N.H. aid to furloughed federal workers may run afoul of the law 

  • New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu pauses for a standing ovation during his inaugural address during a ceremony at the State House in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Sununu begins his second, two-year term facing a Legislature controlled by Democrats. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 1/23/2019 5:37:11 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu urged caution around a Democratic proposal to relieve federal workers affected by the government shutdown, pointing to potential repercussions from the Trump administration if the state took action.

Speaking to reporters days after New Hampshire Democratic leaders proposed giving unemployment insurance payments to those working without pay, Sununu said he would wait to review any legislation produced.

“We’ll consider any action that is both fiscally responsible and doesn’t put the state at risk, while providing opportunity for the families that have been negatively impacted by the state,” he said.

But he warned of taking any action that could invite a standoff with the U.S. Department of Labor, which has sought to discourage states from paying unemployment insurance funds to unsanctioned workers.

“I haven’t seen a piece of legislation; I haven’t seen a proposed action,” Sununu said. “But if the state is found to be out of conformity with the federal government, there could be very drastic and severe repercussions to the state. Not just within unemployment insurance, but within grants and within a variety of different areas, so you have to be very careful.”

The comments came as the federal shutdown dragged into its thirty-third day Wednesday, forcing some federal workers like security officials and air traffic controllers to continue working without pay.

While federal employees who are furloughed and sent home are eligible to apply for unemployment insurance, the benefit does not extend to those working but not receiving a paycheck. That includes 1,600 of New Hampshire’s 2,400 furloughed workers, according to Commissioner George Copadis of the Department of Employment Security.

Some states such as Colorado and California have begun issuing unemployment insurance anyway.

But the federal Department of Labor has tried to curb the practice, pointing to a recent bill passed by Congress that guarantees all furloughed workers will receive full back pay when the government reopens. Workers who recieve unemployment payments in New Hampshire would have to refund it when they receive their back pay.

The federal department has been “actively engaged” with states on the issue, a spokesperson told the Monitor on Wednesday morning. But the advice remains the same.

“Consistent with 2013 guidance on these matters, the law considers those performing excepted service as employed and therefore not eligible for unemployment insurance without new legislation,” the spokesperson said.

At Wednesday’s executive council meeting, Copadis said the agency is still examining its options, but that state laws and federal rules clearly prohibit the move.

“I think everybody at this point is very frustrated,” Copadis said. “The federal government needs to sit down and do the job, and get this thing settled ... But our hands are tied.”

Democratic Councilor Deb Pignatelli urged a compromise nonetheless. “None of us want you to break the law, and do something that you’re not allowed to do. But a lot of us are feeling very frustrated that our residents are showing up for very stressful jobs and not getting paid.

“We’re a small state,” she added. “We solve problems. Some of us are frustrated that we haven’t been able to do anything for these workers so far.”

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