MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott says an announcement is coming on lifting the work search requirement waiver on unemployment forms. But a labor shortage that’s taken hold in Franklin County continues with no immediate end in sight.
Scott made the announcement at his twice-weekly press conference on Friday, saying, “We’ll have more information on this next week, but the work search requirement will be reinstated within the first two weeks of May.”
In an interview with The Messenger, Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex-Orleans, calls Scott waiving the requirement on unemployment forms “executive overreach,” saying it has resulted in more jobs than people.
“I’m getting three calls a day from employers saying ‘Russ, what can you do about this? How can you help? What can you do? What can we do?’ I keep phoning the governor, phoning the governor, phoning the governor and they don’t care,” says Ingalls.
A work search memorandum from the Department of Labor in March 2020 says that the action was taken, “to mitigate the risk associated with work search efforts as they relate to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and the Vermont Department of Health.”
Ingalls said the action was part of an effort to control how many people were moving around but claims that it’s backfired.
“These people on unemployment aren’t just staying home,” he said.
Tim Smith, executive director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation, says that it’s hard to determine just how many jobs are available in Franklin County but finding people to work is probably the biggest issue.
“I can tell you that on our floor, we have a temporary employment service called Cortech and they have specific businesses that they deal with between here and Waterbury and they have 180 jobs that need to be filled today. That’s just their clients,” says Smith.
As a result, according to officials, companies are threatening to pull their lines and move elsewhere if they can’t find workers soon.
“One of the things that’s really troubling right now is we have the company Kaytec, in Richford, who absolutely positively need 20 people to fill so they can start production. If they don’t fill those jobs, they’re moving those jobs out of state. They have production facilities elsewhere,” says Ingalls.
Smith says that — while a move such as this would be bad for the county — the blame shouldn’t fall on the company.
“I get that there are families in need and individuals, but there’s also the other side of the coin, that there are individuals who could be working and sacrificing the unemployment to really help out the region.” he says.
According to the Department of Labor, as of mid-April, 22,000 formerly employed Vermonters are receiving unemployment checks, and another 9,000 self-employed people are through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
There are 31,000 Vermonters receiving unemployment benefit checks, according to the latest state data. That compares to about 5,000 people before the pandemic hit.
“Companies have a right to move. I’ve been saying for years that if we can’t fill those jobs and we’ve worked hard in Franklin County over the last 50 years to get our community where it is … if we can’t fill the jobs they have alternatives,” says Smith.
Elaine McCrate is Associate Professor of Economic and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Vermont, specializing in the political economy of low-wage labor markets. She says that opening up the job search requirement doesn’t guarantee that people will return to work.
“The new COVID varieties are out there and nobody is really sure what that’s going to mean, so if you work in a job where you have close contact with people you’re still going to be skittish about going back,” says McCrate.
In terms of employers leaving the area to seek jobs in other states, she warns, “If you think you’re gonna move from Vermont to New Hampshire or you think you’re gonna move from Vermont to Pennsylvania, you should really check to be sure you’re not leaping out of the frying pan and going into the fire.”
Instead employers can seek alternatives such as offering better benefits or higher wages to sweeten the pie.
“If you think it’s going to be really, really long term you could begin to automate things,” says McCrate.
However, companies that can’t automate, such as daycare centers, will have a difficult time keeping doors open if wages go up at the low end.
“A lot of parents can’t go back until their kids are back in schools. Schools are essentially child care centers for kids who are enrolled,” she says. “Even after that we’re not sure if children can be carriers, and we’re just not sure about how the virus works among children and right now none of the vaccines have been approved for use with children so they have to figure that one out. I really doubt if that’s going to be figured out before the end of this school term.”