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Employment

Ready or Not…

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq. and Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

Paid Family and Medical Leave is on the way in Massachusetts.

In order to implement the new program, the newly created Department of Family and Medical Leave has released drafts of the regulations that will govern this new type of leave. Public listening sessions are now being held to allow members of the public to provide input on the draft regulations.

Timothy M. Netkovick

Timothy M. Netkovick

Daniel C. Carr

Daniel C. Carr

Although there will undoubtedly be changes to the current draft before they are officially adopted, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the draft regulations so they can start planning for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave now.

All employers will be covered by the new Massachusetts law. Although there are some similarities between the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the new Massachusetts law, some provisions of the new Paid Family and Medical Leave will require all employers to modify elements of their current practices. For example, if your company already qualifies for federal FMLA, it will also qualify for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave.

However, you should not assume that your company will automatically be in compliance with the new law just because you already have policies and practices in place to comply with the federal FMLA. You will need to review your policies now because employers required to make contributions must begin doing so on July 1, 2019.

On Jan. 1, 2021, all employees in the Commonwealth will be eligible for Paid Family and Medical Leave. Paid leave will be funded by employee payroll contributions and required contributions from companies with an average of 25 or more employees.

If you are a seasonal business with a fluctuating workforce, how do you know if your company has an average of 25 employees for purposes of this law? The current draft regulations make it clear that the average number of employees is determined by counting the number of full-time, part-time, seasonal, and temporary employees on the payroll during each pay period and then dividing by the number of pay periods. If the resulting average is 25 or greater, your company will need to pay into the Family and Employment Security Trust.

“Although there will undoubtedly be changes to the current draft before they are officially adopted, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the draft regulations so they can start planning for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave now.”

In one major variation from federal FMLA, Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave will be administered by the state, unless an employer applies for an exemption to use a ‘private plan’ to administer the leave themselves or through a third-party vendor. If an employer wants to utilize a private plan, the employer will need to apply, and be granted the exemption, annually.

At this point, the only requirement for a private plan is that it must provide for the same or greater benefits than the employee would have if the program was being administered by the state. The required logistics of implementing a private plan are unclear. The logistics of implementing a private plan will likely be addressed in the final regulations and advisory opinions as the 2021 start date draws closer.

In addition to paid leave, there are also several other major variations from federal FMLA law. One major variation is the amount of leave available to employees. While federal FMLA allows for a total of 12 total weeks of job-protected leave during a 12-month period regardless of the qualifying reason, the Massachusetts law differentiates between types of leave.

For instance, under the Massachusetts law, employees are allowed up to 20 weeks for an employee’s own serious health condition; up to 12 weeks to care for a family member’s serious health condition; up to 12 weeks for the birth, adoption, or foster-care placement of a child; and up to 26 weeks in order to care for a family member who is a covered service member. While an employee is out on leave, the amount of their benefit is based upon the employee’s individual rate of pay, but with a cap of 64% of the state average weekly wage. This cap will initially be $850 per week.

Employers will need to begin assessing their responsibilities under this program as well as the steps necessary to comply with these requirements. Employers that are required to make contributions to the Family and Employment Security Trust will want to start the process of deciding whether they intend to utilize a private plan, and if so, they should consult with employment counsel as they prepare their plan to insure compliance with the unique provisions of the new Massachusetts law.

Paid Family and Medical Leave will continue to be a hot-button topic for the foreseeable future. It is important for employers to continually monitor the progress of the law as it is being implemented to ensure they will be ready to continue business with minimal disruption on Jan. 1, 2021.

Timothy M. Netkovick, an attorney at Royal, P.C., has more than 15 years of litigation experience, and has successfully tried several cases to verdict. In addition to his trial experience, he has specific experience in handling labor and employment matters before a variety of administrative agencies. He also assists employers with unionized workforces during collective bargaining, at arbitrations, and with respect to employee grievances and unfair labor practice charges; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Daniel C. Carr specializes exclusively in management-side labor and employment law at Royal P.C. He has experience handling a number of labor and employment matters in a variety of courts and administrative agencies. He is also a frequent speaker on a number of legal areas such as discrimination law, employee handbook review, investigation strategies, and various employment-law topics; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Employment

Checking the Rearview

By Erica E. Flores, Esq. and John S. Gannon, Esq.

Erica E. Flores

Erica E. Flores

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

The world of labor and employment law is constantly in flux. As attorneys who practice in this area, our business is to learn and help our clients solve problems in this increasingly complex environment.

So when we reflect on the past year, we ask ourselves how the law has changed for our clients, what new challenges were introduced, and what new guidance we can offer to help businesses navigate these ever-changing waters.

With that in mind, we bring you a summary of last year’s most significant employment-law changes for Massachusetts employers.

Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program

If there is one takeaway from 2018, it is that Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) will be a game changer for businesses across the Commonwealth. The new program, which will require tax contributions from employers starting in July 2019, will allow employees to take considerable paid time off — up to 26 weeks per year in the aggregate — in connection with their own medical condition or to care for family members who are suffering from a serious health condition.

Paid family leave is also available to bond with an employee’s newborn or newly adopted child. Employees can begin claiming PFML benefits in January 2021. Employees will be able to collect weekly wage replacement benefits that will vary depending on their average weekly wage. The maximum weekly benefit amount is currently capped at $850 per week, but will be adjusted annually.

“A lot has changed for employers over the past year. Business should be reviewing their practices, policies, and employment-related documents now to be sure they are in compliance with these new laws and regulations.”

