Washington State to Furloughed Employees: Pay Back Your Unemployment

October 23, 2013 AT 2:58 PM

By Brian M. Rosenthal

Washington state is asking federal employees who received unemployment benefits during this month's government shutdown to return the money _ some $500,000 in all.

The roughly 900 employees, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and other federal workplaces, will be receiving back pay for the checks they missed while furloughed, thanks to a vote in Congress.

The state says they don't need the unemployment benefits, too. "All the federal employees will have to repay the money they received during the furlough," said Bill Tarrow, a spokesman for the state Employment Security Department.

The average weekly unemployment check for federal workers was $438, Tarrow said. Some workers got two checks during the 16-day shutdown.

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Tarrow said his office is working with federal agencies to try to get the money withheld from workers' next paychecks. If that doesn't work, officials will go individually to each worker, asking for money.

In Oregon, state law allows federal workers to keep unemployment benefits received during furloughs, even if they receive back pay.

Tom Fuller, a spokesman for that state's employment department, called that an unintended consequence of a law aimed at private businesses.

Officials here said they prefer Washington's law.

"I think (workers) oughta be made whole again, however that happens. . . . I don't think they should get paid more," said state Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairman of the Government Operations & Elections Committee.

Gerald Swanke, head of the regional chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, agreed it's reasonable to ask workers to repay the money.

But he cautioned the state to proceed carefully because some workers will not immediately receive their back pay.

"Some employees are caught in a tough situation," Swanke said. "They've got bills to pay, day care to pay, and even though the back pay is coming, they're getting squeezed."

(c)2013 The Seattle Times