By LAURA E. LEE
WASHINGTON (April 7, 2011) With a looming government shutdown, the Maryland unemployment division is bracing for a potential increase in claims by furloughed federal workers.
The division already has plans in place to handle additional claims, said Mike Raia, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Information on eligibility and how to file unemployment claims is available at www.mdunemployment.com.
"If the shutdown happens on Friday, there will be an application up on that site early next week, either Monday or Tuesday, that will allow federal employees to file their claim online," he said.
The Maryland department administers the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees plan. While the program is managed by individual states, the federal government pays all benefits and administrative costs, Raia said.
Maryland residents who work in another state can access information through the site but must file claims in the jurisdiction where they work.
Maryland workers are among the nation's more than 2 million federal workers facing furloughs unless they are designated "excepted" employees. Even with such a designation, it is unclear whether workers who stay on the job during a shutdown will be paid.
The Office of Personnel Management defines "excepted employees" as those who do emergency work concerning the safety of human life or property protection. The group also includes those workers who carry out duties required for agency operations to be suspended. Though agencies receive guidelines, each must determine which of its workers are "excepted."
For example, at the National Park Service, 3,200 of the 16,700 employees would continue to work through a shutdown.
"Most of those would be law enforcement to secure the entrances," said Park Service spokesman David Barna.
Other employees on the job during a shutdown would include those who maintain crucial infrastructure like sewage treatment centers, Barna said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., warned of the indirect effects of a shutdown on the park system in a speech on the House floor on Wednesday. "Do you know that those National Parks generate 270,000 private-sector jobs in camp grounds, restaurants, gas stations, (and) vendors to the national parks?" she said.
The Park Service asked individual superintendents to assess their needs and determine how many workers would be required to protect and maintain park properties, based in part on how their sites functioned during the 1995 shutdown.
The plans of other agencies are less clear. The American Federation of Government Employees, the country's largest federal employee union, filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration after the White House Office of Management and Budget did not respond to the union's request for shutdown plans.
The union's complaint alleges, "nearly all Federal Executive Branch agencies have failed or refused to release their contingency plans to either the public or to federal employee unions such as AFGE."
"How agencies are making those determinations is not entirely clear," said Andy Grajales, assistant general counsel for the union.
"I think there was some guidance, some opinions from the '80s and '90s that I think were used in the last go-round," he said. "This time it isn't clear."
Barna said the Park Service anticipates workers who remain on duty during a shutdown would eventually be compensated.
"What happened last time is, the presumption was that the people who worked will be paid," he said. "The other people, we're not sure."
But the issue of pay for "excepted" employees remains an unsettled legal question, Grajales said. "I think that the government lacks the authority to pay employees who work during the period of lapsed appropriations," he said.
In a letter to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, the union said the failure to disclose agency plans creates burdensome uncertainty for all federal employees.
"Indeed, a government shutdown where some employees would work and others would not but where none would be guaranteed pay could have a drastic impact on the lives of government workers," the letter states.