While the plights of National Parks and furloughed federal workers have monopolized headlines, ordinary consumers are starting to feel the effects of the federal shutdown in their daily lives – and those effects are getting harder and harder to ignore.
“Consumers expect that our food will be inspected, that products and toys and cars will be safe, that if they have a concern, they can communicate it to the government and the government will investigate it. Some of those things, consumers can’t do right now,” says Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel at the Consumer Federation of America.
In testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation Friday, Weintraub explained that consumers rely on the work of federal employees to feel protected across a variety of industries, including financial services, food, toys and air travel. “Many of the consumer protections we depend upon have been significantly curtailed,” she said in her testimony.
Consumer groups, including Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumers League and Consumer Action, also released a letter to Congress Friday outlining various ways that consumers are at risk as a result of the shutdown. “We urge a speedy resolution of the shutdown so that the government can resume its critical role on behalf of consumers,” they wrote.
Here’s an overview of how consumers are feeling the shutdown’s impact:
About one-third of Federal Aviation Administration employees are currently furloughed, according to the consumer groups. While air traffic controllers are still working since their jobs are deemed essential to safety, other staff members, including many safety inspection workers, have been furloughed.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to inspect meat and poultry, the consumer hotline is currently down and the agency is not updating its website or social media channels. That makes it harder for consumers to get information about current outbreaks, to report problems and to ask questions. Similarly, the Health and Human Services website notes that it "may not be up to date" due to the shutdown.
The Food and Drug Administration, currently operating with just over half its staff, reports many of its activities, including safety inspections and research, are not taking place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s staff is mostly furloughed, too, which means it is not currently monitoring public health and outbreaks as thoroughly as it normally would.
“The CDC’s work to identify the source of the salmonella outbreak in chicken in the Pacific Northwest was hampered by the fact that the staff working on data collection wasn’t working,” Weintraub told U.S. News. Those employees have since been called back to work.
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The vast majority of employees at the Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently furloughed, which means port inspectors and investigators are not on the job. Reports on potentially unsafe products are not being published, which means the public is unaware of them. In their letter, the consumer groups point out that there have been at least two cases, one which was fatal, involving childhood injuries by products in recent days, and the CPSC is unable to investigate either of them until its employees get back to work.
“If a consumer is a victim of identity theft, and they’re told they should go to the Federal Trade Commission website to find out what they should do, that website is entirely down. They can’t report it or obtain tips,” Weintraub says. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which oversees the commodities market, is largely closed at the moment. “The shutdown leaves the CFTC with only a handful of people to police the markets for fraud and manipulation,” the letter from the consumer groups says.
Anyone attempting to purchase a home right now might also run into trouble because the internal revenue service cannot verify income for borrowers, Weintraub says. Similarly, she notes that the agencies responsible for paying landlords on behalf of low-income tenants are also unable to do their job. (The IRS is also unable to process refunds at this time, and live customer service phone assistance is unavailable, the website notes.)
Most employees of the Environmental Protection Agency are currently furloughed, which means programs related to air quality, safe drinking water and public health are paused, the letter from consumer groups notes.
There are also other, less concrete ways consumers are being impacted, Weintraub says, and some of those effects might not be visible for several months. Data that’s not being collected, products that aren’t being inspected, information that’s not being released – these are all small, invisible absences that build up over time. “Consumers don’t see the details of the work that’s conducted every day, but it’s impacting safety and health and the ability to navigate the financial marketplace,” Weintraub says. Given the mounting backlog of work that federal workers will return to, some of those tasks might continue to face delays even after the shutdown ends.