With thousands of federal workers scheduled to be furloughed next week if the Bush administration and Congress cannot reach a budget agreement, District officials are bracing themselves for an onslaught of applications for unemployment benefits.
Although no one knows how many workers might apply for payments, consider these facts:
There are 370,000 civilian federal employees in the Washington area, most of whom have been notified that they could be furloughed.
Most of those furloughed likely will be eligible for unemployment benefits.
The D.C. Department of Employment Services, which is likely to get by far the largest share of unemployment benefit applications in the area, has 30 people available to handle claims at four offices around the District. Normally, they process fewer than 1,000 claims a week.
"We envision nightmares of long, long lines," said Carolyn Jones, deputy director of local office operations for the department.
In cases of large layoffs, the department usually signs up applicants en masse at the job site. Employees of Garfinckel's, for instance, registered for unemployment benefits at the stores before they closed.
But because federal workers will be notified of furloughs at the last minute, group applications may not be possible, Jones said. Some federal agencies have contacted the D.C. department seeking guidance, but workers can't apply for benefits in advance. They must wait until they have actually been furloughed.
Maryland and Virginia also are waiting to see the magnitude of the furloughs before setting up special operations to manage claims.
Furloughed workers can apply for unemployment benefits wherever they live, but eligibility rules are determined by where they work. Maryland and Virginia will forward to the District claims for people working in the District, but D.C. officials say processing probably will be faster if claims are made directly to the District.
Under D.C. law, workers are eligible for unemployment benefits if they are furloughed for as little as two days a week.
Generally, the less someone is paid, the greater the fraction of income that can be made up by unemployment benefits.
Applicants should bring their driver's license, Social Security number, proof of wages (such as a pay stub) and their furlough notice. Payment of benefits will begin about three weeks after application.
Ironically, every federal worker who receives unemployment benefits will add to federal spending. Unlike private businesses, which contribute regularly to the unemployment-insurance fund, the federal government reimburses local governments directly for benefits to federal workers.
D.C. officials said they are not worried that the automatic federal budget cuts spawning the furloughs will also decrease their chances of reimbursement.