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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

With No Shutdown End In Sight, Vt. Extends Unemployment Benefits To Federal Workers

A view of the US Capitol dome as seen through a window from the Russell Senate building.
J. Scott Applewhite
Associated Press
A view of the U.S. Capitol dome as seen through a window from the Russell Senate building on Dec. 27. Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers have agreed to deliver unemployment benefits to federal employees affected by the ongoing government shutdown.

Vermont’s Republican governor and Democratically controlled Legislature have managed to do what elected officials in Washington, D.C., so far have not: provide financial relief to the federal workers forced to work without pay during the partial government shutdown.

In a memorandum issued Monday, and made public Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott directed the Vermont Department of Labor to offer unemployment benefits to all federal workers affected by the shutdown.

The directive, issued by Scott after conferring with legislative leadership in the House and Senate, will ensure that “essential” and “excepted” federal employees will be treated in the same way as their “furloughed” counterparts.

Furloughed federal workers — employees who both aren’t going to work and aren’t getting paid — are already eligible for unemployment benefits. But essential employees forced to work without pay have until now been ineligible for unemployment, by virtue of their active employment status.

In a written release, Vermont Commissioner of Labor Lindsay Kurrle said:

“The core principle of unemployment insurance is to remedy temporary economic hardship created by an unanticipated loss of income. There are Vermonters who have been showing up to work every day, but not getting a paycheck, for more than a month. There is no end in sight for federal shutdown and the governor and legislators have asked us to help these individuals feed their families, pay their bills, and put gas in their cars.”

Kurrle said in an interview Tuesday that it's been difficult to determine precisely how many federal employees in Vermont have been affected by the shutdown, but said the number is likely on the order of 1,500.

She said approximately 100 federal workers have already applied for and are receiving unemployment benefits as a result of the shutdown.

In his memo to the Department of Labor, Scott said the new directive was "a matter of commonsense and compassion." It also likely won't come at any lasting cost to the state.

All federal workers, including those who have been furloughed, are set to get back pay once the federal shutdown ends. Once that back pay is issued, all federal employees who received unemployment benefits during the shutdown will be required to repay that money to the state.

The unemployment directive will take effect immediately, according to Scott’s memo, but may require emergency rulemaking to clarify state law.

Meanwhile on the national stage, Vermont Rep. Peter Welch is introducing a bill that would prohibit the government from forcing employees to work without pay.

Welch's bill would require the government to pay anyone forced to work during the current or any future government shutdowns, and he said changing the law could make shutdowns a less effective political tactic.

"That would mean that in the future, if the president or if Congress was going to use shutdown as a tactic, they would have to affirmatively vote not to pay people," Welch said. "And I can tell you this: that no member of Congress and no president, I would hope, in good conscience could ever impose that burden."

Welch said he's confident he'll get other members of Congress to support his bill.

Update 3:56 p.m. This post was updated to include Welch's plans for a bill.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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