MONTPELIER — A recent report on the state of Vermont’s workforce highlighted income inequality and systemic problems as issues that exacerbated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Green Mountain State.
In its report, “State of Working Vermont 2020,” Public Assets Institute analyzes U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data stretching back decades to outline economic circumstances of the average Vermonter leading up to and following the start of the pandemic. Public Assets Institute is a Montpelier-based nonprofit that conducts research and fiscal analysis to “improve the well-being of ordinary citizens, especially the most vulnerable.”
The report’s authors state that while Vermont “acted more quickly than most states on child care, housing, and food aid,” the pandemic exposed the state’s lack of preparedness in broadband infrastructure, wage inequality and social inequities.
Here are some key takeaways from the report:
Funding aid from the government
Since the pandemic began, Vermont has provided hazard pay to frontline workers, stimulus payments to those left out of federal relief programs, and aid to businesses. Of the $1.3 billion that went to the state, $603 million went toward health care access, $140 million went toward housing, $135 million went toward education, $102 million toward higher education, $42 million toward child care, $36 million toward food programs and $272 million toward other programs, according to the report.
Two billion dollars also went toward businesses and employees in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program and various loans and grants. After initially reeling from the impact of the pandemic, some business sectors have seen a rebound. According to Department of Labor data cited in the report, the retail trade sector contracted from roughly 35,000 jobs to around 26,000 in April, but had rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels by November. Leisure and manufacturing saw similar rebounds, while the state’s hotel and restaurant industry continues to lag.
The state is slated to receive more relief funding through the recently passed $900 billion federal coronavirus aid package, however the greatest issue at the moment for legislators looking to use the funding is uncertainty, according to Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin).
“Clearly the first priority is dealing with the pandemic and rebuilding the economy,” Brock said in an interview Monday. “That’s a tremendous challenge, and that’s going to be the real focus of this session.”
Brock said legislators still need to go through the over 5,000-page federal bill to determine how funds can be spent, which could take some time. Early estimates are that the state may be dealing with a $180 million general fund shortfall and $63 million education fund shortfall, he said.
“The key is how we continue to operate reasonably but do so more economically,” he said.
According to Census data cited in the report, Vermont has seen a “dramatic upward redistribution of income” over the last four decades. In 2019, the top 20% of Vermont households received 48.4% of the income earned in the state while the top 5% of households got 20.7%. The report also states the average income for the top 20% of households has increased more than 8% since 2007, while the average income for the bottom 20% actually decreased more than 7%.
The upward shift in income also resulted in the wage gap between high-end workers and those at the bottom widening by more than $5,000 from 2007 to 2019, according to the report. This happened as the active workforce in the state decreased. As of 2019, 342,226 Vermonters were working or actively looking for work — 11,500 fewer than in 2007.
The number of Vermonters in poverty or who received federal food aid initially spiked in the years following the Great Recession, but were steadily declining the years leading up to the pandemic, according to state and federal data cited in the report.
This all changed when the pandemic hit. Since the start of the pandemic, 136,000 Vermonters in total have lost work during the pandemic, according to state Department of Labor statistics. School and child care closures disrupted 64,000 households across the state.
Stories of Vermonters
The report features a number of excerpts from interviews conducted by University of Vermont students of Vermonters telling their stories about how they coped with the pandemic.
“The narratives showcase Vermonters’ resiliency, the cohesiveness of the state’s communities and the strengths of its public services,” the report states.
Interviewees told stories of job loss, difficulty finding work, overwork in essential positions and coping with a loss in child care options.
“Financially, it’s definitely impacted a lot of choices I’ve had to make,” said Cathy, one of the narratives in the study. “I ended up withdrawing my retirement fund because I needed to.”
The study’s authors noted that most interviewees did not want their photos or ethnicity published, and about half of those interviewed identify as Black, indigenous or people of color.
For the full study, click here.