40K Feds Received Unemployment During the Shutdown. Now They Have to Pay It Back.

Union and labor supporters demonstrate at a rally by federal workers at the Philadelphia International Airport to end the government shutdown on Friday, Jan. 25. Union and labor supporters demonstrate at a rally by federal workers at the Philadelphia International Airport to end the government shutdown on Friday, Jan. 25. Matt Slocum/AP

More than 40,000 federal employees applied for unemployment benefits during the partial government shutdown, according to new government data, all of whom will now be required to pay it back.

The more than 350,000 federal workers who were sent home without pay during the 35-day shutdown were eligible to apply for unemployment insurance benefits while on furlough status, but now that they have been provided back pay, they must return the money. As of the week ending Jan. 12, more than 40,000 feds had applied for the benefits, according data released by the Labor Department on Thursday. Some of those applicants may have left their agencies prior to the shutdown. The total figure was likely much higher by the shutdown's end, because thousands of additional workers applied for the benefits each week of the shutdown.

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The total number still tracks well behind the 16-day shutdown in 2013, when more than 40,000 federal workers applied for unemployment in the Washington, D.C.-region alone. In 2013, more than 850,000 federal employees were furloughed after every agency was forced to close its doors.

After the government reopened in 2013, most states demanded that feds repay their benefits because they received back pay. Some states did not institute the requirement, but the Labor Department eventually issued a nationwide mandate that the benefits be repaid.

State agencies this time around warned employees when they filed initial claims that anyone who received back pay would have to repay unemployment benefits. During the shutdown, Trump signed a law guaranteeing back pay for furloughed federal workers for this and any future shutdown. Still, thousands of federal employees determined that, facing the reality of missed pay, the temporary cash infusion was worth the hassle. All federal employees impacted by the shutdown received back pay this week.

In Washington, the onus now falls on the formerly furloughed workers to repay the money back to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. They must first tell the agency they received back pay, and then send a check or money order to the employment office.

Typically, employees have 60 days to return the benefits they received. D.C., however, will not start that clock until after Feb. 15—when the current continuing resolution that reopened government is set to expire—”to ensure the shutdown has completely ended with the passage of an approved congressional budget,” a spokesperson said.

The Virginia Employment Commission will take a more proactive approach, identifying and contacting the furloughed federal employees who are now required to give back their unemployment benefits. The office will seek to confirm the employees received back pay from the government, according to Bill Walton, VEC's unemployment insurance director, and then issue a determination that there was an overpayment. That determination is appealable. Once the employee concurs or all appeals have been exhausted, they will be be billed for what they owe. Employees who do not respond could be placed into collections, but Walton said that is rare and they will work with any individual to set up repayment. 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser pushed for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to allow excepted employees forced to work without immediate pay during the shutdown to also be eligible for unemployment, but Acosta rejected the request.    

This story has been updated with additional comment.

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