Scott gives Saturday deadline to clear unemployment backlog

Published: Apr. 17, 2020 at 6:11 PM EDT
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Thousands of Vermonters are still waiting for their unemployment checks. Now, Governor Phil Scott says the Department of Labor has until Saturday night to clear through the backlog. Come Sunday, those still waiting will get a $1,200 check.

The recorded message about high call volumes on the department's phone line has become all too familiar to thousands of Vermonters, some of them waiting weeks for benefit checks as their bills pile up.

"We are in a desperate situation. We can't pay our bills, we can't feed our families, and we have a stay-at-home order. Well, if you want us to stay at home, you better send us some money," said one man from the Northeast Kingdom.

"It opens at 8:15, so I just start hammering the line at like 8:12," said Richard Elkins of Shelburne.

Elkins on Friday actually got through. "So, call Monday morning and I'll be good to go, maybe?" he responded to the operator on the phone.

Others haven't been so lucky. In an unprecedented move Friday, Governor Scott said the department would cut through federal red tape and work through the backlog of calls to deliver claims. Anyone whose claim hadn't been worked out by Sunday will receive a one-time payment. "I've authorized the treasury to start writing $1,200 checks to send to anyone who is still in need," Scott said.

Like the federal stimulus checks, the money will go straight into claimants' bank accounts. The state will issue the money and perform quality checks afterward.

But sidestepping the process could have negative consequences, such as the federal government rescinding federal benefits, like to additional $600 checks and benefits to the self-employed. "We are doing this but doing this as cautiously as possible," said Michael Harrington, the interim Vermont labor commissioner.

He says the department is also continuing to bring more people online to answer calls and that 90 percent of issues should be worked out in the coming days. The state now has over 100 people answering phones.

As the state works out a way to circumvent federal rules and get Vermonters assistance, Scott said that Vermonters are the top priority. "It's taken a tremendous amount of work to code around those but I think it's worth it because Vermonters deserve better," he said.

When asked at Friday's media briefing if he plans to step down because of the unemployment snafus, Harrington said he hasn't spoken with the governor about it and that his focus is on doing the work and getting benefits to Vermonters.