Walters: Lawmakers face ‘deluge’ of Covid-19 constituent questions

The House chamber may be empty but lawmakers are staying busy with calls from constituents. VTDigger file photo.

John Walters is a political columnist for VTDigger.

The Vermont Legislature has been in recess since March 13, but lawmakers are busier than ever. They’re coping with a huge volume of constituent inquiries related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an absolute deluge,” said Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford.

“I’m being a social worker, which I am anyway,” said Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington. “People need encouragement. They need to know someone cares.” Cina’s district includes Burlington Health & Rehab, site of the first major cluster of Covid-19 deaths in the state.  

“People are really scared,” said Rep. Felisha Leffler, R-Enosburg. “I used to put out a weekly update. Now, it’s ‘What can I share that won’t age out after 12 hours?’”

The full House hasn’t been meeting, but Leffler estimates she’s spending 20-30 hours a week on committee work. On top of that, they’re trying to keep up with the latest. “We’re getting almost daily briefings from the Speaker [Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero],” said Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans. “I’ve listened to all of the governor’s media briefings, I’ve attended Department of Labor town halls. They’ve been really useful to understand how unemployment insurance is working.

That’s the most frequent subject of constituent contacts. “At least 50% of my calls are about unemployment insurance,” said Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville. The Labor Department’s system has been swamped with a massive number of claims. “Also, small business owners are calling about grants and loans. And I get a lot of questions from health care providers.” 

Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, owns a downtown bookstore. He hears plenty from his fellow merchants. “For business owners, it’s a more complicated process,” he said. “I’m fielding questions about how do I get started, what do I qualify for.” He also points to self-employed Vermonters as a source of questions; they’ve never qualified for unemployment before. Now, they’re covered under the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill. 

“For freelancers, it’s confusing,” said Rep. John Killacky, D-South Burlington. “The feds have been slow to provide guidance on how it works for them.”

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For those who represent downtowns, such as Beck, White, and Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, the health of small businesses and entrepreneurs is an ongoing concern. “People are trying to figure out ways to survive,” Burke said. “They’re thinking innovatively about ways to get through this.” One of Burke’s constituents is a graphic designer and musician; both sources of income have almost entirely disappeared.

“My downtown just came into a renaissance,” said White, speaking of White River Junction. “We have businesses and developers who have stuck with this, and now they’re facing another setback.”

McCarthy and Killacky pointed to Vermont’s many independent restaurants as imperiled by the economic fallout of coronavirus. “When you’re at the end of the first quarter going into spring, that’s the lowest cash reserves you’ll have all year,” said McCarthy. “And I’ve heard from banks that the small business loan rollout has been chaotic. I’m concerned.”

Killacky has been talking to one of the Burlington area’s leading restaurateurs, Jed Davis of the Farmhouse Group. “He went from 230 employees to five,” Killacky said of Davis. He’s worried that most of the restaurants won’t be able to open again.” For Davis, federal loans may be a ticket to oblivion; dining operations don’t have big margins in the best of times, and may not be able to handle loan repayments on top of other expenses.

Rural districts lacking reliable broadband are in a bad way, since so much of education and government benefit programs are conducted online. “It’s not like people can go to their library, community center or café to get connected,” said Leffler. “It’s insulting we haven’t done more on broadband.”

At the same time, everyone has some positives to report as well. “I’m seeing remarkable acts of kindness and generosity in my community,” said McCarthy.

“It’s humbling,” added Leffler. “There’s a battalion of people in my district with sewing machines, making face masks.”

Burke recounts a new habit in one of her district’s neighborhoods. “They have a meeting at 5:00 every day outside,” Burke said. “People maintain social distancing, and chat. Sometimes there’s music or tai chi.”

Whenever there’s a large-scale disruption and a massive government effort to provide help, there are those who fall through the cracks. “One of the hardest stories I’ve heard was about a woman who has two young kids,” Rogers said. “She used her life savings to take a year off when she started a family. She just recently went back to work, and was told she didn’t qualify for unemployment because she didn’t work last year. She’s worried she might lose her house.”

That story appears to have a happy ending. A few hours later, Rogers called back with an update. “I was just listening to a Labor Department town hall, and I found out she may be eligible for unemployment,” Rogers reported. “It’s good news, but a perfect example of how I need to be there for my constituents.”

Her sentiments were echoed by every lawmaker I talked to. They may be working harder than ever, but they’re happy to do so. It’s their job, after all. And it’s their contribution to their own communities.

For these lawmakers, as for every one of us, the pandemic has upended the rhythms of “normal” life, creating new stresses, new fears, and a lot of uncertainty lying ahead. They’ve taken on their new responsibilities willingly, as their contribution to community-wide efforts to get through all of this.

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John Walters

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