New technical issue blocks some laid-off workers from filing for benefits online | #emailsecurity

Michael Harrington, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Labor, speaks at a press conference in Barre on March 16, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After the rocky return of the work-search requirement by the Vermont Department of Labor, some laid-off Vermonters say that another technical glitch is preventing them from logging into the online portal to file their claims. 

Claimants who spoke with VTDigger described a problem in entering in their security PIN and Social Security number, which grant them access to the claimant portal. About a year after a wave of pandemic-induced layoffs swept the state, they suspect the error relates to rolling over into their second benefit year but haven’t been able to get clarity from the labor department’s busy helpline. 

“In general, there’s no massive outage or group of people that can’t file right now,” Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said at Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Tuesday.

Yet more than a half-dozen laid-off workers who reached out to VTDigger in recent days said they continue to face problems, including a few with the PIN issue.

Bryan Knights, a designer from Bennington, hasn’t been able to file his claims through the web portal since mid-April — about a year after he was laid off by his pre-pandemic employer.

Knights’ PIN and Social Security numbers register as invalid when he tries to log into the system, and an error message directs him to call claimant assistance. Agents’ efforts to reset his PIN have failed, so he’s had to file his claims over the phone. 

That situation was at least manageable — until the work-search requirements were reinstated. Claimants are supposed to enter the contact information for job contacts via the online portal, not over the phone, and the agents Knights spoke with last week were reluctant to take his claim, he said. 

Knights still logs his work searches through Vermont JobsLink and keeps a personal record of the jobs he’s applying to throughout the week. So far, he’s continued to receive his benefits. 

“But I’m just getting ready for the next letter in the mail that says, ‘We’re cutting you off because you’re not filling out the work search requirement,’” Knights said. 

Knights isn’t alone. Amanda Morton Grandchamp, who lives in Chittenden County, said she encountered the same PIN issue around the same time her benefit year rolled over.

Unlike Knights, Morton Grandchamp said she hasn’t received benefits in five weeks despite multiple attempts to file. Morton Grandchamp showed VTDigger screenshots of chats and emails between her and agents over the course of several weeks — to no avail.

A program integrity specialist with the labor department told Morton Grandchamp that about 10 other cases like hers were being handled, according to one of the emails. 

On Tuesday, an agent told Morton Grandchamp that the labor department and its IT team was aware of her issue and working to correct it. 

Knights and Morton Grandchamp said they have had little luck with the department’s busy helpline, even after waiting on hold for up to two hours. 

The call center receives the highest volume of callers on Mondays and right after opening, but the average hold time overall is only about 10 minutes, Harrington said. Harrington advised claimants to try calling on different days or during different hours. Claimants have until 4:30 p.m. Friday to file for that week.

Christina Boerner, a worker who said she collects unemployment insurance on weeks when she doesn’t have work, told VTDigger she encountered the same PIN issue about 10 days ago, and it was resolved Tuesday.

“They are well-versed and helpful; it’s just that being the 372nd caller in line is very discouraging,” Boerner said in an email. 

Kyle Thweatt, a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, said the department wasn’t aware of a widespread PIN issue as of Tuesday. Issues regarding invalid PINs can arise for a number of reasons through no fault of the claimant, Thweatt said. 

Back to work? 

The number of people collecting benefits fell drastically during the first half of May, but it isn’t clear whether the drop was caused by people reentering the workforce.

About 29,000 people filed claims for the week ending in May 15, down from about 43,000 on May 1. Most of the decrease was in initial claims.

The labor department shut down the online portal for initial claims on April 30 due to a significant volume of fraud. Initial claims fell from about 6,400 to about 500 the following week. 

Knights said he hopes that his phone will soon ring with a job offer, and he’ll be done dealing with a confusing process. 

“But for now it’s Monday mornings, giving myself two hours to explain why I’m calling, and hopefully someone there can fix it,” Knights said.  

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