MONTPELIER — Citing lower case numbers, high vaccination rates, more in-person learning at schools and summer camps on the way, Gov. Phil Scott called next month “the right time” to require those applying for unemployment insurance in Vermont to actively seek work.
“As we’ve seen, things are closer and closer to getting back to normal,” he said Tuesday at the twice weekly news conference on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Harrington, commissioner of the Department of Labor, said unemployment insurance was created in 1935 to provide partial wage replacement for individuals who lost jobs for no fault of their own. Vermont suspended a “work search” requirement for unemployment insurance to ensure safety during the pandemic, he said, but now health officials feel it is safe to bring it back.
Starting May 9, work search will need to be reported in weekly claims. Sole proprietors, self-employed people and independent contractors are exempt as are those who have a return-to-work date scheduled within 10 weeks of filing their initial claim.
“This is not a simple activity and not one size fits all,” Harrington said, anticipating that claimants will be given guidance over the next few days.
A valid work search will involve submitting job applications or formal requests for an interview, which can be conducted virtually or via telephone. Claimants will need to set up a profile on a state job portal. More details can be found at labor.vermont.gov/unemployment-insurance/work-search.
Harrington said if someone refuses “suitable work,” it could result in the loss of benefits. If someone has a “COVID-qualifying situation,” they won’t be required to search for work.
Harrington said research shows the longer an individual is out of the workforce, the more difficult it is for them to return. He noted the business community is reporting a shortage of workers across industries and sectors.
About 20,000 to 22,000 individuals are collecting regular unemployment insurance in Vermont. About 10,000 people are collecting under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides benefits to those not traditionally eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.
Scott said he doesn’t see the return of the work search requirement being “some magical formula for solving our workforce shortage.”
“As you might remember, we had this problem pre-pandemic so we’re going to have this after the pandemic as well,” he said. “But I see this as being part of the solution. And we do have opportunities in Vermont and we do need to get back to normal.”
Regarding expanded unemployment benefits made available in the pandemic, Scott said, “there are some who are perfectly content staying on the unemployment assistance because of the $300 stipend.” But he warned against looking at the workforce shortage as a result of not having the work search requirement.
“I mean child care is a big deal to some,” he said. “I think some of the circumstances involving unemployment at this point in time made it lucrative for people to stay on the unemployment system.”
The state will continue to help businesses recover from pandemic-related issues via federal funds, Scott said. He noted the need to find more ways to attract people to Vermont to meet workforce needs.
Scott said Vermont had more jobs than people before the pandemic and he suspects that is the case now. He described being “pleasantly surprised” when new census data came back showing the state had grown by nearly 20,000 people, citing years-long efforts to make Vermont affordable and the pandemic driving people here as reasons for the increase.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said the state has recorded less than 100 daily COVID-19 cases for nine straight days. Last week, Vermont had 504 cases, a reduction of 293 from the week prior.
Daily case counts are anticipated to return to single digits in June.
“This will only materialize if we all do our part,” Pieciak said.
Vermont already met its May 1 goal of having at least 50 percent of its population vaccinated. That figure currently stands at 51.1 percent, Pieciak said.
“Those numbers continue to increase quite steadily, which is good to see,” he said.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he expects to see more walk-in vaccination clinics and other opportunities to make the process more convenient in the future.