Op-Ed: Legislators look for ways to address crisis

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

We are all adjusting to our new COVID-19 normal. The legislature has just finished its first week working remotely on Vermont’s response to this crisis.

Each committee is addressing ways to respond to the anxieties and uncertainties we are all facing. This crisis is affecting almost every aspect of our lives, and we need to adjust our state laws to enable us to function in this new self-distancing world. Whether it is how quickly we can provide unemployment benefits, tele-health, health-care equipment,  childcare, education, to more flexibly renew prescriptions and licenses, to enable the state’s Open Meeting Law, which effects all our municipal and state meetings, or defer our rooms and meals taxes so our closed restaurants and bars have some cash flow – the Legislature is trying to help relieve some of the burdens this crisis has created.

Just like many of our businesses, Vermont faces huge revenue losses that will affect not only how we can provide basic services to Vermonters but how we can finance relief from this crisis. To weather this prolonged challenge, as with the Great Recession in 2008, we anticipate massive federal assistance. At the individual level, two big concerns are how to replace lost wages and how to deal with the cost of housing, whether you own or rent.

On the loss of wages issue, the Senate Economic Development Committee, on which I serve as vice chair, was tasked with overseeing changes, initially proposed by the House, to our unemployment insurance laws.  Unemployment insurance is likely to be a principal way for government to help provide economic support during the crisis.  Luckily, our UI Trust Fund is healthy, with over $500 million in reserve.

The proposed legal changes aim to coordinate our approach with the newly expanded coverage provided – and to some degree financed – by the federal government.  The new rules will expand who is eligible for payments to include not only people who have been laid off, but also people who have had to resign for reasons such as COVID-19 risk, exposure or infection, or to care for family who are sick or for children at home from school or day care.  These changes will exempt employers from having COVID-19 related benefit payments count against their experience ratings and prevent increases to their premiums. Vermont’s Department of Labor will coordinate with any additional Federal enactments.

For those facing a loss of work and needing unemployment insurance benefits, be sure to register with the Department of Labor, which can now be done online at: Labor.vermont.gov   You also can call 8:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. There are two numbers to try: 1-877-214-3330 or 1-888-807-7072. Also actively monitor the website for updated eligibility standards over the next few weeks as the state and federal governments roll out these expected changes.

On the cost of housing issue, many of us are deeply concerned with how we will pay our rent or mortgage.  With mortgages, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has announced a program that will allow some level of payment forbearance to borrowers impacted by COVID-19. The plan put forward is for people to work with their lenders to arrange for reduced or suspended payments for up to 12 months due to hardship.  People with loss of income related to the COVID-19 crisis should first calculate and document their losses and then get in touch with their lender or mortgage administrator to work out an appropriate reduction.  The deferred payments will still be owed – either through increased monthly payments once they resume or through an extension of the loan’s term.

This reduction is not automatic – it needs to be worked out with the lender.  Nor will it cover all mortgages.  Getting relief on those outside the federal system is a matter of lender policy rather than of mandate by the regulator.  Many banks have announced that they will have forbearance programs of their own.  For those who may be eligible because of lost income, please be in touch with your lender as soon as possible to get the process started.

There are no specific programs yet for rental relief although this may change. However, the Vermont Courts have suspended eviction proceedings during this COVID-19 crisis. Many rental properties may be eligible for the mortgage relief described above, which could result in a pass through of forbearance to tenants.  Renters facing payment problems should start a conversation with their landlords to explore different payment possibilities.

I appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached by email: aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at the Statehouse (Tues-Fri) 828-2228 or at home (Sat-Mon) 457-4627. To get more information on the Vermont Legislature, and the bills which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website by clicking here.

Alison Clarkson of Woodstock represents the Windsor District in the Vermont Senate.

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