Gov. Phil Scott said Sunday that his administration will send $1,200 relief payments to more than 8,000 jobless Vermonters still waiting for unemployment benefits after the Department of Labor failed to clear its backlog by his deadline.
On Friday, Scott gave the department until Saturday night to fix issues that have prevented thousands of Vermonters from receiving their benefits on time. He announced that anyone left on the waiting list would get the relief checks from the state’s treasury.
The labor department on Sunday announced that it had managed to clear claims for roughly 20,000 people in the two days leading up to the deadline. But a total of 8,384 people still had unresolved claims due to issues with their applications, the department said, forcing Scott to intervene.
“Under normal circumstances, it is these issues that ensure the State’s [unemployment insurance] program is adhering to federal regulations," interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said in a press release Sunday evening. "However, given the overwhelming demand on the system, being able to provide timely claims processing while meeting all federal standards became virtually impossible."
The governor quietly acknowledged the development in a tweet Sunday evening, thanking Treasurer Beth Pearce for coming in over the weekend to cut the checks.
I want to thank Treasurer Pearce, Dep. Treas. Clasen & their team for coming in on a Sunday to cut checks for those whose unemployment claim issues weren’t resolved yet. @VTLabor cleared nearly 32,000 claim issues. I’ll be dropping off about 8,300 checks in the mail tomorrow AM. pic.twitter.com/NcLtlBsokP
The checks will prepay two weeks of $600 federal benefits directed under last month's $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. The department stressed that these checks will likely not cover the full amount people are owed but rather serve as an "initial installment." Claimants will then receive their full benefits in the coming weeks as the department continues processing claims.
Sunday's news comes after the Department of Labor has struggled for weeks to meet a surge of demand amid mass layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic. The department has received nearly 80,000 initial claims since mid-March — far beyond what it receives in a typical year.
State officials have repeatedly blamed the woes on the department's antiquated computer system, saying it has hindered call center's ability to respond to the unprecedented demand. Another culprit — the feds' stringent reporting demands — has also recently caught flak as the labor department seeks to explain why it is still trying to process claims more than a month old.
"The lack of federal flexibility has exacerbated an already complicated and cumbersome program," the department wrote in Sunday's press release.
But Scott also took responsibility for the crunch last week, conceding that his administration had not foreseen the challenges at the call center prior to the coronavirus. "It's not enough for me to say, 'Have some patience,' because this isn't about patience," the governor said. "I accept responsibility for this."
Harrington said Friday that his department has done everything it can to speed up the process, even if that means potentially sidestepping federal regulations and jeopardizing some federal funds in the process.
On Sunday, the department assured that while payments are being expedited, it plans to implement "post-payment quality control measures" to ensure that the unemployment program maintains its "integrity."
The department has also spent the last several weeks trying to set up a new system that will allow people who are self-employed or independent contractors to apply for unemployment benefits under the federal relief bill. The department updated the timeline on Sunday, saying that it hopes to launch the system by the end of the week. Many self-employed workers, meanwhile, are going on a month without income.
The department also detailed plans to bolster its response, announcing the launch of a 50-person call center starting this week that will be managed by Maximus, a vendor that oversees Vermont Health Connect's call center. The department also plans to add 50 more state employees to its call-takers, bringing the total number to 150.