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Oregon Legislators Look For Ways To Help Federal Workers

<p>Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story used an outdated job title for Andrea Fogue and didn’t correctly explain the rules facing unpaid workers who apply for unemployment benefits.

Oregon legislative leaders want to help federal workers in the state who continue to work without pay.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Friday that it’s unfair that only federal workers who are furloughed without pay are able to apply for unemployment benefits.

“I’d like to think this Legislature will not take the view this is a federal employee, it’s a federal problem,” Courtney said during a legislative preview with reporters. “We will step up.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said she is also open to the idea of aiding workers caught in the financial vise of the federal shutdown.

There are about 11,000 federal employees in Oregon affected by the budget showdown between President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress, according to the state Employment Department.

State labor economist Nick Beleiciks said he didn’t have a breakdown of how many of those workers are furloughed and how many are still on the job. But a partial list of those working without pay includes about 1,300 Coast Guard personnel, 700 TSA screeners and as many as 300 guards and other staff at the federal prison in Sheridan.

So far, more than 2,700 federal workers in Oregon have filed for unemployment benefits since the shutdown. Around 600 of them could be seasonal federal workers who are typically laid off this time of year, Beleiciks said. That’s still a dramatic increase over previous years.

Andrea Fogue, the employment department’s legislative affairs and communications director, said workers who receive unemployment benefits can pay the state back if – as expected – they receive back federal pay once the shutdown ends. If they don’t, they wouldn’t be allowed to collect benefits within five years unless the state is repaid.

While state unemployment insurance laws vary, the federal government has specific rules for federal shutdowns that prohibit paying benefits to workers who stay full time on the job.

State officials and legislative leaders say they are still looking at various options, including those taken by other states. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he intends to simply pay unemployment benefits to federal workers in defiance of federal guidelines. He said he believes the state is on firm legal ground in doing so.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has worked out a program with a local bank to offer $5,000 interest-free loans to federal workers affected by the shutdown.

Courtney also said the state parks department is looking at another form of aid during the shutdown, possibly sending Oregon crews to clean up national parks and other federal recreational areas.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.