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Federal employees in Minnesota prep for prolonged government shutdown

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Roughly 100 Minnesotans who work for the federal government are applying for unemployment benefits in the midst of a partial government shutdown. 

The state is encouraging Minnesota-based federal employees to apply for unemployment benefits, and more are likely to do so as the shutdown stretches on into the new year. 

It’s one of the first notable impacts in Minnesota of the latest federal government shutdown, now in its seventh day. There have been two other partial government shutdowns this year, but both were resolved within hours or days. Political gridlock between Democrats and President Donald Trump over his proposed $5 billion wall on the United States-Mexico border will almost certainly push the latest impasse into the new year with a new Congress.

"Normally by this time in any shutdown people are sitting around a desk somewhere in Washington, D.C. trying to figure out how to resolve it and we don't see that right now," Myron Frans, commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, said. "That's what feels different about this, there doesn't seem to be the elements of an agreement out there yet."

The indefinite nature of the impasse has some workers preparing.

The federal government is a big employer in Minnesota, with nearly 17,000 employees working for agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and active military duty.  Only one-quarter of federal agencies did not receive continuing appropriations and are facing funding lapse, including commerce, justice, housing, Homeland Security, transportation and treasury. 

The Department of Employment and Economic Development, which processes unemployment benefits, received roughly 1,500 applications through the course of a 16-day federal shutdown in October 2013, according to a spokesman.

According to DEED, some of the workforce, such as TSA and postal service workers in the state, are mostly considered essential and will continue working during the shutdown, some without pay. They are not eligible for unemployment insurance during the shutdown. But other state-based workers in these departments are eligible for the benefits. Roughly a third of the applicants for unemployment benefits so far in Minnesota work for the Department of Agriculture, according to DEED. 

There are no other immediate impacts to services and employees in the state, but Frans said he is monitoring the shutdown and expects to receive more guidance from federal agencies in the coming days.

"Once you get beyond this two or three week time period, then you have to ask the question: Will Congress reimburse people who don't work for three weeks?" Frans said. "They should, frankly, because it's not their fault."

Depending on how long the shutdown stretches on, other services could be hit. The state cannot open up its tax filing season, for example, until the IRS filing season opens. That typically happens near the end of January. People buying homes with federal loans are unable to close in the midst of the shutdown because they can't get final authorization. State officials are also watching for things like federal disaster reimbursements to local governments, dollars for local construction projects and grants to pay for traffic safety programs and vehicle inspection programs.

"Whenever you have somebody at the federal government that has to approve a payment, as opposed to an automatic payment, that's the problem. If that department is shutdown, you're not going to get that payment," Frans said. "We just cannot afford to continue to engage in activities that we may or may not be reimbursed for by the federal government."

-Reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this story