‘I just want this to end’: Vermont workers struggle through unemployment claim process

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“Thank you for calling the Department of Labor. We’re sorry, but all call volumes are high, and we are not able to take your call at this time…”

It’s an automated message familiar to more and more Vermonters these days, as tens of thousands of workers have attempted to file initial claims for unemployment insurance due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The phone lines continue to ring. And as they do, workers’ concerns mount. What if they can’t file their claim before the weekly deadline?

Barbara Demeo filed her initial claim on March 31 but has only received a confirmation number in the past week and a half. When she filed her claim, the system initially told her that her Social Security number was invalid. 

“They can’t punish me for not being able to get through,” said Demeo, of Rutland. “I just want this to end.”

Demeo is hardly alone.

The Vermont Department of Labor has processed roughly 65,000 claims over a “crushing few weeks,” Interim Commissioner Michael Harrington told members of the Legislature on Friday afternoon. But the overwhelmed system has thousands of cases unresolved and more piling up each day. 

The reason, Harrington said, is that about 50% of claims result in one issue or another that requires further one-on-one assistance before qualifying for payment.

“During normal times it works well to make sure that those people who are truly deserving of benefits are getting benefits,” Harrington said. “But in a time like COVID-19 it just quickly overwhelms the department with claims that have issues attached to them.”

Since the recent surge in claims began, the state has issued an estimated 41,000 payments totaling $25.8 million, Harrington said. Vermont’s unemployment insurance trust fund balance stood at $486.6 million as of Thursday.

For more:What kind of financial assistance can Vermont workers receive?

What Vermont is doing to handle the increase in claims

The Department of Labor has taken steps to tackle the surge in people seeking benefits.

On Friday it announced a voluntary, alphabetized claim-filing schedule for each week (details below) in an effort to balance the volume of calls over across the week.

Unemployment insurance staff already had adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach to fielding calls with 25 to 30 people working 10-hour days in the call center.

The department has since launched what Harrington called “special teams” to tackle specific issues Vermonters face in the claim-filing and fulfillment process. The staffing for these groups comes from several different organizations, including Green Mountain Power, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Tax Department and workforce development personnel.

That will roughly double the number of people available to deal with unemployment insurance.

“Our No. 1 priority right now is issues-clearing because that’s what is causing people to have to call,” Harrington said. 

In addition, the department is soliciting a third-party vendor to bolster its call service. If vendor takes initial calls, more experienced staff can troubleshoot the follow-up issues. Harrington expected to have a vendor online by April 20.

“The worry about paying bills is growing with each day,” said Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden. “We should be treating it, frankly, just like we are treating hospital beds — with surge capacity so that we hope we don’t need it, but if it’s there we have handled people humanely through what is for some of them the first time they’ve ever suffered this way economically in their lives.”

‘What about my claim?’

On its Facebook page Thursday, the Department of Labor posted answers to frequently asked questions. Among the situations on that page and those posed to Harrington by members of the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee: 

What can be done if Vermonters receive a determination letter but can’t file a claim because their Social Security number isn’t recognized or their PIN doesn’t work? They can file their claim with the initial claims line (877-214-3330). They will not miss out on benefits for any eligible week, even if they could not file. There will be a delay but the benefits will still arrive.

What can be done for those who are self-employed — and may have already received a monetary determination letter showing a $0 benefit? The state is currently implementing a self-employed benefit system. Once the system is online, claims will be retroactive to March 29.

What if Vermonters have not received a monetary determination letter despite filing their claim several weeks ago? There could be an issue attached to the claim and some individuals may be contacted directly by the Labor Department. Anyone who has not received a letter should still file each week — those who cannot access the system are either ineligible or their claim is still processing.

What if Vermonters couldn’t file until now and missed one or more deadlines? How will they get paid for those missed weeks? The assistance line can place those retroactive claims. Once the issue with Social Security and PINs is resolved, this should become easier.

When can people expect to see the $600 weekly federal boost to unemployment insurance? The state began issuing that with its payments on Monday. It is simply added to whatever the state’s determination was for each worker.

What about seasonal workers who have not been able to begin work again? They will be eligible for the federal government’s 13-week extension of benefits as well as the $600 weekly federal boost.

A new way to file and call

Beginning on April 12, the Labor Department will implement an alphabetized system to field calls and claims through their Unemployment Insurance Claims Center.

Based on the first letter of your last name, you will be assigned a specific weekday to file your weekly claim or call the assistance line at (877) 214-3332:

  • Last names beginning with A-E: File claims or call the assistance line on Monday.
  • Last names beginning with F-L: File claims or call the assistance line on Tuesday.
  • Last names beginning with M-R: File claims or call the assistance line on Wednesday.
  • Last names beginning with S-Z: File claims or call the assistance line on Thursday.
  • Friday and Sunday are open days for everyone to file their weekly claims or call the assistance line.

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

Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @eadanforth.

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