Businesses will face substantial new burdens under the new law. In addition to planning for more frequent employee absences, businesses are required to fund the program through a new payroll tax. Employers will have the option to pass a portion of this tax contribution to employees, and smaller employers (fewer than 25 employees) are not responsible for contributing the employer’s share of the tax. A visual breakdown of how the tax will work can be found at www.mass.gov/info-details/family-and-medical-leave-contribution-rates-for-employers. We suspect that this program will be most burdensome for small businesses, which are not well-equipped for extended employee absences.

For those wondering where this significant new legislation came from, the genesis was a bill known as the grand bargain that was passed by the Massachusetts Legislature in June 2018. The bill not only creates the Paid Family and Medical Leave program, but also increases the minimum wage every year for the next five years, gradually eliminates mandatory overtime for retail employees who work on Sundays, and establishes an annual sales-tax holiday weekend.

Non-compete Reform

Also this year, the Massachusetts Legislature passed comprehensive non-compete reform. The law substantially narrows the circumstances under which employers can enter into non-competition agreements with employees, limits all such agreements to a maximum term of one year, and requires that non-competition agreements entered into with existing employees be supported by consideration beyond continued employment. The law also mandates that courts apply certain presumptions that have the effect of narrowing the scope of services and geographic territories employers can seek to protect with a non-compete.

Pay Equity Becomes Law

The amended Massachusetts Pay Equity Law took effect this past July, imposing significant responsibilities on businesses to ensure equal pay to employees of different genders for “comparable” work. And the first lawsuit alleging violations of the amended law was filed just a few days later.

Most importantly, the amended statute provides a broader definition of “comparable work” and limits the acceptable reasons for paying people of different genders differently to just six — bona fide seniority, merit and productivity systems, geographic location, job-related education, training and experience, and required travel. It also prohibits employers from seeking information regarding the salary history of job applicants. Employers hoping to reduce their risk of liability under the pay-equity law can earn the protection of a statutory affirmative defense if they complete a “good faith” self-evaluation of their pay practices, but they must demonstrate “reasonable progress” toward eliminating any wage differentials in order to avoid liability completely, and the defense is only good for three years.

Pregnancy and Related Conditions Are Now Protected Classes

In April 2018, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act became law in Massachusetts. In addition to adding pregnancy and conditions related to pregnancy (including lactation) as protected classes under the state’s anti-discrimination law, the statute also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s pregnancy or conditions related to pregnancy unless doing so would pose an undue hardship to the business; prohibits employers from taking adverse action against or refusing to hire someone because she needs, requests, or uses such an accommodation; and prohibits employers from requesting documentation to support certain types of accommodations — specifically, more frequent breaks, seating, lifting restrictions, and a private, non-bathroom space to express breast milk.

As you can see, a lot has changed for employers over the past year. Business should be reviewing their practices, policies, and employment-related documents now to be sure they are in compliance with these new laws and regulations.

John S. Gannon and Erica E. Flores are attorneys with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. Gannon specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation. Flores devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, and compliance.

Accounting and Tax Planning

Items That Add Up

By Kathryn A. Sisson, CPA, MST

There are many changes that businesses and individuals should be aware of under The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), the most significant tax legislation in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Here are the 10 changes that will have the most significant impact this tax season.

Individuals

1. Tax Rates. The 2018 tax brackets have changed, resulting in lower tax rates for most individuals. For example, the 15% tax bracket has been reduced to 12% and the 25% bracket to 22%.

2. Income-tax Withholding. As a result of the lower taxes rates, income-tax withholding during 2018 also decreased for most individuals. This could result in underpayment of taxes for 2018, depending on your tax situation. Taxpayers should carefully review their withholding going into 2019 and discuss it with their tax professional.

3. Itemized Deductions. TCJA made several changes to itemized deductions as noted below.

Medical Expenses: TCJA lowered the threshold for the medical-expense deduction to 7.5% of AGI for 2017 and 2018. The threshold for 2019 is 10% for most taxpayers.

State and Local Taxes: TCJA limits the deduction for state and local taxes to $10,000 per year. This includes payments for state income tax, property tax, and excise tax. The same $10,000 limit applies regardless of whether you are a single taxpayer or if you are married and file a joint return. The deduction for taxpayers who are married and filing separate returns is limited to $5,000.

Kathryn A. Sisson

Kathryn A. Sisson

Mortgage Interest: Interest is generally deductible on original home acquisition debt up to $750,000. Home-equity interest is deductible only if the funds were used to improve the mortgaged property.

Charitable Donations: Donations are generally deductible up to 60% of AGI, up from 50%, for most donations. You could also consider giving directly from your IRA if you are over age 70 1/2 or gifting appreciated stock directly to a charity. Discuss with your tax professional in order to maximize your benefit.

Miscellaneous Itemized Deductions: TCJA has eliminated miscellaneous itemized deductions. These include deductions for unreimbursed employee business expenses, tax-preparation fees, and investment-advisory fees.

4. Increased Standard Deduction. One of the most significant provisions of TCJA is the near-doubling of the standard deduction for all taxpayers. For 2018, the standard deduction amounts are $24,000 for joint filers, $18,000 for head of household, and $12,000 for all other filers. The limitations on itemized deductions as noted above and the increased standard deduction amounts may make it less advantageous to itemize deductions.

