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Psst, frontline workers: Vermont will pay you $7,500 to move there

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Janitors, bartenders or nurses searching for fresh pastures may want to turn their gaze to the Northeast: Vermont is offering relocation bonuses of up to $7,500 for in-demand workers.

The state, which pioneered relocation bonuses for remote workers back in 2018, now wants to boost local businesses amid a nationwide hiring crunch. Businesses across Vermont have complained of labor shortages and even having to temporarily close down for lack of staff. 

In mid-August, the popular eatery Stone's Throw Pizza closed its Fairfax location indefinitely. In an Instagram post, the restaurant owners described the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which halved the pizzeria's workforce from 26 to 13 people.

"We care about the well-being of our staff, their sanity and the quality of product that they produce," the owners said. They also exhorted interested readers to apply, stating, "We are willing to train any level of experience and pay (as always) well for this industry." 

Other Vermont eateries have endured extended closures or cut back hours due to insufficient staff. "[W]e are desperately looking for kitchen help. Send anyone interested our way ASAP!" the Church Street Tavern in Burlington recently posted on Instagram.

"We are getting all kinds of reports from different employers — they don't have enough people coming and showing up for interviews," Joan Goldstein, Vermont's commissioner of economic development, told CBS MoneyWatch.

Workers take advantage of hiring incentives in recovering economy 08:22

Hospitality workers are in particularly short supply. Vermont's commerce department is hiring to fill some administrative roles, Goldstein noted, and about half of the applicants are switching industries from hospitality or retail.

"There's a shift — this is one of those once-in-a-century occurrences," she said.

Money well spent or a waste?

Three years ago, Vermont was one of the first states to offer financial incentives for remote workers in a bid to attract people who can bring their jobs with them. So far, nearly 300 new residents have moved to the state under that program, which Goldstein said is set to reopen for another round of funding in 2022.

Some lawmakers, however, have slammed the enticement as a waste of taxpayer funds that does nothing for existing residents. 

"They are not filling vacant jobs," state Auditor Doug Hoffer told Seven Days Vermont shortly after the program started. "I would much rather be making an investment in the people of Vermont."

Under the new program, newcomers must be willing to fill in-demand jobs from a list that ranges from cashiers and retail workers to carpenters, construction workers and accountants. Employers in the state must attest that they tried and failed to find local applicants, pay more than $13 an hour and directly hire their workers (meaning that independent contractors aren't eligible.) 

The grants, which are technically reimbursements, can be applied to moving costs, a deposit and one month's rent for an apartment or closing costs on a house. They top out at $5,000 for people relocating to the Barre or Burlington metro areas, and $7,500 anywhere else in the state. 

Since Vermont announced the grants August 19, traffic to the application website has increased tenfold, officials said. 

Other states seeking help, too

Other cities and states have also gotten creative in trying to hire or retain essential workers. Oxnard, California, gave $1,000 bonuses to frontline workers who kept working during the pandemic. Florida is handing out bonuses to firefighters, police officers, teachers and principals. Minnesota plans to distribute $250 million in federal funds to frontline workers later this year.

Vermont officials stress they don't expect the program to be a cure-all, saying that it's only one of several ways the state is dealing with an aging workforce in a tourism-heavy economy that has been hurt by the pandemic. 

"It might put us on the radar of someone who otherwise wouldn't think about Vermont," Goldstein said. "Moving interstate is really expensive. The idea that a state could offer up to $7,500 for your move could move the needle. It won't be the only factor, but it could be the deciding factor."

There's an element of local marketing, too.

"There's employment opportunities in Vermont," said Mathew Barewicz, chief economist for the state's labor department. "If that message is received far and wide, great. If it's only received locally, great. We want to retain the workers we have."

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