For the past seven months, I have spent one day a week in another county in our state listening to the needs of Vermont residents. I visited over 29 communities, met with hundreds of Vermonters from over 60 different organizations, businesses and nonprofits. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of innovation, perseverance and resilience during the pandemic. Vermonters shared with me their personal and professional experiences dealing with the challenges amplified by this pandemic and identified real solutions for a stronger recovery.
In November, I shared with the Governor and Legislature a “stronger recovery agenda for Vermont,” with 25 recommendations based on what I’ve heard and seen, on how to invest the $2.7 billion. of historic dollars of American Rescue Plan Act funds coming to Vermont. I have outlined five key areas for investment in the report: workforce development, housing, child care, mental health and support services (particularly for our youth), as well as as broadband and cellular services. The first three issues are at the heart of the concerns of the Vermonters I met. In every village, town, business and home I have visited, I have heard the call for bold investments in workforce development to fill essential, well-paying jobs that already exist in our communities. . I have also heard that we cannot make real progress on workforce development without also addressing two underlying and intersecting challenges, our urgent care and housing needs.
Vermonters deserve to be able to live where they work and work where they live. That’s what’s good for families, good for business and good for the environment. Additionally, without a “landing pad” for new workers, we will continue to struggle to recruit talent and meet our labor needs.
In Rutland, for example, I heard that employers were losing new employees because they couldn’t find market-priced housing or housing for the workforce. Meanwhile, a local developer had to abandon plans to build 200 rental units because sewer and wastewater infrastructure was not in place to support the project.
Using historic federal funding, we need to help cities and towns in Vermont conduct audits of specific housing needs, especially rental housing and workforce housing. We should establish grant opportunities for communities to meet these needs, including wastewater and sewer, housing development, home restoration and weather protection initiatives that will quickly bring new energy efficient units. And, in light of Vermont’s unique housing crisis, we should seek a further extension of FEMA’s reimbursement policy of the General Assistance Temporary Housing Program to provide housing for Vermonters in insecure circumstances. housing while relieving pressure on an already tight rental market. .
In order to recruit and retain a workforce ready to meet the unique needs of our small, rural state with its aging population, we must also double our support for child care and family care.
In a meeting with leaders of the Washington County Family Center, I heard firsthand about the challenges of keeping daycare open, recruiting and retaining early childhood educators, and increasing number of centers closing in Vermont. Center management discussed how low wages, student loan debt, and competition with other jobs with competitive wages (including jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s) continued to hamper recruitment and employee retention. Additionally, since the onset of the pandemic, child care providers, many of whom continue to manage their own care responsibilities, remain stuck having to choose between caring for loved ones at home, paying the bills and meeting the child care needs of their community. .
Immediately, we need to send a lifeline to child care providers to stabilize the workforce and keep centers open. To grow our workforce, we should create a targeted recruitment program through the Department of Labor and invest in student loan forgiveness for early childhood educators. We should also guarantee core funding for child care programs through the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP) based on enrollment, as well as expand CCFAP eligibility and child care payments. And moving forward, we must make paid family and medical leave a reality for every family and caregiver in Vermont.
During this legislative session, I will fight every day to ensure Vermonters who are already leading our recovery have their voices heard as we make crucial decisions about how best to invest historic federal funding. The stakes are high, and the decisions we make this year could be transformative for our state, our communities, and our families.
Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray