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Thousands more claims about to be added to Vermont unemployment mix

(WCAX)
Published: Apr. 16, 2020 at 4:40 PM EDT
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Small business owners and people who are self-employed will soon be able to apply for unemployment benefits-- this as thousands of Vermonters are already struggling to get their benefits through the labor department's existing system.

The state has been working overtime to create a brand new unemployment system for small business owners. But as they bring the new system online, some are concerned the new group will run into the same issue tens of thousands of Vermonters are already experiencing.

Ashley Collier owns Sante Salon in Williston. Since the governor ordered she close her business to curb the spread of COVID-19, she's turned to other means of making a living.

"Taking a ton of online classes, I'm doing curbside delivery for products and just trying to stay as busy as I can," Collier said.

Though she's never been eligible for traditional unemployment, she reached out to the state for guidance on a path forward. Like many, she hit a brick wall.

"Do I apply for the PPP loan? Do I apply for the SBA grant? Do I apply for unemployment? What do I do? What's the best decision for me?" she wondered.

Collier is one of at least 60,000 small business owners in Vermont eligible for new benefits through the pandemic unemployment assistance program.

To deal with the expected call volume, labor leaders say they're rolling out a new 800 number for the self-employed.

"That would provide daily updates to individuals and just another avenue for them to call and find out whether there is any change for them or the self-employed program," said Michael Harrington, the interim Vermont labor commissioner.

The state is in the process of hiring a third-party call center to work through the backlog.

This week, the Department of Labor rolled out a plan to handle more calls, including an alphabetized call-in schedule and 25 more people to answer the phones.

But they continue to be flooded with emails and calls from people who can't get through. And questions still remain on how the state will handle thousands of additional claims.

State leaders remain optimistic about the new steps.

"And if that doesn't prove to be the case in the next two to three days, we're going to consider other methods, because Vermonters are in desperate need and we have an obligation to help out," said Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont.

Exactly how is unclear.

Until then, the financial future of thousands of small business owners, such as Collier, depend on the benefits.

"But, of course, I don't have any income coming in and I won't have income coming in until I can be back behind the chair," she said.

The governor says he's confident the new measures to handle call volume will work. But if they don't, the state will explore other avenues of getting people their money in the coming days.

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