RALEIGH, N.C. - North Carolina state government began sending its first workers home Tuesday because of the partial shutdown of the federal government. Hundreds more were told not to show up Wednesday, and thousands could follow or see reduced hours if the showdown in Washington continues.
Gov. Pat McCrory, speaking to other statewide elected officials at their monthly meeting, said the Department of Health and Human Services could be impaired the most by the stalemate driven by President Barack Obama's health care law.
The Department of Transportation, which receives federal dollars to pay for dozens of workers, announced Tuesday afternoon that 22 employees had been furloughed. DHHS announced later it told 337 agency employees not to report to work starting Wednesday and until a stop-gap spending measure is approved by Congress.
As many as 4,500 DHHS workers -- positions that are totally or partially funded by the federal government -- could ultimately be affected, the governor said.
"We hope our elected leaders in Washington D.C. will soon reach an agreement so our employees can return to their jobs and continue serving the people of North Carolina," DHHS Secretary Dr. Aldona Wos said in a release.
McCrory said other Cabinet-level agencies for commerce and environmental regulation also receive significant federal funding. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry both said their agencies also could be affected. Many agencies perform services on behalf of the government, such as certain inspections.
A memo dated Monday from State Budget Director Art Pope said employees would be furloughed or see pay and time reduced effective Tuesday until a stop-gap spending measure is passed on Capitol Hill. But the number of workers wasn't immediately clear because programs with multiyear or advanced appropriations wouldn't be affected. Neither would workers in activities that if halted would "imminently threaten" safety of human life or the protection of property, Pope wrote.
"We've got to make sure that the functions that are critical remain open, and yet at the same time we have to make sure that we aren't spending money that the state doesn't have," McCrory said at the Council of State meeting.
DHHS spokesman Ricky Diaz said the shutdown won't affect Medicaid or state-operated health care facilities, such as state mental hospitals. But it does mean that federal funds for several department services could soon run out, including supplemental food and health care assistance for women and children, Work First and guardianship services. Inspections of some licensed health care facilities also will cease, the department said.
The Department of Transportation said it's reviewing whether highway, rail or other projects that require federal permits or approval from furloughed federal workers could be delayed.
McCrory said his administration has been working on a response to a shutdown for weeks, and some agencies were quite prepared because of a shutdown threat in 2011. He said the federal government didn't provide more guidance to the state about how pots of federal money would be distributed or withheld until early Tuesday morning.
State agencies also need to be careful about spending state dollars on federal programs because there are no guarantees the federal government will reimburse the state, Pope and the governor said.
Otherwise, McCrory said, "this could have an impact on our budget if we start spending money on items that are not budgeted through the state government."
About one-quarter of the Department of Labor's 400 workers are paid for at least partially through the federal government, a department spokeswoman said. Berry said she's hopeful that federal money will continue to flow to cover health and safety initiatives the agency performs.
Troxler said the Department of Agriculture's meat inspection program, which relies heavily on federal funds, should keep operating, but there are other activities his office performs that could be affected.