DEAR CARRIE: Someone we know is now on mandatory furlough because of the partial government shutdown. As a federal employee, can he apply for New York unemployment insurance benefits, and if so, should he file now? What happens if he gets his money back retroactively once the federal agencies are refunded? Would he have to repay any of benefits? And are unemployment benefits taxable and considered income on all tax returns? What can you tell furloughed New Yorkers? — Concerned Friend
DEAR CONCERNED: Those are great questions. For answers, I contacted a spokeswoman for the state Labor Department. She directed me to a Q&A on the department's website.
A key takeaway: Furloughed federal workers are usually eligible for unemployment insurance benefits — with one very important exception, which I'll get to in a moment.
Here is what the department's website says about eligibility and timing when filing for benefits:
"Most furloughed federal employees are eligible to receive unemployment Insurance benefits. If you believe you may be eligible, you should file a claim. Department of Labor representatives will determine if you are eligible. You should promptly file a claim in the first week you are not working."
What happens if your friend is paid retroactively after the shutdown ends? The short answer is that he will have to repay the benefits.
"If the government pays you retroactively, you will be required to repay the benefits you received during that time," the department says.
As to your last question about benefits being considered taxable income, yes, they are.
"If you are required to file a tax return, your unemployment compensation is subject to these taxes: federal, New York State, local," the website says.
Here is the important exception to eligibility, which federal employees affected by the shutdown should keep in mind.
If they are required to work without pay during the shutdown, they won't qualify for benefits during that time.
"A federal employee who is called back to work is considered employed and not available for other employment," the website says.
One of the key eligibility criteria for unemployed benefits is that jobless workers be "ready, willing and able to work and are actively seeking work," the department says.
Have your aquaintance call the department's Telephone Claims Line at 888-209-8124 to file, or he can use the link accompanying this story online.
DEAR CARRIE: Is it legal to force employees to use vacation days when the private school that employs them is closed for Christmas vacation? We get just two weeks a year and have to use three of those days in order to get paid during the December closings. So we have to take those days, whether we want to or not. — Grinched
DEAR GRINCHED: It is legal. Companies don't have to offer paid time off, and when they do, they can determine the terms, absent a union or employment contract.
But your employer has to notify you of its paid-time-off policies ahead of time, through postings or handouts.
Your company may look at it as doing you a favor by allowing you to use vacation days to replace income you would have lost because of the closings.
But the company also has the option of just paying its employees for the closed days. After all, it's not their fault that it closes during the holidays.