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Vermont expands unemployment eligibility

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MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has signed legislation that expands unemployment eligibility provisions for workers and offers relief to employers affected by the novel coronavirus epidemic.

The governor also said his administration is prepared to pursue a stay on foreclosures and evictions, if necessary. "[We] haven't seen the need at this time," he said. "But if we have to make this change, we will."

The new law, H. 742, extends Vermont unemployment benefits to include those who have left employment to self-isolate or quarantine because they have been diagnosed with, exposed to, or are experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or if they belong to a specific group of people identified as high-risk if exposed to the virus.

Those who have left employment because of an "unreasonable risk" that they could be exposed to the virus at their workplace can also be eligible for benefits under the legislation.

The bill also expands unemployment benefits to those who are caring for a family member who is sick with, exposed to, or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, and to those who are caring for a family member who had an unreasonable risk of exposure to the disease at their place of employment.

These benefits have also been extended to those who've left their jobs to care for a child under 18 because that child's school or child care has been closed, or the child care provider is unavailable, due to the public health emergency related to COVID-19.

Scott signed the bill into law on Monday.

In the past two weeks, the Department of Labor has processed more than 30,000 initial unemployment claims, more than it does in a typical year, accroding to Michael Harrington, acting commissioner of the department.

Harrington said he wanted to acknowledge those who have lost employment due to COVID-19, and people who are struggling to get through to the Department of Labor amid many callers.

He said workers are doing everything they can to process claims.

"Every state is overloaded in some way, shape or form," he said. "We are using an all-hands-on-deck approach."

Harrington said those who are having trouble getting through to the department won't have their benefits adversely impacted because of it.

"I promise that those who are eligible for benefits will receive their benefits," he said.

Vermont, like other states in the region and across the country, has also taken other steps to assist Vermonters feeling the economic impact of COVID-19, including tripling unemployment staff and adding an electronic form to establish an initial unemployment claim.

The state has also shortened the length of time to receive benefit payments from about two weeks to 6-10 days, Harrington said, and has temporarily waived the work search requirement for all filers, not just those with a specific return to work date.

People who had existing unemployment claims at the time of COVID-19 will likely remain eligible for benefits if they contract the illness while currently filing, or if they are on a seasonal layoff and their return to work has been changed due to the pandemic, according to the Vermont Department of Labor website.

Those who opened a claim within the last 12 months and are looking to re-establish a claim for benefits as a result of COVID-19 will need to re-open their claim, according to the site.

The United States saw a record number of unemployment claims — 3.3 million — the week of March 20, amid the widespread economic shutdown caused by COVID-19, the Associated Press has reported.

Employer assistance

H. 742 also provides measures to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 on employers.

Under the law, employers will be relieved of charges for benefits paid to their employee for up to eight weeks.

Employers are eligible for this if they stopped operations temporarily because they received a request from a public health authority to do so because of COVID-19, or if they did so in response to an emergency order or directive issued by Scott or President Donald Trump related to COVID-19 or if they stopped operations because their workers had been exposed to COVID-19 at work, according to the bill.

Employers would also be relieved of these charges for up to eight weeks if their employee became unemployed as a "direct result" of a state of emergency declared by the governor or Trump in relation to COVID-19, or because of an order or directive by the governor or Trump in relation to COVID-19, or if the employee had been recommended to or requested by a medical professional or public health authority to be isolated or quarantined as a result of COVID-19.

Employers are only eligible for this relief if they rehire, or offer to rehire, the employee in question within a "reasonable period of time" after they resume operations, as determined by the Commissioner, or upon the employee finishing their isolation or quarantine period, according to the law.

At Wednesday's press conference, Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, also outlined additional resources available for businesses at the federal level.

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The agency has put together a resource page on its website, which will be updated in real-time with the latest resources and exactly how to access them, she said.

The agency is encouraging small business owners to apply for Economic Injury Disaster Loans from the Small Business Administration, she said.

Businesses applying for this loan may also be eligible for up to $10,000 advances within three days of applying; those advances do not have to be repaid, Kurrle said.

She also encouraged businesses to apply for the SBA's Paycheck Protection Program, which is available through June 30.

This loan program is designed to provide an incentive for small businesses — those with less than 500 employees — to keep workers on payroll, forgiving loans if all employees are kept on payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

"This is a day-to-day, hour-by-hour situation, and we recognize how hard these last few weeks have been for our business community," Kurrle said. "Our hardest days may lie ahead. When I say that we are in this together, I truly mean this."

Federal efforts

At Wednesday's press conference, several officials spoke about the additional assistance Vermonters can expect from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, which Trump signed into law on March 27.

The law provides for a one-time cash payment of $1,200 for most individuals with incomes less than $75,000, with an additional $500 per child.

The federal bill also makes changes to unemployment assistance, increasing benefits and broadening who is eligible.

States, including Vermont, will continue to pay unemployment to people who qualify based on their state requirements, but the bill adds $600 per week from the federal government on top of whatever base amount a worker receives from the state, National Public Radio has reported.

That boosted payment will last for four months.

Harrington said at Wednesday's press conference that his office has gotten a lot of calls about that $600 increase, and how to get it.

Besides filing unemployment claims per requirements, there's nothing else Vermonters have to do to get that money, he said.

The federal bill also adds 13 weeks of unemployment insurance — people nearing the maximum number of weeks allowed by their state would get an extension.

In Vermont, the maximum is 26 weeks.

New filers would also be allowed to collect benefits for the longer period.

"Both of those are relatively easy for the department to implement," Harrington said of the weekly increase and the extension in eligibility. "People will see that relief in the coming days."

One element of the CARES Act that will be harder to implement in Vermont relates to self-employed workers and independent contractors, as the state essentially has to set up a "whole different system," likely in partnership with the Department of Labor and the state tax department, Harrington said.

Typically, self-employed people, freelancers and contractors can't apply for unemployment in the United States.

The act creates a new, temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, through the end of this year, to help people in these categories who lose work as a direct result of the public health emergency, according to NPR.

At Wednesday's press conference, Scott thanked the state's congressional delegation for their work, while acknowledging that more efforts to mitigate COVID-19's economic impact may well be required.

"Let me be clear," he said. "We continue to think about, 'what else can we do?'"

In response to a question regarding what the state might do to protect those facing eviction as a result of COVID-19, Scott said federal and state initiatives like expanding unemployment and providing payments to Americans "should provide the relief."

The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development is working at Scott's request to put together an Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force for the state, which will be tasked with creating economic and policy tools to work towards a "swift, comprehensive economic recovery" after the COVID-19 crisis passes, Kurrle said at Wednesday's press conference.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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