ANNAPOLIS – Elsie Watts’ alarm clock went off Thursday at 6 a.m., just as it does every morning.
But on day three of the federal government shutdown, Watts didn’t have to worry about commuting from Arnold to her Social Security job in Baltimore. Instead, she was headed to file an unemployment claim.
“I tried avoiding it all day,” she said, slouching in a hard black plastic chair in the Annapolis’ unemployment office.
At Maryland’s 27 unemployment offices, phones rang off the hook as federal workers called about filing claims. Lines wrapped around the lobbies.
Thomas Wendel, executive director for unemployment insurance, said the state’s automated hotlines received 7,500 phone calls this week. Federal workers are expected to file 80,000 claims — 44 percent of the 180,000 filed in all of last year, Wendel said.
“We’re getting half of our annual caseload in one small time frame,” Wendel said. “A lot of the people that come in are very upset and don’t know what to do.”
The necessary forms were distributed at federal agencies before the furlough, said Terry Mileski, a supervisor at the Annapolis unemployment office. More than 100 federal workers came by Thursday to pick up forms and ask questions, she said.
“Instead of being a back-up we are a necessity,” Mileski said.
People’s biggest concern, she said, is whether workers are on the job to process the claims. “The answer is yes,” she said. “People will help them.”
Mileski said federal workers who filed this week should receive their money in three weeks.
Watts, the furloughed Social Security worker, glanced dismally over the forms she held in her hand. Filing for unemployment meant facing the prospect that the furlough might last, she said.
She had busied herself earlier by going to the grocery store, cleaning house and going through some work she secretly brought home when the furlough was announced.
“My body just can’t get used to sleeping late. I have to stay productive,” Watts said. “When I got up, I prayed.”
She puts faith in President Clinton’s announcement that workers will be paid retroactively.
“Though it’s frustrating, I’m proud of the president for not signing the bill they gave him,” Watts said. “But since there is no written guarantee we will be paid, I just have to believe we will.”
Some waiting with Watts said they would take out their frustrations on election day.
James Walsh, who works in the Washington Navy Yard, said he was not impressed at how the president handled the furlough.
“This is very unfair. He should just sign the bill and get things moving here,” said Walsh, who has two incomes hanging in the balance. His wife is also employed by the federal government.
“We are building a new house,” Walsh said, “and if our income stops coming in, the construction will have to stop.”
But for the time being, the workers in line commiserated and joked with each other.
“Hey buddy, get a job!” someone yelled.
Walsh gave an aggravated glance backward as he approached the counter. “I have one,” he answered. “They just won’t let me go to work.”