As the longest-ever government shutdown drags on, Vermont will defy the Trump administration by providing unemployment benefits to federal employees who are working without pay.
On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott directed the Vermont Department of Labor to treat so-called "essential" federal employees the same as furloughed workers, who are already eligible for unemployment.
"It just seems preposterous that these folks are forced to work without receiving a check and are not eligible for unemployment," Vermont Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle told Seven Days.
Since the shutdown began December 22, Kurrle said just over 100 furloughed federal workers have filed unemployment claims out of an estimated 1,500 Vermont workers who are directly affected by the funding lapse.
She said the Vermont Department of Labor doesn't know how many "essential" federal employees — air traffic controllers, TSA staff, and Border Patrol agents, among others — are working without pay in Vermont and will now be eligible to receive unemployment checks.
The benefit will function as a kind of zero-interest loan, meaning workers must reimburse the state once the government standoff ends and they receive the back pay promised by a bill President Donald Trump signed January 16.
But it's not retroactive, so workers who file are eligible for benefits beginning January 22. A worker who filed for relief Tuesday would receive a check on January 31 at the earliest, Kurrle said.
Scott said it isn’t right for contractors and non-essential federal workers to receive the benefits while those who have to go to work without pay are not eligible.
"It’s a parity issue," the governor said. "It just didn’t seem fair for one sector to get unemployment benefits and the other not to. We just think it’s a moral issue."
The move runs contrary to a U.S. Office of Personnel Management memo issued last week, which says that employees working without pay "are generally not eligible for unemployment compensation." On January 17, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that his state would nonetheless offer unemployment to all affected federal workers, while Democratic governors of Michigan, New York and Washington state jointly asked the Trump administration to change its policy on the issue.
Kurrle said her department, the governor and state legislative leaders worked collaboratively on the plan. The Trump administration could decide to withhold administrative fees associated with any claims processed under Scott's order, she said, but Vermont officials are confident in their authority.
"We feel strongly that we're on solid legal footing here," Kurrle said.