5. Personal Exemptions. TCJA eliminated personal exemptions for 2018. For 2017, taxpayers received a personal exemption deduction of $4,050 per person. Therefore, a family of four received a deduction of $16,200 in 2017 that is no longer available under the new tax act.

Businesses

6. Tax Rates. A flat tax rate of 21% replaces the graduated tax rate brackets for C corporations that ranged from 15% to 39% in prior years.

7. Qualified Business Income (QBI) Deduction. A deduction of up to 20% of business income may be available to owners of pass-through entities. There are limitations based on several factors, including income of the taxpayer as well as the type of trade or business. The purpose of the deduction is to provide some parity between the new flat 21% corporate rate and the tax rates paid by owners of pass-through entities on their individual income-tax returns.

8. Depreciation. TCJA made significant changes to encourage businesses to expand and invest in new property; 100% bonus depreciation is now available for federal purposes, and the limitation on expensing certain assets has been increased to $1 million, with a $2.5 million investment limitation.

9. Business Credits. TCJA created a Family Leave Credit for employers making family-leave payments to employees. The credit is available only to employers who have a written policy in place for the payment and credit.

10. Deductions. Previously, the deduction for meals and entertainment was limited to 50% of expenses incurred. For 2018, 50% of meals are still deductible; however, entertainment expenses are no longer deductible.

Many of these changes are significant and warrant your full attention. As you approach tax season this year, seek the assistance of tax professionals, and do not follow your neighbor’s tax advice.

Kathryn A. Sisson, CPA, MST is a tax manager in the Commercial Services Department of Melanson Heath in Greenfield. She has 20 years of experience in public accounting and has been with Melanson Heath for 10 years. She has extensive experience in corporate and individual income-tax planning and review as well as financial-statement compilations and reviews. Her corporate experience includes working with businesses doing business in multiple states. She is also a QuickBooks ProAdvisor assisting many clients with general ledger systems and software training.

Law

Knowledge Is Power

By John S. Gannon, Esq.

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq

As an employment attorney, my job is to help businesses comply with the myriad laws that govern the workplace. No business is immune from workplace problems, and for those who violate employment laws, hefty penalties and damages await.

In order to help businesses avoid these problems, I’ve put together a list five costly employment-practice mistakes we frequently come across, with tips for correction and prevention.

Misclassifying Employees as Exempt from Overtime

Employers are sometimes shocked when they learn that salaried employees might be entitled to overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week. The shock quickly goes to panic when they are told the salaried non-exempt employee is due several years’ worth of unpaid overtime, and that this unpaid wage amount can be doubled and potentially tripled under state and federal wage laws.

Misclassifying employees as exempt is a common mistake. This is because many employers associate paying a salary basis with no overtime obligation. True, paying employees a salary is typically one part of the test, but there are several other factors to consider during your exemption analysis.

We recommend you work with legal counsel to audit your exempt employee classifications. While you’re at it, consider doing a pay-equity audit to help protect against equal-pay discrimination claims.

Leave-law Headaches

When an employee is out for a medical condition, there are a series of complex and challenging employment laws that need to be navigated. This includes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers’ compensation laws, the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law, and, coming soon, the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave law.

These laws have a plethora of traps for the unwary. What do you do when an employee continually calls out in connection with a medical condition? Do your supervisors know what to do if an employee requests several weeks off for surgery? The answers are not always easy, so make sure you know how these laws interact with one another.

Outdated Handbooks and Employment Agreements

Recently, I was reviewing whether a non-compete agreement would be enforceable in court. It turned out the agreement was signed roughly 10 years ago. To make things worse, the last update to the document was pre-Y2K.

The point here is that employment agreements and handbooks should not grow cobwebs. Changes in the law require changes to these documents. For example, Massachusetts enacted significant legislation in October 2018 changing the entire landscape of non-compete law in the Commonwealth. The state also saw the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act take shape in April last year. This new law included a notice requirement that meant an update to the employee handbook was in order.

Having your employment agreements and handbook regularly reviewed by counsel is a good way to stay on top of the constant changes in the employment law world. Remember, if you have not updated these employment documents in a few years, they are probably doing more harm than good.

Failure to Eradicate Harassment at Work

Last year was dominated by headlines spotlighting sexual-harassment scandals and cover-ups. But was the #metoo movement just another fad? The answer unequivocally is ‘no.’

To prove it, late last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published data on workplace harassment claims that revealed a 50% increase in sexual-harassment lawsuits filed by the EEOC when compared to 2017 numbers. The EEOC also recovered nearly $70 million for the victims of sexual harassment in 2018, up from $47.5 million in 2017.

You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: businesses need to take proactive steps to create a workplace free from harassment. This involves updating anti-harassment policies and practices, adequately training your workforce, and promptly investigating all harassment complaints.

Lack of Supervisor Training

Most of the mistakes listed above are fertile ground for supervisor slip-ups. Whether they fail to report harassment (or, worse yet, engage in harassing behavior themselves) or discipline an employee who has taken too much sick time, supervisors who don’t know any better are in a position to do considerable damage to your business.

Proper training can alleviate this risk. Plus, a supervisor who spots an issue before it spirals out of control could prevent a costly lawsuit from being filed.

John S. Gannon is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. He specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning

2018 Tax Planning (in 2019)

By Brendan Healy, CPA

Brendan Healy

Even though we’re into 2019, there are still tax-saving opportunities available for the 2018 tax year.

