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Scott Promises Relief For Jobless Vermonters Snagged In Unemployment Backlog

Signs saying we can do this and Vermont Strong and Love.
Sarah Priestap
/
For VPR
Colorful signs with words of encouragement for students and passers-by are displayed in front of the Tunbridge Central School on April 14. Gov. Phil Scott authorized the state treasury to issue $1,200 checks to Vermonters stuck in the unemploymen backlog.

With more than 30,000 jobless Vermonters still waiting for their first unemployment checks, Gov. Phil Scott has authorized the state treasury to begin issuing $1,200 checks to people stuck in the backlog.

Nearly 80,000 Vermonters have filed for unemployment over the last month, and Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington apologized Friday for his department’s inability to process the unprecedented volume.

“I want to tell Vermonters I’m sorry, and we’re sorry," he said. "We recognize the situation we’re in, and the struggle that many are going through."

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Harrington added his apologies will do little to pay rent or put food on the table, however. And Scott said the 34,000 people with pending claims will receive advance payments of $1,200 if the Department of Labor hasn’t processed their claim by the end of Saturday.

Scott and Harrington said they’ve also decided to sidestep the federal regulations they blame for long delays in the claims processing system.

Harrington noted the federal rules were built to protect the system from fraud, but that they often “require significant work up front to adjudicate issues before payments can be made.”

“They are incredibly rigid and limit our ability to act quickly, and sometimes as quickly as we need or even want in these unprecedented times,” Harrington said. “And that’s why these measures we’ve taken, and will take over the next few days, will push and may at times even veer aside and outside federal guidelines to help Vermonters ... quickly.”

First businesses allowed to reopen

Scott’s pledge to deliver relief to the newly unemployed came as he made the first step Friday toward reopening the Vermont economy.

Scott said he’s lifting his business-closure order, effective April 20, for one- to two-person crews in “construction or similar trades,” so long as those workers maintain six feet of distance and wear cloth masks. He said he’s also lifting the closure order for “low- or no-contact professional services,” including appraisers, realtors and attorneys.

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Scott is also allowing farmers markets to open, beginning May 1. He said the Agency of Agriculture is in the process of drafting operational regulations for markets that choose to open.

“I don’t want to give the false impression that this is going to be the traditional farmers market where people come and gather and it’s an event,” Scott said. “This isn’t an event. This will be to get your goods and move along.”

Case growth rate slows

Scott said the decision to slowly “open the spigot” on the Vermont economy is driven by new modeling projections that suggest Vermont has turned the corner on new coronavirus cases.

The governor said the daily growth rate in new cases has averaged less than 4% over the past 12 days, and Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak said the seven-day average rate fell from 9% last week to 2% this week.

“It is now safe to assume that we have reached our peak for new confirmed cases in Vermont,” Pieciak said.

Pieciak warned, however, that despite the decline in new cases, “the virus is considerably more pervasive in Vermont than it was at any other point during the pandemic.”

More from VPR: Vermont's COVID-19 Modeling And What It Means For The Weeks Ahead

“And relaxing our social distancing measures too quickly, or not continuing our collective good work of following those guidelines and following the hygiene guidelines, has the potential to quickly jolt us back toward a much more severe scenario,” Pieciak said.

Scott said that specter of another spike in COVID-19 cases will loom over Vermont’s economy “for the foreseeable future.” And he said Vermonters shouldn’t expect a return to the status quo until scientists develop a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

“Because the reality is, until we do have the vaccine, we’re still going to have this virus among us,” Scott said.

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