By Mike Rogoway

The Oregonian

There are about 9,600 federal workers in Oregon who are working without pay or not at all as a result of the three-week federal shutdown.

Many of them will be eligible for unemployment benefits from the state, but the rules for who qualifies are a little complicated — as are the guidelines for what you have to pay back if Congress ultimately restores the missed income.

Employees not working because of the shutdown, and those who are working less than full time and not being paid, may apply for unemployment benefits from the state. However, employees working full time during the shutdown are not eligible for jobless benefits — even if they’re not being paid.

That’s an odd situation, admits David Gerstenfeld, director of Oregon’s unemployment insurance division.

“I don’t think the laws necessarily had this type of scenario in mind,” he said.

The issue is that the legal definition for unemployment excludes people who are working full time, according to Gerstenfeld.

Even if they’re not getting paid for their work.

During the shutdown, the federal government requires some people with essential jobs to continue working, full time, even though there is no money appropriated to pay them.

So while they are required to work, without compensation, unemployment laws preclude them from collecting unemployment benefits.

In past shutdowns Congress has subsequently authorized back pay, and most political observers expect that will happen again.

If it does, those workers who received jobless benefits — but later got back pay — are nominally obliged to return the “overpayment” from their jobless benefits.

Gerstenfeld said they don’t really have to.

The law doesn’t allow the state’s unemployment division to demand the money, he said, or to send a collections agency after you if you don’t pay it back.

If you need unemployment benefits in the next five years, though, the division can withhold those benefits until it has recouped what it is owed from the shutdown.

“It is an overpayment,” Gerstenfeld said, “but the only way that we are permitted to pursue recovery is through that benefit offset.”

More information is available from the state online.

The state has about 28,000 federal employees altogether, according to the Oregon Department of Labor, two-thirds of whom work for funded agencies not directly affected by the shutdown — the U.S. Postal Service, Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor.

That leaves the 9,600 who have either been furloughed, have funding to continue working a little longer, or who are working but not being paid. Those include nearly 3,000 Forest Service workers and more than 1,300 with the Bureau of Land Management.