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'I Ran Out Of Money At The Grocery Store': A Tough Month For Laid Off Vermonters

Three people in a window.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
TJ Maynard and his daughter Ophelia and partner Fallon pose for a portrait in their Colchester home. TJ, who was laid off in March, just started getting unemployment benefits on Monday. He was one of thousands of Vermonters stuck in a backlog.

Record numbers of people have filed for unemployment in Vermont due to the COVID-19 pandemic — officials estimatethe unemployment rate could be at least 20%. During the week of April 11, there were nearly 41,000 claims filed with the Department of Labor

The deluge has overwhelmed the Department of Labor and resulted in thousands of Vermonters going for weeks without pay. The department has blamed the delays on its decades-old computer system, lack of staff and federal regulations.

Over the weekend, the state started to address the backlog. But it’s been a tough month for many Vermonters.

Last Wednesday, TJ Maynard of Colchester booted up his laptop and, in what’s become a weekly ritual,  went to the Department of Labor’s website.

“Then you kind of scroll down,” he said, describing the process to a VPR reporter by phone. “It’s the second option —'File your weekly claim for unemployment insurance benefits', so we’re clicking that.”

More from VPR: Scott Promises Relief For Jobless Vermonters Snagged In Unemployment Backlog

Maynard, like tens of thousands of Vermonters, was laid off in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to the crisis, the 32 year-old worked in sales at AutoSport Imported Car Center dealership in South Burlington.

Maynard clicked through the form, quickly filling it out. At this point, he was no stranger to the process — this was the fourth time he’s gone through it.

“We’ll go ahead and submit,” he said. “And now I receive a confirmation code which I will add to a list of confirmation codes for the previous weeks. And then we just continue waiting.”

Maynard has kept busy during the past month. He’s been watching his nearly two-year old daughter Ophelia.

“We learning a lot of shapes, learning a lot of colors," he said.

Maynard’s partner, Fallon, still has her job. But as of last week, money was getting tight.

“If the income doesn’t start flowing soon, our biggest decisions aren’t going to be what grocery we can afford to buy,” he said. “It's going to be which bill we can potentially let slide for a couple of weeks.”

"I ran out money at the grocery store. I ended up having to put things back." — Cory Decker

Meanwhile in Fletcher, Cory Decker is also starting to feel pinched by lack of income.

“I ran out money at the grocery store,” she said. “I ended up having to put things back.”

Decker, 40, had been working as a waitress at Moog’s Joint in Johnson and Village Tavern in Jeffersonville until she was laid off. Like Maynard, she’s been struggling to get her unemployment benefits.

“I’ve just been calling that number pretty consistently every day,” she said. “Yesterday it was every 15 minutes or so, it seemed like, and I just hit repeat and got a busy signal.”

Decker said she also tried calling the labor commissioner's office, and even reached out to the governor's office — all to no avail. At this point, her patience is running thin.

“Why do you have to make me jump through hoops, when this is no fault, right?” Decker said. “I didn’t do anything wrong — nobody did anything wrong, this is just the way it is. So why with the formality and why are you getting hung up on the system? It’s ridiculous."

"We're not going to let up until everyone who's entitled to get a check gets one every week." — Gov. Phil Scott

The Department of Labor has struggled to keep up as unemployment claims have skyrocketed. According to the department’s data, during the week ending on April 11 there were nearly 41,000 unemployment claims — up about 700% compared to the same period last year.

Over the weekend, the Labor Department cleared tens of thousands of claims by side-stepping federal regulations. For the more than 8,300 people whose claims still weren’t cleared, the state mailed out $1,200 checks.

“Under normal circumstances, investigating these issues is required to make sure we’re adhering to federal regulations,” said Gov. Phil Scott at a press conference on Monday. “But these are not normal times.”

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Scott promised to make sure Vermonters continued to receive payments. He said the Labor Department now has more than 200 people processing claims.

“While these steps should help provide some relief, please know we’re not going to let up until everyone who’s entitled to get a check gets one every week,” Scott said.

While many people have finally gotten paid, Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said Monday the department still needs to review their claims to make sure they were all legitimate.

“Our job now has to move towards quality control,” he said. “Following back up with those that have had their issues released and make sure they are actually resolved in the end to ensure compliance.”

"It's not like I'm running out to buy a new TV or anything but there's a lot less uncertainty in the household now." — TJ Maynard

But for now, thousands of Vermonters, like TJ Maynard, are now starting to receive some income again.

Maynard said he woke up on Monday to find his claims had finally been accepted, and there was money from the state in his bank account.

“It’s a huge relief, all the bills are current now,” he said. “It’s not like I’m running out to buy a new TV or anything, but there’s a lot less uncertainty in the household now.”

Maynard expects he’ll eventually be able to go back to work. In the meantime, he’ll keep filing for unemployment — and he hopes he'll be able to rely on consistent payments.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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