Furloughed federal workers can get unemployment benefits

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DENVER — Federal workers in Colorado who have been furloughed because of the shutdown may be able to get help from the state unemployment office.

It’s estimated that 54,000 federal workers are in Colorado. Not all of them were furloughed when the government shutdown at midnight Monday.

Bill Thoennes of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said about 40,000 workers in Colorado may be eligible for jobless benefits.

During the last shutdown in 1995-95, which lasted almost a month, the government paid employees back for the missed time. There is no guarantee the government will do so again this time.

In the meantime, Thoennes said, workers who were told they are nonessential and dismissed can apply for unemployment.

But the money comes with a catch. If Congress decides later to retroactively pay those workers, they would have inadvertently double-dipped into the system and will be asked to return the money.

There is a one-week waiting period for the state to process applications. Applicants should register at ColoradoUI.gov.

Unlike other applicants, federal workers will not be required to look for a job while they are on unemployment because they are “job attached” and it’s assumed once the shutdown ends they would return to work, Thoennes said.

Current unemployment claimants will continue to receive their benefits despite the federal government shutting down, Thoennes said.

“We know for the foreseeable future it won’t be impacted,” Thoennes said.

However, the state will be waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on how long benefits will last.

Who qualifies for unemployment benefits?

The laws vary by state, but here’s how it generally works:

Federal employees can be divided into two basic categories. First, those who are deemed “essential” and asked to report to work. Their pay may be delayed, but they are guaranteed their usual wages and thus, will not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

But their “non-essential” colleagues will be forced to take days off without pay until Congress reaches a budget agreement. These workers may file for unemployment because they’re on a temporary layoff through no fault of their own.

Payouts usually differ based on a worker’s salary and the length of the furlough. It’s safe to say, however, that if the shutdown lasts at least a week, most furloughed employees will be eligible for benefits.

The U.S. Department of Labor has issued a fact sheet, advising employees that they may file for unemployment benefits on the first day of their furlough.

If payments have to be recouped, the entire process is likely to prove a paperwork nightmare for both workers and state unemployment agencies. But David Ricksecker, an attorney with Woodley & McGillivary, advises furloughed employees to file for the benefits.

Workers should not assume Congress will retroactively pay lost wages, he said.

“If someone has rent due, it’s better to get unemployment and pay it back later if you need to,” he said. “Congress is so far apart on everything that I don’t see them voluntarily going back and paying these employees, but I could be wrong.”

CNN contributed to this report.