Federal employees who can't work due to a government shutdown that began on Oct. 1 are applying for unemployment benefits in droves. State offices in the mid-Atlantic region -- where much of the federal workforce is located -- reported an immediate surge in applications. It's just one consequence of a shutdown that's also rendered federal websites inoperable and caused some state departments to furlough employees whose jobs are partly dependent on federal funds.
Between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the first day of the shutdown, Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation received roughly 4,000 applications, according to Maureen O'Connor, an agency spokeswoman. That's more federal claim applications than the department usually receives in an entire year, she said.
The federal government has not released an official estimate on the total number of workers being furloughed, but shutdown plans from different agencies suggest it could be higher than 818,000 employees, according to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal. Several state offices that handle unemployment insurance, including in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., have posted notices about how federal workers can collect unemployment benefits. If Congress decides to retroactively grant back pay (as it did in the last shutdown 17 years ago), then the employees would be required to return the unemployment money they received.
Last week officials from the U.S. Department of Labor held conference calls with states in the mid-Atlantic region, assuming they would be hardest hit if both federal employees and federal contractors were suddenly out of work, according to Bill Walton, the unemployment insurance director for the Virginia Employment Commission. A recent tabulation of federal employees in the executive branch shows Virginia with the second most employees (144,753) of any state or the District of Columbia. The district was third (143,573) and Maryland was fifth (119,816).* (The counts were based on place of employment, not place of residence.)
After the shutdown, the district's Department of Employment Services received an increase in the number of inquiries by federal workers wanting to know if they were eligible for unemployment benefits, said Najla Haywood, a spokeswoman for the agency. Applications were also up, she said. In Virginia, it will be a few days before the Employment Commission can tally incoming applications, Walton said, but simply by virtue of the uptick in activity on his email inbox he knows that Virginia was experiencing a steep increase. He attributed it to the concentration of federal employees and contractors working in Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach. While the benefits themselves were in no danger of losing federal funding, the state staff who processes those claims are also reliant on federal funding; on that front, "we have about a 30-day window," he said, or "we have to potentially ask state government for additional monies."
In Virginia, the employment commission created a special process for reviewing federal claims in preparation for a surge that might otherwise overwhelm staff, Walton said. The agency is directing everyone to its website, where they can print an application and read a Q&A. To save time, the agency is instructing people to provide either a pay stub or W-2 form; otherwise, the agency has to ask the employer (in this case, the federal government) for a wage history for the past four quarters and -- due to the shutdown -- that process would be abnormally slow. While state unemployment compensation requirements differ, compensation is usually available to individuals who have been in a non-pay status for seven or more consecutive days and meet other eligibility requirements.
*This story has been updated to reflect that the figures given for federal employees working in Virginia and Maryland are federal workers from the executive branch.