WINDSOR LOCKS, CT — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal wants to the federal government to re-open, but in the meantime he believes unpaid federal workers should be able to access unemployment benefits.
Currently, some of the furloughed federal workers will be able to collect unemployment benefits, but not the 150 Transportation Security Administration officers at Bradley International Airport.
The Department of Labor said only furloughed employees who are not allowed to work can file for unemployment. The department has received more than 205 applications, according to state officials, but as of last week 80 percent were not eligible.
Blumenthal said a broad interpretation of the law should allow federal workers who are still reporting to work, but not getting paid to have access to unemployment compensation. And if state officials conclude otherwise then the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont should change the law to make sure they are eligible.
“If the state concludes— and it is the state Labor Department that has that power—that there is no legal justification for these benefits going to the working employees who are unpaid then the legislature ought to change the law today,” Blumenthal said. “I hope the governor and the legislature will support such a change.”
The department believes that if it waived the work search requirement because these employees are still technically employed that Connecticut would risk losing millions in federal funds.
There are about 1,500 federal workers in Connecticut impacted by the shutdown, which is into its 24th day. Some are furloughed and some are essential employees who are working without pay like the 150 TSA officers and 40 air traffic controllers at Bradley International Airport.
“To require people to go to work without pay is simply unAmerican,” Blumenthal said. “It is a mockery of our Democratic system.”
Federal workers missed their first pay period and many are calling up their union representatives wondering what’s going to happen if they miss a car payment or they are unable to make a mortgage payment.
Christopher Scofield, an Airway Transportation Systems specialist, said his washer just broke and he doesn’t know when he’s going to be able to get it repaired.
“A lot of us are having to pick up second and third jobs,” Scofield said.
Paul Feragne, a transportation security officer and local president for the officers, said his employees are worried and anxious about how they are going to pay their bills.
“They don’t know how that next car payment is going to be made,” Feragne said. “How am I going to get to work if I lose my car? Where am I going to go stay if I can’t make the rent payment this month?”
Feragne said he’s reached out to the Labor Department and have not received any response about their questions regarding access to unemployment insurance benefits.
“They’ve hung us out to dry,” Feragne said. “That’s very worrisome.”
Labor Department Commissioner Kurt Westby said they are doing their best to assist federal employees who may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.
“At the same time, we must ensure compliance with federal guidelines,” Westby said. “In light of the federal shutdown, it is anticipated that some federal agencies will not be available to respond to our requests for required information.”
Valyria Lewis, a former TSA officer, and American Federation of Government Employees representative, said it’s great that Congress voted to pay the employees retroactively, but the employees can’t “eventually eat.”
She said there’s also a security threat if this shutdown drags on any longer.
“These employees have security clearance and what comes along with that is a financial suitability requirement,” Lewis said. “Which means these employees must make their bills.”
At some point “coming to work without pay won’t even be an option,” Lewis said.
Blumenthal said unpaid debt potentially compromises people and that’s the reason why in every background check the F.B.I. asks if a person has any debt.
“Debts pose a vulnerability to potential bribery and even potential collaboration with a foreign adversary,” Blumenthal said. “This issue is not only about our moral obligation to these workers it is about our security as a nation.”
Lewis added that the TSA officers can’t work if they are sleep deprived from working too many jobs.
“We want them rested and ready to do their absolute best,” Blumenthal said. “I worry about security in all kinds of ways, most especially when we are flying.”