Vermont Labor Department gives out Tunbridge therapist’s phone number to claimants in error

Published: 4/29/2020 9:22:22 PM
Modified: 4/29/2020 9:22:17 PM

TUNBRIDGE — Jory Innes, a therapist who lives in Tunbridge, got her first call Monday night from a Vermonter seeking help with an unemployment insurance claim.

On Tuesday, after Innes went for a long hike in an area with no phone service, she returned to find a dozen more such calls on her phone.

The beleaguered Vermont Department of Labor, after struggling for weeks to process unemployment insurance claims for an estimated 100,000 Vermonters, accidentally gave out Innes’ phone number to people who had called Friday looking for help with their unemployment insurance applications.

In answering those calls, Innes became one of many Vermonters inadvertently drawn into the role of untrained helper and supporter as thousands of people navigate the backlogged DOL system.

“There was an unemployed carpenter, a housepainter, a woman who is a hairdresser,” said Innes, who provides most of her therapy services at schools, which are now closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The callers all had similar stories to tell, she said: hours spent trying to get through on the phone, and then a lack of answers when they did.

“It’s been kind of fun talking to people all over the state,” she said.

The DOL’s struggles started in mid-March after Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency and then started closing down Vermont businesses to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

As the number of cases of coronavirus in the state rose, and Scott set limits on social activity, thousands of Vermonters swamped the DOL system, which had been handling just 500 cases per week before the crisis.

State officials estimate that 80,000 people have now filed claims since mid-March.

For the first time ever, self-employed and sole proprietors were among those claimants.

After trying to fit those new claimants into the existing unemployment system, the department created a new system for that Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA.

Many long-stymied self-employed claimants did manage to file their claims after the new system went live April 22. But many others still aren’t able to get through to the DOL’s newly expanded phone banks to talk to someone about problems that have arisen with their claims.

Some frustrated claimants have ended up getting informal assistance from others with the same problems. Vicky Tebbetts, a Cabot resident who was working at her marketing and communications business from her home until COVID-19 closed it, said trying to get through on the DOL’s phone lines had become her full-time job.

“I unload the dishes, I have vacuumed the house with my earphones on, I work on my website, I get on Facebook,” Tebbetts said of her hours on hold.

While waiting in the queue for a DOL agent, Tebbetts found a valuable source for advice and support from fellow sufferers — the DOL’s Facebook page, where hundreds of people have posted messages describing their situations and asking for help.

“Same boat. I am currently on hold. Again,” said one claimant on Facebook on Tuesday, in response to a post about unsuccessful attempts to reach a person on the phone. “This is so rotton and depressing.”

A stranger’s suggestion that claimants contact their state legislator was helpful to Tebbetts. That person had just seen a notice on Front Porch Forum that lawmakers were taking a more active role in working with the DOL to resolve claims.

“That actually made me feel more empowered,” said Tebbetts, whose husband, Anson Tebbetts, is secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

That connection, she noted, hasn’t helped her resolve her problems at the DOL.

“I didn’t realize there was something more I could do: contact my legislators,” she said.

Tebbetts promptly wrote to several lawmakers and state officials on Tuesday. A few responded right away; one said she would contact the DOL to expedite answers for Tebbetts.

Innes, too, found some comfort in conversation with so many in the same situation. She talked to one caller about their shared worry that the unemployment insurance money would run out before they were able to file successfully.

“All the experiences were the same: calling dozens of times before they could get through, and then being put on hold together. And then them not quite figuring out what the problem was,” she said.

Innes thinks her phone number ended up being distributed to claimants after she reached a DOL worker on the phone Friday. The worker said she couldn’t answer Innes’ question so she could resubmit her claim, but she took Innes’ number and said someone from DOL would get back to her.

DOL spokesperson Kyle Thweatt said Tuesday the department is still looking into how Innes’ number was distributed to other claimants.

Like Tebbetts, Innes has reached out to nearby state representatives, including Rep. Carl Demrow, D-Corinth, himself a self-employed carpenter and construction worker.

Demrow has been hearing from many self-employed constituents who still can’t get through on the phones. Demrow hasn’t filed for unemployment insurance because he is receiving pay as a lawmaker, and he expects to return to work soon.

“People are just really, really frustrated and really, really out of patience,” Demrow said. “Because of that, they are also scared.”

Tebbetts was also relieved to learn, through the hundreds of comments on the DOL’s Facebook page, how many other people had gotten their PUA applications wrong the first time they submitted.

“A lot of other professionals, very well-spoken people, did it wrong as well,” she said. “I don’t feel so alone.”

When Innes was calling hundreds of times in a row, unable to get through, she said she felt like crying. She thinks her Buddhist training has helped her.

“It would be humorous if there weren’t real people involved who have now spent more time talking to someone who can’t really help them,” she said of having her own number distributed by the DOL.

She just wishes she could help them. “Now they have to go back to that stupid phone line and call until they get connected.”

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