While you may think that when the legislature temporarily adjourns due to a worldwide pandemic that things would slow down, we are now witnessing the opposite. Legislators were sent home out of an abundance of caution to both leaders and the public due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus. It’s been quite impressive how fast both Representatives and Senators have adapted to using technology to keep working for Vermont.
The Vermont House and Senate worked quickly to define and pass temporary emergency steps to the states open meeting laws and constitutional duties so that government could still operate. They worked to pass rules allowing committees and bodies to meet or cast votes remotely. It only took one week for them to become comfortable with the new meeting technology and started discussing must pass bills.
Bills have been passed that amend the states unemployment laws including expanding to self-employed or independent contractors, temporarily suspend employer unemployment experience ratings, and provisions expanding other eligibility for unemployment insurance payments to include COVID-19 related issues. There are changes for eligibility for unemployment benefits such as care for a loved one who is sick or home from a closed school. Other priority bills are the “must pass” such as the state budget and transportation bills which will be taken up first, with lower priorities possibly getting attention later.
The federal government has passed three economic stimulus bills that provide support for employers in various fashions, increase unemployment payments by $600 and a direct payment to families starting at $1200 per person. Check back at www.agcvt.org/c2rs for more details on the federal programs in our COVID-19 guidance documents.
While our lobbying team continues to work hard in the state legislature we are still moving on multiple fronts. Members have all been asking the same question, “When can I return to work?”. Contractors do not like staying at home, they’re drawn to their work and want to get back to building.
So, how are we helping you get back to work?
AGC/VT has been building coalitions for years with different business groups. Those groups meet on a regular basis discussing challenges, potential solutions and creating a united front representing industry. Theses organizations work to push their initiatives with elected officials, state agency representatives, the governor’s administration and general public. This “think tank” of policy experts has been integral part of helping craft good policies in our state and continues to push for a responsible return to work from our current crisis.
Working with state agencies like Agency of Transportation (AOT), Buildings & General Services (BGS), Department of Labor (DOL), and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) has been crucial to understanding the crisis and finding solutions to get back to work. We were successful in working with AOT to have the road construction start date moved from April 15 to March 23 in hopes to get a jump on the season although less than a week later the stay home order was issued. At this same time, we were in discussions with BGS related to opportunities to engage projects that had been challenging if not impossible due to staff in the state buildings. If construction could continue these would’ve been opportunities to get people back to work, find savings due to vacant buildings and stimulate new projects.
The ACCD and DOL have been extremely helpful to AGC/VT by providing guidance that we can then share with our members. We have been consulting with DOL about best practices with staff, what the new state and federal labor programs mean to industry and procedures if tough decisions need to be made. On the other side ACCD has been a huge help in both clarifying how the executive orders affect business but also been communicating some of the programs aimed to keep your businesses financially sustainable. The relationships we keep with our state agencies helps AGC/VT members by keeping us at the table when policy decisions are being made.
Behind the scenes AGC/VT has been in contact with our counterpart chapters in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York because we work across borders. In the next week a joint letter urging Governor Scott to allow construction to begin as an essential service starting on April 15 will be sent. Allow construction to resume would bring Vermont into parity with our neighboring states and keep our infrastructure safe for the travelling public. Our multi state coalition is just one more way to keep the pressure on our leaders to get you back out there.
Realizing its not as easy as just “getting back out there” we are working with agencies such as the Heath Department, OSHA and the CDC so that once you go back to work you have protocols in place to keep your people safe. Without these protocols in place the risk of extending the impact of the COVID-19 virus are real. If the virus stays in our communities you will have the challenge of losing people to sick leave for the unforeseeable future, parents who have to stay home to care for loved ones, or even the loss of a life.
AGC/VT remains committed to returning to work in a new world. We are confident that constructors will be among the first back out and will continue our tradition of building Vermont soon. Stay tuned to our Constructor COVID-19 Response Strategy meetings Wednesdays and Fridays for future developments.