Federal workers seeking unemployment checks show harsh impact of shutdown


Federal worker protest outside the Department of Health and Human Services offices Tuesday in Cincinnati. (Al Behrman/AP)
Joe Davidson
Columnist October 15, 2013

For federal employees, seeking unemployment compensation is one clear example of how the government shutdown is much harsher than a “temporary inconvenience,” as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) recently declared.

The District, Maryland and Virginia all report sky-high levels of unemployment claims from federal employees after the shutdown began Oct. 1. Since my colleague Luz Lazo reported on the increase in applications just days after that, the numbers have exploded.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Unemployment claims from furloughed federal workers in the District numbered 15,500 as of Tuesday morning, according to Najla A. Haywood, a public information officer at the District’s Department of Employment Services.

It usually gets 30,000 claims a year from all applicants.

Maryland received more than 18,600 claims from federal workers from Oct. 1 through Oct. 10, compared with 3,000 in a normal year.

“This is a pretty unusual situation,” said Maureen O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The story repeats itself in Virginia.

More than 5,260 claims were filed by feds there as of Monday. Last week there were 3,500 more claims than the average of the four previous weeks.

These numbers don’t include claims from federal contract workers and those indirectly hit by the shutdown, such as employees of snack shops that rely on the federal workforce.

Congress might decide to provide back pay to furloughed feds. The House has voted to do so, and it’s under consideration in the Senate. If that happens, there will be no double-dipping. The workers will have to return the unemployment compensation.

“If they get paid retroactively, then they will have to pay it back. That will be like any other overpayment that is made,” said Virginia Employment Commission spokeswoman Joyce Fogg. The District and Maryland also follow that policy.

The fact that employees of the world’s most powerful nation must seek unemployment compensation while other staffers are continuing to work with no guarantee of pay should humiliate the government’s elected leadership — particularly House Republicans who led us into this briar patch.

“It’s a terrible disgrace that so many federal employees who have a job and are desperate to be doing their jobs are forced to file for unemployment insurance to pay their bills. And it’s a further disgrace that so many more are going to work each day without either a paycheck or unemployment insurance to help them through,” said J.David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Those working on the promise of pay aren’t eligible for unemployment compensation.

“Excepted full-time employees who remain on their jobs on a full-time basis are generally not eligible for unemployment benefits because states may determine that they are still fully employed,” says a Labor Department paper.

Like many of those who applied for unemployment compensation, Katrina Lucas, an Environmental Protection Agency employee in the District, is waiting for her first check. A 12-year employee with a master’s degree, she’s making less than $48,000 a year as a management and program assistant in information technology.

A single mom with three children age 7 through 16, “I live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Wednesday marks Day 16 of the shutdown — 16 days without pay.

That’s on top of more than a week of unpaid leave time forced on Lucas starting in April because of the sequester budget cuts. And that’s on top of the three-year freeze of basic federal pay rates that hit workers, though Lucas did get a raise based on a step up in her job classification level.

“I feel like I’m underpaid,” she said. “It’s very expensive and it’s only getting more expensive.”

Lucas said she has deferred purchases of clothing and school supplies because she can’t afford them now. And while the cost of gasoline has dropped in recent days, it remains too costly for her to use her car as much as she’d like.

“I can’t pay half my bills,” she said. “I really don’t drive because I can’t waste gas.”

Just applying for unemployment can be a frustrating task. Another EPA employee, Iesha Alexander, said she had been on hold for more than an hour, waiting for someone from the apparently overwhelmed D.C. office to take her call.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said.

But she’s a striver and an optimist with an infectious laugh. She’s working on an executive MBA, plans to get a doctorate and looks forward to joining the government’s Senior Executive Service — unless nonsense like this shutdown runs her away from Uncle Sam’s staff.

Her husband also is a federal employee who has applied for unemployment compensation. Neither has received it yet.

“Who can go without two checks?” she asked. “We don’t know if we’re going to get back pay. We’re bracing for the worst.”

She said the sequester cuts took 80 hours of her pay, the equivalent of two work weeks.

All of this is “really hard,” she said. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth . . . What’s next?”

This is the state of the federal workforce in 2013.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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