Michael Harrington, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor, speaks at a press conference on March 16, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott announced on Friday that Michael Harrington will permanently lead the Vermont Department of Labor. 

Harrington was named interim commissioner in September 2019 and has overseen the state’s handling of an unprecedented influx of unemployment claims during the Covid-19 crisis. 

“Mike’s dedication to, and effort on behalf of, Vermonters through unprecedented and incredibly difficult times is the type of service and determination I expect from leaders in our administration,” Scott said in a statement on Friday. 

“His experience with the Department will provide valuable consistency and stability as we continue to navigate and recover from the economic impacts of this pandemic,” he added. 

The state, which had been accustomed to handling about 500 unemployment claims per week before the pandemic struck, saw a peak of about 80,000 claims in mid-May. 

The labor department has faced criticism from lawmakers and members of the public during the pandemic, because as the unemployment system became overwhelmed, thousands of Vermonters have struggled to receive benefits. Some are still waiting. 

Harrington said last week that he doesn’t know how many people have yet to receive their first unemployment payments since Covid-19 hit. But he acknowledged that the department is receiving complaints from Vermonters who are still waiting for their first checks. 

Scott said at a Monday press conference that Harrington “has been there through thick and thin” to alleviate the stress on the unemployment system.

“His heart has been in the right place, he’s been putting a lot of hours in, his commitment is unwavering, and I thought he was the right person for the job right now,” Scott said. 

Both Harrington and the governor said while Vermont has struggled to process the spike in unemployment claims, the department has cleared the backlog more quickly than other states. 

“While people did have to wait weeks, in some cases or or even more to get their benefits, comparatively we’ve been on a much faster trajectory than a lot of other states,” Harrington said. 

“It’s certainly been a large situation that we’ve had to manage and it has come with its challenges,” Harrington said. “But even as we’re talking now, we’re looking at what kind of strategies and components do we have to have in place to ensure that we’re even improving the UI system in the long run.”

Harrington said the labor department is actively working on all of the claims from Vermonters who have yet to receive benefits. 

He said claims are still making their way through appeals, adjudication processes. In some cases, the department is waiting on information from other states or to hear back from claimants who aren’t responsive. 

In response to increased demand for benefits, Harrington has also led efforts to staff up the department and hired a private vendor to expand the state’s call-center capacity. 

He also stood up a new system to process claims for self-employed workers and independent contractors, who weren’t eligible for unemployment insurance until April of this year — when federal legislation established the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

The latest data from the department shows that 66,000 of the roughly 72,000 people who been determined eligible to receive benefits are getting payments. And 15,500 workers of the 17,000 who qualify for aid under the PUA system have received benefits. 

Looking ahead, Harrington said that the labor department will be working to help businesses reopen and putting a “huge focus” on getting Vermonters back to work. 

“The world we live in has changed so much in the past three months that we’re going to have to look at ways of doing business differently,” he said.

Before Scott made him interim commissioner of the department last year, replacing Lindsay Kurrle, who is now the commerce secretary, Harrington had served as a deputy labor commissioner since 2017. He previously served as the economic and community development director for the Town of Bennington.

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Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories...