How VT Labor Dept adjusted to an overflow of claims — and what is ahead?

As businesses laid off employees at the start of the pandemic shutdown, Vermonters complained of mixed messages they received from call center agents at the state’s Department of Labor. Many were in need of clarity about how and when they could receive financial assistance to support them. Through the process, some gave up, leaving their issues unresolved. 

Training issues and claim backlogs appear to have plagued staffers months into the pandemic, even as the state’s labor commissioner assured the public and state officials that issues were being resolved.

Are changes necessary to the unemployment insurance system particularly in a state that, prior to the pandemic, was recognized for having one of the state’s low unemployment rate?

The Vermont Department of Labor, pictured in February 2017.

Changes to the unemployment filing system

In response to ongoing complaints from claimants and state officials, the Labor Department says it had made adaptations to the unemployment insurance system, but not major overhauls.

“We’ll never be a fully automated system, but wherever possible we’re trying to streamline the process,” Michael Harrington, commissioner for the Labor Department, told the Free Press.

“We try to do different parts of the process virtually or online.”

Vermonters routinely filed initial claims through the department’s phone lines, a process that was not nearly as taxing for the staff as it became during the pandemic. Weekly claim filings, however, were conducted online, as well as over the phone.

Now those same steps can be completed through an online portal created in response to the pandemic. Various parts within the system, however, specifically the adjudication process in which the department investigates a person’s eligibility for benefits after filing a claim, “require a human touch,” Harrington said.

One particular solution for longstanding claim issues gained a lot of attention as state legislators spoke openly about their concerns with the ongoing claim issues their constituents had.

In late April, Vermont Legislature leaders announced a new assistance tool that would support Vermonters with ongoing case issues. People with claim issues could contact their local legislator and have their complaints filed through a representative at the Department of Labor.

“Legislators are still hearing from constituents but the requests for help has gone down,” Jill Krowinski, house majority leader for the legislature and co-creator of the tool, stated in an email. During the summer, Krowinski and other legislators were asked by the administration to transition from their assistance tool to a state-run “claimant inquiry tool”, overseen by the Labor Department.

“When constituents reach out to us it’s because they have tried the [administration’s] tool and haven’t heard back, that’s when we come in and reach out to the Commissioner directly.”

For more: Ongoing unemployment claim issues frustrate Vermonters

Through the “claimant inquiry tool”, if a person is unable to get their issue resolved, a representative from the claim assistance center would submit an “escalation ticket” that would move that flagged claim further down the process. 

The inquiry tool, alongside the use of call center agents, will “stick around for a long time,” Harrington said. 

Call center agents back up Labor Department staff

In April, Vermont signed a contract with Virginia-based contract vendor Maximus to hire the company’s remote agents to “answer questions, support initial claims processing, and support the adjudication of claims,” according to a company news release.

The contract with Maximus will most likely be extended through next April, according to the deal’s terms. Vermont’s labor department has gone from as many as 400 contracted Maximus call center agents in April and May of this year, to roughly 60 to 80 agents now.

Months later, in late August, Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington announced that a new team of fact finders, comprised of 20 Maximus call agents, would be tasked with supporting department officials in investigating claims flagged with an issue.

“For all intents and purposes it has expanded our capacity to turn the curve on claims that are in adjudications,” Harrington said.

“If we need to expand we will, but right now we’re still multiple weeks into the program and so we really want to get a core team in place before we start adding in additional [investigators].”

Forecasting upcoming employment trends

As national news coverage looks ahead to a third wave of COVID-19 moving into winter, the prospects of a return to normalcy are still a far ways off.

Increasing travel restrictions, as well as the potential for COVID-19 related business closures due to the cold weather and revenue losses, may contribute to more unemployment claims.

As of Oct. 29, there are upwards of 20,000 continuing claims being filed through both the regular unemployment insurance and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (for self employed workers) benefit programs. 

“Opening up the spigot isn’t going to necessarily bring all those jobs or put all those people back to work,” Gov. Phil Scott said in a news conference on Oct. 20.

“With the travel issues that we’ve talked about, I don’t see that there’s going to be increased labor force participation over the next 2-3 months.”

Seasonal workers may soon enter into a slightly different unemployment insurance system than last year. One of the department’s priorities moving into winter is communicating with employers ahead of seasonal layoffs about the transition to online initial claims so recently unemployed workers are able to self-file.

Although the commissioner can identify the season workers as the most immediate challenge, the longer road ahead is less certain to predict.

Vermont in terms of its unemployment insurance trust fund, fairs better now than it did during the Great Recession. At the time, Vermont was forced to borrow money from the feds in order to provide benefits to unemployed workers.

The trust fund has gone from roughly $500 to $262 million since the pandemic began, nearly half of its allotment in less than a year.

But with the additional federal money the state has received primarily through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, the commissioner is optimistic that Vermont is in a relatively good position. 

“As long as we don’t see another huge spike [in unemployment], we will have enough money in our trust fund to last us until the end of 2021.”

Why a low unemployment rate may not help unemployed Vermonters

Even Vermont’s low unemployment rate, 4.2% as of September, is no indication that the state is out of the woods.

There are currently additional benefit programs for unemployed workers once their traditional 26 weeks of benefits have ended, but those extensions have started to expire.

Earlier in the month, the Labor Department announced the termination of the “High Extended Benefits” program, which prolonged benefits for up to an additional 20 weeks. The end of the program was triggered to the recent drop in the state’s unemployment rate. 

“By the time High Extended Benefits ended the people who were impacted by that in the immediate were people who were filing probably since last fall and winter,” Harrington said.

Other benefit extension programs have deadlines as well. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which adds an additional 13 weeks of benefits, is currently available until the end of the year.

The Extended Benefits program, which provides an extra 13 weeks on top of the PEUC program, could expire if the unemployment rate continues to lower. 

The labor department estimates that so far less than 100 people were impacted by the first benefits extension expiration, but more could come across the same issue in the near future.

“You have all these other people who are still heading down the road and essentially the road has gone from being five miles long to two miles long,” he said. 

“We’ll eventually come to the end sooner than expected.”

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

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