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D.C. Council acts to halt evictions, foreclosures for unpaid federal workers

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) holds a news conference at the Capital Area Food Bank on Tuesday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

City officials in the nation’s capital took steps Tuesday to expand the safety net for unpaid federal employees and contractors who are struggling to make ends meet as the partial government shutdown stretches into a second month.

The D.C. Council unanimously passed emergency legislation to protect the workers from losing their homes, while the Bowser administration tapped $2 million in emergency funds to help food stamp recipients.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) also announced she was introducing legislation to give the city authority to grant unemployment benefits to essential employees who must show up to work without pay, such as TSA airport screeners and special police. The U.S. Labor Department denied her request to authorize such benefits last week.

“They are deemed essential, they are required to go to work, and they are not getting paid,” she said at a news conference at a warehouse for the Capital Area Food Bank, one of the charities ramping up services during the shutdown. “They provide some of the most vital services for us.”

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Bowser said she had no estimate for how much expanding unemployment would cost the city but said thousands could benefit. Separately, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) sought assurances from federal officials Tuesday that his state would not face consequences if it grants unemployment benefits to essential workers.

The shutdown has prompted Washington-area officials to throw lifelines to constituents in need. With hundreds of thousands of federal workers unpaid, many of them living in the District, Maryland or Virginia, local politicians are trying to ramp up pressure on the White House and Congress to end the impasse over immigration spending that has halted the operations of much of the federal government.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Tuesday joined Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a raft of other Democratic politicians in volunteering for Washington celebrity chef José Andrés’s free-meal event downtown. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, both Democrats from Maryland, are scheduled to do the same Wednesday.

Kaine, in rolled-up shirt sleeves and latex gloves, doled out as many hugs and selfies as he did rosemary chicken sandwiches and braised lentil bowls when furloughed workers from NASA, the FBI, the National Park Service and other agencies showed up for the lunch rush. Volunteers wore black T-shirts with “#ChefsForFeds” on the back.

“It boggles the mind,” Kaine told reporters. “It’s a humanitarian disaster. It’s different than a hurricane, it’s different than a wildfire, it’s different than a tsunami — because it’s man-made and it’s completely unnecessary.”

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Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) plans to visit Port City Brewing Co. in Alexandria on Wednesday to talk to the owner about how the shutdown is hurting craft brewers because new labels can’t be approved.

Bowser will join mayors from across the country that day to demand an end to the shutdown as part of the opening news conference for the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Winter Meeting.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting U.S. representative, will host an “emergency town hall” Thursday night to hear stories of workers and business owners hurt by what she calls the “Trump shutdown.”

A Tuesday report by the D.C. chief financial officer estimated the city is losing about $10 million a week in revenue as a result of the shutdown, not including increased spending on social services. City officials warned that the shutdown may require budget cuts if it does not end soon.

In the meantime, D.C. lawmakers are working to mitigate the impact of the government closure. The bill passed Tuesday would require judges to halt eviction or foreclosure proceedings if residents can prove that they have been furloughed or made to work without pay.

“A possible sudden onslaught of additional homeless District residents will create a severe hardship for the federal workers and will also greatly impact the District’s homeless services system,” said council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who wrote the bill.

She originally crafted the legislation to prohibit lenders and landlords from cracking down on tenants who miss payments during the shutdown, but she softened the language amid legal concerns.

The legislation would take effect immediately for 90 days if Bowser signs it. The mayor said she needs to review the bill but supports the idea in principle.

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In Virginia, state Sen. Jeremy S. McPike (D-Prince William) has proposed legislation to place ­30-day stays on foreclosures and evictions on workers who miss payments because of the shutdown. His emergency bill would need to pass both chambers of the state legislature by two-thirds margins.

On Tuesday, Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro sent a letter to President Trump, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on behalf of the all-Democratic nine-member body, saying that the shutdown “is having a dramatically negative fiscal impact on Maryland and Montgomery County” and urging them to “end this stalemate.”

Navarro (D-District 4) said that local government resources were being used to help federal workers who aren’t receiving paychecks and that the ripple effect has caused restaurants and other small businesses to suffer as affected workers curtail their spending.

“Even when the shutdown ends, the damage to our local economy is irreparable,” Navarro wrote.

Jennifer Barrios, Jenna Portnoy, Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.