Furloughed Staff Return to Work in a Hurry to Catch Up

Employees at Glacier National Park lost nearly a month of preparation time for looming summer months

By Andy Viano
The West Glacier entrance station on Jan. 16, 2019. Beacon file photo

Employees at Glacier National Park were still digging out from the 35-day government shutdown nearly a week after furloughed employees returned to work, as the staff’s attention turned to hurriedly preparing for the busy summer season.

January is one of Glacier’s slowest months of the year for visitors, with an average of 10,000 to 12,000 entrants, but the work completed during the quieter months is critical to ensuring a smooth summer, when the bulk of the park’s 3 million annual visitors come.

“There’s been, for all of us, a lot of reprioritizations,” Glacier Park spokeswoman Lauren Alley said on Jan. 31, four days after she and other furloughed staff returned to work. “From the park perspective, there’s also this recognition that … summer is right around the corner and we need to keep our eye on what the most critical tasks are before the 3 million folks get here.”

Chief among the staff’s priorities is catching up on seasonal hiring. The park employs 400 to 500 additional people during the warm-weather months, and everything from posting jobs to background checks to preparing housing to conducting interviews to hiring itself takes place during a typical January. This year, with employees across a number of departments furloughed by the lapse in federal appropriations, identifying hires for jobs ranging from law enforcement to janitorial staff has taken on new urgency.

“Our seasonal staff play a huge, huge role in the success of the summer, and that’s across all work areas,” Alley said. “Right now we are really just in those first days of assessment, trying to figure out where each program is at with their hiring and summer readiness.”

One thing that could help Glacier Park staff get back on track is the way the park was, for the most part, respected during the shutdown. While reports of vandalism and other damage trickled in from other parks around the country, Glacier escaped relatively unscathed, with the bulk of the illegal activity limited to trespassing dogs and wayward drones.

“We are all so fortunate we have such a close-knit community,” Alley said. “It’s really wonderful how everyone works together and how much people that have grown up here have taken their children and their grandchildren to the park, they have a high level of understanding about what the park is.”

That’s not to say, however, that the delinquent behavior was harmless. Dogs are not permitted on any park trails and drones are banned from flying anywhere in the park, and while Alley believes most people who violated the rules did so unwittingly, the seemingly innocuous activities can and do have consequences.

“With winter and wildlife, things are stressful right now,” she said. “So being chased or frightened by a drone or a dog, that puts them at a real disadvantage.”

Furloughed employees were not paid during their 35-day hiatus, although they will receive back pay, and Alley said she and her fellow employees tried to take their mind off of the difficult financial situation as best they could, including by volunteering together at places like the Flathead Food Bank.

“If you work full-time, you don’t always get to spend time with those amazing nonprofits that are spending time in the community,” she said. “And we got to see each other, which was a huge gift.”

President Donald Trump has warned that another government shutdown could begin on Feb. 15, if his demands for a border wall between the United States and Mexico are not met, but at Glacier Park no emergency plans were being considered in case parts of the staff were to be sent home once again.

“Right now, we have our hands pretty full with just the business of reopening,” Alley said. “So that is really all we’re focusing on right now.”

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