More people answering Vt. unemployment calls, but problems persist

Published: May. 7, 2020 at 5:39 PM EDT
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Vermont's unemployment problems persist. The labor department added more call-takers but some Vermonters are still struggling to get their questions answered. Our Calvin Cutler spoke with a worker who is one of the thousands still waiting for financial relief.

Brannan Saunders is a self-employed contractor in Rockingham and he's going on seven weeks without a paycheck.

"I work for a lot of elderly people around here and they don't feel comfortable yet having people on their property, which is understandable," Saunders said.

Saunders would return to work but he's a single father and can't find child care. He estimates he's owed about $6,000. He's been able to get through to the Department of Labor's call center, run by the company Maximus, but he's still stuck.

He called once again on Thursday only to hear that they couldn't work out his PUA claim or reach a supervisor.

"You're not even close to being a Vermont resident you're being paid to take my personal information and telling me you can't help," Saunders said to a call-taker from Maximus.

"Yes, your description is 90% accurate," she replied.

Maximus is a call center based in Virginia that uses recruitment and staffing agencies across the country.

Interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says the department is bringing as many people on board as possible to take calls so Vermonters aren't bounced out of the waiting queue. He says as they bring more call center workers online, the state has to find time to train them.

"We are essentially onboarding people and then expecting them to have expert knowledge in the complex federal programs in a matter of hours or in a day or two," Harrington said.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program is for the self-employed and other workers in Vermont who traditionally aren't eligible for unemployment. Now, more than 8,000 who qualify won't receive their first checks for another week.

And while some are not getting enough help, others are getting too much. A new update to the PUA system will put a stop to that.

"The risk is we would actually issue payments that would inadvertently overpay people and then cause us to have to put those people in overpayment," Harrington explained.

As the state makes progress working its way through the unemployment backlog, Saunders says he's still waiting and his patience is running thin.

"We're paying these people a lot of money for these people to answer the phones and tell people they can't help," he said.

The Department of Labor will have some 200 people answering the phone and taking information next week. They're looking to grow that number to 400 in the coming weeks.