More federal workers are filing unemployment claims as the partial government shutdown nears the end of its fourth week.
A total of 10,454 federal workers filed for unemployment in the first week of January amid the ongoing government shutdown, nearly double the 5,694 who filed the previous week.
The data, as well as interviews with furloughed workers, indicates government employees did not file for unemployment benefits at the beginning of the shutdown due to the potential hassle it could cause later. Once the shutdown ends, if Congress back pays employees for missed paychecks, the workers would be required to reimburse their state for any unemployment benefits they received.
But for some, need outweighs the hassle. As the shutdown drags on, finances are getting tight.
“At this point, there is no idea when we are going to work, so a little bit of money to pay bills is better than nothing,” said Sarah Jackson, a federal employee who lives in Louisiana. She has been approved for unemployment benefits but has not yet received any money.
Even when the unemployment payments arrive, they may not be enough to cover the bills a federal employee’s salary typically would. The maximum weekly benefits are determined by state and range from $235 in Mississippi to $683 in Minnesota.
So far, the shutdown has not led to a rise in total new jobless claims. For the week ending Jan. 12, initial claims were down 3,000, to a total of 213,000. However, some economists are predicting the national unemployment rate will rise when the January jobs report is released next month.
Who can claim unemployment benefits
Not all federal workers affected by the government shutdown are eligible for unemployment benefits. The 420,000 employees who are working without pay cannot claim unemployment benefits because they are “still fully employed,” federal guidance indicates.
The other 380,000 employees who are furloughed and not working at all should be eligible for unemployment benefits, however. And anyone who is called in to work intermittently during the shutdown “may be eligible for partial or full” benefits depending on the number of hours worked.
Still, the process of applying for benefits may deter those who are allowed to seek them. Forms, which are filed at the state-level, often tell the applicant that they are only eligible for benefits if they plan to look for work in the coming weeks. Others ask whether the state can contact the applicant’s previous employer, which might be impossible since the workers’ offices are closed.
For a furloughed worker, even the basic question of whether the applicant is unemployed can be difficult to explain on a standard government form.
The broader disruption
“The disruption involving federal workers is much wider than what the jobless claims indicate,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com. It goes beyond the simple fact that only a fraction of the 800,000 employees who are either furloughed or working without pay have filed claims. Businesses that heavily rely on federal workers are also feeling the ripple effect.
Many federal employees are already cutting back on their personal spending because they are not receiving their regularly scheduled paychecks.
Washington, D.C., restaurants are experiencing a sharp slowdown in business. They have tried to attract customers by offering deals but some might still have to cut back their own employee hours. (Note that about 85 percent of federal workers live somewhere other than the nation’s capital, but the federal government is the employer for about one out of every 10 jobs in the D.C. region.)
Government contractors are also missing out on pay and will not be repaid when the shutdown ends. De’von Russell, a security officer for Allied Universal Security who was on a contract for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, has been approved for unemployment benefits but has not yet received a check.
In the meantime, his girlfriend has pitched in to make sure he can pay his credit card bills, rent and car insurance. He said as a single dad, the past few weeks have been frustrating not knowing whether he can provide for himself and his daughter.
“I feel as though we shouldn’t even be at this point right now. Things could have been solved,” Russell said.
The longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely eligible federal employees are to consider unemployment benefits to make ends meet.
Federal workers have been taking odd jobs, including bartending, driving for Uber and Lyft, and renting out rooms on Airbnb to make up for their lost income.
Other government entities and companies are trying to help out. The city of Denver is offering to pay furloughed workers’ mortgages for two months. A Seattle-based bank is offering federal workers 90-day interest free loans.
Those might come as a relief, but with no end to the shutdown in sight, the relief is only temporary.