Md. Offers Free Transportation, Other Assistance for Shutdown Workers

A drop-off location for the #MDHelps campaign is in the State House basement. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Federal employees from Maryland who are still reporting to work during the longest government shutdown in Maryland history will get some relief from new efforts announced by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Thursday.

Hogan said the state’s transit organizations will stop charging fees to federal government workers beginning Friday morning. He made the announcement at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, after meeting with air traffic controllers, Transportation Security Administration agents and FBI employees.

“It is important that we support those federal employees working without pay by waiving transit fares during the federal government shutdown,” Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said Thursday.

Workers who show their federal government IDs can ride for free for the duration of the shutdown. The governor said he’d also reached out to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority suggesting that they provide free service on the Washington, D.C.-area Metro system.

The regional transit authority declined to comment regarding Hogan’s request, according to a WMATA representative.

The transportation benefits were first on a list of new efforts undertaken by the state as an estimated 170,000-plus Marylanders who work for the federal government or as contractors brace for a second round of missed paychecks beginning Friday. About $778 million in wages are missed by federal workers, contractors and others each pay period during the shutdown, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Unemployment benefits

More than 4,000 federal government workers have filed for unemployment benefits in the state during the shutdown.

The Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s Division of Unemployment Insurance has opened call centers for an additional two hours each day to assist affected workers. But only workers who have been furloughed are eligible for benefits. The U.S. Department of Labor sent guidance to states earlier this month making clear that federal employees deemed essential and required to report for work are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

In Congress, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md., 4th) introduced HR 720 on Thursday, which would reverse the Department of Labor guidance and extend unemployment benefits to essential workers. Based on the national breakdown of employees declared essential or furloughed, Brown’s office estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 Marylanders are reporting to work without pay and are ineligible for unemployment as a result. Nationally, about 420,000 federal employees have been classified as essential.

“If the President is going to continue to hold federal employees hostage, then we will ensure they are provided for during his shutdown,” Brown said in a press release. “It’s deeply disturbing the President is proud of the human suffering he has created, and we will do everything we can to provide support and relief.”

Brown’s bill is cosponsored by Democratic Reps. Don Beyer (Virginia), Eleanor Holmes Norton (District of Columbia), Elaine Luria (Virginia), Jamie Raskin (Maryland), David Trone (Maryland), Jennifer Wexton (Virginia) and Lori Trahan (Massachusetts). The sponsors represent more than 355,000 federal employees, according to Brown’s office.

Some states, including California, Colorado and Vermont, have started offering unemployment benefits to essential workers. In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has introduced a bill that would do the same. Lawmakers in other states, including Michigan, New York, Virginia and Washington, have urged the Trump administration to clarify federal workers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Hogan’s office did not immediately respond Thursday to questions about whether his office would push for unemployment benefit coverage for essential workers.

Other assistance

Hogan also announced that the state had launched a multi-agency #MDHelps campaign to help struggling workers and families in other ways.

BWI has established a food drive for airport employees, asking the public to donate food and other non-perishable items at the Maryland Transportation Authority Police station on the airport’s lower level near Door 14.

The Maryland Department of General Services has organized a food drive with 15 drop-off locations in state-owned buildings across Maryland, including at the State House. The agency said in-demand items include canned meats, peanut butter and jelly, boxed pasta and sauce, healthy snacks such as breakfast bars and dried fruit, cereal, soups and canned meals, baby food, Ensure and other nutritional supplements. Gift cards for groceries and fuel also will be accepted. Donations will be distributed to local food banks.

A list of drop-off locations is at governor.maryland.gov/mdhelps.

“By donating a little, we can give families being adversely affected by this shutdown a lot,” Department of General Services Secretary Ellington Churchill Jr. said. “Our department is proud to support Maryland’s federal workers during this difficult and uncertain time.”

The Maryland Department of Human Services issued February SNAP benefits to more than 650,000 Marylanders in mid-January. The department has also launched a website with information about additional benefits.

This week, the federal government put off a previous policy that would have required federal workers to start covering their dental and vision coverage. Despite a warning early in the week that the federal workers would have to start picking up the tab with their next missed paycheck, the payment requirement has now been put off until a third missed paycheck, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

A series of votes in the U.S. Senate on ending the government shutdown failed Thursday afternoon, as some partisan lawmakers remain in entrenched positions.

Maryland’s U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen are expected to be at the State House on Friday, meeting with legislators. On Monday, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Federal Relations will meet to discuss the shutdown. At an economic briefing earlier this month, an economist warned lawmakers that an extended federal shutdown could lead to dire consequences for the state economy and possibly trigger a national recession.

At the BWI event, Hogan blamed Republicans and Democrats alike for the continuing shutdown and compared national politicians to fighting 2-year-olds.

“This federal government shutdown, the longest in the history of the United States, is impacting the security of our nation, the economy of the state of Maryland, and most importantly, the lives of tens of thousands of our Maryland citizens,” Hogan said. “Leaders in Washington need to put aside their differences and get this fixed.”

Capital News Service reporter Charlie Youngmann contributed to this report.

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