This article summarizes a number of options that businesses and taxpayers should consider to help minimize their tax burden when they file their 2018 tax returns. As with any tax-savings strategy, you should discuss these post-2018 year-end planning techniques with your tax advisor before implementing them.

Retirement-plan Contributions

Although some retirement plans needed to have been in place before Dec. 31 to be used for the 2018 year, there are plans that could be set up in 2019, funded, and then used as deductions for the 2018 tax return.

A simplified employee pension (or SEP) IRA, for example, can be set up after year-end and funded up to the due date (including extensions) of the taxpayer’s business.

New Opportunity-zone Funds

The new tax law created a significant tax incentive to encourage capital investment in certain locations that need development. If you sell an asset with a large capital gain, you may be able to defer that gain if you essentially reinvest that gain into an “opportunity-zone fund” within six months of that sale. If done properly, you wouldn’t recognize the tax gain until the latter of when your new investment is sold or Dec. 31, 2026. You can also get up to 15% of the deferred gain forgiven entirely for holding the investment for specified time period. And if you held the investment for an additional 10 years, you’d pay no tax on subsequent capital gains.

Capital-expenditure Tax Writeoff

The new tax law allows businesses to write off (or expense) larger amounts of fixed-asset purchases. The new law not only applies to personal property (machinery, equipment, computers, office furniture, etc.) but also increases the ability to write off certain real-estate improvements. It also increases the amount of tax deduction available for business-owned automobiles. These capital-expense writeoff elections are made at the time you file the tax return.

State Tax Planning

If you ship product to different states or if you sell over the internet across the country, there may be state tax-planning strategies available for your business. Certain businesses can take advantage of apportioning their revenue across several states. And if they do not have to file tax returns in those states, that apportioned revenue may never be subject to state income tax.

There have been significant changes this past year in the way states are allowed to (or not allowed to) tax out-of-state shipments entering their state. You should review your state income tax plan as well as your state sales tax reporting process in light of these new and significant changes.

Tax Credits

The tax law provides certain incentives to businesses by offering tax credits. The research and experimentation tax credit, for example, allows a business to convert a dollar of deduction into a dollar of tax credit. Since tax credits reduce taxes on a dollar-for-dollar basis, a tax credit is more valuable to the business than a tax deduction. So if the business is allowed to convert an expenditure into a credit, the tax savings could be substantial.

Many businesses (such as manufacturers or software companies) are not taking advantage of this tax credit that may be available to them.

Estate Planning and Gifts During Lifetime

The new tax law significantly increases the ability for families to transfer wealth upon death as well as allowing gifts during lifetime on a tax-free basis. Although estate and gift planning can get very complicated, the limits available today (which will expire in about seven years) are substantially higher than they have been in the past and allow for great flexibility in wealth-transfer planning.

Bottom Line

Just because 2018 is over does not mean we should stop thinking about tax-planning strategies for 2018 tax returns that will be filed over the next several months.

There are many tax incentives written into the tax law to encourage business and individual taxpayers to reinvest. It is up to you to make sure you are taking advantage of every one available to you and your business.

Brenden Healy, CPA, a partner at Whittlesey, is an expert in state and federal tax matters who consults with businesses and individuals and focuses his practice on closely held businesses in the real-estate, manufacturing and distribution, and retail industries.

Accounting and Tax Planning

Life in the Cloud Age

By Rebecca J. Connolly, CPA

Rebecca J. Connolly

Rebecca J. Connolly

If you’re anything like me, you wonder what a cloud is, besides the one I see when I look out my office window.

Most people resist change because they don’t know what it truly is, but let’s take a moment to ignore our instinct of ‘no’ and think about what this truly is and if it is right for your business. The cloud is not something you touch, but it is a tool in your corporate toolbox that you should consider using.

For business owners, the true questions are, what is cloud computing? How do I use it? Is it safe? And, why would I spend the money?

The true definition of cloud computing is confusing to most, but the information element is ease of use and availability. Many small-business owners need frequent access to their office network, and what if that office was fully accessible at your home computer?

There are many options that allow a business owner or worker to access their office computer, but cloud computing offers your business software to not be stored not on your laptop or desktop, but on an online solution that can help save the costs and late nights spent in the office.

I was skeptical as to how cloud computing would work and the true speed and efficiency of it, but I can travel all over the Northeast part of the U.S. for my clients and have everything available to me from any computer, including my laptop. How many of us are stuck carrying a laptop and waiting 15 minutes a day to load due to how large our software is? My laptop takes a minute or less to load due to minimal software being loaded on it because our office uses cloud computing.

You might ask, is cloud computing safe for my business? Nowadays we hear so often about data breaches that they are not shocking anymore, but just a thing of the times. So, let’s take a step back and think about how secure we are with our work computers, company data, and Internet access.

If you practice the gold standard of security, you don’t store any company files on your laptop itself, the laptop is backed up every day, and you do not use the internet except for required business activities. How many people do all three of these items? If you are part of the general population of business owners and workers, you put systems in place the best you can using your knowledge or your hired consultants’ suggestions. You then attempt to follow those processes and procedures, but again, you’re human, so maybe the local drive on your laptop is backed up only once at month at best.

Cloud computing could be your answer, or at least make you think about where your business stands and determine if you are losing time with your current work setup. Cloud computing has layers of security most people never think about, including frequent backups, two-factor authentication, and audit logs.

Another question people have once they partially understand the aspects of cloud computing is price. Now, I ask you, what is the price you are willing to pay to allow yourself and your workers access into your software securely at any time from any location?

