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State workers busy — processing federal workers' unemployment claims

Furloughed federal workers have filed more than 16,000 unemployment insurance applications — more than four times the number typically received from that sector in a year.

While idled federal workers are eligible to collect unemployment benefits, they will have to repay the money if, as is expected, they receive back pay after the shutdown ends, said Maureen O'Connor, spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The House unanimously passed legislation over the weekend to provide back pay to furloughed employees once the government reopens, and the Senate is likely to take that measure up in coming days. President Barack Obama has indicated he would sign it.

But many workers still feel their futures are uncertain, as the federal government shutdown enters its eighth day Tuesday with no agreement in sight in a divided Congress, said Rita Pyle, head of Local 3302 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"They're naturally concerned about pay and they're also concerned about their creditors," Pyle said of her members. The union represents employees who work in Social Security Administration field offices in the Baltimore region.

"We've been hearing conflicting stories," Pyle said. "Even though they say they're going to be paid, there's no budget yet."

By Sunday night, Maryland had received 16,078 claims filed by furloughed federal workers during the first six days of the U.S. government shutdown, according to the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

O'Connor said the work was going smoothly because the agency had prepared for an onslaught of applications — with workers deferring leave and working overtime over the weekend.

"They're really coming together to make sure they give the best service to these workers who through no fault of their own are not getting paid and not working," O'Connor said.

Once federal workers return to work, the employees of the state's Division of Unemployment Insurance would face another surge in their work as they send bills to federal workers for repayment of benefits.

The shutdown began last Tuesday after the Senate and House deadlocked over a short-term spending authorization bill to keep the government open. Tens of thousands of the more than 145,000 federal employees who work in Maryland were put on furlough until the impasse can be resolved.

One group that is out of luck are federal employees who are on the job because their positions are considered essential. Even if their pay is interrupted, O'Connor said, they are considered to be working and thus are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the union has heard from some furloughed workers who are choosing to file for unemployment now and others who are deciding to wait. The group also is hearing questions about the logistics of how unemployment will work once the federal government reopens.

"Employees are concerned about how and when they will have to pay the money back," Kelley said. "The uncertainty about when this situation will be resolved and whether they will have enough money to pay their basic living expenses is very stressful."

Individuals who are currently receiving unemployment benefits will not be affected by the federal shutdown because the program is administered by the state. When the shutdown ends, the federal government is expected to reimburse the states for the cost of benefits paid to federal workers, O'Connor said.

The federal government is normally not a big generator of unemployment claims for an employer of its size. O'Connor said the state normally receives 2,500 to 3,500 claims a year from individuals who have left the federal payroll.

In most cases, workers signing up for unemployment benefits are required to enroll in work-search programs and to show they have been seeking a new job. O'Connor said those requirements have been waived for furloughed federal workers.

The figures for federal employees do not include government contractors and other private-sector workers who might have been thrown out of work by the shutdown. Most of those workers are not expected to receive back pay and would not have to repay benefits.

The Defense Department also announced over the weekend it would return most of its civilian employees to work — with pay — under a bill approved by Congress before the shutdown. The state is home to roughly 45,000 civilian defense workers.

O'Connor said most unemployed workers apply for benefits online or over the telephone, with no need to visit an unemployment office. The benefits are calculated on a sliding scale based on income, she said, with a maximum payment of $430 a week.

The online application option is one of the big changes to the unemployment system since the last time the federal government shut down in 1996. Another is that payments are now made in the form of credits to a debit card issued for the purpose of paying benefits.

The benefits go to workers whose job is in Maryland regardless of where they live, O'Connor said. The thousands of furloughed Marylanders who work for the federal government in Washington would file for unemployment benefits with the District of Columbia.

O'Connor said about 4,000 federal workers applied for Maryland unemployment benefits last Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown. The department encourages workers who lose their jobs to file as soon as possible after the last day of work.

"The sooner you apply, the sooner you'll receive benefits," O'Connor said.

Workers can apply for benefits online at or by calling toll-free, 1-877-293-4125. According to the department, it is faster to file online.

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