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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Federal Workers On Job Without Pay Won’t Get Unemployment

Vermont Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan.
Taylor Dobbs

Scores of federal workers in Vermont deemed “essential” during the government shutdown are working without pay and the state says it can’t pay them unemployment benefits.

According to Gene Richards, the director of aviation for Burlington International Airport, almost 100 Transportation Security Administration officers have been working without pay since the federal government shut down Oct. 1.

“The part that is disheartening to me is that TSA employees need to worry about their bills because they’re coming in and working but they’re not being compensated at this point,” Richards said.

Richards said the employees were uncertain, then told they couldn’t get help from the state.

“They were told when it first started that maybe they would qualify for unemployment because they’re not being paid,” Richards said of TSA staff. “But then the state said no, they don’t qualify for unemployment because they’re working.”

At a Monday news conference, state Labor Commissioner Annie Noonan encouraged workers furloughed due to the shutdown to file for unemployment but said she wasn’t sure if those working without pay would be eligible for benefits.

The state worked all week to find out if the state could pay the benefits, and Noonan said the department of labor is "not at all happy about this situation, and [is] very concerned for those employees and their families.

Tracy Phillips, director of the department's unemployment insurance and wages division, said because the federal employees are still working, they don’t qualify as “available” to work, which is a key criterion in unemployment eligibility.

“To treat them different, we would need a special provision that outlined who we were going to treat different and why,” she said, adding that during the 1996 federal shutdown, Congress created just such a provision.

Labor Commissioner Noonan said that as of Oct. 9, the state had processed 520 unemployment claims related to the government shutdown.

In this shutdown, there’s not much the state can do for the full-time federal workers.

At the Burlington airport, Richards said four staffers in the air traffic control tower were furloughed. When he called the tower to inquire if the air controllers remaining on the job were working without pay, no one picked up.

“They’re not going to answer because (the office staff) is furloughed,” Richards said.

Political views aside, Richards voiced frustration with Washington in general for the results of the shutdown.

“How I feel as a person about it is this is terrible,” he said. “This is terrible that they’re being used as political pawns in this game of politics. They’re good people. They’re working hard. They haven’t flinched.”

Customs and Border Patrol officials monitoring the border crossings between Vermont and Canada have fallen through the same policy crack: They have to work because their duties are considered “essential.” But they’re not getting any money from the federal government or the Vermont Department of Labor.

Also working for free: Staffers for the entire Vermont congressional delegation.

According to Jeff Frank of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office, more than half of the Senator’s staff members are furloughed and the rest are working without pay.

Sanders hasn’t furloughed his communications team, though. On Friday, his office released a polished YouTube video condemning the “#GOPshutdown.” Frank said the video was produced in-house by the Senator’s D.C. communications staff.

In Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office, six of 21 staffers are working full time with others coming in as needed, all without pay.

Rep. Peter Welch, who usually operates with 17 staffers between his Burlington and Washington, D.C. offices, has cut down to 13 staffers with a rotating four-person furlough.

The federal public defender based in Burlington is still up and running, but the sequester budget cut, caused by an earlier Washington political crisis, is still leaving a mark there.

Public defender Michael Desautels said two full-time staffers are now working half-time as a result of the sequester, but things could get very bad for his office very soon.

“As of Oct. 17, if this is not resolved in Congress, we will not be able to spend any money” on case preparation efforts such as travel, transcription and expert witnesses. There may be additional salary cuts as well, he said.

The Vermont National Guard, for its part, is in relatively good shape. Less than 10 guard employees remain furloughed, Capt. Chris Gookin said. The rest of the guard is working and getting paid for it.

“The recalled employees who are subject to the recall will be paid on time for time in full worked during the pay period,” Gookin said.

The Guard still can’t incur any new expenses, which means they must work with current inventories of fuel, ammunition and mechanical parts.

As lawmakers in Washington begin to discuss the debt ceiling, the outcome of the shutdown and its lingering effects are unclear. When asked in an email if Congressional staff would be repaid for time worked during the shutdown, Sanders spokesman Jeff Frank didn’t mince words.

“I don’t know,” he wrote.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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