The next question you should ask yourself is how much time, effort, and money are you losing using your current platform. Do you wait for your system to boot up for a long period of time every day, and so do all your employees? Is your current system secure, or do you just tell yourself it is so that you can sleep at night?

There are so many questions to ask here, but the first item to resolve when looking at how to move your company into the next phase of information technology is realizing that we know our business inside and out, whether it is making a product or providing a great service to our community. Just because we’re not experts in the field of cloud computing or technology in general does not mean that we couldn’t save time, money, and frustration, while also enhancing security, by looking into new technology to help the business grow.

Working in public accounting with many small-business owners allows me to realize there isn’t enough time in the day or week to allow for everything that needs to get done. Losing data and hard work because of a computer glitch or a bad information-technology setup is not only unacceptable, but also costly to businesses beyond price tags.

I’m not saying everyone needs to be using the cloud, because each business and every business owner is different. I am saying that it is prudent to take the time to access your current system, no matter how much time and effort it costs you, and evaluate if you are doing yourself and your business a disservice by not using cloud computing or a similar technology.

Rebecca J. Connolly, CPA is audit manager for the West Springfield-based accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, certified public accountants; (413) 734-9040.

Employment

One Year Later

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

The #MeToo movement began making national headlines just over a year ago.

Since then, more than 200 prominent individuals have been accused of harassment. From Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer to newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh, new allegations of sexual harassment have been appearing in the news almost weekly, and sometimes daily, over the last year.

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

It should not come as any surprise that employers are feeling the impact of the #MeToo movement. The number of sexual-harassment lawsuits filed increased drastically from 2017 to 2018. In October 2018, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal discrimination and harassment laws, released preliminary data for fiscal year 2018 showing that, for the first time since at least 2010, the number of sexual-harassment charges filed with the EEOC increased.

Additionally, the EEOC reported that it had filed 41 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, more than a 50% increase over the previous year, and that it had collected close to $70 million on behalf of sexual-harassment victims in fiscal year 2018. The number of lawsuits is not the only thing on the rise; juries seem more willing to issue large damage awards to plaintiffs alleging sexual harassment. Just a few months ago, a jury in Massachusetts awarded a plaintiff more than $3 million in damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Best Practices for Employers

Businesses that want to avoid being another #MeToo statistic need to take a hard look at their culture and ask: What are we doing to provide a workplace free from harassment? With allegations of harassment and lawsuits on the rise, now is an important time for employers to revisit best practices and take proactive steps aimed at protecting employees and reducing legal risk.

First, employers must have an anti-harassment policy, which should clearly outline the internal complaint and investigation procedure. State law requires employers of six or more employees to have a written sexual-harassment policy that is distributed at time of hire and annually to all employees. Among other things, the policy must include a notice that sexual harassment is unlawful and that it is unlawful to retaliate against someone who reports sexual harassment or participates in an investigation. 

The policy should also outline where and how employees can bring internal complaints of harassment and what the investigation procedure is. If either of these processes are unclear at your workplace, now is the time to revisit them and develop a complaint process and investigation procedure.

Second, employers should be doing annual sexual-harassment training. Although Massachusetts law only encourages training, implementing effective harassment training into your workplace culture demonstrates that you care about the issue. It also can protect you against a costly lawsuit.

Under the law, if a supervisor harasses a subordinate or knows about harassment but fails to take prompt steps to report, investigate, and stop the conduct, the supervisor has created significant legal risk for the employer. As a result, it is important that supervisors receive periodic training on what constitutes sexual harassment and what to do if they receive a sexual-harassment complaint or observe potential harassment in the workplace. A few hours of training per year could save an employer from a costly lawsuit. Further, annual training for all employees can be beneficial because it highlights what is not acceptable and outlines the serious repercussions, including termination, for harassing behavior.

Preventing Costly Litigation

As noted at the outset, juries are issuing multi-million-dollar awards in harassment cases. At the same time, employment-discrimination cases are also seeing record-setting jury verdicts. Earlier this year, a jury in Massachusetts awarded a plaintiff $28 million in a discrimination and retaliation case. Read that sentence again.

Having solid policies and engaging in regular training can get employers only so far. In order to avoid the risk of a runaway jury, employers may want to consider requiring employees to enter into agreements calling for private arbitration of employment disputes. Commonly referred to as arbitration agreements, these employment agreements require that employee and employer submit all disputes to a neutral arbitrator, as opposed to filing a lawsuit in court and having the case decided by a jury.

The arbitration process is typically less costly and time-consuming than court actions. Plus, the arbitration decision is usually final, as there are only limited opportunities for either side to appeal.

Bottom Line

The #MeToo movement is undoubtedly bringing positive changes to the workplace. Still, businesses need to be proactive and take steps to create a culture free from harassment. This starts with an effective workplace policy against harassment and regular training for employees.

If a culture change is necessary, it has to start at the top. Leaders lead by example, and these folks must be more committed than anyone to creating an environment free from harassing behavior.

