Federal employees who take unemployment benefits during the shutdown will have to pay them back

Internal Revenue Services (IRS) employee Matt Westrich speaks in front of the Federal building at a rally against the ongoing U.S. federal government shutdown, in Ogden, Utah, U.S., January 10, 2019.
George Frey | Reuters

As the government shutdown continues and federal workers face the possibility of another missed paycheck, many may file for unemployment benefits to help cover housing costs, groceries and other necessities.

Earlier in January, CNBC reported that more than 4,700 federal employees filed for unemployment in the last week of December, compared with 929 the week prior, according to the Department of Labor.

But this modest relief comes with a few strings.

Only some government workers are eligible

Only workers who have been furloughed, or deemed nonessential to their departments, can actually apply for unemployment benefits.

Employees who are "excepted" — meaning they must continue performing their typical job duties without compensation until the shutdown ends — are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits, as they are entitled to payment for the hours they've worked.

On Wednesday, Jan. 16, President Donald Trump signed legislation that guaranteed all furloughed workers would be paid once the government reopens. The bill also mandates that employees in the same situation in possible future shutdowns will also get back pay. The House and Senate cleared the bill last week. It does not specifically state when employees will see any money, only that they will be paid as soon as possible once the shutdown ends.

Once back pay is received, unemployment must be repaid

While the legislation is great news for the roughly 380,000 furloughed federal employees, it does present a challenge to those who are counting on unemployment benefits to make ends meet until this back payment is in hand.

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in most states and the District of Columbia, any unemployment benefits workers receive must be repaid if they are paid retroactively for the time they were not working during the government shutdown.

That means that furloughed workers currently receiving unemployment must be prepared to repay their state once their back pay is received.

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