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The U.S. Department of Labor has directed Vermont to review the eligibility of thousands of Vermonters who received unemployment benefits over the last 13 months after the state deactivated some eligibility criteria to speed payments during the pandemic.

Jim Garner, acting administrator for the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Unemployment Insurance, said in an April 1 letter that Vermont’s practice of paying people before establishing a person’s eligibility creates “a substantial compliance issue” under federal law and the potential for significant overpayments. VTDigger first reported the story.

Vermont’s labor commissioner and congressional delegation have asked the federal government to reverse the order.

Commissioner Michael Harrington wrote in an April 9 letter to the U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh that when unemployment claims soared at the start of the pandemic, Vermont's unemployment program, “was massively ill-equipped to handle the initial surge," because it was chronically underfunded by the federal government leading up to the pandemic.

The state took steps to relieve the pressure and expedite the process, including deactivating a “handful of eligibility triggers,” Harrington wrote. One of those was for people to attest that they are able and available to work. If the state hadn’t taken those steps, more than half the claims would have gone into the adjudications process and those people would not have gotten their first benefit check for six months or more, Harrington wrote.

“The fact that USDOL would suggest that a state revisit the eligibility of thousands of individuals who, through no fault of their own, were paid benefits, and require the state to issue redeterminations for claims that go back more than a year, potentially placing those individuals in a significant overpayment status, is unconscionable,” Harrington wrote in the letter.

The state of emergency issued by Gov. Phil Scott satisfies the able and available requirement because most, if not all, of the claimants who became unemployed at the time would be considered able and available, he wrote. He added that the state understands the importance of properly determining eligibility and having low rates of improper payment and before the pandemic had one of the lowest rates of unemployment and improper payment in the country.

“It’s also worth noting that the legislature expanded eligibility provisions to ensure individuals who left work for a COVID related good cause reason were eligible for benefits. This was in compliance and was the reason thousands of claimants could access benefits,” Kyle Thweatt, communications and outreach coordinator for the state Labor Department said in an email on Thursday.

Vermont's congressional delegation, in its own letter to Walsh, said the state Labor Department's actions were consistent with Congressional intent of the pandemic unemployment legislation. The state Labor Department does not know how many claims are involved.

If the issue is not addressed, Vermont could potentially lose an administrative grant and residents may no longer be eligible for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Assistance, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation and Mixed Earners Unemployment Compensation, Garner wrote. The U.S. Labor Department said it would offer Vermont technical assistance to help it get back in compliance.

Early in the pandemic, the state Labor Department had a backlog of tens of thousands of unemployment insurance claims, and the governor said if those weren't cleared up quickly, the state would start writing $1,200 checks to those on the list.

The department expanded the number workers in its call center, added people from other state agencies and an outside vendor. Earlier this year, the department also sent out thousands of tax documents to the wrong people, which the state auditor's office said this week was likely caused by a single human error and a lack of adequate controls in place to catch the mistake

This week, Harrington announced that Vermont is reinstating the work-search requirement for people getting benefits starting the week of May 9.

In other pandemic-related news:


MEALS PROGRAM

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A program started during the coronavirus pandemic to provide restaurant meals to Vermonters experiencing food insecurity has served 1 million meals, Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday.

Since Vermont Everyone Eats was started in August 2020, over 200 Vermont restaurants have contributed to the 1 million meals that included nearly $1 million of Vermont-produced ingredients, the governor's office said.

“It’s been a tough year for everyone, but there have been many bright spots as Vermonters have come together to help their neighbors and strengthen their communities," Scott said in a written statement.

The program was started with $5 million from the state's coronavirus relief fund and was supported with additional money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor's office said.


VACCINE ELIGIBILITY

College students from out-of-state who do not plan to stay in Vermont for the summer and part-time residents can start signing up for appointments to get COVID-19 vaccines.

Registration opened Thursday morning on the Health Department website. People who cannot sign up online or need help can also call 855-722-7878 to make an appointment.

Registration is open to all Vermonters ages 16 and older to get COVID-19 shots.


THE NUMBERS

Vermont reported 98 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, for a statewide total since the pandemic began of over 22,800.

A total of 19 people were hospitalized, with six in intensive care, according to the Vermont Health Department.

The Associated Press is using data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering to measure outbreak caseloads and deaths across the United States.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 149.43 new cases per day on April 13 to 69.29 new cases per day on April 27.

The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 1.00 deaths per day on April 13 to 0.43 deaths per day on April 27.

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