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Federal Pandemic Unemployment Benefits End Sept. 4, And ‘Pretty Much Everybody In The System Will Be Impacted,’ Labor Commissioner Says

restaurant-cubbers-bristol-help-wanted-jobs-vpr-jane-lindholm-20210815.jpg
Jane Lindholm
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VPR
Cubbers restaurant in Bristol posts a "help wanted" sign in August 2021. It's among many businesses looking for workers at a time when three federal unemployment programs launched during the pandemic are set to expire.

The coronavirus pandemic brought with it an economic crisis that led to tens of thousands of Vermonters filing for unemployment. The situation became so severe that programs were extended to offer help to some who had previously not been eligible for traditional unemployment. But those expanded federal unemployment benefits expire Sept. 4.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington about the unemployment benefits that are lapsing, and what it means for Vermonters who have relied on those benefits. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: There are three major changes coming early next month that people collecting unemployment really need to be aware of. Can you give us kind of a brief thumbnail sketch of those big changes? 

Michael Harrington: As you just mentioned, there were three main federal programs.

The first was Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA. [There is a] significant group of people still collecting on that program, [of] about 5,900 [Vermonters].

They also created the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC. This was the federal extension of unemployment benefits to those people who had already collected all of their state unemployment benefits.

More from NPR: These Older Workers Hadn't Planned To Retire So Soon. The Pandemic Sped Things Up

And then finally: the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. It was the supplemental benefit. At the start of the pandemic, it was $600 additional [per week], on top of your base benefit, and now it's $300 [per week] on top of your base benefit.

So, with these programs going away in just two weeks, pretty much everybody in the system will be impacted in some way, shape or form. Individuals on those [federal] pandemic-based programs will lose all of their benefits. And individuals collecting their state unemployment benefits will lose that additional $300 each week.

I'm wondering if any of those numbers have changed since the beginning of the month, and if there's any idea about how many people have found work in this interim? 

The numbers are consistently reducing week over week. As you remember, at one point, we had over 90,000 people collecting benefits in the state of Vermont. That was very early on in the pandemic. There's only 3,600 people — roughly — in that program right now.

Where we aren't seeing as much movement is in the PUA program — the self-employed and independent contractors. At the high point, we had somewhere around 15,000 people on that benefit. We're now down to, as I said, 5,900.

But I'm not naïve to the fact that there are probably people on that program who are continuing to collect the benefit, but also probably doing some work off the radar, under the table, because it's an easy program to file fraudulently in, which we've been combating from the beginning. But it relies on a lot of self-attestation, so I do think there's some of that going on there.

I want to get into that question about people collecting unemployment, and those who feel like maybe that should stop because it's a disincentive. Obviously, the honor system has come into play with a lot of things that are COVID-related these days. 

But before we get to that, the good news here is that there are programs for people looking for work. There are things like virtual job fairs, the Labor Department is conducting resume workshops or practice interviews — things like that. I've always wondered this though, even in non-pandemic times: do those approaches work? And are they working now in helping to get people hired?

They do work. There's a couple different programs, as you mentioned, but we've reopened our local offices to make sure our staff is re-embedded in the community. But we're still providing remote work, or a remote, virtual option, I guess, for individuals who still want to be able to connect with us and maybe don't want to travel, or don't want to meet in-person. And we are allowing in some cases for walk-in services as well.

So, there are a number of different programs out there and they have been proven to work. As long as someone reaches out and connects with us, we're happy to provide them with help and assistance.

"... What have traditionally been the hardest hit communities continue to be the hardest hit communities: Southern Vermont  — Bennington, Windham County  —  as well as the Northeast Kingdom."
Michael Harrington, commissioner of Labor

I want to get back to this question, now, of people who are looking for work. I know it varies job to job, but is there a way to tell, do you think, if the extended unemployment benefits program is discouraging people from seeking work in Vermont?

I don't know about discouraging; it certainly isn't helping.

At the same time, I would also like to assume that the people who are on unemployment are on it for a very good reason. And that these benefits are a lifeline to them.

What we've seen, as you know, [is that] other states have cut off these benefits early [and] they did not report, necessarily, a resurgence of people going back into the workforce following the end of the benefits. Which means, in my mind, that it's likely that these individuals have other contributing factors that are preventing them from going back to work.

More from NPR: Wages Are Going Up — And So Is Inflation. Consumer Prices Have Hit A 13-Year High

Either they’re concerned about their health and safety. Maybe they are struggling with child care. Maybe they are needing to stay at home with a loved one. We do know there are many other factors, and I think that's the challenge we're going to have to figure out as a state: how we can help those individuals return to the workplace safely and comfortably so that they can get back to work.

Driving around the state this weekend, I saw nearly every restaurant that I passed — the good news was, they were open — but maybe the bad news is, every single one I saw had a sign seeking employment, ‘We Are Hiring.’ 

So I'm wondering if there are certain sectors of the Vermont economy that are really still struggling more than others, perhaps, to return to full employment? And would the restaurant service industry be one of those? 

Yeah, you pointed it out, and I think we've all probably driven through our communities and other communities and have seen a lot of businesses that are struggling to find people.

Anecdotally, what we know is that businesses are saying, "It's not for lack of business that I can't open completely," or "I have to have reduced hours, it's because I can't find the workers."

The best thing [the employers] can do at this point is just make sure their vacant jobs are posted in Vermont Joblink. Right now, we have somewhere around 9,000 to 10,000 open jobs in Joblink, which means as individuals are coming off of these benefits, they are able to go right into that system and be connected with an employer.

More from VPR: ‘If I Lose One More Person I Have to Close’: What It Might Take To Fix The Child Care Crisis

And finally, Commissioner Harrington, we reported on the latest unemployment numbers for July last week, Vermont's unemployment rate is down to 3%. That's certainly better than the national average, but it's very different around different parts of the state. What areas of Vermont are still lagging in employment? 

The number itself is a little bit misleading, because it's not necessarily calculated on the number of claimants filing for benefits. It's done by a household survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. So when we look at that 3%, it's not necessarily reflective of the 14,500 people that are still collecting benefits at this point.

But what we are seeing is what have traditionally been the hardest hit communities continue to be the hardest hit communities: Southern Vermont  — Bennington, Windham County  —  as well as the Northeast Kingdom.

But again, it is not just felt by these individual communities. It is a statewide problem, with employers trying to find workers, and people in every community being out of work at the moment.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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