Labor Secretary Alex Acosta has rejected an effort by District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser to allow federal employees working without pay during the partial government shutdown to be eligible for unemployment benefits while agencies remain shuttered.
On Monday, Bowser sent a letter to Acosta requesting the change in policy. Currently, furloughed federal workers and idle contractors in a number of states can apply for unemployment, although they are expected to return the money when they return to work and Congress has approved back pay. But excepted employees, whose pay is guaranteed once the government reopens, cannot apply for unemployment.
In the letter, Bowser said it is unfair that employees working without pay are effectively in worse financial straits despite arguably sacrificing more during a shutdown.
“These federal workers are providing the nation and our region with vital services such as public safety,” she wrote. “Without a steady paycheck or unemployment benefits, hardworking federal workers and their families are forced to make difficult decisions: pay the mortgage or buy groceries; pay for a doctor’s appointment or pay to keep the lights on. These are decisions no one should have to make.”
But on Thursday, Bowser reported that her request was denied and decried the decision. She noted that in Washington, D.C., alone, more than 7,500 furloughed federal workers and contractors had already filed for unemployment. That number increases to roughly 9,000 federal workers, not including contractors, in the D.C. metro area.
“Federal workers and their families continue to pay the highest price for this unnecessary and unprecedented shutdown,” Bowser said in a statement. “It is unconscionable for the Trump administration to acknowledge that these individuals are working without pay and with no end in sight, but will not make the smallest effort to help them by allowing states to offer unemployment insurance benefits.”
The line between federal workers who are furloughed and excepted is shifting, as agencies like the IRS recall significant numbers of workers to restore services despite the lapse in appropriations. Observers have been vocal in questioning the legality of such decisions, and the constantly loosening interpretation of what constitutes the protection of life and property is the subject of a lawsuit by the National Treasury Employees Union.
Friday marked the end of the second full pay period of the shutdown, which is in its 28th day. Agencies will be required to send out new furlough notices next week, as the shutdown passes the 30-day mark. If a deal to reopen the government is not reached by Tuesday, employees of unfunded agencies likely will miss their second straight paycheck.