Now that the federal government has reopened, state lawmakers have turned their attention toward protecting Maryland residents from the economic effects of the next shutdown, and they warn that the next shutdown could be just around the corner.
The state’s Joint Committee on Federal Relations met Monday to consider the various impacts of any federal shutdown — the 35-day one that just passed, or the one that could come when the current federal funding agreement expires in three weeks.
“This is not over,” said Prince George’s County Sen. Jim Rosapepe said to Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Acting Secretary Jim Rzepkowski. “We have a three-week hiatus on this thing, so it’s very real for people. And people are scared to death.”
Among the concerns Rosapepe and other Democratic legislators raised were how to help federal employees who are not eligible for unemployment benefits.
Federal employees who were furloughed during the 35-day shutdown and told not to come to work were eligible for federally funded unemployment benefits. But employees who were told they needed to work without pay were not eligible.
Tanika Clark, who spoke with the committee Monday, is a Transportation Security Administration officer at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees local 444. Like other TSA employees, she was required to work during the shutdown.
“We had many officers who had to stay home after the first paycheck was missed,” Clark told the legislators. “They were scared, calling me all the time like, ‘Am I going to be fired? What’s going to happen?’ I didn’t have those answers because I didn’t know.”
The U.S. Department of Labor warned states that if they paid these workers unemployment benefits, the federal government would not cover those costs, said Dayne Freeman, who oversees the state Division of Unemployment Insurance in the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
“A number of states got together to see what else we could do to aid essential employees,” Freeman said. “You had states that were ready to go ahead and pay essential personnel, finding alternate funding sources to fund the benefits and the administrative costs.”
But Maryland was among the majority of states and wasn’t going to offer those employees the benefits without permission from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Montgomery County Del. Kirill Reznik pushed back on that decision Monday, comparing Maryland with California and Vermont, both of which Freeman said decided to extend unemployment benefits to the ineligible federal workers.
“So just to be clear,” he said, “California, which is significantly larger than Maryland and I’m assuming has significantly more federal employees than we do, and Vermont, which is significantly smaller, both decided that they would take care of their people first and figure out how to pay for it later, where we did not do that.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are about 245,000 federal employees in California, to Maryland’s 144,000.
Rzepkowski said Gov. Larry Hogan has asked the Department of Labor to grant Maryland a waiver so that, in the event of the next shutdown, the state can help those federal workers.
But Montgomery County Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, one of the committee’s co-chairs, questioned that logic, too.
“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.
Two state lawmakers have introduced bills that would let the state decide who gets unemployment benefits.
Last week, Maryland Congressman Anthony Brown introduced federal legislation that would allow all federal employees to collect unemployment benefits during a shutdown.