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Forest Products Laboratory

Forest Products Laboratory employs about 140 federal workers at its facility at the west end of the UW campus. 

As the partial federal government shutdown enters its second month, federal employees in Madison are feeling the pain.

“We have people with a Ph.D. who have taken a job cleaning houses,” said Lon Yeary, deputy director of Forest Products Laboratory, which employs about 140 people at its facility on the west side of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

Yeary provided a lengthy email in response to a Cap Times inquiry into how the shutdown is affecting the lab, its research and its employees. He said he worked with Forest Products Laboratory Director Tony Ferguson, who’s based in Pennsylvania, in drafting the response.

Forest Products Laboratory is one of several federal research institutions that have benched their employees during the shutdown. And the interruption in research projects has had a ripple effect on other federal agencies, industrial interests and academia.

Yeary said that in addition to Forest Products employees, seven other federal employees at the facility work for the Northern Research Station, based in Pennsylvania, and six work for the USDA Animal Plant Inspection Service.

Also on campus is U.S. Dairy Forage, a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility that works closely with UW researchers and industry. Dairy Forage also runs, in conjunction with the UW, the Dairy Forage Research Center, a 300-cow dairy farm 30 miles north of Madison.

The operation is just a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, and it sheds light on the extent to which the federal shutdown is affecting scientific projects that affect the nation’s farmers, the agricultural industry and academia. The Agricultural Research Service, with an annual budget of $1.2 billion, employs about 2,000 scientists and post-doctoral students and 6,000 other employees to run 690 research programs across the nation.

Information on how many people work for Dairy Forage is not readily available online, but its website lists about 20 scientists who work in a variety of areas, including genetics, dairy science, agronomy and agricultural engineering. Supporting their projects are staffers who perform lab work, compile data, administer offices and maintain the premises.

The U.S. Geological Survey also runs operations in the Madison area, including the National Wildlife Health Center, which focuses on the prevention and control of wildlife diseases, and the Upper Midwest Water Science Center, which monitors and analyzes the state's water resources, as well as the Upper Midwest Environment Sciences Center near La Crosse.

“Due to the lapse in appropriations, I am prohibited from conducting work as a Federal employee, including returning phone calls and emails, until further notice,” reads an automatic email response from John Walker, director of the Water Science Center.

In a followup email, he said he was cleared to provide minimal information.

“I can tell you that in Madison there are around 80 employees associated with the Water Science Center, and another 30 or so associated with the Water Mission Area, a Headquarters organization,” he said.

He said he was unsure of the number of people working at the National Wildlife Health Center, but believed it to be less than 100.

Yeary, of Forest Products Laboratory, said he’s one of three full-time employees who have been “excepted” from the shutdown. Those employees are ordered to work without pay. Twelve more are on-call to handle tasks like snow removal or to protect property in the event of a mishap like a burst pipe, Yeary said.

He said the shutdown is having a profound impact on research, much of it done in partnership with the UW, industry, and government institutions across the U.S. and internationally.

“Every project FPL is working on will be impacted,” he said. “Some will be delayed, some will be cancelled, some will be modified or changed in scope to meet the resources available when the shutdown is resolved.”

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He said some “medium to large facilities projects” face cancellation, and others will be downscaled.

Employees have had to forego training, some of which if offered only once a year, he said.

The shutdown, he said, has left the laboratory unable to meet its obligations under research agreements.

“Many of these cooperators have put money and time into projects we are working on together,” he said. “Right now we are unable to hold up our end of these agreements and are not meeting our deadlines for developing scientific information to help them and the American public.”

He called the impact on employees “huge.”

He said some have found themselves in financial straits. For example, one scientist has tapped his 401(k) to make ends meet, he said. Another employee has a spouse who also works a federal job. The couple, deprived of two paychecks, is struggling with a new mortgage and a young child.

He also said that a Ph.D. student at the lab who is supposed to graduate in May could be forced to delay her graduation because she can’t pay her tuition.

“These are hardworking, educated, solid citizens that want to do their jobs,” he said. “They did not go on strike, they are not poor performers, the only thing stopping them from doing their job is that the United States government has not passed a budget for 2019!”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.