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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 buck@sevendaysvt.com or @jamesbuck on Twitter

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Coronavirus Layoffs Overwhelm Vermont Unemployment Center

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2020 at 11:33 PM

©DESIGNER491 | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • ©Designer491 | Dreamstime.com
Tending bar at the Friendly Toast in Burlington on Monday afternoon, Starr Gaia St James sensed that it might be her last day on the job for a while.

Gov. Phil Scott hadn't yet issued the order to shutter all Vermont bars and restaurants except for takeout, but St James had suspected that the global pandemic might force her employer to close its doors.

So she wasn't surprised when her phone rang later that night, and her manager's name popped up. St James had been laid off, joining a growing number of people who have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus outbreak. Faced with the prospect of a weeks-long shutdown, some Vermont businesses — especially restaurants — have temporarily fired their employees.

The mass layoffs mean St James and other workers are flooding phone lines at Vermont's unemployment call center with the hopes of supplementing their income until they can go back to their old jobs or find new ones.

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Childcare Centers Close — But Want Parents to Keep Paying

Posted By on Tue, Mar 17, 2020 at 4:23 PM

The Greater Burlington YMCA - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • The Greater Burlington YMCA
UPDATE, March 18, 2020:

The Greater Burlington YMCA has reversed its plan to charge families for childcare during the current closure of its centers, set to last until at least April 1. CEO and president Kyle Dodson sent families a note Tuesday afternoon saying the nonprofit would not make additional charges and would give a credit to families who had already paid for next week. The Y shared the note with
Seven Days Wednesday morning. It reads:

Dear Y Child Care Families,

I hope that this email finds you well in difficult times.

Yesterday, we outlined a plan for child care payments that we have now reconsidered. We had expected to charge through next week, but we have reversed that decision. We will not be making any additional charges for child care – beyond those already processed – until we have firm information concerning the date that we will reopen. If you have already paid for next week, we will issue a credit to your account.

Please know that we are doing our best to identify a clear path in a changing landscape. We apologize for anxiety that we created in what we know is a stressful time.

We will reach out again when we know more about reopening. It is a day we look forward to with great anticipation.

Original story:

Many of the Vermont childcare centers that are closing because of coronavirus have asked parents to keep paying tuition of roughly $250 to $300 a week so that they don't have to lay off teachers.

The Greater Burlington YMCA is among them. All but one of its early childcare programs will close by the end of  Tuesday to reduce the risk of community spread of the coronavirus. They will remain shuttered until at least April 1. Dodson said the nonprofit has asked parents to continue to pay tuition to keep the operation afloat. It was a difficult decision, with no real precedent, he said.

"I can't base it on what we did last time, because there  wasn't a last time," Dodson told Seven Days Monday.

Dodson said he didn't know whether some parents would be unwilling or unable to pay, or how the Y would respond.

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Burlington Free Press Will Be Printed in Coastal New Hampshire

Posted By and on Thu, Feb 27, 2020 at 8:50 PM

The presses in downtown Burlington - SALLY POLLAK
  • Sally Pollak
  • The presses in downtown Burlington
The Burlington Free Press will be printed in Portsmouth, N.H., causing about two dozen people to lose their jobs in the Queen City.

The move appears designed to save costs by merging Free Press operations with those of the Portsmouth Herald. Last November, the papers' parent companies, Gannett and GateHouse Media, merged.

"The unfortunate reality of this new partnership is that about two dozen press people will lose their employment," Free Press executive editor Emilie Stigliani wrote in an email. Employees at the press facility declined to comment Thursday.

The fate of 137 South Winooski Avenue, the downtown Burlington property that houses the presses, has not been decided, Stigliani said in an email. It's assessed at $1.5 million, city records show.

The paper announced the plans in an article published Thursday afternoon on its website. As part of the move, the Free Press will switch from its current tabloid format back to a traditional broadsheet. The paper will continue to publish each day and home delivery will not be affected, according to the article. The newsroom and advertising staff will remain in Burlington.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

All Eyes on Vermont House After Senate Overrides Minimum Wage Veto

Posted By on Thu, Feb 13, 2020 at 4:57 PM

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (left) and Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (left) and Speaker Mitzi Johnson
The Vermont Senate on Thursday voted 24-6 to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of a two-year increase to the state’s minimum wage.

All eyes now turn to the House, where Democratic leaders fresh off their failure to force paid leave legislation into law must prepare for another high-stakes vote.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said Democratic leaders have begun working on a vote count and plan to check in with every member of their caucus. That includes the eight moderate Democrats who voted against the minimum wage hike the first time around. 

"Some people are hearing and feeling pressure from their constituents, so we are in constant conversations with them to see where they're at," Krowinski said.

