A Little Cafe In Kansas Feels The Ripple Effects Of The Government Shutdown

Cynthia Wilson does not work for the federal government. Nor do the other women who work in Wilson’s little eatery in Wichita, Kansas, the Parsnipity Cafe.

But as the record-long government shutdown has demonstrated to a painful degree, Wilson and all her employees rely heavily on a federal workforce that shows up for work. Without it, the cafe has lost about a third of their customers, leaving Wilson to wonder how she will keep her business open if the shutdown goes on much longer.

“We are in crisis mode,” Wilson, 61, told HuffPost. “I think what people don’t understand is that for people who aren’t government workers, it just trickles down to an extraordinary degree.”

The partial shutdown that began Dec. 22 over President Donald Trump’s border wall funding demands shows no sign of ending soon. Roughly 380,000 federal employees across the country are furloughed and out of a job, while another 420,000 continue to clock in as “essential” personnel. None of those workers will be paid until Congress reaches a deal with the White House to reopen the government agencies they work for, and thousands of federal contractors affected by the impasse will likely never receive the pay they are losing.

Meanwhile, the shutdown’s economic toll continues to mount. The White House has had to revise its estimates on how much damage is being done to the nation’s economy from the missing paychecks. The head of Trump’s economic council now says each week of the shutdown cuts quarterly growth by 0.13 percentage points, twice as much as it previously believed.    

The Parsnipity Cafe perfectly illustrates the shutdown’s alarming ripple effects far beyond Washington. The eatery, which Wilson owns with her husband, Craig Bjork, a Marine veteran, occupies part of the atrium in the Epic Center, downtown Wichita’s tallest building. The Epic Center leases office space to several government agencies, including the FBI, the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The parent agencies of those offices ― the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice ― have gone unfunded as Trump demands Congress appropriate $5.7 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. That means many of the feds in Wilson’s building haven’t been at work and haven’t been dining at the Parsnipity Cafe. Aside from a vending machine, the restaurant is the only place to eat inside the building, and it offers freshly made and reasonably-priced deli fare (the sandwich meal deal runs just $7.25).

We are in crisis mode.
Cynthia Wilson, co-owner, Parsnipity Cafe

Wilson and Bjork closed the cafe between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, as they do each year, and left town for a two-week vacation, leaving others to run the restaurant when it reopened. When they returned in early January and went through the point-of-sale system, they realized how badly the furloughs from the shutdown had hurt business in the first days of the month. Compared to the same dates a year earlier, proceeds were down anywhere from 30 percent to 54 percent daily, Wilson said.

Their business is two-and-a-half years old, and although they consider it successful, the couple does not have much of a financial cushion to deal with a setback like this one. They’re worried about being able to pay their lease and giving their workers enough hours to put food on their own tables.

“We’re not Applebees. It has cut into our income,” Wilson said. “But the bills haven’t stopped.”

Wilson was disinclined to assign blame or get into the politics of the shutdown. She did say of her husband: “He’s pretty cranky to be bit like this by the government he served.”

The White House and members of Congress could have easily foreseen the consequences of a prolonged government shutdown for federal workers and businesses like Wilson’s. Government watchdogs have studied previous, shorter shutdowns and found that they waste government money, dampen consumer confidence and hurt economic growth. The 2013 shutdown ― which, at 16 days long, was 10 shorter than the current one as of Wednesday ― directly reduced GDP for the fourth quarter of that year by 0.3 percentage points, the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated.

Even though federal workers are likely to receive back pay once the shutdown is resolved, they are having to save money however they can in the meantime. Many have told HuffPost they are borrowing money from relatives, seeking out interest-free loans, asking for leniency from their landlords and eliminating any unnecessary entertainment, like movies and dining out. 

I’m not a federal worker. I work in a cafe as a hostess, and [the shutdown] has definitely impacted my life.
Lydia Lett, hostess, Parsnipity Cafe

Wilson, who is also the head chef at Parsnipity Cafe, said the lower sales have meant fewer hours for the second chef and hostess. Instead of staying open from early morning to 3 p.m., the cafe has been opening closer to 10 a.m. and closing around 2 p.m.

“We’ve had to cut [our staff’s] hours considerably,” Wilson said, adding that reducing hours has been a heartbreaking, but financially necessary, decision.

The shorter schedule has directly impacted Lydia Lett, the cafe’s hostess and a mother of two girls, one in kindergarten and the other in daycare. Lett said she understands why the restaurant has had to tighten up.

“We see a lot of the same people every day. So when there’s a group of them that’s missing for a long period, you can tell,” said Lett, 24. “It’s been the federal clients who haven’t been coming.

“I’m not a federal worker,” Lett continued. “I work in a cafe as a hostess, and [the shutdown] has definitely impacted my life. It affects a lot more people than people tend to think.”

It is not obvious how the shutdown ― now in its 26th day ― will come to an end. Trump has stood firm on his insistence for his wall funding, while Democrats have refused to budge on their opposition to his demand. House Democrats have passed a host of bills aimed at reopening much of the government as negotiations over the wall continue ― a move that could bring back many of Wilson’s vanished diners. But Senate Republicans have refused to take up those measures, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky standing on the sidelines and deferring completely to Trump.

Wilson said she feels sympathy for the federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay under deep financial stress. But they are at least likely to receive back pay once the shutdown is over, she noted. Nothing can be done about the business the Parsnipity Cafe has lost for weeks.

“We don’t get our money back,” Wilson said.

HuffPost readers: Are you affected by the government shutdown? Email us about it. If you’re willing to be interviewed, please provide a phone number.

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