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State acting to help workers, businesses

Everybody is on board to help. The way we moved things through the Legislature last week, everybody working together, everything thrown on the table, nobody’s ego getting in the way … Last week was an example of what Vermont state government should look like.
Rep. Matt Birong

ADDISON COUNTY — State lawmakers and officials have already taken a number of steps to provide financial relief to workers, businesses and families affected by the novel coronavirus crisis, and are working on more.
Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, said bureaucrats and lawmakers are teaming up in Montpelier as quickly as possible in an unprecedented situation to respond to Vermont residents’ needs.
“Everybody’s been working extremely well together,” said Birong, who is both a small business owner (3 Squares Café in Vergennes) and a legislator. “Nobody’s got a playbook for this, right? We’re free-styling this as we go, but within the Legislature people are relying on people with particular skillsets, whether it be how we’re approaching healthcare or how we’re approaching emergency housing situations.”
Birong, Department of Labor (DOL) Spokesman Kyle Thweatt and the DOL website (labor.vermont.gov), and the Addison County Economic Development Corp. were among those who provided information early this week on what is available to residents and businesses. 
The DOL has COVID-19 information at the top of its web page that links easily to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Department of Health for more information.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS
Birong said a basic step the DOL has taken is that workers laid off due to coronavirus and who cannot work remotely are immediately eligible for unemployment insurance benefits and should contact their local DOL office.
“If a doctor quarantines them, they now have access to benefits,” he said.
According to DOL officials, that statement assumes documentation. 
“If the separation is contested (or adverse), then the department must investigate to determine who is responsible for the separation, which may dictate whether benefits are allowed or not,” according to a DOL email.
In general, however, the DOL said it stands ready to act to help businesses and their employees, in particular by not requiring temporarily laid-off workers to seek new employment.
Also, for any employee that is required to be in isolation and cannot work, the DOL will waive the work search for those individuals as well.
A March 17 DOL website post offers guidance and phone numbers to employers.
Some people trying to call the DOL had problems early this week, but on Wednesday the department moved to address that problem (see accompanying story).
In the meantime, Birong said lawmakers are working to hold employers harmless for future increases in unemployment insurance rates for temporary spikes in layoffs caused by the COVID-19 virus. In calculating those premiums for businesses, previous layoffs factor into rate calculations and typically increase rates.
“(We’re) making sure if layoffs were the result of state and federal government putting out a decree that we have to shut down that it would not impact the employer’s experience rating,” Birong said on Monday. “That’s something we (the House) put through on Friday … Now the Senate is taking that up.”
The DOL said it will try to “expedite benefits to those individuals impacted and provide those funds as soon as possible.”
Laid-off workers can find other part-time work without jeopardizing benefits, according to the DOL:
“Individuals … are encouraged to work part-time, while collecting UI benefits … In order to incentivize individuals to work part-time, the department is authorized to ‘disregard’ 50% of wages earned from part-time work (fewer than 35 hours).  
“The other 50% of wages earned is deducted dollar-for-dollar from the individual’s UI weekly amount.”
Eventually, Birong said, the state might need federal help in funding unemployment benefits. He made that case on a Monday conference call with the Main Street Alliance small business group and members of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden’s staff.
“We have a very robust fund right now, about a half-billion dollars. But (we’re making) a request that there be a federal feeder of money should we start exhausting those funds,” he said.

SBA LOANS
Business owners can take another step, according to Fred Kenney, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).
Gov. Phil Scott’s declaration of a State of Emergency means the U.S. Small Business Administration can provide Economic Injury Disaster Loans to businesses. However, ACEDC notes, Scott “must demonstrate that enough small businesses in a disaster area have suffered substantial economic injury as a result of the disaster. This can include: economic injury; supply chain disruption; workforce disruption (including that caused by lack of childcare); business travel; visitor travel and tourism activities; remote work capabilities.”
ACEDC recommends that local businesses fill out an SBA assessment form, available online at accd.vermont.gov and return it to [email protected] as soon as possible. Doing so will allow the Scott administration to “advocate for eligibility” for Vermont, according to ACEDC, which is requesting that businesses copy ACEDC with the form “so we can continue to advocate for businesses in our region.” 
Businesses may also call an Agency of Commerce and Community Development hotline established to report COVID-19 response impacts and be directed to additional resources: (802) 461-5143.
The agency has also created an email address — [email protected] — through which it is encouraging Vermont businesses affected by the response to COVID-19 to share their experiences with agency officials. 

IN VERMONT 
Birong said Vermont lawmakers are also working on more bills.
“We have a bill going that would put in place a family leave program, ironically, and also putting in expanding emergency housing access, and helping people in rental arrears and small landlords,” he said. 
Birong said he and other Main Street Alliance members also lobbied a U.S. senator about less reliance on tax credits. He said businesses need the flexibility and cash now given their many different needs. 
“Part of what I was talking to the senator’s office about was access to operating capital for small businesses, like direct cash infusions, not like tax credits that will be realized at some point,” he said. “We need unrestricted loans so that we can be nimble with how we allocate that money for operating expenses or debt service or rent.”  
Birong said state legislators have also talked with Vermont banks about helping out their business customers.
“We’re working with local lenders to be very helpful with loans for small businesses,” he said. “It hasn’t even been put on paper yet, but it would be a very low interest loan, maybe even 1%. The state has discussed picking up the interest debt, so the business would only be responsible for the principal.”
Birong said the talks have been productive.
“They’re actually ready and willing to help, because they have a lot of capital right now,” he said, adding industry reps are aware the government helped them out during the last recession, and that the banks are now in a healthy financial position. 
In all, Birong remains hopeful about the statewide response to the pandemic.
“Everybody is on board to help,” he said. “The way we moved things through the Legislature last week, everybody working together, everything thrown on the table, nobody’s ego getting in the way … Last week was an example of what Vermont state government should look like.” 

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