A record number of federal employees are applying for unemployment benefits — a sign that the partial government shutdown is taking a serious financial toll on furloughed workers.
A total of 35,873 federal workers filed jobless claims in the first two weeks of 2019, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Labor. That’s more than 12 times the number who usually apply for unemployment during that time frame.
Just to put that number into perspective: In the past five years, fewer than 3,400 federal employees have applied for help during the first two weeks in January.
Unemployment insurance benefits and rules vary by state, but most workers who lose their jobs are entitled to a fraction of their regular pay for up to 26 weeks. It usually takes two to three weeks for workers to get their first unemployment check, which explains why past shutdowns didn’t trigger a spike in jobless claims.
The fact that so many federal employees are now applying for help means they have little hope that the longest government shutdown in history will end anytime soon.
The shutdown is pushing federal workers into debt
The increase in jobless claims is more evidence that the shutdown is triggering widespread financial hardship for government workers. Furloughed employees are lining up at food banks to get free meals; some have missed mortgage payments, and others are driving for Uber and Lyft to make ends meet.
An estimated 800,000 federal workers will miss their second paycheck Friday as the shutdown reaches the end of its fifth week, and President Donald Trump’s plan to withhold government funding until House Democrats give him $5.7 billion to build a border wall is growing more unpopular by the day.
Until Congress resolves the problem, none of these workers are getting paid. But 420,000 of them must continue to work because they are considered “essential.” The other 300,000 are not working or getting paid. As the shutdown drags on, it makes sense that so many federal workers are applying for jobless benefits now. If their applications are approved, employees will eventually need to return the money once the government reopens and they get paid back. That’s not the case for contract workers, who are not included in the data. They would not need to repay the money because they usually don’t get back pay when a shutdown ends.
But not all federal employees can get unemployment benefits. The 420,000 federal employees who are considered “essential” and have to work without pay during the shutdown are, essentially, pretty screwed.
That includes airport Transportation Security Administration agents and US Coast Guard officers who are supposed to show up for work. Under current rules, they are ineligible for help “because states may determine that they are still fully employed,” according to the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. That policy hasn’t changed, and members of Congress are furious about it.
On Wednesday, a group of six Democratic Congress members sent a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta urging the department to change the rules so all employees could apply for benefits.
“Allowing those who remain on the job ... to apply for some financial relief is critical,” wrote Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR).
So far, the Trump administration hasn’t announced any changes to the rules. Instead, the White House continues to downplay the impact of the shutdown.
Republican officials brush off workers’ concerns
In addition to minimizing the impact of the shutdown, some Trump administration officials have gone further and implied that workers should stop complaining.
On January 10, one top White House aide said employees were “better off” during the shutdown and compared it to a vacation. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday that he didn’t “really quite understand” why federal workers were going to food banks to get free food. He then suggested they should just go further into debt to pay their bills.
“The 30 days of pay that some people will be out, there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it,” Ross during an interview that aired on CNBC.
The record number of federal workers seeking unemployment benefits shows just how disconnected government officials are from the financial struggles many Americans deal with on a day-to-day basis.