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Legislative Update 03/27/2020
Inequity in the Age of COVID-19
Equity is a value that Vermont legislators hold most dear. It permeates virtually every state policy, from education and health care to tax policy and state spending. As COVID-19 reshapes nearly every aspect of our society, lawmakers are going to find that value, like so many others, put to the test.
Perhaps the greatest inequity wrought by the virus is happening in homes with school-age children. Many students from middle- and upper-class families, while inconvenienced, have the advantages of high speed Internet, motivated parents and an enormous range of on-line learning materials. Some schools have even created their own mini-MOOC’s.
But many low-income students are free-falling into the digital divide, with no access to the Internet or computers and family structures that don’t come close to replacing school environments. Pre-k children face similar disadvantages.
Vermont schools have seen a persistent achievement gap between low-income and upper-income students, and the closure of schools for three months will undoubtedly widen that gap. Lawmakers who want to create equitable opportunities for kids are being asked to take swift action to close the digital divide. But the Internet divide is a perpetual problem in our rural state and cannot be quickly addressed.
Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home Stay Safe” Order this week also closed most Vermont businesses, and that order created its own inequities. The order allowed many businesses to continue operations, even as their competitors were shuttered. Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, questioned why WalMart could continue to sell a wide range of consumer goods, including groceries, while small stores had to change their practices or close altogether. The urgency of the order made it impossible for the administration to finely draw the rules in a way that created equity for all businesses.
The urgent response to the massive unemployment in Vermont is likely to create the perception of unfairness in the workplace that could have ramifications that long outlive the coronavirus. This week, the legislature passed a bill that dramatically expands eligibility for unemployment insurance. Workers will be able to leave their jobs and obtain unemployment compensation for a wide range of COVID-19 reasons that will be difficult to verify. (See the article below). Among these are “an unreasonable risk of being infected with COVID-19 at work” because the employer fails to follow COVID-19 guidance issued by Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control or the Vermont Department of Health.
At the same time, the federal recovery bill has increased unemployment benefits by $600 per week. Those benefits, combined with the state maximum benefit of $513 per week, mean that many employees will increase their incomes by quitting work. How will employees react when coworkers respond to this new disincentive to work?
COVID-19 will wreak its own direct and random inequity, of course, as it ravages and kills some and leaves others untouched. These disparities will be compounded by existing social and economic structures. Lawmakers are likely to make these inequities a major focus in the months and years ahead.
Federal aid approved
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law today. An excellent summary of the CARES Act can be found here. The $2 trillion stimulus package will offer enormous relief to states and individuals, with Vermont’s share expected to be up to $2 billion dollars. But Vermont policy makers and their fiscal advisors are still beginning to understand how the money can be used. Read more
Scott orders school dismissal for the rest of the year
Gov. Phil Scott directed schools to remain closed through the end of the school year. Although the announcement was anticipated, Scott acknowledged the seriousness and difficulty of the decision. At a media briefing today, he told Vermonters, “It’s disappointing, frustrating and it’s just plain sad for kids, parents, teachers and all school employees.” Read more
State expands unemployment benefits as claims continue to surge
Vermont passed a bill this week, H.742, which expands eligibility for unemployment insurance. The bill was passed prior to the federal CARES Act, so the legislature may need to revisit the law in light of expanded federal benefits. Read more
Legislature approves comprehensive emergency health care measures
Lawmakers approved a comprehensive health care bill this week in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The bill, H.742, was sent to the Governor for action. The bill gives administrators and providers flexibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. It allows the Agency of Human Services and the Green Mountain Care Board to waive or modify certain regulatory processes and requirements to prioritize direct patient care, allow flexible staffing, and preserve provider sustainability. Read more
Business owners scramble to navigate hazy essential business orders
On Tuesday, after weeks of orders increasing restrictions on public gatherings, Governor Scott issued a Stay Home, Stay Safe Executive Order that directs businesses to suspend in-person business operations and transactions. The order then layered on exemptions for business activities that are deemed essential to public health and safety during COVID-19 crisis. Read more
Get all the news about Vermont Health Care legislation
We’ve included a few of the most important health care articles here, but DRM’s weekly comprehensive Health Care Legislative Update covers all the developments including bills, committee activities, panel discussions, taxes, budgets and more. Read this week’s Health Care Legislative Update here. Additional topics covered this week include:
- Lawmakers approve emergency measures for COVID-19 response
- Appropriations committees receive situation report on Vermont financial situation
Department of Mental Health recommends temporary move of Middlesex residents.
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For more information about this Legislative Update, please contact Tricia Augeri.