Business & Economy

Unemployment insurance woes continue as DOL acknowledges new PUA issue

The Vermont Department of Labor in Montpelier. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

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Two months after the start of the coronavirus emergency, clinical social worker Jory Innes, of Tunbridge, has still not received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits from the state. 

Innes, an adolescent therapist who works in schools, has called and emailed the Department of Labor numerous times and contacted legislators. She even received additional attention after the department accidentally gave out her phone number to other claimants who were seeking help with their applications. 

Despite direct communication from the Department of Labor’s commissioner’s office after VTDigger’s story about her situation late last month, Innes is still waiting for benefits. 

“Every time I go through an effort to contact people about this, I get excited about it, days go by, and then I become upset, emotionally,” she said. “For the first few weeks, I was able to keep a really bright outlook, because I had never been in a situation like this before, and I thought, eventually the wheels of bureaucracy turn, things fall into place, and your number comes up. But it hasn’t.”  

Two months after the coronavirus emergency closed businesses and put people across the state out of work, there continue to be issues with Vermont’s unemployment insurance system.

While some Vermonters continue to wait to receive any payments at all, others who had started receiving benefits had their payments stop because of a glitch that caused inaccurate payments to go out to thousands of recipients.

The Department of Labor accidentally paid out the federal $600 unemployment benefit to some PUA recipients for weeks before it was supposed to go into effect. According to Michael Harrington, the acting commissioner of the Department of Labor, around 8,000 people were impacted.

In an email to affected PUA recipients Thursday afternoon, the Department of Labor explained that individuals who filed claims before May 1 for the weeks of March 15 or March 22 received the extra weekly federal $600 in error.   

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“The federal $600 benefit did not go into effect until the benefit week of March 29,” the email stated. “This error required the Department to stop issuing benefits until the system’s payment calculation process was corrected and payments were reconciled.” 

The department will withhold a portion of the benefits for the weeks of April 26 and May 30 to account for the error, according to the state’s email. For most recipients, the department will withhold one whole week of benefits and will issue a partial payment for the second week to make up for the $1,200 overpayment. For those who only filed for benefits for the week of March 22, the state will offset $600.

Individuals who did not file before May 1 were not affected by the issue, according to state officials.

Harrington said at the governor’s press conference Friday that the department realized the payment issue during the weeks of April 26 and May 4.

“During those two weeks as we began to see that, we began putting in corrective actions to make sure that the proper calculations were being put in place,” he said. “I think we had originally hoped that we could make some payments this week to those individuals, but still need to make corrections.” 

Michael Harrington
Michael Harrington, interim commissioner of the Department of Labor, discusses the state’s backlog of unemployment claims at a press briefing on April 17, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Department of Labor has received a total of 90,213 unemployment claims as of May 14, with 63,443 eligible for regular unemployment benefits and 25,361 eligible for PUA, Harrington said. 

According to DataUSA, a project of Deloitte, Datawheel and MIT, Vermont had about 312,000 workers in 2018.

The department has paid claims to a total of more than 68,000 individuals; 56,000 people were paid under unemployment and about 12,000 people were paid under PUA. 

KarenMarie Peltier, the owner of Back Inn Time, a bed and breakfast in St. Albans, was affected by the issue. The inn closes for a few months each winter and typically reopens in the spring, Peltier said, which it was unable to do this year because of the pandemic. 

Peltier said after weeks of filing for benefits and calling, she received payments for a few weeks all at once. But Peltier said she did not receive any benefits for the last two weeks. 

Peltier said that she was initially told by the department that the issue was on her bank’s side. When she later called back, she was told that the department was hearing from others with the same issue. On Thursday, Peltier received the email from the department about the federal benefits issue. 

“This pandemic unemployment is a pittance of what we would normally take in to cover businesses expenses in a month, to cover everything,” she said. “So you’re obviously counting on whatever does come in.” 

Brian Norder, a food safety consultant from Morrisville, has been out of work since March. He said the system had been working smoothly for him, and he had been receiving benefits up until this issue started two weeks ago.

“It seemed like a monumental screw-up,” he said. “It seems like this far out after the roll-out seemingly went so well, to find these screw-ups is a little bit disconcerting.” 

He said he has been able get by during the pandemic by cutting back on spending. 

“I’m OK, we’re OK, but I feel for the people who need that for rent or to put food on the table on an immediate, short-term basis,” he said. 

Innes has dipped into money she has saved for retirement and is receiving a pension payment for years of working as a school and state social worker to get by during the pandemic.  

“That is not enough to live on,” she said. “And I do not want to keep taking money out of my retirement account to pay my bills. I would love to put it back, because when I do retire, it’s not going to be there.”

While problems persist, some Vermonters are reporting that they have finally received benefits this week — after weeks of trying.

Vicky Tebbetts, of South Burlington, is an economic development, marketing and communications consultant whose work dried up as her clients closed their doors near the start of the pandemic.

Tebbetts spent weeks attempting to access her benefits after being rejected for saying she was able to telework from home.  

“That’s what I do when my clients are in business,” she said. “So naturally, I answered yes, because that’s in my DNA, it’s what I do … But that made me ineligible for claims.” 

Tebbetts received her first PUA payment Tuesday. 

Jay Bommer, a wholesaler from Brattleboro, received his first PUA payment Thursday after around three weeks of trying to access the benefits. 

Bommer said he called and emailed the Department of Labor and reached out to legislators and the governor looking for answers as to why he had not been approved during the past few weeks, with little success. 

He said he was frustrated by the lack of information for why he had initially been denied the benefits, especially as his wife, who co-owns the business with him, had been accepted. 

“It was extremely frustrating in the middle of this,” he said. “This thing started affecting us back in February, and being self-employed, the first thing you do is don’t pay yourself. So I haven’t been taking any draws out of the business since then, so it’s been a long time coming.”

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Aidan Quigley

About Aidan

Aidan Quigley is VTDigger's Burlington and Chittenden County reporter. He most recently was a business intern at the Dallas Morning News and has also interned for Newsweek, Politico, the Christian Science Monitor and the Republican-American newspaper in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is a 2018 graduate of Ithaca College, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Ithacan, the student newspaper. He is a native of Trumbull, Connecticut.

Email: [email protected]

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