The Vermont Legislature on Friday advanced two bills aimed at providing relief during the Covid-19 crisis: a measure that would establish a moratorium on evictions proceedings, and a bill that would provide $60 million in pay increases to “essential” employees.
The House formally passed S.333 out of its virtual chamber Friday. The bill would enact a statewide rent eviction and foreclosure moratorium for the duration of Vermont’s Covid-19 state of emergency and 30 days after. It passed on a 131-16 vote.
The bill aims to keep people housed during the Covid-19 pandemic, given that experts and government officials have stressed that the only way to contain the virus is to remain self-isolated at home.
However, as the bill passed through Senate and House committees, some raised concerns the bill wouldn’t be necessary. The Vermont Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency March 16, which suspended all non-emergency court proceedings, which largely included eviction cases.
The bill does not enact rent forgiveness or a rent freeze.
Gov. Phil Scott has signaled he will support the legislation. Because the House made minor tweaks to the bill, it needs to be approved a final time by the Senate before it heads to the governor.
The bill passed on Friday after Rep. Rob LaClair, R-Barre, attempted to strip the 30-day extension of the moratorium out of the bill by amendment.
LaClair expressed concern that it’s already a time consuming and costly process for landlords to evict tenants through the courts. This 30-day time period, he argued, would only drag out the process and add to the losses landlords have already experienced.
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“If you do the math, it already pushes this out another 30 days. So you can’t start the process for back rent,” LaClair said. “So now you’re already another month behind.”
While the amendment received a healthy amount of support and dissent from other members on the virtual House floor, it failed in a 47-101 vote.
The House also passed S.344, which would allow towns to adjust the way they collect property taxes during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The bill would allow towns to take three actions: Towns could revise the date that property taxes are due; towns can reduce or waive penalties, interest and fees for late property tax payments; and towns can adjust their property tax rates for fiscal year 2020.
The bill passed easily, 137-7.
As Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, stressed as he presented the bill, towns do not have to take any of these steps. The bill would allow towns to take these actions as necessary.
The bill provides grants that could be distributed to 33,500 people including grocery store and pharmacy workers, child care providers and nursing home staff.
Health care workers, janitors and trash collectors would also be eligible to receive the pay increase.
The grants would be provided for the months of March, April and May — the month that the governor’s “stay home” order shutting down most businesses is due to expire.
The program was originally going to provide $90 million in pay to workers over a longer period of time, but lawmakers moved to scale it back earlier this week.
The grants would be passed to workers through their employers, who have to sign up to participate in the program.
The amount workers receive would be determined by how many hours they work. The maximum grant is $1,000 per month, and the minimum is $600.
Lawmakers began looking to offer additional pay to Covid-19 workers after realizing that with newly available federal benefits as well as state unemployment insurance, some workers could make more money while unemployed than they would on the job.
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Combined federal and state benefits during Covid-19 could amount to more than $1,100 per week — greater than what some may now be making at work .
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, stressed that the new grant program should not be a substitute for the private sector acting on its own to raise wages during the pandemic.
“We are hoping that some of the national chains that have money to provide more pay to their workers will do so and that this particular bill will not be a signal to them that they should not also step up and pay essential workers more,” Balint said.
Some Vermont grocery stores like Hannafords, Shaw’s, City Market and Healthy Living had already moved to increase pay for their workers during the Covid-19 crisis.
Lawmakers are planning to use $1.25 billion in federal funding the state has received to address expenses related to Covid-19 to pay for the essential worker grant.
But Scott has said that while he likes the proposal, he isn’t sure that the grants will be covered by the federal dollars.
“The guidance we received last week doesn’t give me great hope that they’ll be covered under the CARES Act,” Scott said during his press briefing Monday.
“My question would be, to the Legislature, where do you want that to come out of, if it’s out of the general fund at this point in time, we’re going to see some budgetary problems just for fiscal year 20, not to mention greater concern for ’21.”
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, told senators in an all-Senate caucus call Thursday that her committee made clear in the grant program’s bill language that it is a hazard pay program, so that it would qualify for federal funding. She said she hopes this change dispel’s Scott’s concerns.
Eligible employees under the legislation include those who work in the following settings:
— a grocery store;
— a pharmacy;
— a retailer identified as essential in Executive Order 01-20 that is open to the general public for in-person sales (not just curbside pickup/delivery);
— a wholesale distributor making deliveries to one of the retailers listed above;
— a waste management service;
— a janitorial service that provides cleaning services to another covered employer;
— an assisted living residence;
— a nursing home (includes employees of outside contractors that provide rehab services on behalf of nursing home);
— a residential care home;
— a therapeutic community residence;
— a health care facility or doctor’s office;
— a child care facility that is providing child care to essential workers pursuant to Executive Order 01-20;
— a vocational rehabilitation service provider;
— a dentist’s office;
— a homeless shelter;
— a home health agency (includes employees of outside contractors that provide rehab services on behalf of agency);
— a federally qualified health center, rural health clinic, or clinic for the uninsured;
— a program licensed by the Department of Families and Children as a residential treatment program;
— an ambulance/first responder service;
— a funeral home or crematory establishment; or
— a provider of necessities/services to vulnerable or disadvantaged population.
In addition, the employee’s principle job function must be to:
— provide in-person services to clients or the general public;
— clean/sanitize a location that is open to general public;
— stock products in a location that is open to general public; or
— perform another activity that results in similar risk of Covid-19 exposure.
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