has spoken with leaders at two other nonprofits, one national and one local, to see if they could help cover costs. He said both leaders told him, “Absolutely, this is why we support Branches, because we want you to be responsive to the community’s needs.”

Helpful partnerships during the shutdown extended beyond financial contributions. Branches coordinated with Feeding South Florida to volunteer at one of their distribution sites for TSA employees. While handing out food, Branches staff distributed materials about the their financial wellness programs.

“We’re actually talking about working together in the future,” Brent said of Branches and Feeding South Florida, both of which are Community Grants recipients. “We’d like to see how we can embark on partnerships in more stable times.” (Learn how you can volunteer with Branches and Feeding South Florida.)

In the Florida Panhandle, Gussie said, Farm Share built on an existing partnership with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office to distribute blankets and heaters to clients struggling with a cold snap. “If there’s a silver lining, it’s meeting new people who care and want to help.” (Sign up to volunteer with Farm Share.)

Yet, although partnerships, donations and extra hours divided among staff and volunteers have enabled nonprofits to meet the additional need, for now, leaders worry the aftereffects of the shutdown may continue to impact their organizations and clients for months to come. There are fear donations may dry up as time passes and federal employees’ need for support falls out of the limelight.

With the threat of another shutdown looming, Gussie is worried. But, she added, “We will continue to provide food as long as it’s needed, where it’s needed, for as long as we can.”

Kate Stein is a freelance writer reporting on the environment and resilience issues.

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