John S. Gannon and Amelia J. Holstrom are attorneys with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. Gannon specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected] Holstrom specializes in employment litigation, including defending employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation harassment, and wrongful termination, as well as wage-and-hour lawsuits. She also frequently provides counsel to management on taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of legal liability; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Features

It’s That Time of Year

By Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST

Year-end planning for 2018 takes place against the backdrop of a new tax law — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — that makes major changes in the tax rules for individuals and businesses.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

For individuals, there are new, lower-income tax rates, a substantially increased standard deduction, severely limited itemized deductions and no personal exemptions, an increased child-tax credit, and a watered-down alternative minimum tax (AMT), among many other changes. For businesses, the corporate tax rate is cut to 21%, the corporate AMT is gone, there are new limits on business interest deductions, and significantly liberalized expensing and depreciation rules. And there’s a new deduction for non-corporate taxpayers with qualified business income from pass-through entities. The following is a brief synopsis of these and other changes.

Businesses and Business Owners

• For tax years beginning after 2017, taxpayers other than corporations may be entitled to a deduction of up to 20% of their qualified business income. For 2018, if taxable income exceeds $315,000 for a married couple filing jointly, or $157,500 for all other taxpayers, the deduction may be limited based on whether the taxpayer is engaged in a service-type trade or business (such as healthcare), the amount of W-2 wages paid by the trade or business, and/or the unadjusted basis of qualified property (such as machinery and equipment) held by the trade or business.

The limitations are phased in for joint filers with taxable income between $315,000 and $415,000 and for all other taxpayers with taxable income between $157,500 and $207,500.

• Deferring income to the next taxable year is a time-honored year-end planning tool. If you expect your taxable income to be higher in 2018 than in 2019, or if you operate as anything except a C corporation and you anticipate being in the same or a higher tax bracket in 2018 than in 2019, you may benefit by deferring income into 2019. With the passage of tax reform largely going into effect in 2018, new considerations may need to be made for the end of 2018. Of course, if an individual is subject to the alternative minimum tax, standard tax planning may not be warranted. The rules are quite complex, so don’t make a move in this area without consulting your tax adviser.

• Businesses should consider making expenditures that qualify for the liberalized business property expensing option. For tax years beginning in 2018, the expensing limit is $1,000,000, and the investment ceiling limit is $2,500,000. Expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings), and off-the-shelf computer software.

For property placed in service in tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, expensing also is available for qualified improvement property (generally, any interior improvement to a building’s interior, but not for enlargement of a building, elevators or escalators, or the internal structural framework), for roofs, and for HVAC, fire protection, alarm, and security systems. The generous dollar ceilings that apply this year mean that many small and medium-sized businesses that make timely purchases will be able to currently deduct most if not all their outlays for machinery and equipment.

What’s more, the expensing deduction is not prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year. The fact that the expensing deduction may be claimed in full (if you are otherwise eligible to take it) regardless of how long the property is held during the year can be a potent tool for year-end tax planning. Thus, property acquired and placed in service in the last days of 2018, rather than at the beginning of 2019, can result in a full expensing deduction for 2018.

• Businesses can also claim a 100% bonus first-year depreciation deduction for machinery and equipment bought used (with some exceptions) or new, if purchased and placed in service this year. The 100% write-off is permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year. As a result, the 100% bonus first-year write-off is available even if qualifying assets are in service for only a few days in 2018.

• A charitable-donation deduction is available to businesses, but the actual deductibility depends on the business form. A corporation is allowed a deduction of up to 10% of its taxable income, whereas a pass-through entity is subject to an individual’s limitations. Specific types of assets may also have limited deductibility or may need to meet certain requirements. In addition, the substantiation and reporting regulations for charitable donations were recently updated. While most of the changes were relatively minor, qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers must now meet particular requirements. You should contact your tax advisor before making charitable donations, particularly inventory items, to ensure you meet the deduction requirements.

• Beginning in 2018 and until 2025, taxpayers other than C corporations are limited in their ability to deduct business loss. The excess business loss that is disallowed is instead carried forward as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss in succeeding years.

Individuals

• As a general reminder, there are several ways in which you can file an income-tax return: married filing jointly, head of household, single, and married filing separately. A married couple, which includes same-sex marriages, may elect to file one return reporting their combined income, computing the tax liability using the tax tables or rate schedules for ‘Married Persons Filing Jointly.’

If a married couple files separate returns, in certain situations they can amend and file jointly, but they cannot amend a jointly filed return to file separately once the due date has passed. A joint return may be filed even though one spouse has neither gross income nor deductions. If one spouse dies during the year, the surviving spouse may file a joint return for the year in which his or her spouse died.

Certain married persons who do not elect to file a joint return may be entitled to use the lower head-of-household tax rates. Generally, in order to qualify as a head of household, you must not be a resident alien, you must satisfy certain marital status requirements, and you must maintain a household for a qualifying child or any other person who is your dependent.

• Higher-income earners must be wary of the 3.8% surtax on certain unearned income. The surtax is 3.8% of the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over a threshold amount. As year-end nears, a taxpayer’s approach to minimizing or eliminating the 3.8% surtax will depend on his estimated MAGI and NII for the year. Some taxpayers should consider ways to minimize (e.g., through deferral) additional NII for the balance of the year, others should try to see if they can reduce MAGI other than NII, and still other individuals will need to consider ways to minimize both NII and other types of MAGI.

• The 0.9% additional Medicare tax also may require higher-income earners to take year-end actions. It applies to individuals for whom the sum of their wages received with respect to employment and whose self-employment income is in excess of an unindexed threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married couples filing separately, and $200,000 in any other case). Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax from wages in excess of $200,000 regardless of filing status or other income. Self-employed persons must take it into account in figuring estimated tax.

