William H. McMichael, USA TODAY
The military's grocery stores that were forced to close when employees were furloughed last week are re-opening beginning Monday after the defense secretary's decision that civilian employees could return to work.
A total of 171 stores, all stateside, re-opened either Monday or Tuesday. Four other stateside stores - two each in Alaska and California - were allowed to remain open along with 68 commissaries on overseas bases because Pentagon officials decided that shuttering them would pose too great a hardship on those troops and families, said Kevin Robinson, the commissary agency spokesman.
The commissaries had been closed because the partial government shutdown, the result of congressional failure to reach agreement on financing government operations for the new fiscal year, left the stores without any workers, Robinson said. Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act on Sept. 30 and President Obama signed it just before the government shutdown began Tuesday to allow active-duty military to continue to be paid.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday that the new law also covered civilian employees, allowing them to return to work Monday. Without the law that creates an exception in the budget impasse, no money was available to pay commissary workers.
While most of the 350,000 defense workers sent home without pay Oct. 1 walked out the gates early that day, commissary workers were allowed to remain on the job for the entire business day to conduct what Robinson called an orderly shutdown so perishable items could be sold rather than go to waste.
The stores will need a few days to replenish those items, he said.
In Fort Drum, N.Y., before the commissary closed indefinitely, panicked shoppers overloaded their carts, cleaned out the produce aisle and fought over the last of the meat, said Jennifer Limerick, an Army wife and post employee. No grocery carts were available, and the checkout line circled the store.
"It looked like people were getting ready for an apocalypse," said Limerick, 32. "People were stealing meat out of each other's carts and getting into fights over it."
The closures also caused hardships for shoppers, particularly those in remote areas or those who rely on the commissary to balance the family budget.
At the isolated desert post of Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, contractors like Cindi Hawkins, 61, had to drive an hour for groceries because the post commissary shut down.
"Just drop a small community in a desert, and that's us. When you're that far out it's very, very hard to get supplies," said Hawkins, a garrison administrative officer.
For workers who were furloughed, the closures were a double whammy.
"The commissary is really cheap for us," said Thea Grant, 39, mother of three and a civilian air reserve technician at Dover Air Force Base, Del., who was sent home last week. "A gallon of milk is double downtown. When I had babies, diapers and the baby formula was a heck of a lot cheaper. Their meat is cheaper. Even if they have a surcharge at the commissary, you still save quite a bit of money."
Robinson said the commissaries' suppliers were being contacted to resume deliveries.
"We're doing everything we can to ensure that our shelves are properly stocked," Robinson said. "There will be a short adjustment period as our stores settle back into their pre-shutdown operating and delivery routines."