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Some states moving to give unemployment benefits to federal employees working without pay

Posted: 4:47 PM, Jan 23, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-23 17:47:03-05

As the government shutdown rolls into its second month and federal employees brace to miss their second paychecks Friday, some states are pushing back against federal guidance to ensure that more workers have access to unemployment benefits.

President Donald Trump signed legislation last week securing back pay for all federal employees affected by the shutdown, but many workers have been forced to pull from savings or take up temporary jobs to pay bills in the meantime.

Furloughed workers -- who have not been working or receiving pay during the shutdown -- can collect unemployment benefits. In an email obtained by CNN, a Department of Labor official told multiple states that essential workers -- those who have been working through the shutdown without pay --"are not unemployed and are, therefore, not eligible for" unemployment benefits.

Here's a list of what states are doing to expand unemployment benefits for essential workers:

California

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced as part of his 2019 state budget that furloughed workers could receive unemployment insurance, and later said he would include essential workers as well.

He told Transportation Security Administration employees Thursday in Sacramento that he found the Labor Department letter barring essential workers from unemployment benefits " jaw dropping and extraordinary ."

"The good news is, we're going to do it, and shame on them," he said, adding, "They're in essence threatening us for doing what we're doing. So that's why I'm here, to say we're going to do it."

Colorado

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an emergency rule Friday permitting essential workers to make unemployment claims.

"Those federal employees who are required to report for work are feeling the same economic squeeze as those who have been furloughed. They should not be denied the immediate financial assistance provided by unemployment benefits while being mandated to show up to work," Polis said in a statement.

Polis cited Labor Department statistics that, of the approximately 53,200 federal employees in Colorado, 2,416 of them have applied for unemployment benefits since the first week of the shutdown. He also stated that recipients made eligible by the shutdown would have to repay the benefits once they have received back pay.

Vermont

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott directed the Vermont Department of Labor on Tuesday to treat essential employees "the same as other furloughed employees" for determining unemployment eligibility.

Vermont Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle told CNN that based on the 2013 shutdown guidelines reissued by the US Labor Department -- which say that essential workers "are generally not eligible for unemployment benefits because states may determine that they are still fully employed" -- she and other state legislative leaders are confident in their decision.

"It really does turn to the states to determine eligibility," she said, later adding, "The guidance doesn't say no, it looks to the states."

Vermont was not one of the recipients of the Department of Labor's notice last week, and state officials have not heard back after asking the department for guidance in looking to extending unemployment benefits to essential workers, Kurrle said.

When asked for comment on Vermont's new policy, a Department of Labor spokesperson referenced a previous statement that the department "has been actively engaged with states, territories, and the District of Columbia to keep them informed of which Federal employees qualify for unemployment insurance."

Washington, DC

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Tuesday that she will file emergency legislation to the City Council in order to expand unemployment eligibility to essential workers.

"We know that what Americans need is a resolution to this shutdown, but until that happens, we're going to keep doing what we can to make sure our residents have their basic needs taken care of -- and that includes stepping up to ... provide unemployment insurance benefits," Bowser said in a statement.

Bowser's pursuit of legislation followed her announcement last week that the Department of Labor had denied her request to make essential workers eligible for unemployment benefits.

Michigan, New York and Washington

Democratic Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jay Inslee of Washington all urged the Trump administration Friday to clarify federal workers' eligibility for unemployment benefits, arguing that there was "no rational justification" not to extend support to those employees.

"Current federal regulations are preventing us from providing the same assistance to federal employees who are continuing to work full-time, despite not being paid for their work," the three governors wrote in a statement. "This disparity is patently unfair and wrong. For the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who remain on their jobs ... our states' hands are tied from providing this much-needed relief."

"Current federal regulations are preventing us from providing the same assistance to federal employees who are continuing to work full-time, despite not being paid for their work," the three governors wrote in a statement. "This disparity is patently unfair and wrong. For the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who remain on their jobs ... our states' hands are tied from providing this much-needed relief."

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta calling for federal clarification on and additional funds for extending unemployment benefits to essential workers.

"I ask you to clearly specify what course of action, if any, the U.S. Department of Labor will take against states seeking to issue unemployment benefits to essential federal personnel against your Department's stated guidance," Northam wrote, and also asked for "assurance that federal funds will be available for reimbursement of unemployment benefits paid to essential federal personnel who are working without pay and for any administrative costs associated with paying those benefits."

Northam added in a statement that of Virginia's 177,000 federal workers, approximately 64,000 of them are affected by the shutdown.