The Wall Street Journal
By: Louise Radnofsky
April 7, 2011
If Congress shuts down the federal government, Washington would still end up paying hundreds of thousands of employees who are sent home.
Idled federal workers can apply for unemployment compensation from the states in which they work, and the federal government would pick up the tab. Whether they get their full back pay once a shutdown is resolved is less clear. After the 1995 and 1996 federal government shutdowns, Congress approved back pay for furloughed employees.
Federal employee unions say they will fight for a similar measure again. The Department of Labor has told state unemployment agencies during daily conference calls not to expect Congress to approve back pay.
State offices say they would pay benefits to all federal workers who work in their state, and the federal government would reimburse them for those payments and related administrative costs. If Congress does approve back pay, workers have to return their unemployment compensation, and states would have to administer that collection, too.
It is illegal for furloughed federal employees to work during a shutdown. Some have already been told that they should expect to surrender their Blackberrys, and that they would be barred from sending any official email. Workers are allowed to take other jobs while they are furloughed, but have to follow all of their departments' existing rules on outside employment, such as seeking permission from a supervisor, which could be impossible to do.
States would use their own processes, eligibility criteria and rates to calculate unemployment checks, and that could mean that some furloughed workers would get more than others.
Federal employees whose offices are in Maryland would qualify for unemployment from the first day of a shutdown, and could get a maximum benefit of $430 a week, under Maryland's policies. Employees whose offices are in Virginia and the District of Columbia might only qualify after they have been out of work for a week, and receive up to $378 and $359, respectively.
Someone who lives in the District of Columbia and commutes to work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., could receive more in jobless benefits than a neighbor who works for the Department of Health and Human Services just off the National Mall.
Making matters more complicated, the District of Columbia has been told by the federal government to expect up to 205,000 claims from furloughed workers, plus 15,000 from its own employees who could also be sent home. The District of Columbia receives some funding from the federal government, and is not allowed to use local funds in the event of a shutdown.
A spokesman for D.C. government said that the shutdown plan approved by Mayor Vincent Gray had deemed 40 employees essential to process unemployment claims, but that this task was usually carried out by 80 workers who handle 38,000 claims a year.
Julie Squire, Maryland's assistant secretary for unemployment insurance, said state employees could process up to 106,000 initial claims. She said that they would work overtime if necessary, but that even then, applications would have to be processed in batches divided by Social Security numbers.
In Virginia, the Employment Commission had been told to expect up to 171,000 claims, and was not hiring additional staff, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bob McDonnell said. The commission would be using a separate process to process claims from federal workers, including using W-2 forms to verify their employment and salary before the shutdown, since claims processors usually contact the applicant's supervisor.
Another disparity would be between federal workers and the independent contractors supplied by specialist firms, who often work side-by-side. Some firms have told their employees that they would not be paid during a shutdown. Other contractors, which also have private-sector clients, have told employees that they would be given different assignments for the duration of a shutdown, and would continue to receive paychecks.
Write to Louise Radnofsky at email@example.com