Vermont’s legislative leaders are asking the U.S. Department of Labor to reconsider a decision that blocks a $25 increase for thousands of Vermonters who are receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
Last spring, Vermont lawmakers tucked the additional benefit into state legislation related to the unemployment insurance trust fund, the source of benefits for out-of-work Vermonters.
Federal labor officials later ruled that the Vermont Department of Labor didn’t have to follow lawmakers’ intent to award the extra money. Last week, five top lawmakers wrote to Jim Garner, administrator of the federal labor department's Office of Unemployment Insurance, asking him to reconsider.
The Vermont Department of Labor had assured Vermont lawmakers in negotiations that the most efficient way to increase benefits to Vermonters was to add a flat $25 per week for each recipient, the letter said.
But the state's labor department in early September said it was impossible to add the money from the unemployment trust fund because the benefit was supplemental, and didn’t meet the federal unemployment insurance program requirements, as intended under the new law, Act 51.
State labor officials linked the difficulty in adding the money to checks to the department's aging mainframe computer. The obsolete system is notorious, and a bipartisan committee has been working on a plan to upgrade it. The outdated technology was blamed for delays and communication problems during the first year of the pandemic, when thousands of Vermonters were suddenly left jobless.
“You have the computer system dictating policy,” said Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden), noting that Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington and others from Vermont's labor department told lawmakers that adding $25 to checks for all UI recipients would be the easiest way to get more money to Vermonters, given the difficulty of programming the mainframe. “And then they turn around and tell the U.S. DOL we meant it as a supplemental benefit and that we’re not going to give it to people.”
The blockage is linked to a matter of interpretation, said the lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) and House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington).
“Whatever mechanism would lead to allowing the benefit to be paid with trust fund dollars was what the legislature wanted,” the letter said. “If we had been informed during the bill's markup that the benefit could not go forward with trust fund dollars, we would have clarified the legislation.”
Whatever the reason, the Vermont Department of Labor should have notified lawmakers long before September, the time when federal supplemental unemployment benefits expired and the $25 was due to be added, said Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs.
“It’s amazing to every legislator I've talked with that the Administration can interpret Act 51 to effectively block $100m we granted to laid-off workers, and keep us totally in the dark of their action for almost three months,” Sirotkin wrote in an email over the weekend. “Not asking a single legislator what our legislative intent was can now potentially deprive hundreds of thousands of unemployed Vermonters of help over the next decade.”
Attorney General T.J. Donovan also asked Garner last week to reconsider the legal interpretation of the measure that lawmakers passed. “The US-DOL no doubt has technical experts that could assist the State of Vermont in better understanding its options, preserving the integrity of the program, and helping Vermonters in need,” Donovan said. He hasn't heard back from federal labor officials, said Charity Clark, his chief of staff.
According to a September 17 press release from the Vermont Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in August was about 3 percent. The department said Vermont had 9,664 unemployed people in August, about the same number as in July, and 7,500 fewer than in August 2020.
Lawmakers haven’t yet heard back from state labor officials regarding their letter, said Sen. Kesha Ram (D-Chittenden), a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee and a key force behind efforts to add the money to unemployment checks. But she noted that the committee is holding a hearing on Tuesday morning in which Harrington is scheduled to speak.
Ram said she'd like Harrington to express his regret that lawmakers weren’t notified sooner that the money would not be added to unemployment checks.
“It feels like the approach is just to punish people on unemployment insurance to the point that they take whatever job comes them, rather than, we’re in a moment when people are trying to negotiate childcare, family obligations, and a rapidly changing work environment,” Ram said Monday. “It feels like we don’t have a workforce development partner; it seems like we have someone who keeps relying on the mainframe difficulties to stop support to unemployed Vermonters.”