Legislative Update – May 2020

We’ve crossed the one month mark since Vermont initiated sweeping actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 and we are now witnessing the annual renewal brought by spring, with its emerging flowers and greenery. Having been confined to our homes for weeks, it is not surprising that we are all anxious to get outside and resume our prior lives; nevertheless, the urge to shred winter’s isolation by jumping back into social activities must be tempered by following the Governor’s Emergency ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe” Declaration.

It is encouraging to see social distancing measures bending the curve of COVID-19. Relying on science and data, the Governor this week has begun to slowly ease some of the initial restrictions. Beginning this week, his latest order authorizes outdoor businesses and construction operations with crews of two or fewer to reopen.  Additionally some single person, low personal contact professional services such as appraisers, realtors, attorneys and others are now allowed to conduct business if the specified requirements can be made.  This latest order also requires that employees must wear a face covering (e.g.non medical mask, a bandana, scarf) over their nose and mouth.

As the legislature continues its work and hears from Vermonters, we are seeing the severe impacts of this crisis across the state in all aspects of our lives and we are charting a path forward.. Far too many Vermonters are going without pay and lack clarity on how to access unemployment; are isolated; are hungry. How will this change the way we do business? How will we protect the health and welfare of Vermont’s children, you and elders? What is our educational system going to look like when this is all over? As each committee meets, our focus right now is on those immediate legislative changes to deal with COVID-19 impacts.

The breakdown at the Department of Labor has been one of the major issues. The backlog of unemployment claims and the inability of thousands of Vermonter to successfully put in a claim even after hours and days of trying ultimately put too many Vermonters into financial and emotional distress. The steps the Department of Labor took weren’t enough so the Governor last Monday said the State would just issue checks for those who had not been able to get their claims processed. Normally, self employed individuals do not pay into the unemployment fund and so are not eligible for its benefits. However, allowing self employed individuals and independent contractors to be eligible for unemployment benefits was added as part of the federal CARES package that Vermont is now working on to implement. More information can be found at labor.vermont.gov.
Not surprisingly with the delay in unemployment checks going out and with a number of now unemployed workers ineligible for unemployment, the Economic Services Department saw more than a threefold increase in applications for cash assistance ( Reach Up)  and for food assistance-(3Squares) as well as inquiries for assistance to their call center. The federal government outlines the rules for 3-Squares and Vermont along with many other states is seeking greater flexibility in order to ensure that individuals have access to the food they need even when they are isolating, are not able to get to the store or have no access to a kitchen.

Please join me and the other members of the South Burlington legislative delegation for our monthly meeting with constituents this Monday April 27 at 6:30pm. The box next to this article has the details for how to join us on zoom or you can also contact me directly. Hope to see you on my screen if not on my walks around South Burlington.

Social distancing will slow the continued spread and exponential growth of this pandemic dramatically. While this can be hard and scary and frustrating, I urge you to continue to pay attention to this and help everyone in our community stay well. Thank you.