Vermont Lawmakers Frustrated by Issues With Unemployment System | Off Message

Vermont Lawmakers Frustrated by Issues With Unemployment System

by

Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) - COLIN FLANDERS
  • Colin Flanders
  • Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden)
Vermont elected officials are often on the receiving end of gripes, complaints and concerns from the people they serve.

Of late, though, state senators say there's been a flood of calls on a single topic: the challenge of getting unemployment benefits.

"I've never heard the level of desperation from constituents that I'm hearing now," Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) told the full Senate during a video conference Tuesday.



Most, if not all, of Ingram's colleagues had heard similar reports from their constituents.

"They call [the Department of Labor] and they can't get through, and they start calling us," Ingram went on to say. "There's, like, no recourse for them, and they're fast running out of money, and they're just desperate."
While Gov. Phil Scott's administration has vowed to ease the crunch by improving access to the claims system, some lawmakers think more needs to be done.

"Something that seems more definitive than, 'We're aware, and we're trying harder,'" Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) said. "It seems like they need a professional analysis and a plan, pronto, so that it doesn't continue to cascade."

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) agreed. He argued the body may need to be more forceful in its critiques of Gov. Phil Scott's administration's handling of the crisis.

"We can keep saying they aren't quite staffing up or providing the resources necessary, but there's a moment where [we may] have to publicly be critical [about] the failure to do what we're asking," he said. "Just saying the words to the administration at this point, I'm not sure it's producing the results."

"That's the dynamic we're in," Ashe added. "I can't sugarcoat it."
Complaints about the Department of Labor have piled up quickly as more than 70,000 people have filed new claims in the last month alone.

Many are now treating the call center like a radio station giving away concert tickets, dialing and redialing for hours on end, vying to be the next lucky caller. The department has urged people to avoid this approach, saying it will further overwhelm the call system. But that’s a hard message to follow for those who have gone weeks without income.

Those fortunate enough to get through have also hit snags, from dropped calls to glitches in the department's 30-year-old computer system that have caused checks to be late.

Meantime, tens of thousands of workers who typically have no interaction with the Department of Labor — the self-employed and independent contractors — have become some of the agency's biggest critics as they anxiously wait for the state to set up a new system that will let them seek relief under the federal coronavirus package.
Some lawmakers have also grown frustrated with the department's limitations. Spitballing a short-term remedy on Tuesday, Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex-Orleans) wondered if there was a way to send money to people applying for unemployment before confirming how much they are owed, which might speed up the process. The state could figure out the balance down the road, he said.

When Ashe responded that he believed the Department of Labor had determined that approach wouldn't work under its existing technology, Starr was not impressed.

"That's baloney," he said. "Tell 'em to get the frickin' checks out the door. Get it settled up later."

To be sure, the Department of Labor has tried to respond to the situation, increasing staff levels and introducing new ways to apply. But even those stopgap measures haven't always helped.

Take, for example, a new intake system that lets people now file their initial claim online. The idea was to free up lines for people who needed to file on the phone. But roughly half of all online claims have arrived with issues preventing them from being processed, according to Department of Labor Interim Commissioner Michael Harrington, resulting in a new wave of calls from people wondering why their claims hadn't gone through.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Scott conceded that his administration did not "foresee" the challenges at the unemployment center. He told frustrated Vermonters that he "feel[s] their pain" and said he instructed his team last week to come up with a plan of action.

The department expected to deploy an additional 25 staff to the call center on Wednesday and has started training more state employees on how to fix online applications. It's also soliciting bids for a third-party vendor to start answering more phones and has asked people to adhere to an alphabetized weekly call schedule in attempts to spread out the demand.



"It's not enough for me to say, 'Have some patience,' because this isn't about patience," Scott said Wednesday. "I accept responsibility for this."

Scott stressed that his administration is monitoring the situation on a daily basis. If improvements are not seen in the next few days, he said, he plans to implement further measures, though he didn't offer specifics.

"Vermonters are in desperate need. I understand that. And we have an obligation to help out," Scott said.

Despite the assurances, many callers are still having trouble. Hannah Ford, a 23-year-old Burlington resident, was among them. She has yet to receive a check despite filing her initial claim right after losing her job in mid-March. She said she tried calling the center hundreds of times last week to figure out the delay but never managed to get through.

She tried again Tuesday morning, when people with last names between the letters "F" and L" are supposed to call, but again, she had no luck. She finally got through to the center late Tuesday afternoon but remains unsure when her case will be resolved.

Ford said she has now gone a full month without any income. She paused her student loan and car payments to help her cash last, and her mother, who remains employed, is helping her cover rent. But the funds are running out.
"I live paycheck to paycheck," Ford told Seven Days. "I wish I didn't, but I do, and that's just the reality of it. If I don't have a paycheck, I only have what was left of the previous ones, which really was not enough for groceries a couple weeks ago."

Ford's roommate, Shawn Murphy, has had a similar experience. On March 21, the 25-year-old applied for unemployment online after losing his bartending job at the Koto Japanese Steakhouse. Ten days later, he received a letter confirming the benefits he could expect.

But he has yet to receive a check and has been unable to log in to his account, finding it nearly impossible to get anyone on the phone to fix the issue.

The one time he did reach the unemployment call center, he was assured his case would be flagged for review. He received the same message after contacting the governor's office Monday. The Labor Department has yet to contact him.

Without much savings stashed away before the crisis, Murphy relied on his tax return to pay rent. He has since run out of money, forcing him to seek help from his parents. Murphy understands that state officials are working hard to fix his problem, so he, like lawmakers, has tried to remain patient.

But a month into the crisis, his patience, too, is running low.

"Something's got to change," he said.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.

Get news about coronavirus in Vermont