State agency ‘swamped’ with federal employees seeking to file unemployment claims as government shutdown continues

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Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur will not provide any visitor services during the shutdown and has closed all of its campgrounds, restrooms and contact stations. Photo courtesy of NewsOn6.
As the partial government shutdown drags on, some federal employees in Oklahoma have started to feel the weight of upcoming missed paychecks, and more have started to file unemployment claims.

Negotiations over the shutdown, which has been ongoing for nearly three weeks, have remained at an impasse over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress approved several spending bills before the shutdown, so employees of some agencies won’t be impacted. Those agencies include the departments of Defense, Education, Veterans Affairs, Energy, Labor, Health and Human Services, and the legislative branch, according to Politifact.

However, appropriations bills for at least seven agencies have not been signed. Employees at those agencies for weeks have felt the financial strain from the shutdown. Many of those federal workers are expected to miss their first paycheck on Friday.

As of Thursday morning, about 340 federal workers had filed for unemployment with the state since the shutdown started, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission (OESC). Of those, 176 were filed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It’s a small portion of the roughly 49,000 federal workers in Oklahoma (or the 7,000 workers under the agencies and departments left unfunded by Congress), but it has kept OESC employees busy.

Lynn Grey, director of economic research and analysis for OESC, said the number of federal employees filing for unemployment is likely higher than usual, and the agency’s call center that handles unemployment claims has seen a spike.

“I spoke with a supervisor over at the call center. … They’ve been swamped with federal employees calling in,” Grey said.

The agency declined to give a breakdown of claims by federal agency, citing its confidentiality statute. OESC will be able to better measure the impact the shutdown has had on federal employees later this year when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the Household and Establishment survey, which measures employment status and payroll records for a certain period of time.

Only furloughed employees are eligible for unemployment benefits, and workers who continue to work without pay don’t qualify because they are considered still employed. When federal workers are granted backpay after a shutdown, they are required to pay back any unemployment benefits received.

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Oklahoma’s national parks have also been affected by the shutdown, though the National Parks Service has ordered they remain accessible to visitors.

Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur will not provide any visitor services during the shutdown and has closed all of its campgrounds, restrooms and contact stations, including the Travertine Nature Center, according to its website.

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a refuge in southwest Oklahoma, is operated under the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services. The land will still be accessible to guests, however, the visitor’s center is closed and no federal employees or contractors will be on site. Oklahoma has nine national refuge sites.

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma announced in a press release on Wednesday it would extend eligibility assistance to anyone impacted by the shutdown.

“We have reached out to our partners in 53 counties and asked that they extend assistance eligibility to anyone who has been impacted by the shutdown,” said Katie Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of the Regional Food Bank.

“We expect to see an increase in the number of Oklahomans in need of food assistance as this shutdown continues. No one should be forced to make a choice between paying rent or purchasing food for their family.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials announced on Tuesday evening that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients will have access to benefits through February if the shutdown continues. About 825,000 Oklahomans benefited from the program in fiscal year 2018, according to the state’s Department of Human Services.

The shutdown has not affected people traveling at Will Rogers World Airport. Photo courtesy of News9.

Transportation Security Administration employees will not get paid until the shutdown ends, but a spokeswoman on Thursday said the terminal at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City has not seen an impact.

“TSA officers have been doing a great job, and we haven’t seen any change in the wait times or processing times,” airport spokeswoman Karen Carney said. “We’ll just have to wait to see if this drags on if things will change.”

In the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tulsa, some employees have been furloughed during the shutdown, U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said in a press release.

“During a government shutdown, the United States Attorney’s Office has contingency procedures in place for a lapse in appropriations to ensure our essential public safety and national security missions continue,” Shores said.

“Generally, our employees with public safety and national security functions remain on the job, while others have been furloughed. In the Northern District of Oklahoma, that means our federal criminal prosecutors and staff remain on duty, while our civil cases have been stayed pursuant to court order.”

Meanwhile, Oklahomans will get their mail on time because the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t rely on federal appropriations for day-to-day operations.

The Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City had 1,146 employees furloughed and 600 working unpaid as of Dec. 28, according to NewsOK.

A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman could not be reached for questions on the center.

“Due to the lapse in government funding, I am out of the office,” the spokesman’s email said.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, gave her first floor speech on Thursday afternoon in support of a bill that would fund the U.S. Department of Transportation. Her district includes the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center.

Up to 2,000 students attend the air traffic controller aviation training school at the FAA Acadamy, but have been sent home because of the shutdown, Horn said.

“To put this in context, the Monroney Center is the only one of its kind in the entire United States, but today the doors are shuttered and all training has ceased,” she said. “The longer the shutdown continues, the longer it will take for training to resume.”

Horn added: “I’m very concerned that the government shutdown may affect the safety and security of our nation’s air travelers. It is time to get the government back on track.”

The shutdown affects about 800,000 federal employees. If the shutdown continues beyond Friday, it will break the record for the longest shutdown in history. The current longest, which was 21 days long, occurred in 1995 under President Bill Clinton.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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