As they get closer to missing their first paycheck of the new year, many federal employees are filing for unemployment benefits to tide them over during the government shutdown.
Even if a deal is reached quickly to reopen the shuttered agencies, workers probably won't get a paycheck until mid-January or later.
So what's a worker to do?
In Maryland, the total number of federal employees who filed unemployment claims as of Jan. 2 was 637, according to the state's Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation. One of those filers is Zachary Levine, a 63-year-old physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who is still awaiting approval for his claim.
In the past, following previous government shutdowns, workers were given back pay. However, Congress isn't required to do this, so Levine said he filed for unemployment as a strategic move to preserve his savings.
"I'm not a hardship case," Levine said. "But I respect the fact that there are many people who make less money than I do and are living paycheck to paycheck."
During the 2013 government shutdown, which lasted 16 days, Levine also applied for unemployment. He was approved, and his benefit was put on a prepaid Visa card. But his claim came through just as he was sent back to work, and the pay he would have earned had he not been furloughed was restored.
"I never actually spent any of the money," he said. "When we got back pay, [the state of Maryland] just took the money back off the card."
The Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance for federal employees who decide to apply for unemployment insurance. Go to OPM.gov and click the funding-lapse link, then look for “Unemployment Insurance Resources.”
To apply for unemployment, you need to contact the state where you worked to file a claim, according to OPM. To find your state office, go to CareerOneStop.org. Under the tab “Local Help at a Glance,” you’ll see the unemployment-benefits finder. From there, use the drop-down menu to find your state and the information on how to apply.
Before applying, I suggest you read the unemployment-insurance questions and answers document that OPM has posted. Here are some of the questions you might have, along with OPM's responses.
Q: Do I have to repay the unemployment benefits received if my pay is paid retroactively for the time that I was not working during the government shutdown?
A: In most states, including the District of Columbia, employees who receive unemployment benefits and also later receive a retroactive payment from their employer for the same time period will be required to repay the unemployment benefits received.
Q: Can my wages be garnished if there is an overpayment of benefits?
A: Yes, if the state law has provisions for wage garnishments. However, employees will be given the opportunity to voluntarily repay the overpayment first before the state proceeds with any garnishments.
Q: If I am overpaid, will I be required to repay the entire amount all at once?
A: It depends on the state requirements. Most states will allow an individual to set up a repayment agreement to satisfy the overpayment.
How much money you'll receive varies by state. In Maryland, the current weekly benefit amount ranges from a minimum of $50 to a maximum of $430.
Since the shutdown could end at any time, it's possible your unemployment claim could be approved just as you are called back to work and your pay is retroactively restored. Nonetheless, if you know you'll need the money, go ahead and apply now. Just make sure that if and when you get your back pay, you set aside funds to repay your state.
During the shutdown, you may also be wondering about your health benefits. Read OPM's "Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs." Under the section for benefits, the agency says employees will continue to be covered under the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program during a shutdown, even if an agency does not make premium payments on time. Your premium payments will still accumulate, and they will be withheld from your pay once you return to pay status, OPM says.
Be careful about picking up work while furloughed. During the shutdown, individuals still remain employees of the federal government, and so certain outside employment may be prohibited. OPM says that before taking on an outside job, employees should review the regulations and consult their agency's ethics official.
It’s ridiculous that it has come to this, but if you need a financial lifeline, apply for whatever benefits you’re entitled to receive to make ends meet.