On April 8, 2020

Details start to emerge on unemployment insurance, other relief payments

Michael Harrington, acting commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor, speaks at a press conference with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch in Barre on Monday, March 16, 2020. Harrington outlined the department’s response to the coronavirus. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

People who are filing for state unemployment insurance for this week will start receiving their weekly $600 supplement from the federal government when they receive their unemployment check next week, according to state officials.

But for the self-employed and independent contractors, who are also in line to receive assistance from the state as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the wait is going to be longer. It will be a few weeks before the state Department of Labor can set up and implement the new relief system for those who haven’t previously been eligible for unemployment insurance.

“If you have already filed a claim with the department, there is nothing more you need to do,” Michael Harrington, DOL’s interim commissioner, said at the press conference Wednesday, April 1 and then reiterated the same message April 6.

Harrington was referring to people who are eligible for unemployment insurance – those whose employer closed under state orders, or who left their jobs voluntarily because of the health crisis. “That $600 will automatically be added to your claim when you file for this week.”

Harrington and his department are wrestling with a deluge of unemployment claims in the wake of huge job losses last month [see related story on this page].

The labor commissioner acknowledged that many claimants can’t get through, and asked for patience and resilience among those filing claims. Over 40,000 claims have been filed in the last two weeks – as many as the department usually handles in a year. DOL employees have volunteered to work seven days a week to handle the backlog.

“We’re using an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Harrington. “We have reassigned people from other units, we have opened up additional phone lines; our staff have a monumental situation before them. They are doing everything they can to process claims and get money out the door to people.”

One-time federal payments

Meanwhile, a federal one-time payment to Vermonters earning less than $75,000 annually will be on its way within 30 days, said Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

The money will be automatically deposited to bank accounts linked to a taxpayer’s most recently filed tax information or will be mailed directly to taxpayers’ homes, Kurrle said.

DOL created a similar system for emergency relief in the wake of the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene, but “that was a much smaller scale. We don’t have that option because of the massive number of claims,” he said.

To get money into more people’s hands more efficiently, the DOL has waived its requirement that claimants be searching for work. It has made other changes to ensure that claims are not denied because someone has chosen to self-isolate due to being at higher risk than the general population if they contract the COVID-19 virus, Harrington said.

Benefits are also available to people who choose to stay home to care for family members.

“We’ve also added as many online forms as we can so people can do as much self-service as they can,” he said. “We recognize that there is a massive number of individuals doing everything they can online or by phone to contact the department.”

Vermont also provides unemployment insurance for people whose hours have been reduced or who lose their wages for reasons out of their control, Harrington noted. He said the details of how much they will receive will vary.

“If they have seen a significant reduction in wages they are also eligible,” said Harrington, urging anyone who is unsure about how much money they can receive to contact the department, despite the difficulty in getting through.

“Or at least file a claim,” he said. “We can work out the details on the back end.”

The newly unemployed who can’t file a claim immediately because of processing delays will still get their money, backdated to when they lost their jobs, said Harrington.

“Please know that if you’re not able to get through, you’re not at risk of losing benefits,” Harrington said. “Those will get paid out. I promise that those who are eligible for benefits will receive their benefits.”

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