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Although navigating a path out of the pandemic remains a top issue, Vermont cannot let COVID-19 derail efforts to address the key need for more people and more workers, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said during his State of the State address Wednesday.

Last January, Scott said he reported only three counties added workers — the rest saw their numbers drop. Now, all 14 counties have lost workers, with Windsor, Windham, Caledonia, Bennington, Essex and Rutland counties down “15% or more since their peak,” Scott said.

“It’s clear that while the pandemic didn’t create this problem, it has made it much, much worse,” the governor said.

The workforce shortage is linked to other challenges, such as affordability, education and the economy, and Scott said he believes Vermont’s high cost of living “has contributed to a declining workforce and stunted our growth" he said.

But he expressed optimism that Vermont can secure a future where there are good jobs, good schools and affordable homes statewide — one where young families can afford what Vermont has to offer and where “a strong economy generates the tax revenue to easily serve all people, protect the vulnerable, and invest in the things we care about most.”

The state has been making progress on the issues for the last five years, he said.

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While the last 21 months during the pandemic have been tough, the state also received billions of dollars in federal aid that put it on a new path, he said.

"We rolled up our sleeves to achieve the highest vaccination rates in the country and then kept them rolled up, went to work, and passed historic investments in housing, broadband, climate change, water and sewer, and economic recovery – dedicating over $600 million to transform communities, large and small, across the state," Scott said.

To expand the workforce, he suggested the state put greater focus on trades training and “end the stigma around" Career and Technical Education. The Department of Labor will also help employees fill and manage internships and the state will invest more to help cover interns’ wages, he said. But more investments in affordable housing must also be a priority, he said.

Scott said he plans to put forward a tax relief package with a focus on retirees, middle income families and young workers and will propose changes to increase access to quality child care and learning.

To attract more people to the state, he said he will again propose a relocation package to “reach people who have past ties to or current interest in Vermont, like young adults who moved away after graduation or those who enjoy the outdoors” and said he also supports the Senate's worker relocation program, with some changes.

He called for the elimination of the tax on military pensions, will again ask the Legislature to modernize the state’s land use law, Act 250, and said the state should welcome more refugees. As Vermont’s mental health system “faces serious stress" he said the state will continue to add mental health beds and he will ask the Legislature to expand the mobile crisis pilot and suicide prevention model. And he said his budget will expand prevention, treatment and recovery efforts for those struggling with addiction.

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