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Monday, May 18, 2020

As Retailers Tentatively Reopen, Vermonters Shop for Sense of Normalcy

Posted By , and on Mon, May 18, 2020 at 11:10 PM

On Church Street Monday morning - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • On Church Street Monday morning
Many Vermont retail stores opened their doors on Monday for the first time since late March, taking their first real step toward recovery since the pandemic paralyzed the state’s economy two months ago.

But while some took advantage of the opportunity, others in Vermont's retail sector were wary of moving too fast.

“We’re all in a really difficult position, where a lot of people in business are probably having to make the decision: Are we going to have to close permanently or open now — and neither choice is good,” Nicole Carey, owner of Birdfolk Collective in Winooski, told Seven Days last week. “I’m too nervous to open Monday. I just want to see how it goes for a little bit longer.”

The state has issued detailed guidance aimed at keeping patrons and employees safe. Businesses must limit the number of customers inside to 25 percent of their legal capacity. They must require employees to wear masks, maintain social distancing and complete a safety training course.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Vermont Nursing Homes, Hospitals Are Exempt From Most COVID-19 Claims

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2020 at 7:59 PM

 Weeks after the pandemic took hold in Vermont, the health care industry won sweeping immunity from civil liability over how workers in facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes respond.

In an April 10 executive order, Gov. Phil Scott extended to most health care facilities and providers the same protections that firefighters, police officers and National Guard members enjoy when responding to natural disasters.

The order classifies emergency room nurses, health aides and even dentists as emergency responders in the pandemic, entitled to the same limits on liability as those who run into burning buildings or rescue residents stranded by rising floodwaters.

Those workers and their employers can’t face civil liability except for in cases of misconduct or gross negligence.

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Monday, May 4, 2020

Scott Lifts Restrictions on Some Elective Procedures, Surgeries

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2020 at 1:33 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Vermont health care providers can resume some elective visits and procedures after weeks of putting off these nonessential services due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott said Monday.

Scott's latest order — which lifts restrictions put in place March 20 to slow the spread of the virus and preserve vital medical equipment — comes as Vermont continues to see a small number of new coronavirus cases. 

"While the initial restrictions were necessary, we also know that procedures put on hold are important to overall health," Scott said at a press conference Monday. "So we thank everyone for their patience as we made sure we didn't risk the ability to care for COVID-19 patients." 

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Friday, May 1, 2020

Scott Associate Lands Contract for Worker Safety Training

Posted By on Fri, May 1, 2020 at 2:53 PM

Richard Wobby
  • Richard Wobby
The Vermont Department of Labor has awarded a $16,000 worker training grant to a trade group run by a close friend and supporter of Gov. Phil Scott, even though the department offers a similar coronavirus safety course. 

The department will pay Associated General Contractors of Vermont to train about 800 construction workers in techniques to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when they return to job sites in coming weeks, said Sarah Buxton, the state’s director of workforce development.

The state approved the grant Thursday because the association’s executive director, Richard “Dick” Wobby Jr., demonstrated that his course is “more robust” than the free one offered by the state to help businesses meet new rules for workers to be trained in social distancing and hand hygiene before returning to work, Buxton said.

“The reason we are paying an organization to do this is they came and asked for funding,” Buxton told Seven Days on Thursday. “They said, ‘We want to have a higher standard of care and to keep our companies open and keep the economy rolling.’”

The grant is a small but telling example of how organizations most familiar with how decisions are made in Montpelier — and by whom — are well positioned to tap into the massive flow of state and federal aid aimed at supporting and restarting Vermont's economy.

Wobby, Scott’s childhood friend and longtime campaign supporter, runs a trade group that operates a variety of training programs covering worker safety, some of which qualify for taxpayer funding.

Last year, one such program managed by Wobby, Project Roadsafe, ran afoul of regulators. The state Agency of Transportation suspended the $95,000 road project safety program after allegations Wobby improperly billed association business to the federal program, including travel to California and pricey meals, reported. The suspension was lifted in January after the group repaid $305 in expenses not allowed under the grant, according to an agency official.

Wobby's hunt for a new source of state funds ramped up last month when it became clear that training would be needed for workers returning to job sites around the state.

