Three Mulligans and Counting

Lookin’ a little sweaty there, bud.

Submitted for your consideration: Michael Harrington, commissioner of the Department of Labor, and three-time offender against good government.

The latest offense is a massive cockup in printing IRS Forms 1099 for Vermonters who collected unemployment benefits in 2020. Tens of thousands of people received forms that contained other people’s personal information instead of their own, which is a low-tech kind of privacy breach in our age of digital hacking.

This will require a costly fix. DOL will reprint all 180,000 forms and mail them all out, plus it will provide prepaid envelopes to those who got bad 1099s so they can return the faulty forms at no cost. Harrington also said his department has contacted the Attorney General’s office as required by state law, in case there are legal repercussions.

VTDigger reports that this is DOL’s second data breach since the pandemic began. The first, back in March, saw DOL send nearly six thousand Vermonters’ Social Security numbers to employers not connected with their cases.

But while it was the second data breach, it was the third major administrative failure by DOL during the pandemic.

Deets after the jump.

In mid-March, as Gov. Phil Scott was slowly shuttering the economy, DOL quickly found itself facing an absolutely unprecedented tsunami of unemployment insurance applications. Its antiquated computer system wasn’t up to the task, and the department’s staff was nowhere near adequate.

It caused an immediate uproar, as out-of-work Vermonters couldn’t get applications approved and waited on hold for hours on end because there weren’t enough people to answer the phones. But it wasn’t until April 10, four weeks into the shutdown, that DOL put out a request for bids to run a call center. And it took another three weeks to set up the center. It added up to almost two months of chaos.

Now, the initial wave of applications was far beyond anything DOL had had to handle before. And the software issues were due to decades of failure by the federal government to adequately fund state unemployment systems. But day after day after day, week after week after week of jammed phone lines and angry Vermonters passed by before Harrington took the obvious step of seeking outside help.

You take that failure, and add two large-scale data breaches, and you could maybe sense a pattern of mismanagement.

The only thing that’s happened to Harrington is that he received a promotion last June, from interim commissioner to permanent commissioner — after the call center fiasco and the first data breach.

Harrington definitely drew the short straw. He’d only been interim commish for a few months when all hell broke loose. I can sympathize, but I must also ask the musical question, “What’s a guy gotta do to get fired in the Scott administration?”

Harrington was named deputy commissioner of DOL at the beginning of Scott’s governorship. Before that, he was economic and community development director for the Town of Bennington. That’s a tiny bureaucracy compared to the DOL. The handsome Harrington looks boss in a suit, but was he really ready to occupy the department’s top office? Has he been exposed under the intense pressure of the pandemic?

Harrington has nobly accepted responsibility for the latest breach, as he did for the two previous failures. But does that go far enough? Do we want to keep him around and see if he can make it four, or five, or six?

Responsibility isn’t the same as accountability. Methinks it’s time for a healthy dose of the latter.


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