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

January 11, 2019
In The News

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation Friday — pushed by Maryland lawmakers — to guarantee back pay for federal employees affected by a partial government shutdown.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said it received 2,550 unemployment insurance benefit applications through Thursday related to the shutdown — more than double the figure of a week earlier.

The Senate had already passed the back pay measure, which was sponsored there 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.

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.”

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.

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, the state Department of Labor said it had received 972 unemployment insurance benefit applications.

The weekly benefit provided by the Maryland Unemployment Insurance Law 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.