MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Thousands of Vermont workers sidelined by the coronavirus have been struggling to get unemployment benefits, or even get the labor department on the phone. But now state officials say think they have a fix to handle the massive influx of claims.
As of Wednesday the state has received more than 70,000 unemployment applications and has paid out over $23 million in benefits. But officials admit they have a long way to go to deal with the backlog.
"We can do better and we will do better," Vt. Acting Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said Friday.
The number of initial claims has dropped off, but there's still an immense pressure on the Department of Labor's phone lines with calls seeking information about where their checks are. Harrington says half of all initial claims have errors such as missing or incorrect information that have to be cleared up over the phone. To handle the volume of claims, the state is rolling out an alphabetized system with times for people to call corresponding to their last name. It will take effect on April 12.
"We are asking that you voluntarily adhere to this call structure so that it doesn't overload our system and crash our system and it doesn't prevent people from getting into our call center," Harrington said.
The state is also beefing up its phone answering capacity by looking to hire a third-party call center, adding 30 operators to answer the phones.
But as an estimated one in five Vermonters file for unemployment, over 20 percent of the state's workforce, Harrington anticipates most of the layoffs will only last for a short period. "In many cases, it will be temporary. It will not be temporary for all," he said.
The future is still unclear for numerous businesses that may not survive until the pandemic is over. Governor Phil Scott says a timetable of which businesses can open and when depends on the state's continuing successful efforts to flatten the curve of the virus.
"If we see that it's not working, then we have to close the spigot a bit more. If we see it's working and we're staying under the capacity of our health care system, then we can open up the spigot," Scott said.
When the state gets back to work, it won't happen all at once. And Harrington says it'll be some time before the unemployment rate goes down. "It certainly won't happen all at once, and I think it will take a while to get to where we were at 2.4%. I just don't see that happening for a while," he said.
Unemployment applications for small business owners and the self-employed could be on the way as soon as next week through the federal pandemic assistance program. Once more applications are in and processed, labor officials expect to see another increase in the unemployment rate.