By James Finn/VTDigger
A requirement that laid-off workers must actively seek work if they want to qualify for unemployment benefits is being reinstated, Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington announced at Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Tuesday, April 27.
The work-search requirement was suspended after Covid-19 entered Vermont last March, battering the state’s economy. But now, with a growing number of Vermonters receiving Covid-19 vaccinations and the state making plans to reopen the economy, “this means more opportunities for Vermonters to return to work,” Harrington said.
People still collecting unemployment benefits will be required to conduct a standard work search on Sunday, May 9 and going forward each week thereafter.
However, “as with most things related to the pandemic, this is not a simple activity, and one size does not fit all,” Harrington said, and the rules will be clarified later this week.
A valid work search consists of three “formal job inquiries” every week in the eyes of the Labor Department. Application submissions, requests for interviews via email or phone, and interviews themselves — both virtual or in-person — all count as employment outreach, Harrington said.
To keep receiving benefits, claimants must report “job contacts” to the department the week after making those contacts, Harrington said, and should do so through the labor department’s online portal.
Vermonters with special health circumstances will remain exempt from the work-search requirement, Harrington said. They include people who must remain at home to care for a loved one, people with preexisting health conditions that put them at risk of infection, and parents with children learning remotely. Vermonters on federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and self-employed people are also exempt from the requirement.
Gripes from employers
The work-search announcement follows months of complaints by employers and business organizations that the pandemic has amplified the state’s long-standing labor shortage.
Businesses have decried the Legislature’s proposal to increase state-paid unemployment benefits, arguing that the combination of pandemic relief aid and lack of a work-search requirement worsened their struggle to find workers.
Last Tuesday, Scott echoed business leaders’ belief that a sweetened unemployment benefit may have prompted some unemployed workers to stay at home rather than return to jobs. “To be perfectly blunt, there are some who are perfectly content staying on the unemployment assistance because of the $300 stipend,” Scott said at the press conference.
But he firmly rebuked a reporter’s suggestion that lack of a work-search requirement is driving employers’ recent hiring woes. The return of the requirement will not be a “silver bullet,” the governor said.
“We could have put the work search requirement in place from the beginning, and we’d be in the same situation today that we find ourselves in,” Scott said. “And I can’t stress this enough: We had this [employee scarcity] problem before we had the pandemic.”