Number of Marylanders furloughed in doubt

Federal agencies keep track of popcorn production and wallpaper sales, but figuring out exactly how many government employees have been furloughed by the shutdown in a state turns out to be a tricky task.

Estimates of the number of Marylanders furloughed last week have been inconsistent and sometimes questionable, even though they could prove important to determining the economic impact in a state with strong ties to the federal government.

"They're in every state, but some states have more," J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said of federal workers. "And that's going to give you an idea of what the impact is going to be on the local economy."

Labor unions estimate that about 800,000 workers have been furloughed nationwide. That's generally consistent with shutdown plans released by the agencies.

There's little debate among economists that Maryland and Virginia would be hit hard by the shutdown. The Census Bureau counts more than 314,000 federal workers in Maryland — including 286,000 civilians and 28,000 service members — about 10 percent of the state's workforce.

The federal government employs 2.8 million civilians nationwide, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

But determining the scope of that impact is complicated by the fact that many workers cross state lines as they commute to Washington for work. Federal agencies track where a job is located, not where the employee lives.

Senate Democrats offered the closest thing to an estimate in September, predicting that 124,000 civilian employees who live in Maryland would be out of work in a shutdown. To reach that figure, officials counted the number of employees in the state and extrapolated a number from the share of furloughed employees expected nationwide.

The problem with that approach is that each agency has furloughed a different percentage of employees. The Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health, for instance, furloughed three-quarters of its staff. The Social Security Administration, based in Woodlawn, sent home 28 percent of its workforce.

Of the roughly 11,000 headquarters employees at Social Security, 4,357 are working and the rest were furloughed.

Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, estimated that the shutdown could cost the Washington area's economy $200 million per day. He assumed that about 225,000 employees were furloughed in the region. He also considered federal contract employees and businesses supported by federal workers.

"In total, these direct and indirect jobs represent 17.5 percent of the metro economy," he wrote.

A widely cited study by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration predicts that the state is losing nearly $15 million in taxable economic activity and $5 million in revenue per day because of the shutdown.

That estimate assumes that all federal employees are furloughed. That's because even employees who are still on the job generally won't be paid until the government reopens and that has at least a short-term economic impact.

It is uncertain whether Congress will offer retroactive pay to furloughed employees as it has done after previous shutdowns.

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