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Scott vows to improve overwhelmed unemployment system

Gov. Phil Scott

The unemployment is the biggest issue I’ve heard about, totally, by far.”
— Jessica James, Ferrisburgh selectboard chair

MONTPELIER — As many Vermonters struggle to file unemployment claims, and lawmakers call for the administration to drastically build out the system, Gov. Phil Scott this week vowed to improve the state’s support for people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus crisis.
Getting money to Vermont’s unemployed is critical because, as Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairwoman Jessica James has observed, some people who have stopped working to comply with Scott’s social distancing orders are now going back to work because they simply need the money.
“It’s all about the money,” James said. “I feel like they are, ‘I’ve got to work. I’ll do whatever I’ve got to do.
“That’s what I’ve been hearing more and more about. ‘OK, if I get it (unemployment compensation), I get it. But I need to pay some bills, because I’m not getting my unemployment.’ The unemployment is the biggest issue I’ve heard about, totally, by far.”
James said she has heard that small contractors who normally would be sub-contracting for larger companies are now “getting paid directly by the homeowners,” for example.
“But people are getting burnt out not getting their money,” James said.
Scott said Wednesday that Vermonters who are now unemployed and unable to get through to the Department of Labor have “every right” to be angry.
“It’s not enough for me to say ‘have some patience’ because this isn’t about patience. I accept responsibility for this,” the governor said. “This is an area that we didn’t foresee and certainly, no excuses, but we need to do better.”
For weeks, Vermonters have reported facing delays in reaching state labor officials and resolving issues with unemployment claims, as the system has been overwhelmed with tens of thousands of calls and requests during the COVID-19 crisis. Last week, the labor department said that 70,000 Vermonters had filed unemployment claims since March and that it’s old computer system hasn’t been able to process all of them.
On Thursday, the DOL reported that 9,662 more new unemployment claims had been filed in the week ending April 11.
Vermont’s labor commissioner, Michael Harrington said Wednesday that an additional 25 employees were being added to help process unemployment claims. 
Thirty state employees from other departments have started working for the unemployment system over the past week, he added. And the department is also searching for a private contractor to help take calls for the department.
But Scott said that if immediate plans to redirect resources and staff to the unemployment program don’t “prove to be enough,” he will take further action “to get money into the hands of Vermonters who need it.”

LEGISLATORS HEAR COMPLAINTS
In recent days, top Vermont lawmakers, who are hearing frequent complaints and questions about the unemployment system from constituents, have called on the governor to build up more capacity to handle the labor claims.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the Scott administration has provided enough resources to the labor department to handle claims.
He said the officials should “double or triple” the number of employees taking calls.
Ashe suggested that the state should address its unemployment system during the pandemic like it is addressing its hospital system, by building up more capacity than may be needed, as a precaution.
“If in the end we have too much capacity… I could live with that,” Ashe said during a meeting of the Joint Fiscal Committee on Tuesday.
“But I’m not sure I could live with the other alternative which is to have all these people having the worst experience with government that they’ve ever had.”
Before the governor’s comments Wednesday, Ashe said that legislators’ concerns over the unemployment system was the “first sign of tension between the administration and the Legislature” during the COVID-19 crisis.
Lawmakers said that it’s particularly important for the labor department to staff up at a time when they expect it will soon face an added deluge of tens of thousands of calls from self-employed Vermonters, and independent contractors in the coming weeks.
These workers are newly eligible for federal unemployment benefits — which will be administered by the state — after President Donald Trump signed a COVID-19 relief package into law last month.
“While they have a plan to increase our current needs, those needs are about to explode even more,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said in an interview Tuesday.
Johnson said she expects claims from the independent contractors and employees will be “infinitely more complicated” for the state to process, because those workers have never paid into the state’s unemployment insurance system before.
The House speaker added that she’s not sure that doubling or tripling the number of employees working in the state’s unemployment system will be enough to meet the increased demand.
Because of a federal requirement, those receiving unemployment benefits have to contact the state’s unemployment office each week, meaning the Department of Labor will continue to face staggering call volume throughout the COVID-19 crisis, she said.
Johnson said she will be reaching out to Vermont’s congressional delegation, hoping that they can push to eliminate this requirement during the pandemic.
Lawmakers on the Joint Fiscal Committee said Tuesday that they planned to send a letter to the Scott administration detailing their concerns about capacity within the unemployment insurance system.
“I really think that we need an affirmative response that helps us understand the magnitude of the situation and what they have in place to substantially correct what is an unacceptable level of service,” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Some lawmakers said they believed the labor department has done the best it can with the resources it has had available.
“Mike has tried to help us through some of these things,” Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said of Harrington, the labor commissioner, on Tuesday.
“But frankly I think 75 employees he has to put to this is not enough.”

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