Initial claims for unemployment insurance have hit a record high in Vermont after Gov. Phil Scott shut down the state economy due to fears about the spread of the coronavirus.
For the week ending March 21, initial jobless claims rose to 3,784, up from 659 the prior week, according to the Vermont Department of Labor’s unemployment insurance report. The report does not include an additional 11,000 claims that are backlogged in the system and yet to be processed.
The one-week change represents a 474% increase in the number of Vermonters who have lost jobs. The rise is greater than the spike in jobless claims experienced at the peak of the Great Recession.
Since announcing a state of emergency on March 13, Scott has taken numerous drastic measures to shut down businesses and halt most work. The moves have forced companies to lay off workers, who have begun filing claims to receive unemployment benefits.
On March 16, Scott closed schools and ordered restaurants and bars to limit their activity to takeout and delivery. Scott also limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and later closed most child care facilities.
Five days later, the governor ordered “close-contact businesses” such as gyms, barbershops, fitness centers and spas to close by March 23. Such businesses, the governor said, can’t comply with health guidelines for “social distancing.”
On Monday, Scott directed all businesses and not-for-profit entities to put into place telecommuting or work-from-home procedures. On Tuesday, he ordered all Vermonters to stay home and minimize outside activities. He also directed all non-essential businesses and non-profits to cease in-person operations.
The unprecedented clampdown on citizens and economic activity has induced a financial calamity, depriving thousands of Vermonters of their livelihoods in a single week. The spread of the coronavirus has cause a worldwide panic, causing governments to take extreme measures in various nations and states.
Number of deaths
Nine people have died in Vermont after being infected with COVID-19. About 2,008 tests have been conducted on those showing signs of illness, and 158 have tested positive for the virus. Some 371 people have completed monitoring. Nationally, 994 Americans have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By comparison, 24 Vermonters died from pneumonia, and three by the flu, over a three-week period ending March 7. During the same period, about 8,335 Americans died of pneumonia and 1,289 from the flu. The weekly statistics are tracked by the National Center for Health Statistics Mortality Surveillance System.
How long will this last?
Unlike Scott, who on Monday said his economic shutdown could last for months, President Donald Trump is aiming to turn the economy back on by Easter — April 12 — saying the country can’t allow the response to the coronavirus to “be worse than the problem itself.”
Trump wants a targeted approach to restrictions, weighing directives for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems while letting the rest of the country return to work and school.
Unemployment call center flooded with calls
Faced with job losses that could last for months, newly laid-off Vermonters have begun flooding the Department of Labor’s call center — so much so that the center now is offering weekend call hours.
Kyle Thweatt, a spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner for the Department of Labor, said the department is reshuffling staff and online services to triple the department’s capacity to take new inquiries for unemployment benefits.
“We’ve upscaled our staff two or three-fold over the last week in an effort to accommodate that,” he said. “In terms of call lines, that full-service claims center, there is a potential for folks to get a busy signal on that line, and that’s just because of the capacity for how that line holds.”
The department announced last week that call volumes had roughly doubled, from about 250 calls per day to 500. The total call volume is unknown because many people are likely getting busy signals. Scott said efforts are being made to expand the call-intake capacity.
“During these increasingly uncertain times, it is the responsibility of our state to assist those Vermonters impacted,” the governor said. “As the situation continues to develop, it will be imperative upon our state’s government to seek any and all methods to help Vermonters through this crisis.”
Thweatt said other options exist for newly unemployed Vermonters who get stuck with a busy signal, including 24/7 access to fill out the appropriate forms online. Also, a new phone line is being dedicated exclusively for unemployment claims.
Thweatt said determining the insurance benefits someone can receive is nuanced. Presently there is a cap of $513 per week for up to 26 weeks. He described the calculations as “a very complex equation.”
For example, under normal conditions, obtaining unemployment benefits requires proof that an applicant is looking for a new job. This standard may be relaxed if the shutdown lasts for an extended time.
“It’s called unemployment insurance, but we are really trying to get them back into the workforce,” Thweatt said.
He said workers from restaurants and bars have been hardest hit so far: “Obviously the governor had issued his executive order to close restaurants and bars, and any time the governor is going to issue an executive order regarding that we will see an influx just by the nature of that.”
He added that anyone who is questioning whether or not they are eligible for unemployment should contact the department. Guidance is also provided on the Department of Labor website.
To establish a claim by phone, people should call the claims center and provide information about their job loss. To continue receiving unemployment benefits, individuals must file a continuing claim every week. This process may continue for up to six months.
A government-caused unemployment crisis is hitting the entire nation. A record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. During the week prior to that, initial jobless claims had totaled just 282,000.