Scott announced on April 17 that he would begin to “turn the spigot” to restart the economy by allowing some nonessential businesses, including small construction crews and landscapers, to return to work on April 20 under strict guidelines. These included urging workers to wear masks and work six feet part at all times, among others. (On Friday, Scott tweaked his order to allow construction crews of up to 10 people.)
The association’s course went live on April 20. It was initially advertised as free for members and $200 for nonmembers. The idea was that nonmembers benefiting from the two-and-a-half-hour online course should help defray the significant cost of developing it, Wobby said.

“I’m running an organization, and I’m looking at the bottom line every time I walk out the door,” he said.

After some complaints and confusion over whether the training was required before contractors could get back to work, the association quickly dropped the nonmember fee. It became clear that in the real world, members and non-members were going to be working alongside each other, and everyone needed similar training, he said.

“The board realized that in order to ensure a safer job site, they had to bite the bullet a little,” Wobby said.

The program has since been offered free to any employer, and more than 700 workers have completed it to date, Wobby said.

After the board waived that fee, however, Wobby pivoted to try to secure a state grant to offset the association’s costs. He argued that the state’s free online course was insufficient to keep workers safe on complex job sites.

The state course, produced by the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a 49-page online document that, while informative, allows workers to skip straight to the bottom, certify they’ve read and understood it, and print it for their records, Wobby noted.

To highlight that the program doesn’t really certify anything, Wobby shared screenshots showing forms filled out with fake names, including O.J. Simpson and Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic toy bear.

General contractors need assurance that workers — whether their own employees, subcontractors or those delivering supplies to job sites — actually understand and commit to follow guidelines, Wobby said.

“My fear is that Teddy Ruxpin is going to have COVID-hand and is going to infect us all,” he said.

If that were to happen, outbreaks would inevitably occur, and the state’s economic recovery would be at risk, he said.

The state is willing to pay a modest sum to support the association’s course to increase the likelihood that construction projects around the state will be able to continue revving up as the economy reopens, Buxton said.

The money is coming from a nearly $200,000 pot of federal “rapid response” funding generally used to retrain laid-off workers, Buxton said. In this case, however, the funds are going toward “layoff aversion,” which is a new use in Vermont but an allowable one,  she said.

Wobby initially asked for $30,000. The state agreed to pay $16,000 toward 800 additional workers taking the program, an estimated cost of $20 per worker, Buxton said.

The course is designed as a “train the trainer” model, meaning  participants can train others at their companies, she said. It just makes sense, she said, for the state to spend federal dollars to support “a significant part of our economy that we desperately need to have back in motion as quickly as possible.”

While the construction industry is “first out of the gate” with a training program specific to its needs, Buxton said the state is willing to offer assistance to other trade groups that develop and implement safety training tailored to their specific needs.

If barbers or bartenders come forward with a similar program, the state stands ready to help them, too.

“The state would be better off if everybody took additional personal responsibility, personal steps to make sure that we don’t have a setback in COVID-19 cases,” Buxton said. 

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Scott Takes Further Steps to Reopen Vermont Economy

Posted By on Fri, May 1, 2020 at 1:54 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott on Friday took further steps to reopen Vermont's economy,  announcing an order that will soon allow thousands to return to work amid continued signs that the state has slowed the spread of the coronavirus.

Starting Monday, certain outdoor businesses such as construction and landscaping companies, manufacturers, and distribution operations can have 10 people working at a time. These employers can then return to full operation May 11 if they complete a training program and adopt a series of preventative measures, Scott said.

"There's no playbook on any of this," Scott said. "So we focus on sectors like manufacturing and construction that have controlled environments, open space and are accustomed to following rules dedicated to safe work sites.”

Companies that return to full operation will need to comply with a stringent set of requirements. For example, they must offer employees expanded health training, make good faith efforts to secure thermometers to perform temperature checks on employees prior to the start of each shift, and designate on-site health officers charged with ensuring that protocols are being followed, according to Friday's order.

The order also requires public transportation employees and travelers to now wear cloth masks at all times.

