By MIKE DONOGHUE
Islander Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- The Vermont state treasury issued $1,200 checks on Monday to 8,384 Vermonters because the Department of Labor failed to meet a mandatory deadline from Gov. Phil Scott to get caught up on Unemployment Insurance claims sparked by the deadly COVID-19 virus.
Gov. Scott said he delivered the envelopes to the state mailing center shortly before his Monday press conference so the money can get to needy Vermonters who have been frustrated for several weeks by an inability by the Labor Department to get claims settled.
A frustrated Scott had announced last Friday that if Interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington and his staff failed to clear by Saturday night all the pending UI claims, the state treasurer would be directed on Sunday to issue $1,200 checks for each Vermonter still waiting.
State Treasurer Beth Pearce said on Monday several members of her staff worked on Sunday to make sure the checks could be issued and hit the post office on Monday.
Scott made clear the $1,200 would not be considered a full payment, but rather a partial installment designed to help Vermonters cover needed expenses. Scott said the exact amounts owed each person would be sorted out in the coming weeks.
Many Vermonters, hit by layoffs and the Stop Work order by Gov. Scott, have been unable to pay their mortgage or rent, buy food for their families, make installment payments for their car, buy gasoline, pay utilities and other monthly bills. The impact on each family further spreads to Vermont businesses where they work and shop.
Harrington reported last Friday his department is receiving hundreds of thousands phone calls -- up to 600,000 -- per week. Vermonters have been complaining for several weeks about the inability to get connected with the Labor Department to file for unemployment compensation, to ask questions or resolve claims. Phone calls are going unanswered, placed on permanent hold or getting lost, Vermonters have reported.
Harrington said he did not know how many people were represented by all the “pings.” He said some pings may include robocalls that are now blocked.
The Islander and other media outlets are getting many complaints from people unable to reach the Labor Department or settle pending issues.
“Getting through to claims line (is) a full time job. Literally thousands of calls and no success,” one frustrated reader wrote Friday to The Islander. “Both of us – one on cell phone and the other on land line – nonstop all day for a week. No success. Frustrating.”
Harrington said on Monday a new outside contract, which could cost up to $2 million, will allow for the call center to have up to 150 people on the phone. There had been 15 call takers before COVID-19, he said.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero had suggested the department use and train some of the 150 state representatives, who are getting paid, to handle some of the incoming calls or to ease the logjam. Harrington told reporters he did not act on the offer.
Harrington did say state legislators are sending in cases that they have been notified and he is directing them to the intake center.
During one legislative committee conference call last week, several expressed frustration with the repeated complaints from their constituents each week. As the weeks go on some frantic calls include cussing by the frustrated taxpayers, noted one legislator, who acknowledged understanding their feeling.
Under questioning Harrington on Friday admitted he has not worked at the call center to hear concerns first hand from the frustrated Vermonters.
Harrington also responded that he had given no thought to stepping aside in favor of somebody that might be able to better address the logjam.
Except for the Labor Department, Gov. Scott and the rest of his cabinet have been getting high grades for their extra work over the past 5 or 6 weeks on the deadly COVID-19 virus.
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