Some federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown may qualify for assistance from aid programs in Vermont, state Department for Children and Families officials decided this week.
Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of DCF, said a federal employee inquired about benefits earlier in the week, prompting discussion that led to the decision.
“They have no ongoing expectation of income right now, with no end in sight for the shutdown,” Brown said.
Different types of assistance are available, depending on each worker's circumstances. Federal employees might be eligible for Low Income Heating Assistance Program aid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and — if there are young children in the household — for Reach Up payments.
“Each case is unique, so we would process it and hopefully we could help them out,” Brown said.
Brown said federal workers seeking assistance can walk into any of DCF’s 12 regional offices or apply for benefits online or by phone. The state’s benefits hotline is 1-800-479-6151.
There haven’t been many inquiries, but DCF is planning to publicize the decision as the shutdown continues so government workers know they may qualify.
Brown said DCF hasn't offered assistance to federal employees during past shutdowns, because they didn't last as long as the current one, which was in its 28th day Friday. “This is really unprecedented for us to be this far down the road," he said. "Normally they resolve quicker where we wouldn’t need to get into this area of examining our programs."
Ironically, the heating and food assistance programs are both federally funded. Brown said Vermont’s heating program isn't affected by the shutdown because the state received a grant that fully funds it at the beginning of the heating season.
SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, are another story. Brown said DCF’s federal partners figured out a way to fund the program through February, but only if state agencies submit their requests early, by January 20. That means SNAP benefits for February will be paid out about one week earlier than usual, Brown said, adding that staff in DCF’s Economic Services Division have been working overtime to process food-assistance applications before the deadline.
“I’m really proud of our staff that we were able to do that, and also that we’ll be getting those benefits out to Vermonters,” he said. “That’s really important to us.”
But if the shutdown persists, the benefits distributed in late January will be the last for the foreseeable future. Brown said there is no plan to fund SNAP into March. Even though recipients are receiving their February payments early, it’s important to budget carefully to make the benefits last.
Many of the families served, though, have such limited means that they already rely on food banks at the end of each month, he said.
Anna McMahon, the community engagement manager at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, said the organization hasn’t seen a surge of federal workers, but there have been “a handful” visiting the food shelf this week.
"We’re just anticipating that the longer this goes on, more people are going to be needing our resources,” she said.
Like Brown at DCF, McMahon said the food shelf's primary focus right now is getting the word out to federal employees that help is available to them.