• Long-term capital gain from sales of assets held for over one year is taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on the taxpayer’s taxable income. The 0% rate generally applies to the excess of long-term capital gain over any short-term capital loss to the extent that it, when added to regular taxable income, is not more than the ‘maximum zero-rate amount’ (e.g., $77,200 for a married couple). If the 0% rate applies to long-term capital gains you took earlier this year — for example, you are a joint filer who made a profit of $5,000 on the sale of stock bought in 2009, and other taxable income for 2018 is $70,000 — then before year-end, try not to sell assets yielding a capital loss because the first $5,000 of such losses won’t yield a benefit this year. And if you hold long-term appreciated-in-value assets, consider selling enough of them to generate long-term capital gains sheltered by the 0% rate.

• Postpone income until 2019 and accelerate deductions into 2018 if doing so will enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2018 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income. These include deductible IRA contributions, child tax credits, higher-education tax credits, and deductions for student-loan interest.

Postponing income is also desirable for those taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2018. For example, that may be the case where a person will have a more favorable filing status this year than next (e.g., head of household versus individual filing status), or expects to be in a higher tax bracket next year.

• Beginning in 2018, many taxpayers who claimed itemized deductions year after year will no longer be able to do so. That’s because the basic standard deduction has been increased (to $24,000 for joint filers, $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for marrieds filing separately), and many itemized deductions have been cut back or abolished. No more than $10,000 of state and local taxes may be deducted, miscellaneous itemized deductions (e.g., tax-preparation fees, moving expenses, and investment expenses) and unreimbursed employee expenses are no longer deductible, and personal casualty and theft losses are deductible only if they’re attributable to a federally declared disaster.

You can still itemize medical expenses to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, state and local taxes up to $10,000, your charitable contributions, plus interest deductions on a restricted amount of qualifying residence debt, but payments of those items won’t save taxes if they don’t cumulatively exceed the new, higher standard deduction.

• Some taxpayers may be able to work around the new reality by applying a ‘bunching strategy’ to pull or push discretionary medical expenses and charitable contributions into the year where they will do some tax good. For example, if a taxpayer knows he or she will be able to itemize deductions this year but not next year, the taxpayer may be able to make two years’ worth of charitable contributions this year, instead of spreading out donations over 2018 and 2019.

• If you’re age 70½ or older by the end of 2018, have traditional IRAs, and particularly if you can’t itemize your deductions, consider making 2018 charitable donations via qualified charitable distributions from your IRAs. Such distributions are made directly to charities from your IRAs, and the amount of the contribution is neither included in your gross income nor deductible on Schedule A, Form 1040. But the amount of the qualified charitable distribution reduces the amount of your required minimum distribution, resulting in tax savings.

• Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift-tax exclusion before the end of the year and thereby save gift and estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $15,000 made in 2018 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. You can’t carry over unused exclusions from one year to the next. Such transfers may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income-tax brackets who are not subject to the kiddie tax.

• For tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, the unearned income of a child is subject to ordinary and capital-gains rates applicable to trusts and estates. The earned income of a child is taxed according to an unmarried taxpayer’s brackets and rates. The kiddie tax is not affected by the tax situation of the child’s parents or unearned income of any siblings. The kiddie tax applies to: (1) children under 18 who do not file a joint return; (2) 18-year-old children who have unearned income in excess of the threshold amount, do not file a joint return, and who have earned income, if any, that does not exceed one-half of the amount of the child’s support; and (3) children between the ages of 19 and 23 if, in addition to the above rules, they are full-time students. Investment earnings in excess of $2,100 will be taxed at the rates that apply to trusts and estates.

These are just some of the year-end steps that can be taken to save taxes. Again, by contacting your tax advisor, he or she can tailor a particular plan that will work best for you.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST is the partner in charge of Taxation at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Work/Life Balance

Survey Says

While salary is still the most important aspect of a job for most, a new survey from the Employers Associations of America (EEA) notes that lifestyle factors are a significant consideration as well.

In its 2019 National Business Trends Survey, the EEA aimed to determine the top five most important factors prospective employees are looking for, with the goal of assisting employers with recruitment and retention. The top five factors included, in order, competitive pay (named by 82% of respondents), good work/life balance (69.2 %), flexibility in work hours (56.1%), opportunities for advancement (55.4%), and competitive health benefits (49.9%).

“The shortage of labor will be a key factor for employers in 2019,” said Phil Brandt, who chairs the EAA board of directors. “How employers will fill those new jobs is the real story. Employers will need to be even more creative in their recruitment and retention efforts than ever before.”

And if employees are prioritizing balance in their lives, companies should take notice, if only to assess the well-being of their workforce.

“These days, work-life balance can seem like an impossible feat. Technology makes workers accessible around the clock. Fears of job loss incentivize longer hours,” business writer Deborah Jian Lee noted in Forbes recently, noting that, according to a Harvard Business School survey, 94% of working professionals reported working more than 50 hours per week, and nearly half said they worked more than 65 hours per week. “Experts agree: the compounding stress from the never-ending workday is damaging. It can hurt relationships, health, and overall happiness.”

Still, this year’s EEA survey indicates a fair amount of optimism on the part of business executives for 2019. Nearly 74% describe their projected 2019 business outlook as a slight to significant increase in sales and revenue.

“The shortage of labor will be a key factor for employers in 2019. How employers will fill those new jobs is the real story. Employers will need to be even more creative in their recruitment and retention efforts than ever before.”

