MONTPELIER — Investments in child care and housing are two key elements to Vermont’s economic recovery from the global coronavirus pandemic, say authors of a new report on the state’s workforce.
Because of the pandemic, the Public Assets Institute took a different tack this year with its annual “State of Working Vermont” report, looking at this year’s data and including interviews with working Vermonters.
Stephanie Yu, deputy director of the Public Assets Institute, said the usual report uses data made available in September that looks at information from the previous year, “and 2019 just seemed so long ago and irrelevant, so we emphasized more what real-time data we could get from 2020, and we also did this piece of interviewing Vermonters with the help of (University of Vermont) students to really get a sense of how people are doing.”
“The manufacturing company I work with has reduced its workforce by about two-thirds, so COVID has hit us pretty hard,” reads one interview, attributed to Eugene, a computer manufacturing tool operator, programmer and craftsman, living in Brandon. The report doesn’t give full names or company names with the interviews. “It used to be a very robust, healthy family-owned company. We’d have a lot of overtime and employed over 150 people in the summer. But orders are down significantly, and now we’re down to like 30 people. I’m still at my same job, but my hours have been reduced to 32 hours a week. I really wonder if the company is going to make it through this.”
Richard Watts, director of UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont, said he and five students first surveyed several hundred people about what working and living in the state has been like during the pandemic. They received 400 responses and interviewed about 20 people for this report.
“There’s nothing like that kind of research to bring these stories to life,” said Watts. “You can read the fact that 15% of people in the child care industry had challenges during COVID, but then if you actually have that individual with their story about what it was like to try and find child care for their kids or to have them at home. … I think it underscores how important it is to hear the stories and bring life to the facts and figures.”
Yu said the stories in the report are meant to offer a clearer picture of what working people are dealing with. An effort was made to hear from as diverse a group as possible, as the pandemic-fed recession has hit minorities harder than other groups. Those interviewed told of economic hardship and uncertainty, challenges with higher education, and struggles with child care.
“The data, it’s constantly changing,” said Yu. “There’s a lot happening, and it’s happening quickly, so it’s hard to get a firm read on where we are, and obviously we’re still in it, the impacts are not over, so we did do more to try and capture what’s going on in 2020, but we know it’s going to take a long time before we have a sense of how the recovery works and what the whole impact has been.”
According to the report, the economic recovery seen between 2009 and the start of the pandemic wasn’t a recovery for everyone. Vermont’s poverty rate hasn’t improved, and middle-income Vermonters were in the same place in 2019 that they were in in 2007.
“People weren’t necessarily better off at the end of the recovery,” said Yu. “There was some economic growth, but it didn’t go to everybody, and so if you were a low income or middle-income Vermonter, you probably were about in the same place at the end of the recovery as you were at the beginning, and then you go back into a recession, and you’re more likely to be worse off.”
Michelle Fay, director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, a policy resource and advocacy group focusing on children and youth, said she found the stories in the report compelling and in line with what her organization has been hearing. She said people who were struggling before the pandemic are, unsurprisingly, struggling now, and many had trouble accessing the same aid others were getting.
Her hope is that when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021, more emphasis will placed on the needs of people, especially young ones.
“I think our argument would be, focus on making sure people survive this and that the impact on kids is really minimized, because what we know is when kids endure material hardship in their childhood that those impacts carry on throughout their lives in terms of reduced earnings and workforce detachment and educational attainment, so it really behooves us as a state to prevent kids from experiencing hardship,” she said.