Maryland Democrats are moving forward with emergency legislation to allow federal employees forced to work without pay during a government shutdown to collect unemployment insurance in the state.
Although a 35-day partial federal shutdown ended Friday, state lawmakers say they are eager to correct what they call an anomaly in the law that disqualifies exempted workers from applying for benefits if another shutdown were to occur.
States across the country saw an uptick in unemployment claims from federal workers and contractors as the shutdown extended beyond a month.
Both Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tried to make the case to the U.S. Department of Labor that federal workers compelled to work during the shutdown should be able to collect unemployment insurance.
The Labor Department, however, sent guidance to local governments explaining that exempt employees — those who worked during the shutdown — were ineligible for benefits.
Sponsors of the Maryland legislation — Del. Jessica Feldmark (D-Howard County) and Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery) — are challenging the Trump administration’s position, arguing that states can determine eligibility because they administer the federal unemployment program. They plan to introduce their bill on Monday.
Meanwhile, Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) filed a bill that would permit all federal workers during a shutdown to apply for unemployment compensation, which would be reimbursed once those employees receive back pay.
State Democratic lawmakers want to move as quickly as possible to pass a measure ahead of another possible federal shutdown on Feb. 15, when current funding for the government runs out.
“The fact that we have a temporary end to the shutdown does not immediately relieve the crisis decisions that families are facing,” Feldmark said. “They don’t have money yet. There are bills that are past due and pantries that are still empty. This news doesn’t fix the problem immediately. They need help.”
Feldman said he expects to debate the bill as early as Tuesday and consult with Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) about challenging the Labor Department’s ruling.
As it is written, the bill requires confirmation from federal labor officials that the state is complying with the unemployment insurance program.
“I fully appreciate the federalism component of this debate, but as a general proposition, eligibility issues have been delegated to the states,” said Feldman, a former Department of Justice attorney. “Attorney General Frosh has not been shy about weighing in on these issues. To the extent there is any legal question raised about any bill, we will clarify them.”
Opening the program to people such as Department of Homeland Security officers, airport security screeners and FBI employees, who worked during the shutdown, is about fairness, lawmakers said.
If it passes, exempt federal employees could access benefits but will be expected to reimburse the state once they receive their back pay.
“Hopefully they will not need to make these claims,” Feldmark said. “But I still think it’s good to move forward because we don’t know what can happen. We could find ourselves in the same place in three weeks.”