'Whatever It Takes': Government Workers Apply For Unemployment As Shutdown Drags On

Originally published on January 13, 2019 1:09 pm

Long-time federal contractor John Woodson arrived at an unemployment office in Washington, D.C. early Thursday morning. Ordinarily, Woodson would be receiving a paycheck, but because of the partial government shutdown, Woodson spent his day filing an unemployment claim instead.

"We should still be at work right now," said Woodson. "Politicians should handle this — don't put this on the citizens. You're hurting us."

Even if Woodson can get unemployment, which pays up to $425 a week in D.C., he says it won't be enough to care for his family.

"I might have to wash some cars, go back detailing or wash some windows — whatever it takes to put some food on the table," said Woodson.

Federal contractor John Woodson says he's willing to wash cars to put food on the table as the government shutdown shows no end in sight.
Patrick Madden / WAMU

Federal workers and contractors are now missing paychecks for the first time since the partial government shutdown began on December 22. That's causing some of these workers to do what once seemed unthinkable — apply for unemployment.

"The reason that I chose a public sector job was the stability of the whole thing," said Steve, a federal employee who also showed up to a D.C. unemployment office. He didn't want to use his full name for fear of repercussions.

Steve said he left a higher-paying job in the private sector to work for the government. A big selling point in deciding to accept the new job was a shared sense of mission.

"The real benefit was a job that I felt appreciated at — a job that had stability," said Steve. "And right now, I feel unappreciated and unstable," he said.

Officials in D.C. and Maryland say at least 7,000 unemployment claims have been filed by federal government workers and contractors since the shutdown began. They expect that number to rise sharply if the shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history, drags on. In all, some 800,000 employees have been affected by the shutdown. An estimated 420,000 are working without pay, according to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Another 380,000 are at home on furlough.

'It's embarrassing'

At a rally for federal workers and their supporters in Silver Spring, Md., on Wednesday, some federal workers said they had no choice but to consider applying for unemployment benefits.

"This is the first time in my working life I am going to have to go to my creditors and say 'I don't know how to pay you.' And it's embarrassing," said Michelle, a long-time federal employee who didn't want to give her full name because she's worried about potential repercussions.

Michelle wiped away tears as she talked with a group of women about how to apply for unemployment. She never expected to be in this position.

"I show up to work. I do a good job. I'm doing everything a responsible adult is supposed to do," said Michelle. "All of a sudden, it's all blown up and I don't know what else to do."

According to the federal government, the shutdown will cost at least $50 million a day in lost wages and productivity.

But there are hidden costs, too, that go beyond money, said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

"Who in [the] world is going to want to work for the federal government when [workers] are disrespected ... when people are not able to fill prescriptions, bouncing checks [and] ruining their credit?" said Erwin, whose union represents 100,000 federal workers.

The details surrounding who is — and isn't — eligible for unemployment can get complicated.

Federal employees who've been furloughed can apply for unemployment benefits; workers who've been deemed "essential" and are working without pay are not eligible for unemployment.

And federal employees who do receive unemployment benefits will have to reimburse the government if Congress votes to give employees backpay — which typically happens when the government re-opens.

Federal contractors don't get backpay from the government.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance for furloughed workers on what to do during a shutdown — including how to write to creditors and mortgage companies.

On Friday, President Trump said he would sign a bill passed by both the House and the Senate to give back pay to federal workers affected by the shutdown.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Federal workers have missed paychecks for the first time since the partial government shutdown started over three weeks ago. Now thousands are doing what once seemed unthinkable - applying for unemployment benefits. WAMU's Patrick Madden reports.

PATRICK MADDEN, BYLINE: Inside an auditorium in a Maryland suburb of D.C., federal workers and their supporters gathered a few days ago to protest the shutdown, now the longest in U.S. history. Labor activists stood on stage to belt out a Woody Guthrie tune, as many in the audience sang along.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) This land is your land.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This land is my land. From...

MADDEN: But in the back of the room, it was hard not to notice a group of women wiping tears from their eyes. Michelle, a federal employee of more than 30 years, is getting tips on how to apply for unemployment.

MICHELLE: I show up to work. I do a good job. I'm doing everything a responsible adult is supposed to do. And all of a sudden, it's all blowing up, and I don't know what else to do.

MADDEN: Michelle, who doesn't want to give her full name for fear of retribution, says she can't believe she's found herself in this position.

MICHELLE: This is the first time in my working life I am going to have to go to my creditors and say, I don't know how to pay you. And it's embarrassing.

MADDEN: Since the shutdown began, thousands of federal workers and contractors have applied for unemployment. Officials expect that number to increase as people feel the pain of missing paychecks. And it's already starting to show at an unemployment office in Washington, D.C. One by one, government employees walked in. They signed their names and waited to get their claims processed.

STEVE: It's depressing a bit to - you know, to be unemployed.

MADDEN: Steve, who also doesn't want to use his full name for fear of retribution, says he left a better-paying job in the private sector to work for the federal government.

STEVE: The reason that I chose a public sector job was the stability of the whole thing.

MADDEN: Steve says another big selling point was the sense of mission.

STEVE: You know, trying to make the world a safer place. And it's like - I don't know - might as well just go make some money somewhere else, I guess.

MADDEN: The federal government says this shutdown will cost at least $50 million a day in lost wages and productivity. And that's not just D.C. Eighty-five percent of federal workers live outside the Washington region. But there are hidden costs, too, that go beyond money, says Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

RANDY ERWIN: Who in the world's going to want to work for the federal government when people are not able to fill prescriptions, are bouncing checks, ruining their credit?

MADDEN: And their eventual unemployment checks will likely be far less than what they were making. And these claims take time to process, and bills can add up. And for federal employees who do receive unemployment, they'll have to reimburse the money when Congress gives them back pay. But federal contractors don't get back pay from the government. Some of them are janitors or cafeteria workers, like John Woodson. He spent 30 years working low-wage jobs at federal buildings. He arrived at the D.C. unemployment office unsure of what was next.

JOHN WOODSON: Might have to wash some cars or go back to detailing, whatever it takes - wash some windows - whatever it takes to, you know, put food on my table, you know?

MADDEN: You're here today to hopefully start receiving some unemployment benefits.

WOODSON: Hopefully. You know, who knows? He might got a way of putting the freeze on that, too.

MADDEN: The he, of course, is President Donald Trump, who has said, without money for the border wall, the government will not be reopened, leaving these workers feeling like there's no end in sight. For NPR News in Washington, I'm Patrick Madden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.