Unemployed and underemployed Vermonters continue to report frustration with the state Department of Labor, saying that the people who take their calls can’t answer their questions.
Even top officials at the department draw a few blanks when asked about the millions of dollars in federal money they are sending to people who have lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.
At his biweekly press conference, Gov. Phil Scott was asked if he is losing confidence in leadership at the labor department. The governor staunchly defended the department and said the problems are the result of a tidal wave of new responsibilities and new claimants for the department, which before Covid-19 had been using a 50-year-old computer system to administer benefits to a few thousand Vermonters each week.
“Let’s take a step back and see where we have come,” said Scott. At one point earlier this year, the department was processing 90,000 unemployment compensation claims. Covid-19 created a “tsunami” of new responsibilities for the labor department, he said.
“There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on, but the pandemic has led us to the point where these are unusual, uncertain times and certainly they are doing the best they can in Labor,” Scott said.
The state labor department had to create a new unemployment insurance program to get money to sole proprietors and the self-employed when the state closed businesses to prevent the spread of the virus. Scott added that when the $600 supplemental weekly unemployment insurance payment — a federal payment also administered by the state labor department — ran out in midsummer, the department was asked to set up a separate system to get $300 payments to claimants, this time using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This is so unusual and overwhelming when you think about the capacity of any department,” he said.
An imperfect fit
As the scale of the pandemic emergency became clear in March, Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act to get money into the hands of individuals and into local economies. State departments of labor were asked to administer that money, and the departments in many states quickly became overwhelmed.
According to Government Technology magazine, 22 million people filed for unemployment insurance nationwide. The magazine reported that, by mid-April, more than half of the state’s unemployment websites had experienced significant outages, including a 16-hour-long crash in Florida.
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The Vermont labor department was overwhelmed with claimants, and expanded the services of an outside contractor that brought on hundreds of call center employees to answer Vermonters’ calls.
The Vermont labor department has now paid out more than $812 million in federal pandemic unemployment insurance compensation, according to the unemployment insurance summary on the department’s website. About 114,000 claimants have qualified for benefits — about one-sixth of the state’s population — and 100,000 have received benefits, the DOL says.
But there are still a lot of frustrated claimants who say their questions aren’t being answered. Most of Bill Luca’s queries are focused on the information he’s getting from the call center, where he said he’s told that nobody knows how to answer his questions, because an outside vendor is handling the latest payment program.
“The ladies and guys who work in the department are trying to do their jobs, but they’re not given the information they need to respond to us,” said Luca, 77. Luca said he had been working the front desk at a hotel before the pandemic, but had a note from his doctor about his diabetes and other conditions that put him at higher risk of Covid-19 complications.
“When I sent in the letter from my doctor about the underlying conditions that prevent me from going back to work, they sent me an email that it would go to adjudication, but said I wouldn’t be paid in the meantime,” said Luca, who lives in Quechee. “I never heard back whether I was approved, and I continue to be paid.”
Confirmation is critical, because if the DOL overpays benefits, it asks for them to be returned. Several Vermonters have said they’re being asked to repay thousands of dollars they’ve received in benefits, but can’t reach someone at the DOL to help them appeal that request.
Asked how much money they’re trying to get back from overpayments, top officials at the DOL have said they don’t know.
“There are a lot of irons in the fire if you will,” said Cameron Wood, division director for unemployment compensation and wages at the Vermont DOL. He, like Scott, noted that officials were forced to create an array of programs from scratch after the pandemic pushed thousands of people onto unemployment. He noted that the DOL is also working closely with employers.
“The focus has been on the processing of benefits and getting money to individuals during the pandemic,” said Wood on a Zoom call Oct. 1. “Overpayments is one of our top priorities, but we’re having to work with our contracted vendor to develop that capability to develop all the functionality that one needs in an IT system to track overpayments, manage recollection of monies, send out bills, send out determinations, etc.
“It is in our backlog of to-do,” said Wood. “It is one of our high priority items to do, but it’s just not there.”
Luca received a reply to a website inquiry Tuesday from Roger Van Tassel, an assistant to DOL Commissioner Michael Harrington, that echoed Wood’s lament.
“Due to the age of the processing system and the limited functionality it provides, I do not have the answers you are looking for,” Van Tassel wrote. “I have requested information from the Unemployment Insurance division that would help answer your questions, but they are waiting on IT to provide them the information. As soon as that information is made available, hopefully I will be able to answer your questions.”
The Vermont DOL, like others around the country, is also trying to combat unemployment insurance fraud. Andrew Miller, who owns Brattleboro Pharmacy, said he received a letter stating that he himself had filed for unemployment insurance, and contacted the state DOL to let them know the claim was fraudulent.
No one at DOL answered his email or calls, he said in an email.
“I ended up emailing my senators and reps and the Lt. Governor and finally got a call back,” Miller said.
Scott on Tuesday said that federal regulations complicate things further for the state.
“These are new guidelines that they keep issuing and obstacles that are put into place that have been very difficult to get through,” he said.
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