Shutdown forces furloughs for state workers who help jobless

The continuing federal government shutdown forced the state Employment Security Department to furlough hundreds of state workers on Tuesday.

Ironically, they will now have to file for unemployment benefits from the same agency that temporarily laid them off.

Sheryl Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the agency, said 418 state employees were furloughed, and hours reduced for an additional 450 workers because of the federal shutdown.

That represents about half of the 1,669 people employed by the agency. Employment Security, which gets 87 percent of its funding from the federal government, is using state dollars to pay the staff needed to keep processing unemployment claims.

“We figure we can keep going with the state funds for a few weeks. If we go on for a month, we’ll have to re-examine that,” Hutchison said.

Among the staff temporarily laid off — 27 workers in the department’s investigations unit. “Their investigations are sitting there, waiting for them to come back,” Hutchison said.

Other people furloughed include managers, human-resources staff and technical support, she said.

Congress is likely to authorize back pay for furloughed federal employees, but that appears unlikely for state workers, she said.

“Under the state constitution there’s a limitation of the gifting of funds for work that was not performed,” Hutchison said. “So our ability to reimburse state employees retroactively is in question.”

Also, Tuesday, the Veterans Benefits Administration furloughed 7,000 workers nationally and closed its regional offices in Seattle and 55 other cities.

Existing benefits claims and new clams won’t be immediately affected. But the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) warned that benefits checks and disability compensation scheduled to go out Nov. 1 could be delayed if the shutdown continues until the end of October.

The VA’s toll-free lines for veterans seeking help remain open.

On a more positive note, the Washington Military Department has called back most of the 850 workers it furloughed at the beginning of the month because of congressional action to pay civilian military employees. The agency oversees the Washington National Guard and emergency-management division.

The department has called back 764 military employees, all of whom likely will get back pay, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the agency.

However, 80 state employees remain on furlough and, as is the case with employment security, it appears they won’t be eligible for back pay.

Washington bureau reporter Kyung M. Song contributed. Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or