Whitmer: Unemployment benefits needed for unpaid workers

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants answers from the Trump administration on states' ability to provide unemployment benefits to federal employees working without pay during the partial government shutdown. 

Whitmer said Michigan is already providing unemployment benefits to furloughed workers, but federal regulations prevent states from providing the same assistance to "excepted" federal employees continuing to work full-time without pay. 

On the 28th day of the shutdown, Whitmer wrote to President Donald Trump's administration Friday with the Democratic governors of New York and Washington state, calling the disparity "patently unfair and wrong."

"For the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who remain on their jobs — including Coast Guard members, TSA agents, air traffic controllers, food safety inspectors, CBP agents, and more — our states’ hands are tied from providing this much-needed relief," Whitmer wrote with Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Jay Inslee of Washington state. 

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They're asking the U.S. Department of Labor for "unambiguous guidance on whether flexibility is available to states to waive these rules and offer unemployment benefits to federal employees who are excepted from the furlough."

If that flexibility is unavailable, the governors are asking the administration to work with Congress in haste to revise the statute to allow states to offer such aid to affected families.

"Simply put, there is no rational justification to deny these employees the same short-term relief being offered to furloughed federal employees across the country," the governors wrote. 

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a similar request this week to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and was denied, Bowser's office said. 

California Gov. Gov. Gavin Newsom told National Public Radio the Labor Department has already told states federal employees working unpaid during the shutdown remain ineligible for unemployment benefits.

"We're going to do it, and shame on them," Newsom said, according to NPR.  

Trump signed a bill Wednesday that would give back pay to federal workers after the shutdown ends.

Since funding lapsed Dec. 22, more than 420,000 federal employees are working without pay nationwide, including roughly 42,000 Coast Guard employees. Another 380,000 were furloughed. 

Roughly 400 federal workers in Michigan had filed for unemployment benefits as of Jan. 5, according to state figures. The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency has extended office hours at 13 locations to process claims.  

Negotiations between Trump and congressional Democrats are stalled, extending what is now the longest government shutdown in history. 

The Democratic governors urged Trump and Senate Republicans to reopen shuttered government departments "immediately," stressing that a third of federal employees are veterans.

"It is now causing massive disruption and widespread pain to families and communities across the country — endangering our food supply, natural resources, the public safety, and our states’ economies," Whitmer wrote with Cuomo and Inslee.

Depending on their work, some federal employees affected by the shutdown are restricted from engaging in outside employment without a supervisor's approval — which may be unavailable if the supervisor is also furloughed. 

Lawmakers are also raising concerns this week about the shutdown's impact on airport security and air travel with air-traffic controllers going unpaid and staffing shortages within the Transportation Security Administration.

Roughly 55,000 of TSA's 60,000 employees are receiving no pay during the shutdown, and a growing number are reportedly calling in sick. 

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, on Thursday questioned the sufficiency of TSA staffing levels as air travelers and airports reported longer wait times at security screening checkpoints.

Peters, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to the TSA with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, saying changes to staffing levels or morale "have the potential to increase security risks and weaken our defenses.”

The Air Line Pilots Association International has also expressed alarm about safety inspectors with the Federal Aviation Administration, TSA and air traffic controllers going unpaid. 

"The pressure these civil servants are facing at home should not be ignored. At some point, these dedicated federal employees will encounter personal financial damages that will take a long time from which to recover, if at all," the association said in a statement.