Islander Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- Gov. Phil Scott said Friday that he is going to start lifting his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order to allow for the gradual return of small groups of employees – one or two person operations – on Monday and is working on farmers markets resuming on May 1.
The first step comes as Interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington reported 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 in touch with the Labor Department to file for unemployment compensation, ask questions or resolve claims. 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.”
Under questioning Harrington admitted he has not worked at the call center to hear concerns first hand from the frustrated Vermonters.
Harrington also said he has declined to take up an offer by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero to have 150 state representatives, who are getting paid, to handle some of the incoming calls or to ease the logjam when they have free time.
Harrington also said he had no plans to step aside in favor of somebody that might be able to better address the logjam.
Except for the Labor Department, Scott and the rest of his cabinet have been getting high grades for their work over the past 5 or 6 weeks on the deadly COVID-19 virus.
Scott did say he gave Harrington until late Saturday night to get the backlog resolved. If that fails, Scott said he has directed the state beginning Sunday to cut $1,200 checks for each Vermonter with an unresolved claim in recent weeks. Scott said the state will settle up later on the final claims.
Scott said in a news release that he has directed the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to issue guidance authorizing outdoor businesses and construction operations with crews of two or less and some single-person low contact professional services, such as attorneys, realtors, appraisers and others, to operate if specified safety requirements can be met.
He also is giving a green light for municipal clerks that closed their government offices to resume public hours. A large number of municipal clerks have continued to do their work behind locked doors. Drop boxes for tax payments, dog license renewals and other requirements were used. Now the clerks are allowed to deal with one customer at a time, Scott said.
The state’s latest study shows the growth rate in new COVID-19 cases has averaged below 4% for the last 12 days, the rate at which cases double has slowed dramatically, and the number of people requiring hospitalizations remains stable.
Scott also is giving Farmer’s Markets the go ahead to resume on Friday May 1. He said the Agency of Agriculture will develop guidelines so farmers can sell their products. The governor hinted that opening weeks may not be the traditional gatherings with neighbors congregating. It may be more like curb service now offered by local general stores.
The governor said the was willing to begin turning the spigot because Vermonters have taken the COVID-19 virus seriously and stayed at home as requested.
“We’re seeing some promising results and continue to trend below even the best-case scenarios predicted in recent forecasting. This is all a result of the hard work and sacrifice of Vermonters across the state, and I can’t thank you enough,” Scott said.
“These forecasts show we can continue to slow the number of new COVID-19 cases if we continue to stay vigilant, meaning staying home, avoiding large gatherings, staying six feet away from others, using a cloth face covering when in public and washing our hands,” the Governor added. “But what these trends also show is that with the right precautions, we can take small steps to get more Vermonters back to work and avoid a spike in cases that would put lives at risk.”
Gov. Scott outlined a measured, phased approach to reopen the economy - balancing the need to improve overall social and economic wellbeing with the need to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 outbreaks.
The order, and a corresponding guidance memo from ACCD, detail specific measures for those businesses authorized to reopen to ensure continued social distancing. Applying these measures, it also clarifies guidance to allow more retail operations to operate through phone-in or online ordering, and curbside pickup or delivery.
The Governor also outlined five principles, developed in collaboration with the Vermont Department of Health, the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), ACCD and others, which will guide the state’s Restart Vermont planning and decision-making process. They are:
“Preventing outbreaks and limiting the spread of COVID-19 is the only way to avoid future business and social disruption,” Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said in her memo to Vermont businesses.
“The success of this phased restart will depend in large part on the ability of employers and employees to adhere to the public health, safety and social distancing measures essential to limiting the spread of illness.”
The administration will continue to update the public on the RestartVT planning process as details and next steps are determined.