Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington

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Vermont lawmakers and labor officials are keeping a close eye on Washington, hoping that a deal on additional COVID-19 assistance can prevent thousands of Vermonters from losing their unemployment benefits the day after Christmas.

A pair of federal programs that extended benefits during the pandemic are set to expire on or before December 26, absent action by Congress and agreement from the Trump administration.

That, coupled with the end of 13 weeks of extended benefits for regular unemployment filers under another program, could eventually affect as many as 20,000 Vermonters — about 7 out of 10 people receiving unemployment benefits.

That leaves Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington and the Vermont Department of Labor in an awkward and unwanted position: Having to direct claimants to social safety net programs rather than helping them through the process of filing claims or getting back to work.

“We all felt that Congress was going to or could have made a decision a long time ago,” said Harrington, a Bennington native.

“This is not a surprise. We’ve all known situation was heading in this direction and here we are, with less than 30 days left,” he said. “That’s incredibly frustrating.”

Left with no other alternatives, the Department of Labor has “stepped up the amount of communication we’re providing to claimants,” he said, including assistance with food, rent, fuel, heat and mental health services. “We have been working to not only make sure they are aware of these programs, but pushing the message the next three weeks “here is where else you can go.”

A red banner on top of the Department of Labor website reminds visitors that “federal benefits to end on or before 12/26,” and links from that message lead to the department’s workforce development page and to the state’s 211 resource page for support services.

The looming benefits cliff has been a big concern for Gov. Phil Scott, who has on multiple occasions publicly called on Congress to solve the problem.

“It’s really important for Congress to take action, make the best deal they can and do what’s right for the people,” Scott said on Nov. 24. “Just as a stopgap measure. … I’m pleading with them to get back to work.”

On Thursday, U.S Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejected a bipartisan $908 billion assistance plan.

According to David Carle, a spokesman for U.S .Sen Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that plan would have extended the pandemic unemployment programs by 16 weeks from the expiration in December, and would provide supplemental unemployment insurance benefits of $300 per week from the end of December into next April.

“Senator Leahy has heard from thousands of Vermonters who are struggling. And by not acting, the Senate is exacerbating their struggle,” Carle said. “ That’s why Senator Leahy is fighting not only for as much COVID relief as is possible, but to finish the annual spending bills.”

The state Labor Department is also doing what it can to urge those who can work that this is a good time to reach out to employers and get back into the labor market if possible, Harrington said. He expects that as the deadline nears, more people receiving benefits will resume or intensify their efforts to find work.

“I’m hearing anecdotally that a number of employers can’t find workers they need, Harrington said. “We do have employers who are hiring, and I take every chance I can get to tell people if you’re unemployed and able and willing, now is the time.”

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But Harrington is aware that it’s not quite so simple for some Vermonters as replying to the latest help wanted listings.

“We do recognize there are people who are fearful, or can’t go back to work because of some COVID-related circumstance,” he said. “We will work with those people to make sure they get the services they need to the best of our ability.”

There’s also sensitivity to the fact that some furloughed workers are waiting to be called back by their employers, and in a state where finding employees was hard before the pandemic; and that the state, as part of its public health efforts, effectively forced employers to scale back or pause operations.

Many Vermonters have had to stay home to care for children or due to health risks from COVID-19. Some have been waiting to be called back from furlough to their old jobs. Others have simply given up looking.

Employers pay into the unemployment insurance trust fund, which is administered by the United States Treasury. When people are laid off or lose their jobs, those dollars are used to pay unemployment claims for 26 weeks under state law.

Two federal programs have extended those benefits during the pandemic:

• The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program extended benefits for regular unemployment claimants for an additional 13 weeks.

• The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA) offered 13 weeks of benefits to persons who would not have otherwise qualified, such as self-employed workers and independent contractors.

The state is not allowed to tap into its Unemployment Insurance trust fund — as of Nov. 28, worth $252 million — and the simple explanation is because Uncle Sam says so.

As Harrington explained, state and federal laws stipulate that the taxes paid into the fund by employers may only be used to pay benefits for eligible claimants under the regular unemployment insurance program.

The cost to the state to pay for the benefits itself would be about $10 million a week, Harrington said.

Harrington said he’s appreciated the efforts of the state’s congressional delegation in advocating for the state’s workers and keeping the administration and lawmakers informed. Harrington has also been in constant contact with state labor officials in the northeast, as well as with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.

“I will say there isn’t one state I’ve talked to that doesn’t share the frustration in Congress’ inability to act or the level of pressure that is being put on the state by US Department of Labor and other federal agencies in such a time of crisis,” he said.

That pressure is that the U.S. Department of Labor has continued with what Harrington called “very extensive and burdensome audit process” of federal programs, one that takes the department’s staff away from their core mission,

“The U.S. Department of Labor does not have a full understanding of the humanitarian effort that is happening on the ground, he said. “They are more focused on compliance and checking the box.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.