Melissa Prince has spent two decades in an important job — helping to make sure the next generation of U.S. air traffic controllers are properly trained before they manage American airspace.
But since late December, Prince, a federal contractor, has been out of work because of the partial government shutdown. She’s been sitting at home worrying about mounting bills instead of writing computer programs for the Salt Lake Air Traffic Control Center in Utah.
For the first few weeks of the shutdown, Prince relied on vacation time and sick leave to maintain her income. Now, the 57-year-old has applied for unemployment compensation to make sure she can keep paying for groceries and fuel for her vehicle.
“It doesn’t feel good,” said Prince, who earns about $70,000 year. “We feel we like we do a good job and our job is important, so this is especially brutal.”
Prince’s decision reflects what state officials say is the next, uncomfortable, phase of a government shutdown that is rattling the economy as 800,000 federal workers and contractors are not paid.
Over the past 10 days, as initial hopes for a quick resolution to the standoff between President Trump and congressional Democrats have dimmed, state leaders have reported a sharp increase in the number of unemployment claims as federal workers and contractors cram employment phone lines and offices seeking relief.
Under federal guidelines, furloughed federal workers and contractors who have been told not to report to work are generally eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, although many will have to repay the money if they receive back pay when they return to the job.
But on Wednesday, in another blow to federal workers, the U.S. Labor Department sent guidance to states clarifying that hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are working without pay do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Molly E. Conway, acting assistant secretary of the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration, told state employment officers those workers will not qualify for unemployment because they are guaranteed eventual payment for the hours they worked. Conway said the department is maintaining guidelines established by the Obama administration during the 2013 government shutdown.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) objected to the decision, releasing a statement urging the Labor Department to make more federal workers eligible for unemployment benefits.
“It is an outrage to think that any hard-working, dedicated public servant in this country would ever have to make a decision between paying their mortgage and buying groceries,” Bowser said. “The federal government must rethink this decision and allow us to offer federal employees the same support they are offering our nation.”
Even with those rules, state officials are reporting new stresses on centers where workers can apply for unemployment benefits and look for jobs. The influx of federal applicants is occurring just as job centers are traditionally jammed with seasonal workers who become unemployed after the holidays.
In the Washington region, more than 10,000 people have filed for unemployment assistance in the District, Maryland and Virginia, according to state and city officials. The bulk of those claims have been filed in the District, because federal workers are required to request unemployment in the jurisdiction that houses their place of employment.
But the surge in new applicants is spread throughout the country, underscoring how the shutdown is affecting local economies far beyond the Washington region.
In Pennsylvania, 2,334 federal workers filed for unemployment benefits between Dec. 22 and Jan. 9, compared with 150 who applied for the assistance during the same period one year ago. Federal workers now account for 15 percent of all new applicants in Pennsylvania, according to Bill Trusky, the state’s deputy unemployment compensation secretary.
The numbers could be higher when including federal contractors.
Combined with the influx of seasonal workers, wait times at Pennsylvania unemployment call centers have increased eightfold over the past week, with the average caller being placed on hold for more than 35 minutes.
With Trump recently vowing the shutdown could “last months or years,” Trusky fears the number of applications from federal workers could grow dramatically in the coming weeks as more of them exhaust savings. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has warned that the state might have to eventually lay off state workers funded with federal dollars if the shutdown drags on.
“The longer this goes on, and the more people are furloughed, our claims will rise,” Trusky said.
In Georgia, which has about 100,000 federal workers, more than 1,200 applied for unemployment benefits during the week ending Jan. 12, up from 100 during the last week of December.
Those federal workers account for 9 percent of weekly applicants, according to information compiled by the Georgia Labor Department.
In Maryland, Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office said this week that 172,000 workers in his state are affected by the shutdown, resulting in $778 million in lost wages.
As of Jan. 11, about 3,000 federal workers have applied for unemployment assistance in Maryland, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
“Even if some employees do eventually get repaid, our economy will not be made whole and changes to long-term spending habits may cause further harm,” said Franchot (D), noting that many federal contractors will not receive back pay once the government reopens.
Despite those economic worries, state officials caution that the consequences of the shutdown could have been far worse. Most programs dealing with education, health, human services and labor remain fully funded, said John Hicks, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO).
But Hicks warns that state budgets and the outlook for government jobs will continue to worsen the longer the shutdown persists. If the shutdown drags through February, he said, some states may have to lay off workers funded with federal pass-through dollars and other grant programs slated to lapse without permanent appropriations from Congress.
“With each passing day, everyone gets a little bit more on guard,” Hicks said. “Eventually, states may have to make a decision: Do they put up their own money or do their own furloughs?”
In Utah, where Prince filed for unemployment benefits, there has been a 47 percent increase in the number of applicants since the shutdown began Dec. 22 compared with the same period in 2017 and 2018.
The 2,900 benefit claims from federal workers made up about 32 percent of the applications submitted between Dec. 22 and Jan. 15, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
About 70 percent of federal employee claims came from people who work for the Internal Revenue Service, which has about 5,000 employees in Ogden, Utah, said Kevin Burt, director of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division.
At Salt Lake Air Traffic Control Center, Prince helps air traffic controllers finish the final part of their training before manning towers or operations centers. The training involves computerized lessons on FAA procedures.
Prince said she was initially hesitant to apply for unemployment benefits, believing that Trump and congressional leaders would quickly reach an agreement.
But Prince’s financial prospects became cloudy shortly after Christmas, when her husband needed an unexpected surgery.
She said she has enough money in the bank to pay her mortgage for about three months. “It’s just been bad timing,” said Prince, who is employed by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and does not expect to recoup back pay.
She expects that her unemployment benefits will be less than a third of her normal salary. In Utah, weekly unemployment benefits are capped at $560 per week for a maximum of 26 weeks.
But Prince said she feels especially bad for the support and administrative staff at the air traffic control center, many of whom make less than $20 an hour and have no savings at all.
As they wait for the government to reopen, Prince wonders how many furloughed federal workers and contractors choose to leave government positions.
Utah maintains stringent standards requiring unemployment compensation recipients to actively search for jobs. Burt said the state is waiving that requirement for federal workers and contractors who can prove they are still “attached to a job.”
Prince, however, intends to keep looking.
“If a new one comes up that is good, maybe I’ll just go,” Prince said. “It might be more secure.”