In the last few months, our world changed. Vermonters and people around the globe are reeling from the impact of COVID-19 on their lives, work, and loved ones. Throughout the pandemic, the Vermont Chamber has advocated for financial assistance and regulatory relief to help businesses throughout our state survive, helping their communities and their workers.
With Governor Phil Scott’s support, the Vermont Chamber secured tax abatement, online lodging reservations, suspension of tax deadlines, and freezing of unemployment insurance rate impact. The federal government has also swiftly responded to calls for relief with funding for businesses through the CARES Act and Paycheck Protection Program. This is a great start, but we need even more funding for these federal programs and operational changes as detailed in our letter to Vermont’s congressional delegation.
With Governor Scott now outlining a phased restart of Vermont’s economy and plans to reopen the state a quarter turn at a time, the Vermont Chamber is turning our attention to positive economic activity in four stages: relief, restart, recovery, and reimagining.
We are eager to reopen Vermont businesses with clear guidance for employers while also ensuring that new constraints on operations are feasible. We asked the Governor and his economic recovery task force to include the Vermont Chamber in decision-making prior to implementation. We will provide immediate feedback from businesses so that as we reopen, we help protect the health of workers and customers while also establishing appropriate guidelines for employers related to liability, privacy, and costs.
As we enter recovery, we urge state leaders to consider these initial recommendations:
- Full abatement of February and March meals and rooms tax obligations. Abatement will provide Vermont’s hospitality sector with liquidity in a time when cash is desperately needed to help hire back employees, reopen, and remain open.
- Waive or delay certain professional licensing fees. This financial assistance would help businesses resume normal operations, especially in sectors unable to operate or able to operate only in an extremely limited manner during the crisis.
- Ensure employer experience ratings are not negatively impacted during the next several months, maintaining the current freeze on employers’ unemployment insurance experience ratings through December 31, 2020.
- Maintain enacted changes to alcohol sales regulations, including those authorizing takeout of certain alcoholic beverages. Maintaining this change will provide restaurants with a small but reliable revenue source during the next several months of uncertainty.
- Identify an economic indicator to use as a trigger for a temporary halt for minimum wage increases in the event of a prolonged economic downturn. If this economic trigger is hit, businesses should be relieved of the obligation of increasing payroll output during decreased business activity. If the economy recovers and remains strong, no changes to current minimum wage law should be implemented.
As we reopen and recover, the Vermont Chamber will continue to put forth suggestions to help businesses throughout our state. We will also monitor the newly created Vermont Futures Project COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard for changing key economic indicators. Additionally, I have heard from many businesses and community leaders, and agree, that amid this crisis, we need to reimagine Vermont’s economic future.
Though less immediate, we encourage the Governor to investigate how this crisis will transform us and how we can emerge from this more resilient, innovative, and sustainable. As schools closed and residents learned to work from home, Vermont’s uneven broadband infrastructure was highlighted. We need to tackle this issue and others to create economic resiliency in our rural communities, bolster our education system, and attract a remote workforce. With improvements, Vermont could position itself as a work-from-home capital with world-class outdoor recreation, walkable downtowns, peaceful communities, and ample public space.
To help this effort, the Vermont Chamber launched the Solutions Hub, an online suggestion box for policy solutions for economic recovery and ideas for securing a strong economic path forward in Vermont. Over the next few months, we will gather these suggestions, share them with the Governor’s economic recovery task force, and publish them.
At the Vermont Chamber, we believe that reopening the economy should be based on guidance from public health experts, and we support Governor Scott’s reliance on science and data to make these difficult decisions. We look forward to partnering in these efforts as we begin on the road to recovery. We are in this together.
Betsy Bishop is the President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, whose mission is focused on creating an economic climate conducive to business growth while enhancing Vermont’s quality of life. She lives in East Montpelier.