4.24.2020 – The Vermont Legislature Votes Remotely, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and the 2020 Census
This week was momentous in that for the first time in history the Vermont House conducted business remotely. House Rules require that members be present in their seats to be able to vote so the first order of business at our Thursday meeting was to pass temporary House Rule 9A that allows members to vote remotely. The motion passed unanimously.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Speaker Mitzi Johnson, members of the Rules Committee, our legislative staff, and the IT people at the State House for developing a system that allows us to do business for the ongoing good of Vermonters. The Chief of the Capitol Police should also be thanked for developing a system for us to cast votes securely on an app that is typically used to send out weather and other alerts. It all worked extremely well though due to poor internet connections around the state, some people had a difficult time. To the great credit of everyone involved, several work arounds were in place so that everyone who wanted to, was able to vote.
The bills we worked on and passed were deemed critical to keeping people healthy and safe during this time of COVID-19 while allowing for certain essential business to be conducted. Currently, the creation of a will requires the physical presence of the person making the will, a notary, and witnesses, all in the same room. The seriousness of the coronavirus is causing people, especially older Vermonters in the at-risk age group who do not already have a will to think about writing one or to update the one they have. Without social distancing, the notary could become a vector for the virus.
S.316, which came to us from the Senate, allows for the execution of a will during an emergency by video conference. It will allow for Vermonters to create or change a will without endangering other people’s health. This provision will remain in place until the emergency rules are no longer in place, at which point we will revert to current practices.
S.341, an act relating to disclosure of tax information to facilitate the provision of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, allows the Department of Taxes to communicate with the Department of Labor regarding people’s income.
The good news for self-employed people is that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Program is up and running, though I’ve heard that people have had mixed results. This will provide unemployment help for people who don’t pay into the traditional system. Workers wishing to claim need to do so online at https://labor.vermont.gov/pua. Once approved, you will need to file weekly as long as you are unemployed and want to receive benefits. If you do not file weekly, your payment will be delayed. Benefits can be retroactive to the week of March 15, 2020. As part of the claim process, you can choose to have your money directly deposited into your bank account or receive a check in the mail. You can also have taxes withheld using the online PUA Dashboard.
Your weekly benefit amount depends on your 2019 earnings, which is why we passed S.341 so that the Department of Taxes can communicate with the Department of Labor. People who are eligible for PUA benefits are also eligible for the $600 added weekly benefit provided by the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program, which will continue until July 25, 2020. For additional information about any of this, please go to www.labor.vermont.gov.
I’ve been asked why we would do this? Afterall, Vermont is one of just a few states that has. The answer, in part, is that many Vermonters are self-employed, and they work in jobs that have been ordered to stay home. The effect on the overall economy and their well-being if they had no source of income would be dramatically bad. The goal is to keep people solvent until they can start working again, which may be soon given the recent loosening of the guidelines regarding construction and other work.
I am very proud of the fact that most Vermonters have been following the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Safe Order and are only leaving home for essential reasons such as food shopping and to pick up medications. It has been hard on people to not be working but it is probably the reason that Vermont has fared relatively well when it comes to COVID-19 infections. It is important that we continue to follow these guidelines until it is determined that we are out of the woods.
There was a small demonstration this week in Montpelier, perhaps generated by social media, protesting the Stay Home, Stay Safe Order. At the same event, there was a counter demonstration by several nurses who are on the front line if our medical system is overwhelmed.
My colleague, Rep. George Till, who is also a medical doctor sent out a mock-up of a card similar to a driver’s license. Across the top it says “COVID-19 LOCKDOWN PROTESTER” followed by, “To demonstrate my commitment to my freedom and to compensate for the extra burden I am putting on the U.S. medical system, I hereby decline medical treatment for COVID-19-related medical conditions.” It is signed and witnessed and at the very bottom it says “Please keep in your wallet with your ID and/or insurance card. Please let your loved ones know to present it on your behalf if you are incapacitated.” While meant as a joke, it really isn’t and summed the situation up nicely.
One very important point this week is to remind you to respond to the 2020 Census if you haven’t done so already. The return rate from Windham County has been less than stellar and so much depends on an accurate count. Federal funding to Vermont is reliant on the number of people living here. As it says on the FAQs, “Census data guide how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to states and communities each year.” We are all paying into the system, we want to make sure that we’re getting our fair share back.
Now that many of us have a little time on our hands, we should resolve to take part and be counted. You can do this by going online to www.2020census.gov. You should have received a card in the mail with a 12-digit code but if you’ve lost the card or put it in a “safe place” like I sometimes do and can’t find it, there are instructions on how you can still fill out the questionnaire. If you’d rather not do it online, you can call 1-844-330-2020. If English is not your first language, don’t worry, there are people available to help you in 14 different languages. Finally, you may have gotten a paper questionnaire in the mail. It is important that if you are responding by paper that you use black or blue ink and return it in the postage-paid envelope that is provided.