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Politics and Government

“It feels like a Band-Aid”: Colorado federal workers’ unemployment claims near 3,000 as short-term shutdown deal is reached

The Colorado labor department has paid out nearly $450,000 in unemployment claims as of Friday, creating a complicated situation as workers receive back pay

From left: Kayleen Castelli and Matthew Castelli, a married couple who are both Environmental Protection Agency lawyers, talk about being out of work and without pay during the government shutdown. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Unemployment claims from federal workers in Colorado neared 3,000 on Friday with $442,298 paid out to those furloughed folks before President Donald Trump agreed to fully reopen the federal government — at least temporarily.

It was hardly reassurance, though, of a permanent fix to the political impasse that’s captivated the nation for more than a month, leaving at least one federal worker in Colorado still anxious.

“It feels like a Band-Aid to me,” said Kayleen Castelli, an Environmental Protection Agency enforcement attorney in Denver who hasn’t been paid since the shutdown began. “It’s not job certainty. I think we’re looking for long-term job certainty. I definitely welcome getting paid because our mortgage is due regardless of whether or not we go to work. But I think long-term certainty is ultimately what I’m looking for.”

MORE:Here’s how Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet voted as the U.S. Senate rejected both plans for reopening government

The short-term deal Trump reached with congressional Democrats reopens the government until Feb. 15, while the two sides continue debate about funding for Trump’s campaign promise of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The plan includes back pay for the roughly 800,000 federal workers who have gone without paychecks during the 35-day shutdown.

The deal, however, includes no money for Trump’s wall.

Trump hinted that he was still considering taking unilateral action — declaring a national emergency — if efforts to come up with money for his wall fail. “I have a very powerful alternative, but I didn’t want to use it at this time,” he said.

Castelli was among several Colorado federal workers who spoke to reporters at the Denver offices of U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat, on Friday about how they’ve been impacted by the shutdown.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, speaks to federal workers and others impacted by the federal government’s shutdown at her Denver office on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“We ran through our emergency funds,” said Castelli, who was flanked by her husband, Matthew, also an EPA lawyer in Denver.

The couple said they were able to secure a paycheck loan without interest for six months from a local bank to stay financially afloat.

“When you’re envisioning a nest egg, you don’t really anticipate that both people will lose their jobs at the same,” she said.

The breakthrough Friday came as federal workers coming up on their second two-week pay period with no paychecks. It also happened as as LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey both experienced at least 90-minute delays in takeoffs Friday due to the shutdown. And the world’s busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — was experiencing long security wait times, a warning sign the week before it expects 150,000 out-of-town visitors for the Super Bowl.

So far, impacts on air travel in Colorado haven’t been felt. But Jeremy Wacker, a Denver air traffic controller who’s with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says the shutdown had nonetheless taken its toll.

“Morale at the facility is at an all-time low,” Wacker said of the Denver Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center. “You can just see it on employees’ faces every day.”

From left: Denver air-traffic controllers Jeremy Wacker and Kurt Preston speak to reporters and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette about the federal government’s shutdown on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment had paid out $442,298 in unemployment claims to 600 federal workers in the state as of Friday. The shutdown’s apparent end has the department scrambling to figure out how to address unprocessed claims and when to begin the process of getting those payments returned as workers who receive back pay must pay back the state.

“It’s a three-week stop gap. What happens if the shutdown resumes in three weeks? I’d be shooting from the hip if I knew what was going to happen,” said Cher Haavind, a spokeswoman for the labor department.

At minimum, Haavind said people receiving unemployment payments this weekend may be notified that they may want to pass on payments to avoid having to pay back the state eventually. However, until back pay begins, those federal workers can continue to collect unemployment benefits.

The labor department also plans to contact all claimants by phone, email and letter with instructions about overpayments, Haavind said. Federal workers can also check ColoradoUI.gov for updates. The state office, which must continue processing unemployment claims by law, hopes to add a tool online so people can close their claim, which would alleviate the workload on state labor department staff.

As of Friday, 2,876 federal workers had filed for unemployment in Colorado since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. The most claims are from Jefferson County, at 22 percent, followed by Larimer and Denver counties, at 11 percent each.

Interestingly, the shorter 2013 shutdown resulted in more unemployment claims from federal workers in Colorado — more than 4,000 — since it was a full shutdown,
Haavind said.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, listens to federal employees talk about how they’ve been impacted by the federal government’s shutdown on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

DeGette hailed the shutdown’s end as a victory for Democrats, saying Trump would be hard-pressed to call it anything but a failure.

“I think that given the impacts we’ve seen, President Trump would be very loathe to shut down the government again … over a policy disagreement,” she said.” I don’t think this has worked out too well for him.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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