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State lawmakers look for ways to 'minimize the damage to the people of Maryland' from federal shutdowns

Concerned about the effects of a recently ended partial federal government shutdown, Maryland lawmakers are considering ways to cope should politicians in Washington force another closure.

Del. Jessica Feldmark, for example, is introducing legislation to ensure that federal employees who are required to work without pay can apply for unemployment benefits.

Nonessential employees who were furloughed during the shutdown were able to apply for unemployment benefits. But those forced to work with no paycheck could not, because they can’t meet a state requirement that an unemployment recipient be available and willing to work if offered a job.

“It’s a fundamental question of fairness,” said Feldmark, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties. She’s co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Brian Feldman, a Democrat from Montgomery County.

The matter of unemployment benefits was a focus Monday of a lengthy hearing in Annapolis called by the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Federal Relations.

Dayne Freeman, director of the state’s unemployment program, told lawmakers there’s another reason the state couldn’t allow unpaid federal employees who were still working to apply for benefits. That’s because their employer — the federal government — told the state it would not reimburse Maryland for any unemployment payments it made to those workers.

If the state had made such payments, it would have drained the state’s unemployment benefits fund, which gets its money from companies that pay unemployment taxes.

Even though the workers would have to pay the state back if they received back pay, that can take months or years, and the state still might not get all that it paid out,Freeman said. During a shorter federal government shutdown in 2013, Maryland issued about $2.3 million in unemployment benefits that became “overpayments” once federal workers got paid. The state has collected most of that money from the workers, but $250,000 is outstanding.

Freeman noted the federal government would have to sign off on any changes to the state’s eligibility rules.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, co-chairman of the federal relations committee, questioned why Maryland should be bound by guidance from President Donald Trump’s administration — which he suggested caused the problem in the first place.

“In my mind, asking the Trump administration for permission to pay out unemployment insurance benefits is like asking an arsonist for permission to put out the fire,” he said.

Feldmark said she appreciates the need to keep the state’s uninsurance program solvent. But she said there’s a bigger picture to consider.

“I, too, am concerned about the integrity of the fund, but I’m also concerned about the integrity of paying the people working day in and day out who serve us,” she said. She did not suggest how the state might pay for such benefits if her legislation were to pass.

Lawmakers also have floated ideas of legislation that would require companies with contracts with the federal government to pay workers during a shutdown if the contractors are guaranteed to get their contracts paid by the federal government. Legislators also could explore making sure that the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which provides water service in the Washington suburbs, has the authority to give affected residents relief on their water bills.

Sen. Arthur Ellis, a Charles County Democrat, is drafting a bill that would prevent landlords, utility companies and lenders from taking actions such as evictions against federal workers while they are furloughed. Such moves can have “cascading effects,” such as a negative action being put on a credit report, that could jeopardize a worker’s security clearance, he said.

“These folks are hardworking individuals,” Ellis said in an interview. “They have a job, but because of politics, they are caught in the middle.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin urged lawmakers to work with the congressional delegation on ways to “minimize the damage to the people of Maryland” from any future shutdown.

While Cardin, a Democrat, said he believes another shutdown will be averted, it’s not guaranteed.

“We’re only open for three weeks right now,” the Democratic senator said. “So, we could be back in shutdown again.”

Lawmakers also heard from Transportation Security Administration agents who were required to work at BWI Marshall Airport without pay. The security checkpoint at Concourse A had been closed during some periods because of TSA workers who declined to work without pay. Wait times at BWI stretched to 37 minutes last week, second-longest in the nation.

Some TSA agents couldn’t afford to get to work, said Tanika Clark, a lead agent who is vice president of the local union. Clark fought back tears as she recounted having workers come to her, seeking advice on which bills to pay.

“I couldn’t tell them what to do,” she said.

Scott Brown, president of the local union, said even with income still coming in from his spouse’s job, his family was getting close to canceling dance lessons for his daughter, “who lives, dreams and breathes about dance.”

“It was going to go away,” he said, “if we missed one more check.”

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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