Business & Economy

Unemployment claims 36 times higher than last year

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Michael Harrington, interim 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

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The Vermont Department of Labor has received 40,000 to 50,000 unemployment claims in the past two weeks.

“That’s the same number of claims that we typically get in a year,” DOL spokesperson Kyle Thweatt said.

Tens of thousands of unemployment claims have yet to be processed, he added. 

The surge is an historic high water mark that surpasses records going back decades.

The official DOL report released Thursday showed 14,633 claims had been processed from Vermonters in the past week — a dramatic surge that represents a 286% increase over the previous week.

Layoffs at hundreds of local companies are a major part of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 epidemic, which has shuttered restaurants, schools and entire businesses as Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has ordered closures to combat its spread.

Interim Commissioner of Labor Michael Harrington told reporters yesterday that "a massive number of individuals out there are doing everything they can, whether it be online or by phone, to contact the department, we recognize that we are working extremely hard to make sure that we are in contact with those people."

Vermont is not alone in its high unemployment numbers. The United States Department of Labor reported 6.6 million processed unemployment claims this week, following another 3.3 million filed last week.

“What it comes down to is, the governor put in the restaurant restrictions at that time, so that’s reflected in the first wave,” Thweatt said. “So there’s an influx coming in.”

It’s still too soon to say for certain how the claims will translate to the total unemployment rate for the month, Thweatt said. Since April numbers only reflect the rate up to mid-March, the full effects of COVID-19 won’t be seen until May.

However, if all of this month’s claimants are truly unemployed, that’d be an estimated 12% to 15% unemployment — the highest rate in at least 44 years, according to Vermont DOL data.

The Vermont DOL also published last week’s breakdown of claims by industry. Over three-quarters of claims for the week of March 21 came from service industry workers, compared to about 44% of claims for the equivalent time period last year.

The labor department has been "overloaded" by claims, Harrington said. 

"We are using an all hands on deck approach," he said at the governor's press conference Monday. "We have reassigned people from other units we have opened up additional phone lines, but I know that even to this day people will call our claim center and are unable to get through."

The labor department is pushing its 30-year-old mainframe system "to the max." 

"It was not designed to take on as many claims in such a short period of time," Harrington said. "So the system is working and we have people who are attending to the system around the clock. But just know that we are doing everything we can with the limitations of the technology that we have. And that's not unique to us. That is most states across the country have old systems that were set up many many years ago."

Harrington said many states have shut down their phone lines completely and have turned to Vermont for advice about how to offer online forms to the public. 

"But again, I know that's a little solace for those people who are struggling to get through to us," he said. "As a department, we've tripled our staff on the phone lines, we have waived work search requirements. We've also shortened that payment process which was typically two weeks or more to six to 10 days, really depending on whether someone is receiving a check or electronic fund transfer."

In addition, he said the department is ensuring that workers who are quarantined, sick, caring for a loved one, or self-isolating at home are eligible for benefits. The new federal law also extends benefits to employers. 

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