Filed Under:Health Insurance, Disability

Shutdown furloughs hit SSDI system

Social Security checks are going out, but many disability determination office workers are staying home. (AP photo/Bradley C. Bower)
Social Security checks are going out, but many disability determination office workers are staying home. (AP photo/Bradley C. Bower)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The federal government shutdown that has idled hundreds of thousands of workers is starting to ripple through states.

States are now laying off employees and warning of thousands of additional furloughs if the budget stalemate is not resolved soon.

Across the nation, about a dozen states already have furloughed hundreds of employees whose paychecks depend on federal money. The layoffs have hit civilians at state National Guard bureaus, workplace safety inspectors and state workers who determine eligibility for Social Security disability benefits, among others.

More state employees could be furloughed this coming week.

"For me, it couldn't have come at a worse time," said Tammy Turner-Lee, a 54-year-old supervisor in Oklahoma's disability determination office who is targeted to be furloughed on Friday. "My husband is going through chemotherapy right now. ... If we are in furlough status, that means I am going to have to go into credit card debt."

Medicaid, the biggest federally funded state program, has remained exempt from the cutbacks. But federal officials have said other big state-administered programs — like food aid for low-income families — may have only enough money to make it through October.

Some states have avoided furloughs by tapping into accumulated federal funds while others are dipping into state coffers.

Maryland has continued to pay 11,000 employees because the Legislature set aside $100 million to plug holes created by federal budget battles. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback dipped into cash reserves to avoid 119 furloughs and reinstate dozens of others in an office that handles unemployment benefits.

But Florida Gov. Rick Scott took the opposite approach, ordering agencies not to use state money to cover typical federal expenses.

Furloughs of state workers are slowly mounting. There have been 56 so far Maine, more than 100 in Illinois, 244 in Arizona, more than 300 in Virginia and over 400 in Washington.

The disability office in Oklahoma's Department of Rehabilitation Services, where Turner-Lee works, halted its outgoing mail to stretch its dwindling federal dollars. But furloughs could kick in by week's end for 289 full-time and 39 temporary state employees.

The Oklahoma shutdown would affect nearly 18,000 people waiting for word on whether they can get disability benefits.

The entire staff of the Maine disability determination office already has been furloughed, meaning people with disabilities "are going to incur additional financial hardship," said Sara Squires, the public affairs director at the nonprofit Disability Rights Center in Augusta, Maine.

Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn.; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Ark.; David Eggert in Lansing, Mich.; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Fla.; John Hanna in Topeka, Kan.; and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md., contributed to this report.

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