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Scott Further Loosens Business Restrictions As Spread of Virus Slows

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2020 at 1:29 PM

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Another week brought another turn of the proverbial "spigot" from Gov. Phil Scott, who announced Friday that he was further loosening  some business restrictions amid continued signs that Vermont's coronavirus outbreak has plateaued.

"Because we have one of the strongest stay-home orders in the country, with more restrictions than most, we can open up the spigot a bit more to catch up and get more in line with our neighbor states," Scott said at a press conference. “But with these small steps, we have to make sure that we're being responsible. This comes down to each and every one of us.”

Certain outdoor businesses, which were allowed to return to work on Monday with crews of two or less, can now have five people working at a time outside or within unoccupied structures. Manufacturing and distribution operations can also open with a maximum of five employees — as long as they can work in spaces large enough to stay at least six feet apart, Scott said.

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

State to Send Relief Checks to More Than 8,000 Vermonters

Posted By on Sun, Apr 19, 2020 at 9:08 PM

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott said Sunday that his administration will send $1,200 relief payments to more than 8,000 jobless Vermonters still waiting for unemployment benefits after the Department of Labor failed to clear its backlog by his deadline.

On Friday, Scott gave the department until Saturday night to fix issues that have prevented thousands of Vermonters from receiving their benefits on time. He announced that anyone left on the waiting list would get the relief checks from the state’s treasury.
The labor department on Sunday announced that it had managed to clear claims for roughly 20,000 people in the two days leading up to the deadline. But a total of 8,384 people still had unresolved claims due to issues with their applications, the department said, forcing Scott to intervene.

“Under normal circumstances, it is these issues that ensure the State’s [unemployment insurance] program is adhering to federal regulations," interim Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said in a press release Sunday evening. "However, given the overwhelming demand on the system, being able to provide timely claims processing while meeting all federal standards became virtually impossible."

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Friday, April 17, 2020

Scott Issues Saturday Deadline for Clearing Unemployment Claims Backlog

Posted By on Fri, Apr 17, 2020 at 12:20 PM

Gov. Phil Scott speaking at a press conference on Friday - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott speaking at a press conference on Friday
Updated at 2:58 p.m.

Gov. Phil Scott on Friday said that he has given his Department of Labor until Saturday night to clear a backlog of unemployment claims, after which he will order the state's treasury to start cutting $1,200 checks to prepay benefits to those stuck on the waiting list.

"We've had success clearing a significant backlog [already], which will help Vermonters get money they desperately need," Scott said at a press briefing. "But I know this is not enough."

The extraordinary announcement follows weeks of frustration among jobless Vermonters who have hit a bottleneck at the state's unemployment call center amid an onslaught of initial unemployment claims. The department has now taken nearly 80,000 claims since mid-March — far more than it sees in a typical year — and some claimants who filed over a month ago have yet to see payments.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Scott Says New Guidance for Farmers Markets Is Coming on Friday

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2020 at 11:22 PM

Scott Medellin at the Burlington Farmers Market - MATTHEW ROY
  • Matthew Roy
  • Scott Medellin at the Burlington Farmers Market
Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday indicated that he will soon announce new guidance for farmers markets, a week after his administration determined them to be nonessential businesses during the coronavirus crisis.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets last Friday told markets that they would not be allowed to operate under Scott's stay-at-home order for the time being due to public health concerns. The agency did, however, say that it expected to "allow some form of a farmers market in the very near future."

Asked Wednesday when he would have an update on farmers markets, Scott said he has been working with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and expected to release a plan Friday that he hoped could be implemented within the next week or two.

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Vermont Lawmakers Frustrated by Issues With Unemployment System

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2020 at 3:45 PM

Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) - COLIN FLANDERS
  • Colin Flanders
  • Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden)
Vermont elected officials are often on the receiving end of gripes, complaints and concerns from the people they serve.

Of late, though, state senators say there's been a flood of calls on a single topic: the challenge of getting unemployment benefits.

"I've never heard the level of desperation from constituents that I'm hearing now," Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) told the full Senate during a video conference Tuesday.

Most, if not all, of Ingram's colleagues had heard similar reports from their constituents.

"They call [the Department of Labor] and they can't get through, and they start calling us," Ingram went on to say. "There's, like, no recourse for them, and they're fast running out of money, and they're just desperate."

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