Unemployment Insurance Update - April 18, 2020
My hope in writing this letter is to provide you with an update on the current state of Vermont’s unemployment insurance system, the progress that is being made, and the challenges we face.
This is an unprecedented time that has caused a lot of pain for many Vermonters. Those of us at the Department of Labor are fully aware of this, as many of those impacted are our family members and friends. I, and the dedicated team at Labor, continue to strive each and every day to get as many benefit payments out the door as is physically possible, despite the antiquated system we have and the extremely cumbersome federal regulations we are required to uphold.
I am aware that there have been many questions as to why we just do not bypass this system and simply issue checks. While this seems like a simple solution, there are enormous risks to the state in doing so. I will outline some of these risks a little later on, but please know that if we can do it without hurting Vermonters, we will.
Here is an update as of Saturday, April 18, 2020. Beginning last Thursday, our team was able to successfully manipulate our system to open up past benefit weeks for claimants who had missed a filing deadline. This change allows claimants to file for one missed week per day, while our system processes each new filing overnight. If you have missed multiple weeks, you should be able to get caught up in your filing over the next few days. To do this, please log back into our claimant portal, or try our automated phone line (800-983-2300) to file a back claim.
Also last week, system modifications were implemented to remove issues on claims that had caused the system to stop payment. These issues were temporarily disabled, but not resolved, and should result in claimants receiving their initial week of benefits. These issues are created when a claimant inputs conflicting information between the initial claims application and the weekly certification into the system. Our team will now contact claimants to resolve these issues permanently.
All of this work has resulted in over 20,000 additional claimants being paid their benefits.
Beginning next week, the Department will also launch two new projects. The first is the standing up of another UI call center to be managed by a vendor called Maximus. Maximus has done work with the state since the mid ‘90s. These 50-70 new agents will be on top of an additional 40 state staff that will also be added next week, bringing the total number of staff on our phone lines to more than 150. The second project is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. This is the program that will allow self-employed individuals, and others not eligible for general UI, to receive benefits. This system was built by another vendor the state has used in the past call MTX, which manages a SalesForce solution. Both of these projects are expected to go live next week, and the public will be informed when this occurs. Updates on the PUA program are being posted online, as well as 877-660-7782.
As many of you may have heard, the Governor has asked Labor to get as many people paid as possible by tonight (Saturday), at which point, anyone who opened a claim between March 1 – April 4, but has not received a benefit payment, will receive a $1,200 check from the state. We consider this check to be a prepayment of federal benefits ($600 x 2 weeks) that the person would have normally received through UI. This payment will be applied against future Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit claims for these individuals, but this immediate action ensures that people are not going another week without benefits. Again, we will focus significant time on quality control efforts to safeguard against fraud and the overpayment of benefits, to ensure these benefits remain available to Vermonters.
As you consider these efforts and other possible solutions, please be mindful that the unemployment insurance program is both federally funded, as well as federally regulated. Deviations from the federal requirements come with inherent risks. It is these risks, which are outlined below, that the Department is constantly trying to balance in order to avoid doing more harm than good. Should the U.S. Department of Labor find that the State of Vermont has failed in administering its unemployment insurance program in accordance with federal regulations, it has the ability to impose the following sanctions on the State:
1. the loss of Vermonters’ eligibility for federal benefits such as the $600 federal increase, extended benefits for exhausted benefits, and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance relief for self-employed individuals,
2. the requirement for the state to repay to the federal government, any/all benefits paid under this effort,
3. the withdrawal of UI administrative dollars,
4. the disallowance of expenditures for any/all administrative work performed under this process,
5. the ability to restrict the use FEMA funds to offset cost for this effort, and
6. the suspension of the entire state UI program.
While this will not deter us from finding innovative ways to get benefit payments in the hands of claimants, please know that as Commissioner, I also have an obligation to protect the State of Vermont, as well as people depending on these benefits.
In closing, I would like to thank Vermonters for their strength and courage as the State and the Department work to do what is right for those in need.
Michael A. Harrington
Vermont Department of Labor