As the COVID-19 pandemic causes more and more Vermont businesses to shut down or reduce hours of operation, thousands of people are likely to be filing new unemployment claims with the state, and Vermont’s unemployment rate is expected to balloon to levels not seen since the 1930s.
To accommodate the spike in filing, the state Department of Labor has added a new electronic form for filing initial unemployment claims, tripled the staff at its unemployment claims center, and added Saturday hours (9 am to 3 pm).
Meanwhile, the Legislature is working hard on emergency legislation to broaden eligibility for unemployment insurance that would potentially provide coverage not only for those laid off but for those who left work because of the crisis to care for children, or is self-isolating because a family member has been diagnosed with COVID-19, among other things.
The legislation may also protect employers from being hit with higher unemployment insurance payments if layoffs are due to specific COVID-19–related situations. In normal times, layoffs can adversely affect employer unemployment insurance “experience ratings.”
However, lawmakers are also weighing the impact on the state’s $500 million unemployment trust fund, which could be reduced by 60 to 70 percent by the crisis. “It is not an endless pot of money and the more options we provide, the less benefits there actually are and the less amount of time they will actually last,” acting Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said last Thursday, according to a report on VTDigger.
Vermonters are apparently well aware of the unemployment situation. Online searches for the term “laid off” are soaring, according to a March 20 Wall Street Journal email newsletter. It said that among the states, Vermont showed the fifth highest interest in those search words.
On March 17, the state handled 500 initial unemployment claims, up sharply from its normal intake of 80 to 100 claims a day, according to Harrington, and the numbers are expected to keep increasing.
With widespread layoffs taking place, especially in the service sector, former state economist Art Woolf predicted that by the end of April or May about 28,000 Vermont workers will lose their jobs. Vermont’s unemployment rate will spike from the current 2.4 percent to nearly 10 percent by then, higher than it was at the peak of the Great Recession, he wrote.
Congress has been working on its own legislation to help workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic. Last week, Congress passed and the President signed a new law expanding paid sick leave and family leave to as long as three months for employees of companies with fewer than 500 employees.
At presstime, Congress was close to passing a $2 trillion aid package that would send $1,200 per adult and $500 for most children to Americans below certain income levels.