Thousands of unemployment claims filed in Washington area since government shutdown

October 4, 2013

Thousands of furloughed federal workers in the D.C. area have filed for unemployment benefits this week and thousands more applications are expected if the federal government shutdown that started Tuesday continues, officials said.

Online applications for benefits have increased in the District and Maryland, already surpassing the usual annual claims from federal workers. Local government agencies, meanwhile, have stayed busy responding to inquiries about the shutdown, its impact on local services and workers’ eligibility to receive unemployment compensation.

“They want to know if someone can help them,” said Maureen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. “They are unemployed . . . and we will do our best to help them.”

In Maryland, the number of federal claims for unemployment benefits was up to 14,000 as of Friday morning, nearly four times the number of filings from federal workers that the Maryland division of employment insurance receives in a given year, O’Connor said. Also as of Friday morning, more than 9,000 federal workers had filed online claims for benefits through the D.C. Department of Employment Services, said Najla Haywood, an agency spokeswoman.

The Virginia Employment Commission had received 166 paper applications Friday morning from federal workers, said spokeswoman Joyce Fogg. In Virginia, federal workers have to submit their claims on paper, with a copy of their W-2 form or paycheck stub, because the agency cannot digitally access information about federal wages, Fogg said.

“Maybe a lot of people think that some decision will be made and perhaps they may not have to” apply for unemployment benefits, said Fogg. If the shutdown continues, she said, the agency expects to see more claims arrive next week.

The House and Senate this week proposed legislation to retroactively pay the 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed. On Monday, President Obama signed a bill ensuring that members of the military and some civilian workers who support them will be paid during the shutdown.

If the federal workers receive back pay for the time not worked, they will need to repay any unemployment benefits received for that time.

Federal workers must file their unemployment claims where they work, not where they live. In the District and Virginia, people must be out of work for at least a week before they are eligible to receive benefits.

In the District, the phone lines at the city’s employment agency remained busy this week, with callers waiting up to 20 minutes, Haywood said. She said job centers across the city are also open to help.

Non-emergency call centers and the social media accounts of local governments across the region have also been bombarded with inquiries from residents wanting to know whether their local services are affected and from furloughed workers with questions about the shutdown.

In Prince George’s County, home to 72,000 federal workers, the county’s 311 line received more than 600 calls since Tuesday, said Jennifer Hawkins, the call center’s manager. Many of the calls have been from furloughed workers wanting to apply for unemployment benefits, she said.

“It will probably grow if the shutdown continues because folks are going to start worrying about it,” Hawkins said.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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