Some federal workers may get extra money for not working during the shutdown

October 23, 2013

A furloughed government employee protests at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 16, 2013. (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty)

Thousands of federal employees across the country received jobless benefits during the government shutdown this month. Now that they’re getting back pay, many are being told to give it back. But at least some won’t have to.

In Oregon, fewer than 1,500 furloughed federal employees received unemployment insurance benefits during the 16-day government shutdown. That money is theirs to keep if they want, even if they collect back pay from the federal government, the state’s Employment Department wrote on its Web site.

“Oregon law does not permit UI benefits to be recovered in these circumstances,” the statement reads. “Oregon law provides that if a worker is entitled to receive UI benefits and then receives back pay, the worker is still entitled to the UI benefits. This applies to all workers regardless of whether they worked for the government.”

Oregon is a standout among states that are now weighing in on the issue. Several are in the process of notifying furloughed workers who got benefits that they need to repay the money. Idaho, for example, plans to send letters out Wednesday.

Most of the federal workers in Oregon who got jobless benefits likely got no more than a week’s worth of payment because of a one-week waiting period and because the furlough ended in the middle of its third week, according to the statement. States pay for the benefits, but are later reimbursed by the federal government. And states can impose their own laws governing them, but must comply with federal rules.

Oregon expects further guidance from the federal government next week, but its rules have been in place for some time and do not treat government employees differently. Factory workers in a similar position — laid off temporarily, but repaid eventually — would similarly be allowed to keep their benefits, according to the statement. As would someone who was fired only to later win a wrongful termination lawsuit.

But while furloughed Oregonians can keep their benefits; thousands in at least four other states are being told to return what amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.

Washington

About 900 federal workers received checks from Washington state, amounting to a $500,000 payout, a spokesman for the state’s Employment Security Department said. For efficiency’s sake, the state is hoping to work with federal agencies to divert money from the paychecks of employees who received benefits.

“That would be the easiest way for us,” said spokesman Bill Tarrow, noting that it’s unlikely agencies will be able to do that. Otherwise, the state will work with each of the 900 or so benefit recipients to recover its money.

Illinois

At least 577 federal workers will have to repay just over $230,000 to Illinois, the state said in a statement. Nearly 3,000 applied for benefits but not all followed up to get paid.

“The federal shutdown needlessly scared scores of workers and robbed our [national] economy of $24 billion in growth,” Illinois Department of Employment Security Director Jay Rowell said in the statement. “Now that federal employees are being repaid, they need to pay back the unemployment insurance benefits they received. I fully expect that they will.”

Virginia

Virginia paid out $64,836 in benefits to 191 furloughed federal employees, according to a spokeswoman.

“Since they’re getting retroactive pay, these are expected to all be overpayments, and they’ll have to pay us back,” the Virginia Employment Commission’s Joyce Fogg said. Letters will be going out to the benefit recipients, but it’s not yet clear when.

Idaho

In Idaho, letters will be sent out to 465 federal workers on Wednesday to kick off the process of getting reimbursed, a spokesman said. The state had not tallied the total value of the benefits distributed.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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