Business & Economy

Vermont employers ask for state reimbursement to keep workers on the payroll

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Pampha Gurung affixes labels to bottles of maple syrup at the Runamok Maple processing plant in Fairfax on July 1, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell

At Runamok Maple in Fairfax, co-owner and CEO Eric Sorkin has seen a wave of workplace absences due to the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The sugarmaker employs about 100 people. Roughly 20 younger employees work in the woods and production facilities making maple syrup. Most of the rest work at a plant in Fairfax — manufacturing, bottling and shipping infused and barrel-aged syrups, honey, mixers and bitters. 

During earlier stages of the pandemic, according to Sorkin, the company paid employees who had to stay home because of Covid. 

“If we did want to keep our employees safe and our business operating, we did what we could to keep Covid out of our facility,” Sorkin said. 

For a time, Sorkin was able to draw on the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act to keep paying employees. That program concluded on Sept. 30.

“Once that ended, we made a game attempt at doing it ourselves, and we were able to do that until Omicron hit, and then we couldn’t possibly do it anymore,” Sorkin said. “Too many people were calling in and it was just too much.”

As the Omicron variant took hold in Vermont, so many workers had to stay home that Sorkin was no longer able to keep paying them, he said. 

“Replacement pay literally comes out of our pocket,” Sorkin said. “We’re not a large corporation.”

Sorkin is among more than 120 business owners who have signed a letter to the Legislature, submitted by Main Street Alliance and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, in support of a Covid Worker Relief Fund. More than 500 employees also signed. 

That fund would reimburse employers who kept their employees on payroll through Covid.

Morgan Nichols, New England regional manager of Main Street Alliance, told the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee last month that, under the federal program that expired Sept. 30, Vermont employers received $45 million in payroll tax credits to keep paying sick workers. She pointed out, however, that many employers never became aware of the program.

At that hearing, senators seemed interested in providing assistance.

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, who chairs the committee, and Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, the majority leader, both expressed support for funding wage replacement. 

The U.S. Treasury Department has said that a state could use money from the American Rescue Plan Act to create a similar program.

Legislators have yet to work out how they would fund one.  

Workers staff the bottling line at the Runamok Maple processing plant in Fairfax on July 1, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell

“Many occupations and industries, including manufacturing, hospitality, and tourism — and those without the resources to provide robust benefits such as paid family and medical leave — are unable to provide flexibility,” Roxanne Vought, executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said in a statement. “This is where we’re seeing the absenteeism friction most prevalent.”

Omicron has devastated the ability of workplaces to keep going. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, nationwide, 3.6 million people called in sick in January. It was the highest number by far since the pandemic began. No Vermont-specific numbers are available. 

Sam Hooper, owner of Vermont Glove in Randolph, said he has been able to keep paying his employees who have stayed home because of Covid.

However, “it’s becoming increasingly challenging as the pandemic continues to mess up our lives,” Hooper said. “We’re definitely feeling the pain from this.”

In mid-February, two of Hooper’s 10 employees in production were out with Covid. 

Hooper said he told the employees he would take care of them.

He said they were the first employees known to be infected. But throughout the pandemic, Hooper said, employees have had to leave work, pick up their symptomatic child from child care or school and keep the child home the next day and then test the child out of isolation. They have also had to stay home to take care of their children when their child care providers have had Covid. 

Sam Hooper of the Vermont Glove Company in Randolph on Nov. 23. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“Running a manufacturing business with that amount of people coming in and out all the time is really, really challenging,” Hooper said. “If businesses can’t keep their doors open and can’t keep their employees employed, then that’s a way scarier economy that is the next chapter of this thing.”

Covering lost wages of employees who are out due to Covid is becoming increasingly challenging for Vermont Glove, Hooper said. 

“We need some sort of support from the state to cover those wages,” he said.

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: fthys@vtdigger.org

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