Vermont faces workforce shortage as some businesses struggle to reopen

Published: May. 5, 2021 at 5:54 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont is on track for a full reopening in just over two months. But even then, some economists predict a rocky recovery for some businesses and for workers.

The economy is reopening to find a smaller workforce, reflecting the fact that women are still bearing the brunt of the pandemic. And businesses say they need financial help to stay open.

Coronavirus case counts are down, vaccinations are up and businesses are generally optimistic about our reopening.

But some say they’re beginning to fall through the cracks, like Kim Borsavage of the Lang House on Main Street, a Burlington Bed and Breakfast.

“It’s getting a little bit better, our occupancy is up a bit, but it’s nothing, nothing, nothing compared to normal,” Borsavage said.

A slate of businesses made their pitch to Montpelier for more help. They say even with last year’s grants and Paycheck Protection Program loans, they are still underwater.

“We currently have work that was booked last year and now we’re carrying it forward to this year, and we’ve been rescheduling clients and trying to put those events together, but there’s no way we can take on any business going forward this year,” said Perry Armstrong of Rain or Shine Tents and Events.

Facing an estimated half-billion dollars in losses, Vermont business leaders are calling on lawmakers for an additional $50 million in grants. But the latest draft of the budget only includes $20 million.

Their ask for help juxtaposed against new national jobs numbers coming out this week which are expected to look good, potentially a million jobs recovered in April.

But in Vermont, it’s a different picture.

“For the last six or seven months in Vermont, there has been no employment change in Vermont whereas the U.S. has continued to improve,” said Art Woolf, a UVM economics professor.

Economists say we’re seeing acute workforce shortages across the economy, in manufacturing, hospitality, education and child care, and in primary health care.

“We’ve got a very low unemployment rate but that’s very misleading. That doesn’t tell us things are great; in fact, it’s just the opposite,” Woolf said.

There’s a constellation of intertwined reasons: lucrative unemployment benefits, low wages and the state’s aging population.

In 2020, the state says nearly 20,000 people dropped out of the workforce temporarily or permanently, voluntarily or involuntarily. That means they are not looking for work and are not on unemployment.

Then there are issues that hit Vermont women disproportionately.

Alison Lamagna at Vermont Works for Women says women make up over 80% of tipped workers in hospitality and they occupy the most jobs in health care and education. And during the pandemic, many had to stay home with kids.

“Many women have had to leave the workforce altogether and haven’t been able to begin their job searches again or have had to reduce their hours because of the additional responsibilities,” Lamanga said.

Lamanga says an equitable labor recovery should include child care and paid family leave.

Even after the pandemic, experts tell me the labor landscape will remain murky. No one knows how many employees will continue to work from home and what impact that will have on downtown businesses and the broader economy.

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