Gov. Phil Scott speaking at a press conference on Friday
Updated at 2:58 p.m.
Gov. Phil Scott on Friday said that he has given his Department of Labor until Saturday night to clear a backlog of unemployment claims, after which he will order the state's treasury to start cutting $1,200 checks to prepay benefits to those stuck on the waiting list.
"We've had success clearing a significant backlog [already], which will help Vermonters get money they desperately need," Scott said at a press briefing. "But I know this is not enough."
The extraordinary announcement follows weeks of frustration among jobless Vermonters who have hit a bottleneck at the state's unemployment call center amid an onslaught of initial unemployment claims. The department has now taken nearly 80,000 claims since mid-March — far more than it sees in a typical year — and some claimants who filed over a month ago have yet to see payments.
Speaking after Scott's announcement, Department of Labor Interim Commissioner Michael Harrington apologized for the delays, as well as the consistently jammed phone lines at the call center. And while he conceded that the department has fallen short of meeting the demand, he acknowledged that “recognizing the problem doesn't make it any easier" for those in need.
“It doesn't put money in the pockets of people who've been waiting too long for food on the table for their families, or help anyone sleep better at night,” Harrington said. “That's why we're going to do better.”
Harrington offered some figures to illustrate the department’s challenge, explaining that claims from about 34,000 Vermonters have arrived with more than 50,000 combined issues, clogging up the system. About half of those workers — roughly 17,000 — would currently receive the immediate relief, Harrington said, though he hoped that number would shrink over the next two days.
He went on to say that Scott has consistently asked him to "prioritize people over process,” a motto that will be reflected as the department works to get payments out the door faster — even if that means sending money before determining exactly how much someone is owed.
Harrington admitted that this expedited approach may mean side-stepping some federal guidelines, potentially jeopardizing the state’s ability to reap the unemployment-related benefits of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package.
But Harrington assured that other states find themselves in the same position and said he doesn't believe Vermont will see any major ramifications, adding that his department is hitting the throttle “as cautiously as possible.” "I think that will get things flowing much more quickly and get benefits into the hands of Vermonters," he said.