Supporting that optimistic outlook is the fact that 54% of executives surveyed plan to hire permanent staff in 2019. When asked the primary reasons for their 2019 hiring plans, 72% said their hiring will be to fill newly created jobs. 

When asked which strategies executives are using to overcome recruitment and retention challenges, respondents identified, as the three top strategies, adjusting pay ranges upward, providing additional training and development for existing staff, and increasing starting salaries.

Executives were also asked to identify their top five serious challenges over the next year. The top five were talent acquisition (54%), talent retention (41%), ability to pay competitive wages (33%), ability to pay for benefit costs (28%), and competition in general (28%).

When that question shifted to their serious concerns over the long term — within the next five years — respondents cited talent acquisition (57%), talent retention (48%), ability to pay for benefit costs (43%), ability to pay competitive wages (40%), and competition in general (34%).

Finally, the survey also indicated the top five measures executives say they have been implementing — or are planning to continue to implement in 2019 — to strengthen business. These are investing in technology (52%), investing in equipment (50%), increasing recruiting emphasis (38%), increasing training budget (30%), and increasing total rewards education (22%).

The EAA is a not-for-profit national association that provides this annual survey to business executives, arming them with insights and trends for business outlooks, business-investment plans, staffing levels, hiring plans, job creation, pay strategies, and business challenges. The 2018 survey included 1,295 participating organizations throughout the U.S.

Workforce Development

The Overlooked Management Tool

By Kate Zabriskie

‘I sit right next them. We don’t need to have a staff meeting.’

‘I used to have staff meetings, but we stopped having them. Nobody had anything to talk about.’

‘We have enough meetings. We certainly don’t need another.’

For a myriad of reasons, many managers don’t hold regular staff meetings. Furthermore, most who do don’t get the most they could from them, and that’s too bad. Good staff meetings can focus a team, energize employees, and engage them in ways ad-hoc interactions don’t.

So how do you turn a halted or ho-hum approach to staff meetings into a high-functioning management tool?

STEP ONE: Connect Daily Work with Your Organization’s Purpose

In addition to distributing information, staff meetings present an opportunity to connect your team’s daily work to your organization’s purpose. If you’re thinking, ‘My people know how their work fits into our overall goal,’ you would be wrong. In fact, if you ask your group what your organization’s purpose or your department’s purpose are, don’t be surprised when you get as many answers as there are people in the room. (And you thought you had nothing to talk about in a staff meeting. A discussion about purpose is a good one to have.)

Purpose is why you do what you do. You connect the work to it by explaining how what people did aligns with the greater goal. For example, the head of housekeeping at a busy hotel might hold a meeting with the cleaning staff. In that meeting, the managers might recognize a team that received a perfect room score from all guests who took a survey and then talk about purpose.

The purpose of the hotel is to provide people a safe and comfortable place to spend the night. Having a clean, welcoming, and functioning room is one of the ways a cleaning staff achieves that goal.

“Purpose is why you do what you do. You connect the work to it by explaining how what people did aligns with the greater goal.”

By regularly connecting such activities as cleaning toilets, making beds, and folding towels to the guest experience, the manager highlights why each of those activities is important.

No matter what they do, employees usually enjoy their jobs more when their organization’s leaders talk about the importance of their work. They also tend to make better choices if they receive frequent reminders about purpose and what types of activities support it.

STEP TWO: Highlight Relevant Metrics

Connecting work to purpose usually works best when a team focuses on both anecdotal and analytical information. If you don’t currently track statistics, start. What you track will depend on your industry. However, whatever you decide should have a clear line of sight to the larger goal.

For instance, a museum that holds events to attract new members might track the number of events held, contact information collected, memberships sold, and the percentage of new memberships that come as a result of attending the free event. With regular attention placed on the right metrics, the team is far more likely to make good choices as to where it should focus its efforts.

STEP THREE: Follow a Formula and Rotate Responsibility

Successful staff meetings usually follow a pattern, such as looking at weekly metrics, sharing information from the top, highlighting success, a team-building activity, and so forth. By creating and sticking with a formula, managers help their employees know what to expect.

Once employees know the pattern of the meeting, many are capable of running it because they’ve learned by watching. Managers then have a natural opportunity to rotate the responsibility of the meeting to different people. By delegating, the manager is able to free up his or her time and provide employees with a chance to develop their skills.

STEP FOUR: Celebrate Successes

In many organizations, there is a huge appreciation shortage. Staff meetings provide managers and employees with regular intervals to practice gratitude.

“I’d like to thank Tom for staying late last night. Because he did, I was able to attend a parent-teacher conference.”

“Maryann’s work on the PowerPoint presentation was superb. I want to thank her for preparing me with the best slides shown at the conference. The stunning photos outshined the graphics others used. Maryann’s work really made our company look good.”

A steady drip of sincere gratitude can drive engagement. Note the word: sincerity. Most people have an amazing capacity to identify a false compliment. Real praise is specific. Well-delivered praise also ties the action to the outcome. Whether it’s being able to attend a conference, looking good in front of others, or some other result, people appreciate praise more when they understand how their actions delivered results. A praise segment in your staff meetings ensures you routinely take the time to recognize efforts.

STEP FIVE: Focus on Lessons Learned and Continuous Improvement

Staff meetings that include an opportunity to share lessons learned help drive continuous improvement. At first, people may be reluctant to share shortcomings. However, if you follow step four, you should begin to develop better communication and a sense of trust with your team. