Labor Commissioner accuses legislature of failed unemployment benefits

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington speaks during a press conference at Barre on March 16, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington blamed the Legislature on Tuesday for an unsuccessful attempt to increase unemployment benefits by $ 25 a week.

The US Department of Labor ruled that the money was an additional benefit at the start of the month and declared it illegal because of the way it would be funded.

Harrington has been criticized for the time it took him to brief the legislature on the potential problem. But in a hearing Tuesday, he said the legislature should have ensured, when drafting state law, that it did not break federal law.

“The legislature has moved extremely quickly on this,” Harrington told the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. “He didn’t do his due diligence.”

Committee Chairman Senator Michael Sirotkin D-Chittenden opposed Harrington’s charge.

“When you accuse the legislature of failing to exercise due diligence, I cannot believe this statement that you criticize us for failing to exercise due diligence, which we should have found out in advance,” Sirotkin said. in Harrington.

Sirotkin used the hearing to put pressure on Harrington and Unemployment Insurance Director Cameron Wood on why they had not informed the legislature sooner that there might be a problem with the ‘allocation.

The US Department of Labor first indicated in emails to Wood in early and mid-June that the benefit could go against federal law. Harrington did not alert legislative leaders until August 24.

Sirotkin and other lawmakers argued that had they been aware of the potential problem, they could have amended the law to make it consistent with federal law before the legislature adjourned in late June.

Harrington has apologized to the legislature for not advising them of the potential problems sooner.

On Tuesday, he revealed that others were involved in deciding when to notify the Legislature of the issues.

“I was not the only person making the decision to inform the legislature,” Harrington said. “It was a time agreed upon between myself, other members of the administration and other members of the [Vermont Department of Labor]. “

Others involved in conversations about when to brief the Legislature, Harrington said, included Wood and Brittney Wilson, the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

Harrington said they made the decision to notify the Legislature five to ten days before he told them on August 24.

Harrington acknowledged that on August 6, in a conversation he had with the U.S. Department of Labor, it became clear that federal officials would rely on the Vermont Department of Labor’s determination that the $ 25 constituted an additional service.

Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Labor decided that because the allowance was additional and was not part of the normal weekly allowance calculation for the unemployed in Vermont, it could not be paid, as envisioned by the legislature. , by the Vermont Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

Tuesday’s hearing included a grueling exchange between Harrington and Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, who called for her resignation.

“I don’t feel like you intended to develop a partnership with the Department of Labor or the administration and that you were combative enough,” Harrington told Ram Hinsdale.

“I have constantly looked for a partner,” replied Ram Hinsdale. “I don’t think you were that partner. “

The hearing was the first time that Wood, who throughout the summer was in most frequent contact with the U.S. Department of Labor over the benefit, spoke publicly about the chain of events that drove the federal officials to declare the benefit illegal.

“We assumed the benefit would qualify,” Wood said. “At the time, I was sure that what we were doing was allowed. “

It wasn’t until early June, when he received the first email from federal officials saying they might have a problem with the delivery, that Wood realized he might be in trouble. , did he declare.

“We knew we had to talk on the phone with USDOL and have another conversation,” Wood said.

He said that at that time it had not been considered to contact the Legislative Assembly.

“I wouldn’t say that at that point there was a conclusion that we weren’t going to be able to move forward,” Wood said. He added that he had not informed anyone in the governor’s office at the time either.

“We just wanted further clarification from USDOL on the reasons for this [benefit] would not be allowed, ”Wood said.

“So by the time of this phone call it becomes more and more clear that there is a problem,” Sirotkin said. “Did you notify anyone other than the commissioner?” Sirotkin asked.

“I didn’t warn anyone else, no,” Wood replied.

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