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Self-employed Vermonters will have to wait for unemployment benefits

(WCAX)
Published: Apr. 9, 2020 at 6:06 PM EDT
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Coronavirus layoffs are sending unemployment numbers through the roof. In the last three weeks, nearly 17 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. In Vermont alone, the Department of Labor reports almost 72,000 new claims since mid-March.

The economic fallout from the coronavirus is leaving many Vermonters with questions of how to pay rent, bills and put food on the table. Matt Line is the owner of a roofing and construction company. Because he owns his business and doesn't receive a set wage, he's never been eligible for unemployment benefits. "Because I don't have one, they can't assign me a wage for payment," Line said.

After Congress passed the federal coronavirus relief package, Line called the Department of Labor for answers. Like many Vermonters, all he could get was a recorded message.

After hundreds of tries, he eventually got through, only to find out that he's one of thousands still waiting for the state to roll out federal benefits. "The discouraging part of that was after the hour on hold, finding out that there was no help," Line said.

"The economic uncertainty that this pandemic has caused is very real to too many Vermonters and we know that the best way to help them is to get them the money that they need," Gov Phil Scott said Wednesday.

But there are still technical challenges. Top labor officials admit up to half of the claims contain errors that need to be worked out over the phone.

The state says it's working on new ways to reduce the volume of people calling by setting up virtual town halls to answer questions for many at once. The state is also setting up more phone lines for Vermonters to establish unemployment claims. Governor Scott says 45 employees from other branches of state government are pitching in to answer phone calls. Additionally, staff from Green Mountain Power and Efficiency Vermont have chipped into answering calls on behalf of the labor department.

The Labor Department is also setting up a new system from scratch to accommodate the self-employed. Federal labor data shows Vermont has a total workforce of about 340,000, but labor officials say it's tough to tell how many are self-employed because there's no set definition.

But Line says his financial problems can't wait. His lease is up soon and worries about his future. "The concern is does this come back in the fall? Do I get laid off again? How do I afford rent?" he said.

Labor officials plan give an update Friday on the state's efforts to fix the backlog. In the meantime, they say the federal benefits won't be available for at least two more weeks.

Federal labor data shows Vermont has a total workforce of about 340,000, but labor officials say it's tough to tell how many are self-employed because there's no set definition.

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