Coronavirus: Months into pandemic, unemployment claims continue to frustrate Vermonters

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Like many Vermonters these days, William Belville has spent the last several months calling the Department of Labor.

In March, the Washington resident was in the final steps of getting a part-time job as an auto parts delivery driver. Everything seemed set, until the manager he spoke with told him the company was stopping its hiring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belville went to apply for unemployment benefits, but issues tied to his account predating the pandemic popped up. He would have to have his case resolved in by an appeals judge before he could receive any aid.

Now, nearly four months later, Belville has found little luck with the system, calling up as high as the offices of Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Bernie Sanders for help. Despite fighting for an appeal on issues he faced over the last year, he’s not sure when he can expect the thousands of dollars in weekly benefits that have accumulated.

People with multiple sources of income or side gigs, part-time workers, or those who have been furloughed multiple weeks often have the most frustrating cases.

“It’s almost like they’re making it so impossible that you give up and just walk away,” said Belville. “I’m afraid if that kind of thing is happening to me, it’s happening to others.”

Inconsistent results in an antiquated system

“We’re still seeing some really big barriers to people accessing the benefits they need,” said Jill Krowinski, majority leader in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Long wait times on the phone, inconsistent answers from call center staff and a slew of other issues have plagued the constituents who have contacted her and other House members.

Vt. unemployment: Around 2300 claims still waiting to be settled

In late April, Krowinski and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson announced a new assistance tool that would support Vermonters with ongoing case issues. Claimants with issues could contact their local legislator and have their complaints filed through a representative at the Department of Labor.

As soon as the assistance tool went live, there was a collective back load of roughly 2,300 cases among the legislators, Krowinski said. A portal system was created to streamline the process further. But over two months later, despite a decline in call volume, issues persist.

“The [unemployment] system is not easily adaptable to those kinds of situations,” said Marybeth Redmond, representative for Chittenden 8-1 district.

While noting that unemployment insurance is based on federal and state guidelines and that some aspects, like the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, are brand new, the labor department needs to improve its “face-to-face frontline communication with Vermonters,” Redmond said.

“[Vermonters] have paid into these systems for years and years and years, and now is the time where government needs to be there for them,” Redmond said. Assigning case numbers to issues or mandating highly trained staff members return calls would ensure people aren’t lost in the system.

“Who are all the people that just gave up?” Redmond asked. “Who couldn’t navigate it?”

Contradictory, incomplete information slowing the process

Labor Department officials have noted in the past that they conduct routine training with call center staff to ensure they have a strong grasp on the UI and PUA systems.

For more:Vermont workers face unemployment benefits delays during coronavirus

“There are times where the information doesn’t always match up, or people get different answers,” said Michael Harrington, commissioner of the state’s Department of Labor, during a news conference Friday.

“Many times, due to the complex nature of the program, the information being provided is either contradictory or incomplete,” Harrington said, “and that also can slow the process.”

Developing expertise in the multiple variables and steps within the UI system would generally take years, Harrington said, but since March, new trainees are learning “in a matter of weeks.”

Claimants with complex issues are added to an “escalation sheet,” at which point Labor Department officials with more knowledge are asked to follow up with that person’s case.

$600 boost set to end in July

Calls for greater transparency and robust changes to the UI system come as many claimants anticipate a big loss in aid. An extra $600 in weekly benefits provided by the federal government is set to end July 31, a worry for many who remain out of work. 

Belville, who is still owed money dating back to March, has tried to be understanding. Amid the confusion and frustration, he often finds a laugh or two with the staff who answer his calls. But the ongoing wait times, inconsistent answers, and calls that are never returned have left people like him in a bind.

Belville’s main hope is that he can begin working soon. The company that froze its hiring told him he could come back. Even if it’s still a part-time position, he said, anything is better than wading through the system for longer.

“I’ll just go to work and just wash my hands of this,” Belville said.

Contact Ethan Bakuli at (802) 556-1804 or ebakuli@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @BakuliEthan.

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