Some fortunate federal employees will likely get paid twice for not working this month.
Several states are expected to allow federal workers who collected unemployment insurance during the government shutdown to keep both those benefits and the back pay they're set to receive, according to the Labor Department.
Their decisions may add at least a few million dollars more to the shutdown's still-untallied costs to taxpayers. Those include billions of dollars in federal workers' lost productivity as well as lost fee income and other revenue from government services and functions that weren't performed. The shutdown's cost to the U.S. economy is even bigger -- as much as $24 billion in the October-December period, economists estimate,
About 400,000 federal employees were furloughed during the 16-day shutdown. The legislation that reopened the government last week provides retroactive pay for the furloughed workers.
Some workers applied for, and received, jobless benefits for the period they were on furlough. The Labor Department plans to issue guidance this week that likely will require most states to recoup that money because the workers will also get their normal pay for the hiatus.
But laws in several states probably will allow workers to double-dip. The Labor Department was not able to provide an estimate of how many states on Friday.
In Oregon, for example, a rule permits furloughed employees to apply for jobless benefits if it's not certain that they will receive back pay and there's no set date for their return to work, says Tom Fuller, a spokesman for the Oregon Employment Department.
"It was not clear they would have been paid back," he says.
Fuller says state law lets the workers keep the benefits because they did not perform any services for the back pay.
"We believe that this rule is wrong," he says, adding that the state is trying to change it.
Of 27,000 federal workers in Oregon, about 4,400 filed unemployment claims and 1,300 took the other steps needed to receive a week of benefits. They got an average of roughly $450 each and a total $680,000. The employees are not eligible to be paid for the first and third weeks of the shutdown because they worked parts of those weeks, Fuller says.
The federal government is expected to reimburse the state for the outlays because the furloughed workers are government employees, Fuller says.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch unit, said, "In terms of wasting taxpayer dollars, the idea of double paying anyone is distasteful." But she added, "In a period of extreme uncertainty for many Americans, this is an understandable side effect."
During the 1995-96 U.S. government shutdown, all federal workers who received unemployment benefits had to pay them back because the law that provided them back pay considered them effectively working during the furloughs, the Labor Department says.