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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Pension Task Force Bill Advances Despite Unions' Objections

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 7:03 PM

  • JESS SUTTNER ©️ Seven Days
Nearly two weeks after Democratic leaders shelved plans to tackle pension reform this legislative session, plans for a task force charged with tackling the issue this summer are taking shape.

A bill approved Wednesday by the House Government Operations Committee would create a 15-member Pension Design and Funding Task Force to generate ideas for fixing the state’s ailing pension system.

The bill would also add three new members to the existing seven-member committee focused on pension investments, which has come under legislative scrutiny for the investments' poor investment returns.

Taken together, the measures would tweak the pension governance structure this legislative session while putting off until next year the more controversial changes to future benefits and contribution rates for the state’s current 17,300 employees and teachers.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Vermont Lawmakers Shelve Pension Reform Plan

Posted By on Fri, Apr 2, 2021 at 2:47 PM

House Speaker Jill Krowinski - FILE
  • File
  • House Speaker Jill Krowinski
House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) has shelved plans for sweeping reform to the state’s teetering pension system following fierce blowback from public employees and the erosion of support among Democratic leaders.

Krowinski announced Friday morning that instead of pushing changes that would increase costs and reduce benefits for most of the state’s 17,300 state employees and teachers, she would instead form a summer task force to explore the issue further.

“It's clear that people are struggling with how to find real systemic change to resolve this crisis right now,” she said.

Instead, lawmakers would focus on changes to the governance structure of the pension system in an effort to improve the anemic investment returns, which, along with losses from the Great Recession, have contributed to an unfunded liability that has ballooned to $3 billion. When health care and other long-term costs for the state’s 18,500 retirees is considered, that number swells to $5.6 billion.

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

State Settles Court Clerk's Discrimination Claim for $60K

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2021 at 9:51 AM

  • Piotr Adamowicz | Dreamstime
The State of Vermont paid $60,000 earlier this year to settle claims by a former court clerk that said she was fired in 2018 because she is Black.

The settlement came on the heels of a separate investigation by the judiciary last summer into allegations that the former clerk’s supervisor, Tammy Tyda, made racist comments about Black people while on the job.

Tyda is still employed as a court operations manager in Caledonia County following what the judiciary described as “appropriate” discipline, without releasing further information.

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Monday, March 29, 2021

Amid Uproar Against Garimella, UVM Warns a Faculty Critic

Posted By on Mon, Mar 29, 2021 at 11:07 PM

UVM president Suresh Garimella - FILE: MOLLY WALSH ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Molly Walsh ©️ Seven Days
  • UVM president Suresh Garimella
University of Vermont faculty and students condemned its administration’s austerity measures and president Suresh Garimella’s lack of transparency in a press conference on Monday, the second event of its kind since December.

Four months after the University of Vermont announced faculty layoffs and sweeping cuts to its humanities and geology programs, nearly 3,000 people have signed a petition declaring no confidence in Garimella. The petition, started by a coalition of faculty and students called UVM United Against the Cuts, charges that his administration has effectively manufactured a budget crisis by siphoning money away from the College of Arts and Sciences.

 According to faculty, the administration’s chief tactic thus far has been to ignore the dissent, with one exception. In early March, Nancy Welch, a tenured English professor who has been involved in protesting the cuts, shared a link to the petition with members of the faculty union and the English department. A week later, College of Arts and Sciences dean Bill Falls summoned Welch to a meeting to discuss what he deemed her “unprofessional” use of her university email account.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Pension Reform Plan Would Cost State Workers More

Posted By on Wed, Mar 24, 2021 at 6:30 PM

  • Tim Newcomb ©️ Seven Days
Current state workers would pay more toward the ballooning cost of their pensions and receive less generous benefits in retirement under a proposal put forward by House leadership Wednesday and immediately blasted by union leaders.

The package of reforms presented in the House Government Operations Committee attempts to confront a pension crisis that has deepened with the revelation in the fall that the state system is $600 million worse off than previously revealed.

“Nobody likes the situation we’re in,” Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) told her colleagues as she presented the preliminary plan. “But we are looking to try to find the right combination of changes that will make this more sustainable for the General Fund as well as for the retirees and beneficiaries.”

Union officials unloaded on the plan, saying it has not been crafted transparently, unfairly burdens workers and represents a failure of leadership to tackle the problem collaboratively.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Business Groups: Unemployment Bill Would Worsen Labor Shortage

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2021 at 5:56 PM

  • Vermont Tent Co
Anticipating that workers will be in short supply this summer,  Vermont Tent Company CEO Michael Lubas is making some changes.

Lubas has raised pay about 25 percent this year; starting wages are $15 to $20 per hour. Although he prefers to have a full-time workforce, he’s also offering flexible, part-time hours. His company's summertime business typically involves weddings and special events.

In the past, “we didn’t hire a lot of part-time people unless we had to,” said Lubas. “Now we’re open to hiring almost anybody if they are good employees. We’ll take them if they want to work two days a week, or part-time every day. The bottom line is, we’re just looking for good employees who will show up when they are supposed to.”

Vermont employers were talking about a worker shortage long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the economy. But a year after it began, the pandemic is still having a big impact on employment. While the state Department of Labor usually has 6,000 to 8,000 people receiving benefits at its busiest period, in winter, this past January 35,000 people were receiving benefits, according to the department.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Relief Funds Could Help Women and People of Color Make Economic Headway

Posted By on Tue, Mar 9, 2021 at 12:00 PM

  • Tim Newcomb ©️ Seven Days
COVID-19 relief funds could provide women and people of color with meaningful and lasting economic gains in the new, post-pandemic economy. That's the view of advocates who hope to harness the unusual opportunities presented by the pandemic.

