United Way of Northwest Vermont
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Criticized for backlogs during July’s flood, 211 points the finger back at years of chronic underfunding

By Lola Duffort, for VT Digger 

Asked about 211’s backlog, Gov. Phil Scott has waved off concerns about funding, and criticized United Way for failing to communicate with state officials about the situation in a timely way.

Back in April, Elizabeth Gilman, the CEO of United Ways of Vermont, came before the Legislature’s budget-writers with a simple message. The 211 hotline — which is managed by the nonprofit and serves as the state’s one-stop-shop for directing Vermonters to a host of community services — was in trouble.

For five years, the state had continued to fund 211 at a baseline rate of about $530,000 a year, although the organization had received $232,000 each year in supplemental funding during the pandemic. With lockdowns over and officials eager to return to a pre-Covid state of operations, the Agency of Human Services, which negotiates the state’s contract with United Ways of Vermont, had proposed reverting back to that $530,000 figure, Gilman said. The outcome of such a move would be straightforward, she told lawmakers: 211 would shutter outright.

Even simply continuing the organization’s pandemic-era funding wouldn’t be enough to sustain current operations, she added. That would mean reducing the hotline’s hours — at the time, it was open 24/7 — which would hamper the hotline’s ability to provide timely referrals, particularly in a moment of crisis, she warned.

“It would dramatically limit our ability to support Vermont Emergency Management and the Agency of Human Services Emergency Management around times of disaster and emergency need,” she said.

About three months later, record-breaking rain fell upon the spine of the Green Mountains, causing catastrophic flooding that would rival the damage wrought in Vermont’s Great Flood of 1927. Officials urged Vermonters to call 211 to report their losses and get referrals to services, including volunteer groups, emergency shelters, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the last week of July alone, 211 received more than 3,500 calls — hundreds more than the hotline fielded in the entire month of June, according to United Way. The hotline was completely overwhelmed, and individuals often struggled to get anyone on the phone.

“Vermont 211 is inundated with calls and emails. We are working as fast as we can to help with your disaster damage information,” the organization posted to its website, adding that there were other phone numbers that people could try if individuals couldn’t get through to its call center.

With help from the state, 211 has since resolved a backlog several hundred calls deep. But facing criticism and scrutiny for the delays, United Way has sought to highlight the decisions made by the state’s leaders they say put them in a weakened position to help at the worst possible time.

“Chronic underfunding of Vermont 211 shortchanged Vermonters when they needed help most,” the organization titled a press release sent to the media on Monday evening.

To truly cover the cost of its services, Gilman told lawmakers back in April that 211 needed $1.4 million. That’s well over double the hotline’s pre-pandemic appropriation, but Gilman argued to VTDigger that every penny was needed.

While the hotline is no longer doing some of the work it conducted at the height of the pandemic, calls for other services have significantly increased, particularly where housing is concerned. When the Department for Children and Families closes up shop in the afternoon, it’s 211 that picks up the phone and gets Vermonters experiencing homelessness into hotel rooms.

And because state appropriations haven’t historically covered the cost of services, she added, United Way took out lines of credit to cover its costs. It’s still making payments on $25,000 in outstanding debt, she said.

Gilman also echoed what basically every employer in the human services has told lawmakers in recent years: rank-and-file workers aren’t being paid enough, which is making recruiting and retaining employees who are able to handle such emotionally taxing work increasingly difficult. Hotline employees make between $16.50 and $20 an hour, and didn’t get a cost-of-living raise last year.

“You can have the best benefits in the world, but honestly, people have to pay their rent and they need food and they need to take care of their families,” she said.

The Legislature partially heeded Gilman’s call for help. In the budget they passed out in May, lawmakers set aside $650,000 in one-time funds to supplement the organization’s $530,000 base appropriation. But Gov. Phil Scott, who objected to the taxes required to fund the state budget passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, vetoed the spending bill.

Lawmakers would eventually override the Republican governor to enact the budget bill into law. But the Agency of Human Services needed to execute a new contract with United Way before the override vote, and so the agency inked an interim, short-term contract with United Way that gave them roughly half of the supplemental amount set aside by lawmakers, according to Gilman.

With this new contract in place at the start of the fiscal year, on July 1, United Way cut back its hours to 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., as stipulated in the agreement they’d signed with the state. They also laid off two staff members. Ten days later, the rain came.

Asked about 211’s backlog, Scott has waved off concerns about funding, and criticized United Way for failing to communicate with state officials about the situation in a timely way.

“Had we known they were inundated and that they couldn’t answer the calls, we would have sent in help earlier. So that was key — the communication piece,” he said at a press conference Tuesday.

It also isn’t realistic to expect the hotline to be staffed at all times in anticipation of a historic event, he argued, adding that United Way should have had a plan in place in case of such a crisis. In a briefing earlier that morning, Scott added, he’d learned that the organization was now down to 62 calls a day.

“That they can handle. During the extreme emergency, obviously, they were inundated and overwhelmed. But that’s when they need to call us for help,” he said. And if United Way couldn’t handle the volume of calls, he added, maybe United Way “isn’t the right entity to oversee 211.”

If United Way stops operating 211, Gilman bluntly laid out in a letter to lawmakers back in April exactly what would happen. The state would have to find someone else to maintain its database for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, pick up DCF’s calls after hours, and connect Vermonters to free tax help, among other services.

n an interview, Gilman said she agrees that the state needs a better plan to handle Vermonters’ calls for help in moments of disaster. But she emphasized that 211 needed the state’s partnership to carry it out.

“This is part of a greater emergency management plan,” she said. “This isn’t just 211 as an island alone.”

She also noted that, in highlighting 211’s newest call data, the governor had only included those calls related to storm damage. But the hotline also continues to refer Vermonters seeking a slew of other services, including mental health support and emergency shelter. Yesterday, she said, 211 handled 117 calls. And a little after 3 p.m. on Tuesday, when she was speaking to a reporter, the service had already taken 190 calls.

It was a theme that she returned to several times. If 211 is straining to meet demand, it isn’t just for lack of funding. It’s also because the need for services, amid twin crises in mental health and housing, themselves continue to grow.

“There’s sort of this — no pun intended — but kind of a perfect storm that’s happening. Not only for my agency but for the state of Vermont,” she said.

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org.