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Scott Vetoes Minimum Wage Increase, Setting Up Another Possible Override Vote

Posted By on Mon, Feb 10, 2020 at 9:35 PM

Gov. Phil Scott at a Statehouse press conference last week. - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Gov. Phil Scott at a Statehouse press conference last week.
Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a 15-percent increase in Vermont’s minimum wage over two years, setting up another possible override fight with the legislature.

The governor had until midnight Monday to take action on S.23, which calls for hiking the state’s minimum wage from $10.96 per hour to $12.55 by 2022. He released a statement at 8:30 p.m. announcing the veto, his second in as many weeks.

The boost would have been more modest than the $15 minimum wage that many lawmakers had sought to have in place by 2024. But it still proved too much for the Republican governor, who said the increase would raise the cost of goods, harm economic growth and disproportionately affect rural areas.

“It’s critical to recognize that we share the goal of Vermonters making more money. I also believe Vermonters should keep more of what they earn, which is why I can’t support policies that increase the costs of living,” Scott said. “I believe this legislation would end up hurting the very people it aims to help.”

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Friday, February 7, 2020

Democratic Leaders Blame 'Squirrelly' Legislator for Override Fail

Posted By on Fri, Feb 7, 2020 at 8:18 PM

Democratic legislators conferring during Wednesday's failed override vote - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Democratic legislators conferring during Wednesday's failed override vote
Democratic lawmakers feuded this week over their failure to override the governor’s veto on the paid family and medical leave bill Wednesday, with party leaders saying they were betrayed and the alleged turncoat denying she ever pledged support.

The finger-pointing reflected how painful it has been for many lawmakers to watch their signature legislative priority — one that some have pushed for a decade — fall just one vote shy of success.

The full 150-member House needed 100 votes to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s long-promised veto of H.107, but a coalition of Democrats and Progressives could only muster 99 votes in favor.

In the hours and days following the high-profile defeat, House members first expressed disappointment and commitment to keep fighting, but later began characterizing it as a betrayal.

“I believe a trust was broken,” said bill sponsor Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury), though she said she wasn’t directly involved the vote-counting conversations. Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) said a House member had “reneged” on a “hard, stated commitment” to support the override.

Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said alarms began going off shortly before the vote when a member who had pledged support the previous week was spotted in the Statehouse conferring with members of the Scott administration.

Krowinski didn’t name the member, who she said had previously “indicated that they were a ‘yes’ and were going to help out with having conversations with other people.”

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset) acknowledged she was the member whose vote leaders took issue with. 

On the morning of the vote, leadership learned the governor had been “pulling people in” for meetings about it, Krowinski said.

Scott acknowledged administration officials had meetings with two House members shortly before the vote, as well as side meetings with members to answer questions and urge them not to support the override.

Concerned about that outreach effort, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) checked in with Sullivan that morning, and learned she wasn’t sure how she was going to vote.

“This is not the first time that she’s gotten squirrelly,” Johnson said. “It’s just the first time that it’s been in a situation with these consequences.”

Johnson said she arranged to get Sullivan the answers to her outstanding questions even as she was working to see if she could convince Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) to support the override.

Both efforts failed. Party leaders blamed Sullivan for not keeping them in the loop about her change of heart.

“It was a breach of protocol, and it was a breach of trust,” Krowinski charged. “And I hope that we can rebuild from this and learn from this so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Some Democrats in the House, such as Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), don’t always support bills that leadership wishes they would, Johnson said. But Browning has “honesty and integrity” and lets leadership know her concerns up front, she said.

She did not have similar praise for Sullivan.

“Rep. Sullivan is smart enough and engaged enough and has been around long enough to know the protocol is that if you are not on board with the main plan, it’s on you to be clear to leadership about that,” Johnson said.

Rep. Emily Long (D-Newfane), the House whip, is responsible for making sure House leaders know who plans to vote how on bills, and why.

“It’s not about the decision,” Long said. “It’s about the communication, or lack thereof.”

Sullivan had been widely seen as one of the swing votes. She was one of a group of conservative Democrats from southwestern Vermont who voted against the original House bill last year as well as the compromise bill struck with the Senate early this session.

Sullivan conferred at length with staff from the legislative counsel’s office in the House chamber just before the override vote. She denied she had ever committed to “flip” and vote for the override.

“I can understand Leadership’s need to mischaracterize their folly,” Sullivan wrote in an email. “While I appreciate the miscommunication from the Majority Leader to the Speaker, I never committed to anyone on how I was going to vote.”

Sullivan said the last time she spoke to anyone in leadership about her vote was at a Democratic event in Bennington County on January 26 when Krowinski, “under a social setting with a glass of wine, asked me if I was getting the answers to my unanswered questions.

“I told her that I was,” Sullivan wrote, adding she was continuing to ask questions. “There was no further conversation about the veto vote until approximately an hour or so before the floor on vote day."

In her comments on the House floor, Sullivan said she was “unequivocally and without reservation” in support of a paid family leave plan in Vermont. But she said the “two competing and irreconcilable plans” proposed by the legislature and the governor convinced her a compromise between the two plans was possible and should be further pursued.

