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Vt. labor officials report spike in new unemployment claims

(WCAX)
Published: Mar. 26, 2020 at 4:24 PM EDT
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Unemployment numbers in Vermont and the rest of the country have spiked as businesses close and workers are laid off.

Preliminary data from the Vermont Department of Labor last week reported up to 15,000 new unemployment claims. Those numbers were before the governor implemented Wednesday's stay at home order, so we can expect those numbers to continue to rise.

Vermont's tourism and hospitality sectors have been clobbered by the coronavirus. At Maria's Bagels in Barre, owner Dustin Poitras says he had to lay off about half a dozen workers -- half of his staff -- to stay afloat.

"I cut my high school kids, I cut my kitchen staff, and its just currently trying to figure out how this is going to play out," Poitras said.

Like countless businesses, Poitras is uneasy about a path forward and is having to think outside the box, incuding selling ingredients to other businesses, to stay open. "I've tried to cut down so we can survive and make our costs a little lower," he said.

The workers Poitras laid off are some of millions who lost their jobs because of COVID-19. Across the country, over 3.25 million people filed unemployment claims.

State officials say new measures passed by the Legislature and a federal $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package should provide some relief. "It's only one piece of the pie, but it's a good first step and it sounds like there is much more to come thereafter," said Vt. Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington.

The federal government's new pandemic unemployment assistance program expands who's eligible for benefits. And the Vermont Legislature has expanded eligibility for people who have to stay home and care for a loved one. But still, self-employed and independent contractors are not covered by state unemployment benefits because they don't pay into the system.

"This puts us in a very tough position, where we want to support Vermont's small economy and small businesses, but also trying to adhere to the system which was put in place, which was borne on the backs of tax paying employers," Harrington said.

But there is some relief for small business owners in the federal package in the form of small business loans. Poitras says he's one of the lucky ones that's fallen into the state's essential business category and can stay open. "We're trying to stay strong and be consistent," he said.

Harrington also says the state is still working through the backlog of unemployment applications and hopes to be fully caught up by Friday.

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