ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Gov. Larry Hogan signed a measure Tuesday to enable federal employees in Maryland who must work without pay in a government shutdown to get unemployment benefits via interest-free loans from a state fund.
Maryland lawmakers passed the bill in response to the 35-day partial federal government shutdown that ended in January — the longest in the nation's history. The emergency bill takes effect immediately in the state, where tens of thousands of federal workers were directly impacted by the partial shutdown.
"I think this is a great step in the right direction to help make sure that — first of all we don't want this to happen again — but if it does, that we're able to help provide benefits to these folks that deserve it," Hogan, a Republican, said.
Maryland was unable to assist essential federal employees who worked for no pay through the unemployment insurance fund during the shutdown. State efforts to persuade the U.S. Department of Labor to waive existing unemployment insurance eligibility criteria were denied, the Hogan administration said.
That could change in the future, but as a backup plan, the Maryland law creates a no-interest loan program. Under it, the governor can transfer money from the state's Catastrophic Event Account to a fund to help federal workers affected by a shutdown.
"That's why we put this alternative in place, which is to say — if the feds have not signed off on the unemployment insurance component — that workers can get an interest-free loan for a short period of time under this mechanism we've created," said Sen. Brian Feldman, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill's sponsor in the Senate. "So, it's sort of an alternative to alternatives."
The money would have to be paid back once workers are paid retroactively.
Maryland has more than 170,000 total federal workers. About 40,000 of them were directly affected by the recent partial shutdown. Roughly half of them, about 20,000, had to work during the shutdown with no pay. The length of the last shutdown illustrated an anomaly in the law, Feldman said. Workers who were furloughed who stayed home were eligible for unemployment insurance, but essential workers who had to go to work were not eligible for unemployment insurance.
"I don't think we all realized that you have two separate categories of workers: one eligible for unemployment and then the essential workers had to go to work without pay, eligible for nothing," Feldman said.