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Congress approves back pay for federal workers as Maryland unemployment insurance requests top 2,500

Congress approves back pay for federal workers as Maryland unemployment insurance requests top 2,500
The U.S. Capitol is seen from the observation deck of the Old Post Office Tower on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday overwhelmingly approved legislation — pushed by Maryland lawmakers — to guarantee back pay for hundreds of thousands of federal employees as the partial government shutdown approached record length.

Meanwhile, the Maryland labor department said it has received 2,550 unemployment insurance benefit applications related to the shutdown through Thursday, more than double the figure of a week earlier.

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The Senate had already passed the back pay measure, which was sponsored by Maryland Democrats Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.

It is expected to be signed by President Trump.

The shutdown entered its 21st day Friday, matching the longest previous shutdown: a 21-day closure that ended Jan. 6, 1996, during President Bill Clinton’s administration. With many lawmakers leaving Washington for the weekend, there were no signs of progress in breaking the current funding stalemate.

The shutdown is caused by a dispute between Trump and Congress over his request for $5.7 billion to fund a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.

The president lowered expectations Friday about whether he was close to declaring a national emergency to get the money to build a wall.

The “easy solution is for me to call a national emergency ... but I’m not going to do it so fast,” Trump said.

Bypassing Congress’ constitutional control of the nation’s purse strings would lead to legal challenges and bipartisan allegations of executive overreach. Trump said his lawyers have told him the action would withstand legal scrutiny “100 percent.”

Affected workers missed their first paycheck Friday. In a shutdown, paychecks for federal employees are temporarily suspended and retroactive pay must be approved by Congress.

“While this gives them much-needed certainty, they shouldn’t be forced to go without a paycheck at all,” Van Hollen tweeted. “Let’s end the shutdown and reopen the government!”

The House vote was 411-7. All of the members of the Maryland delegation voted for the measure.

The bill applies to “lapses in appropriations” in general — not just the current shutdown. It says workers are to be paid “at the employee's standard rate of pay, at the earliest date possible after the lapse in appropriations ends, regardless of scheduled pay dates.”

Maryland particularly feels the sting of shutdowns because of its proximity to Washington. About 145,000 federal jobs are based in Maryland, and many more state residents work for the federal government.

“Many federal workers live paycheck to paycheck,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said Friday on the House floor. “They have mortgages and car loans to pay, day care expenses to cover, and food to put on the table. And even while they struggle to pay these bills, furloughed employees face the stress and anxiety of not knowing whether or not they will be paid when the shutdown ends. The least we can do is to relieve that uncertainty.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat whose district includes about 62,000 federal employees, called the bill a priority.

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“No one should have to go without a paycheck just because the president thinks he can bully Congress into giving him what he wants — taking them hostage in return for a ransom of agreeing with him,” Hoyer said on the floor.

Affected federal agencies include the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State and Treasury. About 800,000 employees are furloughed or working without pay.

A week ago, Maryland officials said they had received 972 unemployment insurance benefit applications.

The weekly benefit provided by in Maryland ranges from $50 to $430. The size of the benefit depends on the worker’s salary.

The unemployment insurance program is funded mostly through state and federal payroll taxes paid by employers. To be eligible, workers must have been dismissed or furloughed and be available for full-time work.

If the federal government grants back pay, the recipients will have to repay any unemployment benefits.

Thousands of government contractors in the area are also affected by the shutdown.

Van Hollen, Cardin and other Democratic senators are urging the Trump administration to direct federal agencies to work with low- and middle-income contract workers on providing back pay. Many say they don’t know if their employers will pay them the income they are not receiving during the shutdown.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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