The Vermont Department of Labor has awarded a $16,000 worker training grant to a trade group run by a close friend and supporter of Gov. Phil Scott, even though the department offers a similar coronavirus safety course.
The department will pay Associated General Contractors of Vermont to train about 800 construction workers in techniques to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when they return to job sites in coming weeks, said Sarah Buxton, the state’s director of workforce development.
The state approved the grant Thursday because the association’s executive director, Richard “Dick” Wobby Jr., demonstrated that his course is “more robust” than the free one offered by the state to help businesses meet new rules for workers to be trained in social distancing and hand hygiene before returning to work, Buxton said.
“The reason we are paying an organization to do this is they came and asked for funding,” Buxton told Seven Days on Thursday. “They said, ‘We want to have a higher standard of care and to keep our companies open and keep the economy rolling.’”
The grant is a small but telling example of how organizations most familiar with how decisions are made in Montpelier — and by whom — are well positioned to tap into the massive flow of state and federal aid aimed at supporting and restarting Vermont's economy.
Wobby, Scott’s childhood friend and longtime campaign supporter, runs a trade group that operates a variety of training programs covering worker safety, some of which qualify for taxpayer funding.
Last year, one such program managed by Wobby, Project Roadsafe, ran afoul of regulators. The state Agency of Transportation suspended the $95,000 road project safety program after allegations Wobby improperly billed association business to the federal program, including travel to California and pricey meals, VTDigger.org reported. The suspension was lifted in January after the group repaid $305 in expenses not allowed under the grant, according to an agency official.
Wobby's hunt for a new source of state funds ramped up last month when it became clear that training would be needed for workers returning to job sites around the state.
Scott announced on April 17 that he would begin to “turn the spigot” to restart the economy by allowing some nonessential businesses, including small construction crews and landscapers, to return to work on April 20 under strict guidelines. These included urging workers to wear masks and work six feet part at all times, among others. (On Friday, Scott tweaked his order to allow construction crews of up to 10 people.)
The association’s course went live on April 20. It was initially advertised as free for members and $200 for nonmembers. The idea was that nonmembers benefiting from the two-and-a-half-hour online course should help defray the significant cost of developing it, Wobby said.
“I’m running an organization, and I’m looking at the bottom line every time I walk out the door,” he said.
After some complaints and confusion over whether the training was required before contractors could get back to work, the association quickly dropped the nonmember fee. It became clear that in the real world, members and non-members were going to be working alongside each other, and everyone needed similar training, he said.
“The board realized that in order to ensure a safer job site, they had to bite the bullet a little,” Wobby said.
The program has since been offered free to any employer, and more than 700 workers have completed it to date, Wobby said.
After the board waived that fee, however, Wobby pivoted to try to secure a state grant to offset the association’s costs. He argued that the state’s free online course was insufficient to keep workers safe on complex job sites.
The state course, produced by the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is a 49-page online document that, while informative, allows workers to skip straight to the bottom, certify they’ve read and understood it, and print it for their records, Wobby noted.
To highlight that the program doesn’t really certify anything, Wobby shared screenshots showing forms filled out with fake names, including O.J. Simpson and Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic toy bear.
General contractors need assurance that workers — whether their own employees, subcontractors or those delivering supplies to job sites — actually understand and commit to follow guidelines, Wobby said.
“My fear is that Teddy Ruxpin is going to have COVID-hand and is going to infect us all,” he said.
If that were to happen, outbreaks would inevitably occur, and the state’s economic recovery would be at risk, he said.
The state is willing to pay a modest sum to support the association’s course to increase the likelihood that construction projects around the state will be able to continue revving up as the economy reopens, Buxton said.
The money is coming from a nearly $200,000 pot of federal “rapid response” funding generally used to retrain laid-off workers, Buxton said. In this case, however, the funds are going toward “layoff aversion,” which is a new use in Vermont but an allowable one, she said.
Wobby initially asked for $30,000. The state agreed to pay $16,000 toward 800 additional workers taking the program, an estimated cost of $20 per worker, Buxton said.
The course is designed as a “train the trainer” model, meaning participants can train others at their companies, she said. It just makes sense, she said, for the state to spend federal dollars to support “a significant part of our economy that we desperately need to have back in motion as quickly as possible.”
While the construction industry is “first out of the gate” with a training program specific to its needs, Buxton said the state is willing to offer assistance to other trade groups that develop and implement safety training tailored to their specific needs.
If barbers or bartenders come forward with a similar program, the state stands ready to help them, too.
“The state would be better off if everybody took additional personal responsibility, personal steps to make sure that we don’t have a setback in COVID-19 cases,” Buxton said.