The largest impact could come from the estimated $1.3 billion that Vermont expects to receive from the latest federal stimulus package. Vermont lawmakers had leeway over how to spend the last big infusion of cash from a COVID relief measure, the state’s $1.25 billion share of the March 2020 stimulus. That led to the creation of economic grant programs aimed at helping women and minority business owners, and some much-needed funding for childcare.

This time around, advocates need to keep lawmakers focused on helping groups that have traditionally been left out, said Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who convened a virtual meeting Monday with 200 participants to talk about women and the Vermont economy.

“We have a moment to think really strategically not only about how we get relief money out the door with this next amount of funding, but also how do we recover stronger,” said Gray, who mentioned childcare and paid family leave as key examples of ways to help women stay in the workforce. “The moment is right in many ways to act.”

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Saturday, December 12, 2020

State Officials Slam Feds for Ending an Unemployment Benefits Program

Posted By on Sat, Dec 12, 2020 at 1:18 PM

  • Tim Newcomb
State officials on Saturday slammed the U.S. Department of Labor for removing Vermont from a federally funded unemployment insurance program that is currently providing payments to more than 800 Vermonters.

“For weeks, my Administration has called on the federal government to accept the bleak reality states are facing in combating this crisis and to act in support of its citizens, who were forced into unemployment through no fault of their own," Gov. Phil Scott said in a press release Saturday morning. "Instead, it appears it is turning its back on them."

"This decision comes at the height of a global pandemic, the middle of the holiday season and at the start of what will be a long winter," he said.

 The Extended Benefits program — which is unrelated to the two other federal unemployment programs that Congress created this spring to expand the social safety net amid the coronavirus pandemic — offers people who have already used up their 26 weeks of allotted state jobless benefits an additional 13 weeks of payments.

Only states with high reported unemployment rates are eligible for the program. Vermont's rate has steadily decreased since the summer, but state officials have argued that the way the feds calculate these figures — using surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau — misrepresents the actual number of people who are jobless.

Anticipating the state would trigger off the program this month, officials have repeatedly urged the U.S. Department of Labor to make an exception. But the department emailed state leaders Friday evening — at 5:52 p.m., the governor noted — to say the program would no longer be available in Vermont.

“We are extremely disappointed that the federal government has refused to recognize the real and distinct humanitarian crisis that this pandemic has created and instead is choosing to use outdated methodology resulting in benefits being cut for struggling Vermonters,” Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said in a press release.

According to Harrington's department, more than two dozen other states have triggered off the Extended Benefits program since the initial blizzard of unemployment claims earlier this year.

The 885 people enrolled in the program in Vermont as of the first week in December will now see their benefits expire December 19. And nearly 20,000 more Vermonters relying on two other pandemic unemployment programs could lose their benefits a week later if Congress does not move to extend them.

While negotiations inched forward last week, there is still no clear picture of whether a deal will come together before the deadline.

“Thousands of families are relying on these benefits to simply survive," Harrington said. 

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Workers Who Responded to COVID-19 Crisis Qualify for Grants of Up to $2,000

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2020 at 5:34 PM

A sign recognizing Birchwood Terrace nursing home workers as they battled an outbreak in April - MATTHEW ROY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Roy ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign recognizing Birchwood Terrace nursing home workers as they battled an outbreak in April
Some frontline workers who responded in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in Vermont are now eligible for grants of up to $2,000.

Gov. Phil Scott announced that beginning Tuesday, August 4, employers can apply for hazard pay grants for those who worked between March 13 and May 15 at certain jobs that put them at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

The $28 million program covers private sector employees who made less than $25 per hour and worked for at least 68 hours during the period. Home health care and nursing home workers are eligible regardless of their pay rate.

The funds come from the $1.25 billion Vermont received from the federal CARES Act.

“We are encouraging employers to apply to make sure these critically important employees receive recognition and compensation to reflect the work they did keeping Vermonters safe during the crisis,” Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said in a press release.

The grants will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis until the funds are gone.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Slideshow: Essential Vermont Workers Getting Stuff Done

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2020 at 6:15 PM

As a photojournalist, my job is to get face-to-face with people to capture their images. During the pandemic, as public places are closed and people are sheltered at home, it's difficult to tell visual stories.

I'm not allowed into some places.  When I am, I can't get close to anyone.

In recent weeks, I started photographing some of the people who are still doing essential work — medical staffers, journalists, volunteers — wherever I could. I do my job in a mask and gloves, getting close to people while maintaining appropriate distance. 

I was lucky enough to spend time in several workplaces. At Feeding Chittenden, I photographed volunteers as they prepared meals for vulnerable people who are being quarantined at home and in hotels.

I toured a COVID-19 patient overflow site at the University of Vermont's Patrick Gymnasium. The basketball courts where I normally photograph games had been turned into a makeshift hospital with wall-to-wall beds and a negative-pressure room constructed to contain the spatter of bodily fluids during procedures such as intubations. To date, patients have not been treated there.

I walked a route through empty streets in Burlington's Old North End with a U.S. Postal Service carrier whom Eva Sollberger interviewed for this week's Stuck in Vermont episode on essential workers.

Here's a look at some of those people. How is COVID-19 affecting your life? I'd like to capture your story in photos. Contact or @jamesbuck on Twitter

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