Unemployment Figures Skyrocket Due to Coronavirus Layoffs | Off Message

Unemployment Figures Skyrocket Due to Coronavirus Layoffs


The Farmhouse Group has been forced to lay off more than 200 people amid the coronavirus pandemic. - FILE
  • File
  • The Farmhouse Group has been forced to lay off more than 200 people amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Updated 12:32 p.m.

The number of Vermonters filing for unemployment has skyrocketed amid a tidal wave of layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, 14,784 people filed initial claims for unemployment — more than 25 times higher than the roughly 500 people who sought benefits during that same week in 2019, according to Department of Labor commissioner Michael Harrington.

The department only reported 3,784 of those initial claims in data released Thursday morning because the 11,000 other claims had yet to be processed as of Saturday, Harrington said. The labor department’s call center has shut down several general assistance phone lines to work through the backlog, and Harrington said most claims will be processed by Thursday. 

The commissioner stressed that no one who filed last week would lose out on benefits they are due; they just might not receive them as quickly as they otherwise would have.
Harrington was not sure how last week’s figures compared to those seen during the height of the Great Recession. But he said previous economic downturns have been more gradual.

“That is the highest number we’ve seen in such a short period of time,” he said.

Vermont is far from alone in its spike. A record-breaking 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, dwarfing figures seen even at the height of the Great Recession.

Vermont’s service industry has been hit the hardest. Many bars and restaurants  cut back to skeleton crews early last week after Gov. Phil Scott limited them to take-out and delivery service.

Others have been forced to temporarily lay off entire workforces. That includes the Farmhouse Group, which has furloughed all but five of its 230 employees.

"We’re only days in, and I already know of several Burlington restaurants that are done — and I mean for good," wrote owner Jed Davis in a letter shared with Seven Days. "The one message I heard loud and clear from my employees this past week was: 'please reopen, and please rehire me.'"

Vermont's labor department typically releases data on Thursdays that reflect claims from the week prior. Scott's escalating attempts to further restrict public life — and thus slow the spread of the virus — could very well force more businesses to take drastic measures to stay afloat.

For example, on Saturday, Scott ordered all close-contact businesses — spas, barbershops, nail and hair salons, gyms, fitness centers and tattoo parlors — to close their doors. He also moved to further limit gathering sizes, banning any nonessential groups over 10.

Even the updated figures from last week likely understate the true extent of jobless Vermonters, since many gig workers and self-employed people do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Some people who do qualify may also have not been able to set up claims yet; the state's unemployment center was overwhelmed with calls last week, prompting the labor department to triple its staff and publish a new online filing form.