Shutdown Update: Food Stamp Distribution Coming; District Court Open

The District Court building on St. Croix. (File photo)
The District Court building on St. Croix. (File photo)

Federally funded entities in the Virgin Islands are working hard to maintain normal operations as they face cutbacks due to the partial government shutdown.

The V. I. Department of Human Services issued a brief statement Friday afternoon saying it will distribute February food stamp allotments early. It gave little detail and did not address the logistics of how the distribution will be funded, but it was emphatic that the thousands of Virgin Islands residents who depend on the federal supplemental nutrition program will get the aid they are expecting. The release also cautioned that recipients will need to budget the assistance carefully.

Also Friday afternoon, Glenda Lake, speaking for the Office of the Clerk of the District Court in the Virgin Islands, told the Source “We’re operating as normal.” That’s despite a pending motion from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is part of the U.S. Justice Department and is the federal government’s representative in District Court, to postpone some cases because of staff furloughs and despite the fact that if the shutdown continues, court employees will not be paid for work after this week.

For about 800,000 members of the country’s federal workforce, Friday was the last payday until the shutdown is resolved. That’s when federal appropriations officially ran out for the departments, agencies and programs in which they work.

But the District Court in the Virgin Islands has been able to rely on court fee balances and other funds to continue functions, Lake said. There is sufficient money to pay employees for work through the end of this week – Jan. 18 – and they will actually receive that paycheck, as usual, Jan. 25. But after the 18th, they will be working without pay.

The court payroll includes 46 employees, 33 of them working at the court and 13 assigned to probation and pretrial duties.

Each court within the federal court system has its own plan for dealing with the impacts of the shutdown, Lake said.

“We’re a small court, so all our employees will be designated ‘essential,’ ” she said.

Essential workers are expected to work without pay. Although there is no guarantee, it is likely they will eventually receive backpay after the shutdown ends.

The court may expect U.S. government attorneys to continue working also, despite the shutdown.

On Jan. 7, U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert filed a motion for a 30-day stay of civil cases involving her office. She said the stay is necessary because most of her staff who handle such cases have been furloughed and “are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis” except in limited, emergency cases.

Lake said late Friday that there has been no formal response to the motion and that “They (the Justice attorneys) have not been relieved of any responsibility.”

Meanwhile, although the congressional appropriation to fund the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or food stamps) runs out this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that, with President Donald Trump’s approval, it has found a way to keep the program going for another month, but it requires that the February distribution be made early.

“USDA will rely on a provision of the just-expired Continuing Resolution, which provides an appropriation for programs like SNAP and child nutrition to incur obligations for program operations within 30 days of the CR’s expiration” the Agriculture release stated. Consequently, “States will have until January 20 to request and implement the early issuance. Once the early issuances are made, the February benefits will be made available to SNAP participants at that time.”

Currently 12,841 households, (or 26,177 individuals) in the Virgin Islands receive food stamps, according to the announcement from Felecia Blyden, commissioner of Human Services, which administers the program in the territory. In December, benefits were funded at $4,427,454, and in January, they were funded at $3,795,348.

Blyden said DHS will distribute the February allotments “sometime in January” to comply with the notice from the USDA.

“We are advising SNAP recipients to budget their allotments responsibly because there is much uncertainty of how long the federal shutdown will last,” she said.