Sullivan’s written explanation of her vote, however, differed from her verbal one, and fueled questions about her grasp of the paid leave policy. Those written comments express concern that “we are committing to spend another $30 [million] to $60 million in General Fund dollars to set up this plan.”

The $29 million program would be funded by payroll taxes, not general fund dollars. Sullivan said the written comments were in error, and she meant to write that she had concerns the plan could result in a $3 million to $6 million impact on the general fund.

By the time Sullivan’s concerns were clear, Johnson said, there was no way to delay the vote.

Johnson had informed Republican leadership about the timing of the vote, and House members had gone to great lengths to be there. Members had delayed travel plans and reported to the Statehouse after surgeries, she said.

“There had been a lot of push to take the vote,” Johnson said. “I think we were very much on this train.”

Correction, February 8, 2020: This post has been updated to clarify Sullivan's statement acknowledging that she was the legislator whom leaders blamed, and it was also corrected to give her correct hometown.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Lawmakers Fall One Vote Shy of Overriding Paid Family Leave Veto

Posted By on Wed, Feb 5, 2020 at 5:51 PM

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson gaveling in the final override vote Wednesday - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson gaveling in the final override vote Wednesday
Democratic lawmakers failed to override Gov. Phil Scott's veto of a mandatory
paid family and medical leave program Wednesday, a huge blow to one of their key legislative priorities.

House members voted 99-51 in favor of override, one vote shy of the 100 needed to force the bill — with the expected consent of the Senate — into law.

H.107 received 89 yes votes in the House last month, and leaders sought to whip up 11 additional votes. Some had predicted that enough lawmakers who voted against the bill would come around to support overriding the Republican governor's veto.

"The vote the last time was, 'Is this bill my ideal?' And the vote this time was ... 'Is Vermont better off with this or with nothing?'" a visibly disappointed House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said after the vote.
Majority Leader Jill Krowinski and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson after the vote - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Majority Leader Jill Krowinski and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson after the vote
Speculation about whether leadership had lined up the votes was high after five Progressives who voted against the bill last month agreed Tuesday afternoon to support the override.

Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), who initially voted no, said he felt it should be passed into law with an eye toward "improving and strengthening it next year."

That left just a few swing votes — three by some calculations — needed to override. Two Democrats who initially voted against the bill, Logan Nicoll (D-Ludlow) and Charen Fegard (D-Berkshire), flipped.

But Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset) said she could not support one of "two competing irreconcilable plans," a reference to Scott's voluntary leave plan.

"I believe that this plan, and the governor's plan, are both broken" and need to be reconciled, she said.

Another Democrat who stuck by his no vote was Rep. Randall Szott (D/P-Barnard), who pushed back against the idea that lawmakers should strive for incremental change by passing a compromise bill and working to improve it later.

Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), who was absent for the initial debate on the bill Wednesday, cast another key vote against it. She returned to the chamber around the same time as Johnson, just before the final vote, but her position had not changed.

After reaching an impasse on competing versions of the bill last session, House and Senate leaders hammered out a compromise last month. The program would have allowed most workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a newborn child and eight weeks to care for a sick family member. The $29 million insurance program would have been funded by a payroll tax.

The cost and mandatory nature of the program is what troubled most Republicans, including Rep. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury).

Beck said the question came down to a choice between an optional family leave program such as Scott's, or "to raise a $30 million payroll tax on tax-weary Vermonters. That is the question."

Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury) countered that the program would help businesses that currently opt to pay employees who take leave. She also said it would help all businesses attract and retain workers.

"It's long past time for us to support working families and help our businesses with a paid family leave program," Scheu said.

 House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said the bill was "one of the top issues in our platform" and its defeat did not mean the war was over.

"We're going to be taking it back to the campaign trail," she said. "We're going to be running on it again." 

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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Legislature Passes Paid Family Leave, but Scott Veto Likely

Posted By on Thu, Jan 23, 2020 at 5:35 PM

Christine Vance holding her son, Ben, as she addresses supporters of paid family leave in the Statehouse on Wednesday - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Christine Vance holding her son, Ben, as she addresses supporters of paid family leave in the Statehouse on Wednesday
The Vermont House of Representatives approved a paid family and medical leave program Thursday — but not with enough votes to ensure it will ever become law.

Unlike the Senate, which last week approved the plan with enough votes to override a threatened veto by Gov. Phil Scott, the House fell well short of the votes needed to do so.

The final vote, following a lengthy floor debate, was 89 in favor and 58 against. At least 100 House votes would be needed for an override.

“This bill moves us one step closer to a Vermont that works for all of us,” Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction) said.

After reaching an impasse on competing versions of the bill last session, House and the Senate leaders vowed to forge a compromise this session, and last week they did just that.


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