State Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell is a chief sponsor on a bill to provide unemployment insurance to essential federal employees such as the Coast Guard when they are ordered to work without pay.
About 500 Coast Guard in Sector Columbia River worked without pay during the recent federal government shutdown. Because they were technically still fully employed, they were often ineligible for unemployment. Many took advantage of local food pantries, grants, loans and other assistance from businesses and community organizations until their paychecks arrived.
Mitchell hadn’t planned on helping to craft such legislation, but said she saw the financial circumstance faced by the Coast Guard. She has a professional background in social services, including administering unemployment insurance for Utah.
“I just saw an opportunity where I said, ‘I know exactly what’s going on, and I have an idea of how we can fix this and get people paid,’” the Astoria Democrat said.
Mitchell’s legislation — Senate Bill 722, sponsored with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem — would provide a program similar to a no-interest loan, funded through the state Employment Department, to pay unemployment benefits to active-duty Coast Guard. The state would also set up a mechanism to recoup the payments to the Coast Guard once they get paychecks from the federal government.
During the 35-day partial shutdown, the state took more than 3,300 unemployment claims by federal employees, compared to 1,000 over the same time period a year ago.
“We had minimal claims filed by the Coast Guard during the recent shutdown,” said Vanessa Krueger, a spokeswoman for the Employment Department. “That may be because of communications at the federal and state level pointing out that under the applicable federal government programs, people who were required to work full time, as most Coast Guard service members were, were not eligible for unemployment benefits.”
With support from Courtney in the Senate and the office of Gov. Kate Brown, Mitchell said she sees a strong likelihood of the bill passing. Her efforts come after Democrats in Oregon’s congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio — wrote a letter asking the U.S. Department of Labor to make clear that essential government workers are eligible for state-administered unemployment insurance.
“Each day the federal government requires ‘excepted’ employees to perform work without pay is untenable and the (Department of Labor) has the authority to help ease that hardship by allowing these ‘excepted’ federal employees the ability to apply for unemployment insurance,” the Democrats wrote.
Mitchell is also a chief sponsor of bills to buy prescription drugs wholesale from Canada, make Oregon a part of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact for the presidential election and a resolution to designate May 22 as Oregon Kind is Better Day to promote civility.