Schuylkill County business leaders had the opportunity to hear from and speak directly with their state legislators on Oct. 1 during the Northeast PA Manufacturers and Employers Association’s annual legislative roundtable held at Mountain Valley Golf Course in Barnesville.
The informational sharing session is held to provide the business community a chance to share issues and concerns with the legislators as well as to commemorate National Manufacturing Day.
Sen. David Argall and Reps. Doyle Heffley, Tim Twardzik, Jerry Knowles and Joe Kerwin spoke briefly to provide updates and their stances on key issues facing the county and businesses, including regulatory reform and energy, election reform and redistricting, COVID-19 and related mandates, economy and employment, and taxes.
COVID-19 mandates continue to be a popular topic within the business community, on a national level and locally. All four representatives said they were not in favor of COVID vaccine mandates. Argall had to step outside for another meeting during the discussion on this topic.
“I don’t feel that the president nor the governor have the right to mandate anybody to take a vaccine,” Heffley said. “I think it should be your choice.”
Heffley shared that he had COVID and it was not a fun experience, but he feels that mandates are counterproductive. He added that he believes mandating the vaccine and having the government enforce vaccination will lead to fewer people wanting to get the vaccine.
“We need to stop with the mandates and responsibly manage the pandemic,” he said.
Heffley was critical of Gov. Tom Wolf’s use of power in handling the pandemic, specifically in regards to the impact mitigation efforts had on the economy and businesses. He said the Legislature took a lot of steps to force the governor to safely and responsibly reopen the economy.
Knowles said he takes COVID very seriously after having lost friends due to the virus but still believes whether or not to get vaccinated should be the individual’s decision.
“I believe getting the vaccine should be a personal choice,” Knowles said.
Kerwin agreed with his peers on the mandates and in criticizing Wolf’s use of power in handling the pandemic.
“I believe if you want a vaccine you should be able to get a vaccine,” Kerwin said. “If you want to wear a mask you should be able to wear a mask. It’s not the government’s role to tell you one way or another.”
Twardzik said he has been frustrated by the changing mandates, rules and regulations throughout the pandemic.
“Everything we do in Harrisburg turns around and has a mandate as an amendment stuck on it,” he said. “It makes it hard to get business done. We just want to try to keep people safe and try to make things work.”
Twardzik also pointed out the negative impact he believes vaccine mandates will have on the current labor shortage, including in health care.
“We need to keep every medical staffer that we can in the building because the wait times are atrocious,” he said. “The staffing is difficult across the board.”
Vaccine mandates would make it even more difficult for businesses already struggling to find employees, according to Twardzik.
One solution to the mandates and potential labor shortage they could cause is COVID liability protection for businesses and schools, Heffley said. Such protection would take the burden of enforcing mandates off of employers, as they would be protected if someone got COVID while at work and wanted to sue the company for creating unsafe working conditions.
“I think COVID liability protection, that is the game changer for all these mandates,” Heffley said. “I think that really is the key to eliminating a lot of these mandates.”
Difficulty finding employees to fill good-paying, open positions is an issue the manufacturers and employers at the breakfast continue to share.
“The labor shortage is real,” Heffley said. “I think it’s compounded by a couple of different things.”
In addition to COVID and mandates, other factors legislators highlighted as creating the labor shortage include the pandemic unemployment benefits, children being able to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26, and baby boomers retiring from the workforce.
“We always knew there was going to be a drop-off when that generation left the workforce, and that’s come to fruition,” Heffley said of baby boomers retiring or leaving the workforce early due to COVID.
Heffley also believes that young adults being able to have health insurance through their parents gives them less of a push to get a job to have their own health insurance.
In regards to the federal supplement being paid in addition to full state benefits for those on unemployment, the legislators are hoping that more people will go back to work now that the extra benefit has ended.
“It’s unsustainable to continue to pay people to stay home,” Kerwin said. “We don’t have the money to do it either at the state level or the federal level.”
He added that there are good-paying jobs available for people in the area as employers and manufacturers have continued to say they have positions they cannot find workers to fill. This was a topic of conversation prior to the pandemic as well.
Twardzik said his staff was receiving numerous calls early on in the pandemic about unemployment, but he has seen those calls drop off. The other legislators said their staffs had a similar experience.
“It is nice to see people try to get back to work,” Twardzik said. “We certainly need that to boost our economy and we need to move forward.”
The legislators are not in favor of Pennsylvania joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or the governor moving to do so through executive order instead of through the Legislature. Argall said other states that have joined RGGI did so through legislative action.
“It’s not as big an impact in the eastern anthracite fields as it is in the western bituminous fields,” Argall said. “Our western Pennsylvania colleagues will tell you that the governor’s new climate change initiative will cost tens of thousands of jobs. The building trades are horrified.”
Twardzik called RGGI a “terrible bill” and pointed out the impact it would have on jobs.
“These are good jobs and we need to work with all the energy we have,” he said. “We don’t need to pick winners and losers, and this is what’s going on.”
Kerwin also agreed.
“RGGI would be a terrible thing for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Kerwin said. “It would be disastrous for the natural gas industry here in Pennsylvania as well as other industries. The thing is that these jobs are going to pick up and leave Pennsylvania to West Virginia and Ohio, and we’ll have a major economic catastrophe in Pennsylvania with the nonrenewable resources industry. I think that the best way we can fight RGGI is to fight it in the courts.”
Heffley added that the impact of RGGI can already be seen with the PennEast Pipeline project in New Jersey.
Legislators shared their concerns over redistricting as Pennsylvania is about to lose a seat in Congress.
“When it comes to redistricting, I have serious concerns for Schuylkill County in terms of how it’s going to go,” Knowles said.
Argall said the process will be intriguing and is hopeful the county will get a fair draw.
“We’re going to do the best we can to hold this region together so it can continue to speak with one voice,” he said.
As for election reform, the legislators agree that parts of the process need to be fixed to make people trust it. This includes having voter ID, signature match and results on election night instead of ballots still being counted days later.
Property tax reform continues to be a priority for the legislators.
“We are going to have to find taxes somewhere else,” Twardzik said. “We just need to have the courage to vote that we need to make these changes. Because what we’re doing right now certainly doesn’t work. We can’t tax seniors away from their homes.”
Following the roundtable, manufacturers and employers were recognized as part of Northeast PA Manufacturers and Employers Association’s celebration of National Manufacturing Day.
Source: Berkshire mont