COVID-19, Issues

February Update – COVID, Pensions, 1099s, Bills, and Black History Month

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day – let’s spread love (not COVID) to everyone who needs it this weekend! There’s a lot going on at the state level these days, so I’m writing to provide you an update on the COVID crisis and vaccinations, teacher and state pensions, the tax form 1099 situation, and a few bills that are on the move this week.

COVID and Vaccinations
Unfortunately, the situation with COVID in Vermont isn’t getting better. Cases have plateaued, but Vermont is the only state in the northeast that doesn’t forecast declining cases. Check out recent modeling projections and the current data dashboard for more information. And sadly, we’re steadily approaching a count of 200 Vermont deaths from the virus. This news means that vigilance and vaccinations are more important than ever. Please continue to mask up, keep your distance, stay home if you’re sick, wash hands, and avoid congregating with others.

If you are aged 75 or older, please sign up as soon as possible to get your vaccination; many others are waiting for their turn. Frontline healthcare workers who have not yet received a vaccination should ask their employers about getting a vaccine, as they are still eligible to get one. Apparently there have been fair number of vaccine refusals among staff members at long-term care facilities who may be nervous about getting the vaccine. But, data about the COVID vaccine efficacy and safety is incredibly positive. Read this story about Good Vaccine News which lays out why vaccine news continues to be better than most people realize. COVID vaccines are really safe and really effective – get yours when you can!

State Employee and Teacher Pension Funds
I’ve heard from a lot of teachers and state workers who are worried about the future of their retirement savings after learning about the crisis with these state pension funds. The State Treasurer issued a report on these pension funds last month, making recommendations for changes in the contribution and payout parameters for the funds after an outside analysis showed that the unfunded liability and annual payments for the funds were increasing at an unsustainable rate. It’s really important to note that no decisions have been made yet and can’t be made without legislative action.

I know this situation is causing a lot of anxiety for these incredibly valuable professionals, especially now when their work is so stressful and challenging during COVID. The legislature is working hard to find a solution that will keep the pension fund viable for teachers and state employees now and in the future. While there was under-funding of the annual payments to the teacher pension fund only during the 1990s and early 2000s, since 2007, the Legislature has fully funded, and even funded at levels greater than prescribed annual payments. We will do so again this year. However, due to demographic challenges with the system, and changes in the financial parameters of the fund, we also need to make longer-term, structural changes. I have been working with colleagues to try to identify revenue options, creative solutions, and changes that will have the least impact on teachers and state workers. Several committees in both the House and Senate are working on the issue, and I will learn more over the next several weeks. I will do my best to keep you informed.

Tax Form 1099 Mailing Error
Last week, the Department of Labor learned that they had mailed thousands of Vermonters 1099G tax documents where the name and mailing address did not match on the front of the envelope and in other cases where the name and social security number on the inside did not match the recipient. In some cases, individuals may have received another claimant’s name and social security number. The Department believes this issue is specific to the 1099s associated with the Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program and a portion of the Vermont Short Term Supplemental benefit population; however, the Department is issuing a mass recall of ALL 1099s that have been mailed, regardless of program.

If you have received a 1099 form from the Department of Labor (DOL), you should have also received a letter with information about the situation and a postage-paid envelope to mail back the incorrect form. A new form will be reissued. In addition, the state is paying for identify protection services for everyone impacted by this enormous error. Information about how to enroll in this service will also be sent to everyone issued a 1099 by the Department. Read information on the Department of Labor website about this situation and actions you should take if you received an incorrect form, including this list of frequently asked questions.

This incident is another in a series of errors and poor service provided to Vermonters by the Department of Labor over the past eleven months. I have been in frequent contact with the Commissioner of Labor about these issues. It is unacceptable that this pattern has continued. The State Auditor will be investigating the source of this most recent error, and I will insist that Department officials be held accountable.

Action on Bills
We’re just over a month into this difficult, remote legislative session and the volume of our work is increasing. This week the Senate passed the FY21 Budget Adjustment Bill, an annual bill which makes necessary changes to the current year’s budget. With this bill, we were able to increase support for several key programs that have helped Vermonters during the pandemic. Of note, we provided additional federal funding to the Vermont Everyone Eats Program, which is a partnership between restaurants, local farmers, and community organizations to provide nutritious meals to hungry Vermonters. We also provided federal funds to pay for a portion of the costs associated with renovating the former Macy’s building to house the Burlington High School while testing and remediation is completed due to toxic PCB contamination at the school. We also provided additional funds for the rental arrearage program to help fund applications already submitted.

Yesterday, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee passed a bill that establishes the Emergency Service Provider Wellness Commission that will make recommendations regarding increased supports, education, materials, and services to improve the physical and mental health outcomes and overall wellness of emergency service providers, particularly for those providers who have experienced trauma in the course of their duties. I was proud to work on this bill and ensure that the Commission will be an inclusive body that will consider the diverse and unique needs of these crucial first responders. To learn more about the bills we’re working on and ways you can view or participate in our work, check out the Vermont General Assembly website for links to bills, committees, members, and meetings.

Black History Month
February is Black History Month and several organizations are offering opportunities for teens to express their thoughts about Black history and structural racism while sharing their creative talents. Addison County Teens, Bundle, and Town Hall Theater are collaborating on Expressions of Color, an art exhibit for youth of color and by youth of color. The Rutland Area NAACP is sponsoring an essay contest for teens in Addison, Rutland, and Bennington counties to “write a speech to other young people expressing [their] commitment to anti-racism and encouraging peers to be anti-racist.”

Finally, for a bit of Black history in our community, read this fascinating piece about Vermonter and Middlebury College graduate Alexander Twilight, the first African American to earn a college degree and first African American legislator in the country. His story reveals the complexities of his history and identity, as well as his strong commitment to public service and education. In large part due to my bill to diversify the artwork at the State House, a portrait of Twilight will be painted by Middlebury artist Kate Runde to hang in the Vermont State House next year. His portrait will be the first of a Black Vermonter to grace the walls of the People’s House.

Happy Black History Month, Happy Valentine’s Day!  Stay safe and stay warm.

Photo: One of the gorgeous blooms on the orchid that brightens up my home zoom office.