Is Vt. unemployment system working for the most complicated cases?

Published: Sep. 3, 2020 at 5:39 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 3, 2020 at 5:57 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s labor department has made significant progress in working through record numbers of unemployment claims caused by the pandemic shutdown. But at any given time there are thousands who still aren’t receiving benefits because their claims are held up by errors or irregularities. Calvin Cutler reports on how the state deals with the most complicated unemployment cases.

Jim Tornquist was a personal care attendant for students in Chester, but the coronavirus forced him out of work in June. He applied for unemployment but was denied because he didn’t have the right documents to show whether he would be returning to the classroom in the fall or had been permanently laid off.

“Because I didn’t have a letter of intent. I didn’t have one, but the system up in Burlington assumed I did because I’m a paraeducator/PCA,” Tornquist said.

He is now in the labor department’s adjudications process, which is intended to screen out ineligible claimants and prevent intentional fraud by making sure unemployment checks go only to those who deserve them. The process involves bringing together the claimant, their employer, and trained legal experts.

“And then we need to work through the process of reviewing the claim, getting fact-finding from the individuals to make a determination whether the person is ineligible or whether the person is eligible,” the department’s Cameron Wood,

Before COVID, there were about 2,500 people in the adjudications cue at one time - that’s with 3% percent unemployment. Now, there are roughly 4,000 people in the process with about 9% unemployment. Labor officials could not say what percentage of adjudications cases are eventually denied, but most people who make it through the process only end up waiting for about 30 days before receiving their checks. Tornquist, who is now coming up on three months, is what they call an extremely rare case.

“I think we have done a good job of helping to streamline the process, get rid of some of the bottlenecks so they can move forward,” Wood said.

But he acknowledges some like Tornquist are still waiting. That’s why the department is beefing up its ability to work through claims. They’re nearly doubling the number of trained adjudicators and using the Maximus call center to collect basic information instead of adjudicators spending time on it and process as many claims as possible.

“We have to ensure that we’re providing due process to both employers and the claimants --because they can be impacted,” Wood said.

Tornquist says he’s owed about $6,000 in benefits as his claim waits in the appeals process and his savings dwindle “Let these poor people go, these poor souls that are really scraping by. Get them out of the way. Get the easy ones out of the way, and then go for the complex ones,” he said.

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