For the sake of about two dozen Grayback Forestry Inc. employees who live in Union County, the partial federal government shutdown needs to end before March. As the company’s president, Mike Wheelock, knows all too well, that’s just five weeks away.

Grayback has a contract with the federal government to do forest thinning and restoration work, including prescribed burns, in Northeast Oregon starting in March. Grayback crews will not be able to begin work until the shutdown is over. This means between 20 and 30 Grayback employees in Union County could be in limbo waiting to see if they will have work. It is unlikely employees of government contractors will receive back pay for work missed during the shutdown since Congress has passed no legislation guaranteeing this.

Wheelock said if the shutdown ends before March, his crew will be doing thinning and restoration work in Northeast Oregon all spring.

“We will (if the shutdown ends) be working right up to fire season,” said Wheelock, who lives in Grants Pass.

Grayback Forestry is headquartered in Grants Pass and has bases in La Grande, John Day, Medford and Missoula, Montana.

Wheelock said he had wanted his company to do extensive forest thinning work in Southern Oregon this winter but it has not been able to yet because of the shutdown, which is the longest one in U.S. history. He said this work was part of a backlog created when Grayback crews had to spend a considerable amount of time fighting forest fires last summer.

“We wanted to catch up this winter,” Wheelock said. “It is frustrating.”

Furloughed federal employees are likely also frustrated, even though Congress recently passed a bill guaranteeing they will receive back pay for all the work they missed once the shutdown is over.

“I think more than anything, they just want to get back to work,” said Mike Burton, a non-furloughed federal employee who is based in La Grande, where he works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Union County has an estimated 107 federal employees who have been furloughed and Wallowa County has about 46, according to Chris Rich, regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. These employees are among about 190 who work for the federal government in Union County and 60 who work in Wallowa County. These estimates are based upon March 2018 data from the Oregon Employment Department. It is applicable to today, Rich said, because in March there are few if any seasonal employees working, just like now.

Rich said the vast majority of the federal government employees in both Union and Wallowa counties work for the U.S. Forest Service. The number is just over 90 percent in Union County and just under 90 percent in Wallowa County.

The annual average wage of these employes, according to 2017 data, the most recently available, was $64,484 in Union County, where wages ranged from $48,319 to $70,854. The annual average wage for federal employees in Wallowa County was $56,719, with wages ranging from $39,584 to $63,192.

The average annual wages of federal employees are substantially above the average of other employes in Union and Wallowa counties. The average annual wage of non-federal employees in 2017 was $38,095 in Union County and $34,884 in Wallowa County, Rich said.

Statistics indicating how many furloughed federal workers have applied for state unemployment benefits in Union and Wallowa counties are not yet available, but statewide statistics indicate that from Dec. 21, 2018, to Jan. 10, a total of 1,900 federal employees applied for state unemployment benefits, this was up 1,450 from the same period a year ago.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer