Greg Dahl at work as branch manager for AC Lakeside. Dahl was inspired by local business owner Edith Johnson, and pushed for AC Lakeside to offer discounts and credit to furloughed federal employees during the government shutdown (KCAW/KWONG)

January 15th should have been payday for many government employees, but in Sitka and elsewhere federal workers woke up to no deposit in their bank accounts. Local businesses and organizations have been preparing for this moment, and are stepping up in an attempt to offset the economic impact of a zero-dollar payday from one of Sitka’s biggest employers. 

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Sitka’s response to the government shutdown began with free sandwiches. In December, Edith Johnson of Our Town Catering heard that the government shutdown was imminent and federal employees might not be receiving a paycheck.

“My heart just went out to the families,” Johnson said. “Because Sitka is an expensive place to live. So many people live paycheck to paycheck. While they will be getting paid eventually, it doesn’t help with the situation now.”

So Johnson posted on her business’s facebook page: Coast Guard employees would receive a discount, and if they couldn’t pay, Johnson would take IOUs.

Greg Dahl, branch manager at AC Lakeside, saw Johnson’s post, and was inspired.

“That really kind of got the marble rolling in my head, and I thought ‘okay that was really neat. Hopefully, we all can kind of pitch in.” But Dahl didn’t think it would last this long. Then the shutdown continued. And continued. “I was like, okay, we need to do something so our friends and neighbors can put food on the table. We’re offering kind of like an AC credit card. Zero interest for 30 days,” he said. “If the furlough goes on longer we can very well extend that.”

Since the shutdown began in December, many businesses in Sitka have offered free or reduced cost services, or are allowing federal employees to defer payment, from uniform repairs at Sewing Solutions, to deferred payment for classes at Sitka Studio of Dance. Alps Federal Credit Union is offering small loans at zero interest.

Local governments are stepping in too. The Sitka Assembly will consider a motion at its meeting on January 20th to waive the late fee on utility payments for those affected by the shutdown. And Sitka Tribe of Alaska chair KathyHope Erickson says STA has opened up its food pantry to federal employees, regardless of whether they’re Tribal citizens.  

“Go to the 110 American Street office for Sitka Tribe,” Erickson said. “Just bring in your government ID badge or other proof of federal employment, and you can pick up some food there. It’s a really well supplied food pantry so I’d encourage anyone who is eligible to come in.”

She says they’re also offering a small amount of financial assistance to tribal citizens who are federal employees.

Roger Hames, chairman of Hames Corporation, says his main store — SeaMart — is offering a line of credit to customers who can’t pay, on a case by case basis.

“Each person that has a need like this, that is affected directly by no paycheck or a little paycheck from the government, can contact the store director or assistant store director, Grant or Andrew, at SeaMart and we will handle each case accordingly,” said Hames. “It’s really unfortunate that this has all come to pass. The people that were affected really had nothing to do with the government shutdown, but they’re the ones that are being affected. It’s unfortunate. Both political parties can take blame in this. I hate to see this. The smaller the community the bigger the impact.”

AC Lakeside’s Dahl says the paycheck-less effect could ripple throughout Sitka.

“It’s going to have a big effect, and not just on the grocery stores, but the whole Sitka economy. If one of the biggest employers (the federal government), isn’t paying their employees here in Sitka, yeah that’s going to have a pretty negative effect on everybody.”

As for whether or not these discounts are sustainable, Edith Johnson says it doesn’t matter. They’ll continue offering food in exchange for IOUs as long as the shutdown goes on, though she doesn’t know when that will be.

“Absolutely,” she said. “They take care of us so we’re going to take care of them.”


Click here for a list of local businesses and organizations offering discounts and deferred payments during the shutdown. Raven News will update this list as more information becomes available.