Hard-up federal workers seek jobless benefits, dip into retirement funds to pay bills as shutdown drags on

Thousands of federal workers who’ve gone unpaid during the 27-day partial government shutdown are applying for jobless benefits and dipping into their retirement accounts to ease the financial pain — and the numbers are growing.

Some 10,454 government employees sought jobless benefits in the week ended Jan. 5, the Labor Department said Thursday. The figures are reported with a one-week lag, however, and are probably sharply higher by now.

Typically fewer than 1,000 federal employees apply for benefits. Yet the numbers began to rise the week after the shutdown began on Dec. 22, growing to 4,760 at the end of December and topping 10,000 in early January.

A federal agency that tracks the retirement funds of government workers, meanwhile, said the number of so-called hardship withdrawals surged 34% in the 2½ weeks after Christmas, according to a Bloomberg report. A similar spike occurred during another shutdown in 2013.

Roughly 800,000 federal workers have gone unpaid during the shutdown, including those who are still required to work because they are considered essential employees. Workers have missed at least one paycheck, and now they’re going through a second pay period without compensation.

For some individuals and families, it’s evidently a financial bridge too far, especially following the holiday season. They still have to put food on the table, pay their utility bills, meet college tuition for their kids and make rent or mortgage payments.

Some government workers who need financial help can probably get by with smaller jobless benefits provided by a separate claims program for federal employees. These workers do have to pay the money back if they eventually get reimbursed for time not worked during the shutdown.

President Trump signed a bill on Wednesday that provides for back pay.

Yet others who’ve dipped into their retirement accounts likely have bigger bills that a modest federal unemployment benefit would not be able to meet.

The federal workers in the worst position are the 400,000 or so required to work unpaid because they are considered essential employees. They aren’t eligible to apply for a weekly stipend under the federal claims program.

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