Self-employed Vermonters can now apply for federal benefits

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FAIRFAX, Vt. (WCAX) Upwards of 4.4 million Americans filed new unemployment benefit claims last week. That means that over the past five weeks more than 26 million Americans filed for unemployment. About one-in-six American workers have now lost their jobs since mid-March, by far the worst string of layoffs on record.

As the state of Vermont makes progress processing 80,000 unemployment claims, a new group of Vermonters are now eligible -- people who own their own businesses can now file for benefits under the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Thousands of Vermonters are eligible for unemployment, including small business owners like Brad and Jacquie Schwartz, the owners of The Inn at Buck Hollow Farm in Fairfax.

Like thousands of others, their business took a big hit when the governor suspended lodgings like hotels and bed & breakfasts. "Everything stopped. Everything stopped both here and the antique business," Brad Schwartz said.

The couple have never been eligible for unemployment insurance because they don't pay into the system. But under the PUA program, they and 40,000 other Vermonters are now eligible.

But just 24 hours into the new system, Schwartz says he's already run into problems. "On the web it said you should have received an email with instructions on how to complete your application. There was no email," he said.

Michael Harrington, Vermont'e interim labor commissioner, says the new system designed just for the PUA is more reliable and user friendly than the state's decades-old computer that handles regular unemployment claims. But he says some may run into errors because these new claims are nuanced.

"Even overnight, we had 3,000 people apply, so the app is working," Harrington said.

Even though the governor is starting to ease restrictions on some workers, Harrington says people should still apply because they may be eligible retroactively from when they stopped working. "If you apply for this new system today and you are fully eligible and you still file your weekly claims, you can receive benefits as early as next week," Harrington said.

But like many Vermonters who have run into roadblocks or long wait times with labor department phone lines, Schwartz says he'll believe it when he sees it. "It may be okay for us because we can probably ride it out, but there's a lot of people who, if they get their money two weeks from now, - it's too late," he said.

It's unclear what effect COVID-19 will have on the economy and unemployment numbers in the coming months, but Harrington says that they're hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Labor officials Thursday held a town hall about the program, how to apply, and who it includes.

PUA benefits are calculated based on reported prior earnings and will provide for lost wages and give an additional $600 per week. Click here for more information about PUA and eligibility.