Thousands of Vermonters still waiting on unemployment checks

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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) It has been a month since Vermont was first rocked by widespread COVID-19 layoffs and many of you are still waiting for your unemployment checks. The state acknowledges thousands are hitting a brick wall when filing for unemployment and they say they're doing their best to work through the backlog. But as our Calvin Cutler reports, as savings dwindle, some are contemplating going back to work to put food on the table.

Many Vermonters are edging upon a financial crisis as families go a month without income and the bills continue to pile up.

"I tried to hang on as long as possible," Andy Bechard said.

Bechard owns Northeastern Contracting in St. Albans. He and his five employees applied for unemployment and then received letters from the state directing them to call the Department of Labor.

Even though Bechard owns a small business, he is eligible because he pays into the unemployment fund. But even with the new alphabetized calling schedule, Bechard says he's stuck.

"I know other people that's filed, too, and I haven't heard of anyone that's gotten in," he said.

Bechard is one of thousands waiting for their benefits with no other income.

The state contends they're making progress and that they finished training 20 more people to take calls.

"It's not as easy as flipping a switch and having an additional 40 people appear who know how to handle UI claims," Vt. Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said.

The department is also actively searching for a third-party call center to take more claims.

Many of the state's labor headaches stem from an outdated 30-year-old computer system. Harrington says building a new one could cost up to $80 million. He also says up to half of the submitted claims have errors.

Reporter Calvin Cutler: How will people know if there is an error on their application?
Michael Harrington: Many of them will receive a letter in the mail that says there is an issue on your claim and you need to contact us. I get how frustrating this is because the system is built to send that letter and instructs people to call that general assistance line.

Many Vermonters have also received error messages from the Department of Labor saying that their pin number or Social Security number is invalid. Harrington says that it's one way to know there is an issue with their claim that needs to be worked out over the phone.

"The other way they'll know there is an issue with their claim is that if they go to log into the claimant portal and it says their pin or their Social Security number is not recognized, it's because the claim is not in the system right now because there is an issue attached to it," Harrington said. "A lot of people are saying, 'Well the system doesn't recognize my Social Security so there must be something wrong with the system,' but really that's the mechanism to say, listen, your claim isn't in the system because we need to resolve this issue."

Harrington says many people are calling to check on the status of their checks, and he urges people to avoid calling the phones lines unless there is an issue that they need to work out. The Labor Department also says the application process for self employed and independent contractors will also be stating in the coming days.

The state is sending out more checks this week. It expects to send out about 25,000. But that's only about one-third of the people who have filed initial claims.

Until he gets through, Bechard is contemplating breaking the governor's executive order and getting his small company back to work.

Andy Bechard: I don't think they can hang on much longer without going back to work. So, I think we're going to have to within the next week or so we're going to go back to work.
Calvin Cutler: Do they have any concerns about retaliation or fines from the state?
Andy Bechard: I would think that they'd take it into consideration as long as we're doing the right thing and not being foolish about it.

There's also been a lot of confusion about the process of applying. Just filing your initial claim does not mean you're going to get paid. You have to still file weekly for the state to send you checks.

Click here for more on filing for unemployment from the Vermont Department of Labor.