BARRE – Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) held a press conference Monday morning at the Capstone Food Shelf to discuss HR 6201, an emergency piece of legislation intended to help slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) that was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives early Saturday morning.
Welch stressed the importance of social distancing in containing the spread of the virus, which has spread to over 3,000 confirmed cases nationwide, with 16 in Vermont. “What we have to do requires cooperation from our citizens,” he told reporters.
But Welch acknowledged the economic difficulties many Americans are facing as workplaces temporarily close. “If you’re a service worker and you have a job at a restaurant and it’s closed, how are you going to pay the bills?” He also noted that temporarily closing businesses was no easier on employers, who are suddenly left without an income source themselves and are forced to lay off or furlough employees.
Even many workers whose workplaces remain open have been forced to quarantine themselves in order to avoid contracting the virus or spreading it to others.
“Vermonters get sick, but push through it to take care of themselves and their families,” said Welch. “That doesn’t work here.”
If passed in the Senate, HR 6201 will establish emergency paid leave, including 14 days of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family or medical leave for those affected by the virus. It also extends unemployment insurance to furloughed workers.
The bill, known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed 363-40 in the House with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
In Barre, Welch touted the bill as a bipartisan success story, citing its support from Republican President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Welch also emphasized the bill’s provisions for food security, which includes waiving work requirements for receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known as 3SquaresVT in Vermont.
The bill gives schools increased flexibility to provide free and reduced-price lunches for students in the face of closures. It also provides additional funding for home-delivered and pre-packaged meals for seniors.
“This is bigger than any of us,” said Welch. “We know how to proceed. We have to do it together. Each of us has to do our part, and we’ll get through it.”
HR 6201 follows HR 6074, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, which was passed near-unanimously in the House of Representatives and signed into law by President Trump on March 6. HR 6074 provided $8.3 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies, of which $3 billion is intended for research into developing a potential vaccine.
Welch was joined by Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) Lindsay Kurrle, Acting Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington, Capstone Community Action Executive Director Sue Minter, and Sascha Mayer, CEO of Mamava, a Vermont-based business that manufactures suites for breastfeeding mothers to use at work or in public spaces like airports.
Kurrle emphasized the impact the virus was having on Vermont’s economy, and told reporters that the ACCD had assembled a data collection and emergency response team. By 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Kurrle said, the team had received requests for assistance or status reports from over 82 businesses in the state.
“This impacts every facet of Vermont’s business community,” Kurrle said, before urging business owners to visit the ACCD website to report any impacts their business may be suffering as a result of the virus.
Harrington spoke on the importance of social distancing to lower the number of cases in hospitals so that higher-risk patients, like seniors and those with compromised immune systems, will be able to get the healthcare they need.
Harrington also discussed changes to unemployment insurance claims due to the virus, which include waiving the work search requirement for workers whose employers have temporarily closed, but will be returning to work in ten weeks or sooner.
Mayer, whose company employs around 40 workers, mostly in Vermont, has instituted a mandatory work-from-home policy for her employees.
Minter reiterated HR 6201’s food security measures, noting the commodity assistance it provides to food shelves. Capstone’s food shelf had over 500 visitors in February alone, and Minter expects that number to only increase as more businesses close their doors.
“We will not leave Vermonters behind,” Minter declared. “We will continue to provide food to every family we serve.”
Minter stressed her confidence in Governor Phil Scott (R-VT), citing his disaster response efforts when Hurricane Irene hit Vermont in 2011. Welch thanked Scott, who was not present, for his “stable and steady” leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont on Friday evening and on Sunday ordered all schools in the state to close until April 6 in an effort to contain the virus.
When asked what he would tell Senators who may be waffling on approving HR 6201 due to partisan differences of belief in how the crisis should be handled, Welch had a simple answer: “Get over it.”