Maryland lawmakers look for ways to protect federal workers

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WASHINGTON — At a Monday hearing in Annapolis, emotional testimony accompanied pointed questions about why Maryland’s Department of Labor can’t act on its own to protect federal workers.

Members of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Federal Relations quizzed Dayne Freeman, the state’s assistant secretary of unemployment insurance, about why her agency wasn’t able to provide unemployment benefits to federal workers who were showing up on the job — but weren’t being paid.

Freeman explained the different categories of federal workers and the regulations that apply to each in the case of a federal shutdown. Then she told lawmakers that the federal Department of Labor sent a letter that, in her words, drew a line in the sand warning states not to act on their own.

“We felt like we could not shoulder the burden of paying benefits to essential personnel without U.S. DOL reimbursing us.”

Lawmakers on the panel were clearly frustrated by what they were hearing. They noted that other states, including California, were moving ahead with plans to cover federal employees.

Maryland State Senator Jeff Waldstreicher, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Federal Relations told Freeman: “Asking the Trump administration for permission to pay out unemployment benefits is like asking the arsonist to put out the fire.”

There are already efforts underway to pass legislation to provide benefits to federal workers. Senator Brian Feldman and Delegate Jessica Feldmark are working on one proposal they hope to speed through the legislature before Feb. 15, when the current federal continuing resolution ends.

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin appeared before the panel, and urged lawmakers to work in tandem with Congressional leaders on any measures to protect federal workers.

Recognizing that the current federal agreement keeps the government running for just three weeks, Cardin also offered a glimmer of hope when he said, “I personally believe that we will not shut down again. I do believe we will find a bipartisan solution to border security.”

While lawmakers consider ways to shield federal workers from hardship in any future shutdowns, the impact from the recent record-setting impasse is still raw for federal employees trying to cover unpaid bills and catch up with household payments.

There were tears from one federal employee as she explained what it was like to hear from colleagues who were required to work without pay, but are struggling to cover basic needs, including gas money to get to work.

Tamika Clark, who works at BWI-Thurgood Marshall airport, became emotional while she told lawmakers how coworkers would come to her in tears asking for advice.

“They were scared, calling me all the time,” she said. They would pepper her with questions. They were running out of money; if they tried to get outside work, would they be disciplined or fired for not showing up at work?

“I didn’t have those answers, because I didn’t know. We’ve never had a shutdown that was this long,” Clark said, her voice trailing off into a sob.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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