Skip to contents
Business

Unemployment claims by federal employees up in Colorado as government shutdown drags on

Patent office and federal courts running out of reserve funds while SNAP faces end-of-the-month funding deadlines

A lane is blocked to an unattended toll booth at Rocky Mountain National Park Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Estes Park, Colo. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)
  • Credibility:

George Lewis, a Denver patent attorney, thought the current federal shutdown would quickly pass. His thinking was that these usually lasted a few hours or days — the longest, two decades ago, stretched 21 days. And the federal agency he works with the most, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, collects fees on patent applications so it was able to last a few weeks longer without additional federal money.

But now in its third week and day 19, the partial government shutdown may outlast the patent office’s extra revenues. And Lewis finds himself among many scrambling to minimize the disruption of a government in budget limbo.

“The biggest problem for us are the deadlines. They don’t change. You can shut down the government, but we still have to respond within 30 days,” to patent examiner requests, said Lewis, a partner at Merchant & Gould who heard from an examiner who is trying to get things done earlier in case the office must close. “Those calls will probably be happening this week.”

While Congress has been unable to get past a budget barrier to include more than $5 billion to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, more Coloradans are beginning to feel the effects of the partial government shutdown that started on Dec. 22. Since then, roughly 800,000 federal workers, more than 50,000 of them in Colorado, were furloughed or have been working without pay.

Related: Colorado and the 2018-19 federal shutdown: What’s open, what’s not and what’s kind of open

Several departments received Congressional approval of spending plans before the impasse, including the departments of Defense, Education, Veterans Affairs, Energy, Labor, Heath and Human Services, and the legislative branch, according to fact-checking site PolitiFact.

But at least seven other agencies and their staff have felt the financial pain and inconvenience for weeks. Workers directly impacted have been living without a paycheck since the shutdown began, even if many still had to go to work because their jobs are considered critical or necessary.

During the shutdown so far, 902 federal workers have filed unemployment claims with the state, Colorado’s Department of Labor said Tuesday. That’s up from 625 on Monday and from 200 on New Year’s Eve.  

It’s a tiny fraction of Colorado’s estimated 53,200 federal workers, but about 13 percent of the estimated 6,767 total unemployment claims filed between Dec. 22 and Tuesday, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Employment. Of Coloradans who filed unemployment claims related to the shutdown, 44 percent worked for the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Rocky Mountain National Park, which employed 149 permanent employees in 2017, is now operating on a skeleton crew because of the impasse. Those workers aren’t getting paid even though the Interior Department ordered that national parks remain accessible.

The park’s answering machine warns visitors that the lack of staff means emergency services will be limited so entering the park is “at the visitor’s sole risk.” Restrooms are closed, trash collection has halted, roads remain unplowed after winter snowstorms.

Mike Litterst, a chief spokesman for the National Park Service, confirmed that the park is open to hikers and bicyclists.

“Due to recent snowfall and an inability of the park staff to plow roads due to the lapse in appropriations, Rocky Mountain National Park has limited road access by vehicle, but remains accessible to pedestrians and bicycles,” Litterst said in an email.

The limited park staff means that some nonfederal employees are unable to do their jobs, including park interns and a Larimer County Conservation Corps crew, said Estee Rivera Murdock, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, which is based inside the park.

“They’re not able to work because there’s no federal staff to supervise them,” Murdock said. “We, as a conservancy, are continuing to give them their food stipends because that’s the right thing to do. … They’re sitting around until the shutdown ends.”

Other affected federal agencies include the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury.

Federal courts, which includes the district court and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver, have been operating full strength since the shutdown, thanks to revenues from fees collected on cases. The courts found out Tuesday that funds will run out on Jan. 18.

“The federal courts have been operating on fee revenues since the shutdown started,” said Betsy Shumaker, clerk of court for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. “What happens after Jan. 18 is still an open question.”

The U.S. Postal Service, by the way, is delivering the mail because its operations are funded by the sales of products and services — not taxpayer revenue. The Postal Service employs about 10,000 people in Colorado, according to local spokesman David Rupert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture accounted for the next largest number of Colorado unemployment claims after the Interior Department, with about 21 percent of the filings related to the shutdown.

The shutdown has affected farmers seeking new rural development loans or trying to access services from local Farm Service Agency offices. Some federal employees still on the job are inspecting beef, poultry and eggs, or keeping some food programs for the needy, such as the School Lunch program, operating for another month or so.

But if the impasse continues, county administrators of federal food programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP (and formerly known as food stamps), aren’t sure what will happen next. On Tuesday, the Trump administration pledged to fund the program a month longer through the end of February.  It helps roughly 220,000 families in Colorado receive $55 million in SNAP benefits per month, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

After February, those Coloradans may lose the benefit if the government is still in shutdown, said Lynnae Flora, deputy director of Jefferson County Human Services.

“The biggest question is what is the backup on that? It’s unclear. We wouldn’t have the funding source,” Flora said on Monday. “If we get another 10 days into this, we’ll be sitting down and talking about what we have control over and what we don’t.”

With Farm Service offices shuttered, farmers and producers don’t have a local resource that many depend on to make ends meet. While the nature of the business requires the industry to have a financial backup and rainy-day plan, those who don’t may not get subsidies for their crops until the shutdown is over.

“Those that I would be most concerned with are producers looking for the release of proceeds from the sale of crops that might have securities on them. They’re all sitting in a queue because no one is there to process them,” said Zach Riley, National Affairs Coordinator at Colorado Farm Bureau. “Those are the ones I would be most concerned for. They’re going to have to talk to somebody. Hopefully, they planned for it.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor is fully operational since its budget was previously approved through Sept. 2019.

Ironically, the federal shutdown is causing more work for Colorado’s Department of Labor because of processing unemployment claims, said Cher Haavind, a department spokeswoman.

“We verify wages with the employer when a claim is filed and unfortunately, there is no employer to verify” because they are not at work and not answering phones, Haavind said. “We’re having to rely on the claimant for (proof of) wages, such as their pay stubs. The process is delayed because our ability to verify wages is not as smooth as it would be.”

If the shutdown ends within five weeks of its start, the unemployment claims will be moot. The claims typically take four to six weeks to start and that comes after a one-week waiting period. However, if unemployment payments begin, that will become a greater hassle for the state labor agency.

“What would make this situation more challenging is if it continues long enough that they receive a payment and then receive back pay. Then they would have to repay the unemployment benefits,” Haavind said. “That would create an additional workload in our system.”

The agency also updates information for affected federal workers at coloradoui.gov.

This story was updated on Jan. 9, 2019 to reflect changes to the SNAP program, which is now funded through the end of February.

More from The Colorado Sun