SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Workforce Services has seen a 500 percent increase of people requesting unemployment since the government shutdown turned federal employees away from work Tuesday.
The state-run office usually process 2,000 unemployment claims a week, but since Tuesday has taken on 10,000, said Bill Starks, DWS unemployment insurance director.
"Starting Tuesday, when the furlough notices started going out, our claim center and our Internet site kind of lit up," Starks said.
Among the applicants is Gordon McKinney, who submitted his unemployment claim once he learned he and most of his co-workers at the Internal Revenue Service had been deemed "nonessential" for the duration of the shutdown.
As a single father, McKinney is the sole wage earner providing for his West Haven family. He has to be out of work for a month before he can apply for food stamps, but in the meantime, unemployment could cover nearly half his lost wages.
But McKinney and other IRS employees would rather just get back to work.
"I have two kids. I haven't had a paycheck since Monday, and I'm not expecting any money until we get this government back up and running," he said. "We've got house payments, rent payments, utilities to pay, and we have food we have to provide for our kids."
Furloughed federal employees are eligible for unemployment assistance following a one-week waiting period that started the day they were first turned away from work, Starks said. After that, they can begin filing weekly claims for assistance until they return to work.
However, if furloughed employees are later approved for retroactive pay, the unemployment assistance must be paid back.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote this weekend on whether to provide back pay for federal workers. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., posted Friday on Twitter that he expects the legislation to pass.
While DWS administrators did what they could to prepare the staff for the wave of unemployment claims, they didn't anticipate that when they called to verify wages for federal employees, no one would be there to answer the phone.
"Unfortunately what we're finding is some of those federal agencies aren't staffed to respond to those verification requests," Starks said. "What we're doing now with federal furlough employees is we're telling them up front to provide some proof of earnings."
Proof of earnings can include check stubs, W-2 forms or earnings statements, and a waiver has been put in place so furloughed employees aren't required to seek new employment while they're receiving unemployment, Starks said.
With so many applications being processed, Starks encourages Utahns filing unemployment claims to do so online in hopes of expediting their request. An online chat option is available on the site during business hours to help claimants through the process.
Starks pointed out that Utah taxpayers don't need to worry about being hit by the high unemployment payout. Once it gets running again, the federal government will reimburse claims for furloughed employees dollar for dollar.
In the meantime, McKinney has had some tough talks with his two teenagers about sacrifices they will have to make. The first thing to go will be their Internet and cable.
For 15-year-old Riley McKinney, that means not being able to do schoolwork at home, or getting to watch his favorite shows.
The family has already canceled all plans to eat out, go to the movies or other activities, and has cut back on driving to save gas.
"I'd say (members of Congress) are acting like little kids. They just don't want to work things out together," Riley said.
As the first week of the shutdown ended, McKinney said he was frustrated to see that several Republicans, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, were still tying the budget to their efforts to defund Obamacare, a roadblock he hopes Congress will move past before families like his are in deeper financial trouble.
"They just don't want to budge," he said. "I would ask Mike Lee to stop with the politics about Obamacare. Let's move on."
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