Beginning on May 9, the state will once again require Vermonters to verify that they’re trying to find work in order to receive unemployment benefits. And claimants who refuse suitable job offers, state officials said on Tuesday,
could be ineligible to continue receiving benefits.
The mandate comes more than a year after the Vermont Department of Labor suspended its longtime work-search requirement for unemployment insurance as the pandemic rapidly closed businesses. Thousands of Vermonters were pushed out of their jobs, and others were unable to leave home for work because schools and daycares had closed.
For the last year, the unemployment system in Vermont, as in other states, has served as a COVID-19 safety net for those unable to make an income as a result of the pandemic.
But with vaccination rates rising and businesses reopening, state officials said
that it’s time for many of the estimated 20,000 people who are collecting regular unemployment benefits to start trying to reenter the workforce.
That mandate will kick in the week of May 9, when unemployment insurance claimants will be required to apply for three jobs a week. They’ll also have to submit information about those applications when they apply for their benefits each week, Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said.
All unemployment claimants are being asked to set up an online profile for job-seekers with the state. Refusing an offer of suitable work may result in the loss of benefits, Harrington said.
“We know employers are actively seeking people to fill open jobs,” Harrington said during one of the state's twice-weekly press briefings on the coronavirus.
He added that there are still exceptions to the work-search requirement.
Self-employed people who are collecting benefits under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, don’t have to look for jobs — although Harrington said the federal government might later require them to show they’re seeking business opportunities. And people who were earlier exempted from job-seeking because of COVID-19-related caretaking, or because of personal health conditions, will still be eligible for exemptions, he said. The department has published frequently asked questions about the new rules on its website.
“As with most things related to the pandemic, this is not a simple activity; one size does not fit all,” Harrington said.
Qualified workers were scarce before the pandemic, and they still are, according to employers in hospitality, construction and other industries. Many have worried that the lack of a work-search requirement has disincentivized people from finding jobs, as have generous unemployment benefits, which include a weekly $300 supplement. Employers have peppered Gov. Phil Scott's administration with questions about both.
Scott had earlier said it wasn’t possible for many people to go back to work because childcare was an unmet need during the pandemic. But on Tuesday, he said that problem was easing. He has predicted a return to near-normal in the state by July 4.
“As we see more and more schools that are going to in-person instruction, as well as more and more people getting vaccinated, and case counts going down, there are more opportunities for private childcare facilities as well to step up,” he said, adding that summer camps will also be open this year.
“This is the right time,” he said. “Things are getting closer and closer to being back to normal.”
Hans van Wees, the general manager of Hotel Vermont in Burlington, said hiring is one of the biggest challenges he faces. There are currently about 9,000 job openings in the state's hospitality industry, he said. He’s trying to fill jobs in the restaurant and bar, in housekeeping and the front desk, with pay starting at $15 an hour.
Van Wees said he's not sure reinstating the work-search requirement will solve his workforce problems, which existed before the pandemic, “but one can assume it doesn’t help that the incentive to stay at home is tempting,” he said.
He added that it’s been a tough year for all, and working might help.
“Being in a work environment with colleagues and guests and a lively environment is so much better for the soul and the spirit,” he said. “I truly encourage those people to start applying for these jobs, for their own well-being as well.”
Scott, too, doesn’t expect the return-to-work requirement to solve all the workforce problems.
“I see this as being a part of the solution,” he said. “This isn’t something magically that is going to have people return to work; they still need to have some of those necessities like childcare for instance. And to be perfectly blunt, there are some who are perfectly content staying on the unemployment assistance because of the $300 stipend.”
Harrington said there are typically about 6,000 jobs posted on the state’s job board. “We recognize that’s only a fraction,” he said.