Oregon to help amid federal government shutdown
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With the federal government shutdown in its second month, officials in Oregon are looking to help beleaguered federal employees, possibly with millions of dollars in assistance, authorities said Wednesday.
Almost 10,000 federal employees in the state are not getting paid because of the shutdown, huge swaths of federal lands are unattended, creating wildfire hazards. Also, food stamps for 320,000 Oregonians are at risk if the shutdown persists past February, said Lisa Taylor, spokeswoman for state Senate President Peter Courtney.
He is drafting a bill to allow federal employees who are working but not being paid to receive unemployment benefits, Taylor said. That’s in defiance of the U.S. Labor Department which says federal employees who are on the job without pay cannot collect unemployment. Only those not working during the shutdown can receive benefits.
“I’m absolutely disgusted at what is happening at the federal level,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek. She said she’s open to the state helping federal employees without access to unemployment.
The move comes as states are starting to fill gaps as the longest-ever federal government shutdown drags on. Among those working without pay are federal prison guards, air traffic controllers, TSA agents and U.S. Coast Guard personnel.
Private citizens also are helping. In Astoria, home to a Coast Guard unit that has continued search and rescue missions, more than 1,300 federal employees and their families lined up at a Masonic Lodge last weekend for donated food, toiletries and other necessities, The Daily Astorian newspaper reported.
Courtney’s bill will have an emergency clause and be retroactive, with a draft expected by the end of the week.
“We cannot simply say it’s the federal government’s job, not our problem,” Courtney said in a statement. The cost to the state is expected to be millions of dollars.
“This isn’t going to be a cheap and easy fix,” Taylor said.
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley said Monday that if Oregon provides aid, he’ll seek reimbursement from the federal government. “If we have a bill to reopen government, we can put a reimbursement clause in there,” he said.
Other states are starting to take action as well.
— In Connecticut, Gov. Governor Ned Lamont signed emergency legislation Tuesday that will enable essential and nonessential federal workers to receive no-interest loans during the shutdown through a public-private partnership.
— California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that his state will give benefits to people still on the job despite the guidance prohibiting it.
— The governors of Michigan, New York and Washington asked the Trump administration last Friday to let states offer unemployment benefits to federal employees working without pay.
Of concern in Oregon and several other Western states is that wildfire mitigation by conducting prescribed burns is not being carried out as it should. Last year’s wildfire season was one of the worst in history.
The shutdown means that not only is that work suspended, but few federal trainers are available to train state and local crews.
“We’re obviously facing a real problem now with the federal shutdown,” said state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. He said he was meeting with the state forestry department.
Taylor said 360,000 households in Oregon, most of them with children and many with the elderly and disabled would run out of food stamps in March, and some in late February, if the shutdown persists. People who receive federal subsidies for mortgages would also have problems, she said.
AP reporter Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.
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