MONTPELIER — Amid a labor shortage, and as COVID-19 cases continue to trend downward, officials on Tuesday reinstated a work search requirement for citizens to obtain unemployment benefits.
“While the Vermont Forward Plan is in place and moving forward, and vaccine distribution continues at a steady pace … this means more opportunities for Vermonters to return to work…,” said state Department of Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington.
Harrington said the requirement, which was waived starting last spring when the pandemic hit, will be reinstated beginning the week of May 9.
The announcement comes as cases continue to decline in Vermont. Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said 13 of Vermont’s 14 counties saw case numbers fall in the last week, with corresponding decreases in average daily new cases and hospitalizations.
Here are three key takeaways from Tuesday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to the pandemic:
1. Work search requirement
Beginning the week of May 9, Harrington said Vermonters filing for unemployment benefits or Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds will have to provide evidence of three formal job inquiries per week, which can include job applications or interviews.
“This is not a simple activity, and one size doesn’t fit all,” said Harrington, adding that more specific guidance would be released in the coming days.
He said Vermonters with hardships including lack of access to internet will be accommodated, and that the weekly work search requirement must be fulfilled unless documentation can be provided of a COVID-19-related exemption, such as falling ill or caring for a family member who has tested positive.
Harrington said he is hopeful that in the current economic conditions, Vermonters will be able to fill jobs.
“The business community across Vermont continues to report labor shortages across all industries,” Harrington said.
Locally, officials have told The Messenger that Kaytec has been trying to fill 20 positions at its Richford facility for some time. Gov. Phil Scott said that while the plight of Kaytec and other companies seeking employees in Vermont has been a concern, it didn’t play a role in the state’s decision to reinstate the work search requirement.
Scott said a variety of factors impacted the decision, including more Vermonters being vaccinated, a decline in cases, more schools returning to in-person instruction and expanded summer camp opportunities providing child care.
“As we’ve seen, things are getting closer and closer to getting back to normal,” Scott said. “... All of this is interconnected, we just thought it was the right time to do so.”
As for the labor shortage, Scott said it is an issue that predates the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, the state’s unemployment rate sat at 2.2%, and 2.8% population growth in the last 10 years, reported by the U.S. Census, “just isn’t enough,” Scott said.
“We had more jobs available than people to fill them two years ago,” Scott said. “… We didn’t get into this overnight, we won’t get out of it overnight either.”
Scott touted the potential for economic growth in the administration’s proposed use of $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funding, which includes spending $143 million on economic development, $250 million on broadband and $249 million on housing.
2. Cases down, but neighboring states a concern
The state reported 504 new cases in the last week, which is 293 less than the week before and 727 fewer than an all-time high on April 5. Vermont has also had fewer than 100 daily new cases for the last nine days, with cases among all age groups down.
Pieciak reported that Vermont had the second fewest deaths due to COVID-19 per capita in the country last week.
“It’s important to note that Vermont is continuing to see these decreases despite increases in testing,” Pieciak said.
However, Pieciak noted that Coos County, in neighboring New Hampshire, has the most active cases in the northeast, and has seen rising cases along with other neighboring counties in Maine. He said cases have spilled over from neighboring New Hampshire counties into the Northeast Kingdom before, and advised residents in that area of Vermont to take extra precautions and get vaccinated.
3. State exceeds 50% vaccination goal
Pieciak reported that 51.1% of Vermonters have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, exceeding the 50% goal necessary for stage two of the Vermont Forward Plan. That stage, which will go into effect Saturday, allows more businesses to operate under universal guidance and loosens indoor and outdoor gathering restrictions.
The milestone was reached despite the temporary pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine earlier this month, which was lifted on Saturday for people age 18 and older. The pause was put in place due to blood clotting issues among six women nationwide.
Scott said the the state’s allocation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will remain level this week, but with more Johnson & Johnson vaccines coming into the state, Vermont will see 1,800 more doses in total than last week. Scott said he and other governors were informed by federal officials that there will be a “significant increase” in Johnson & Johnson vaccine allocation in the next two to three weeks.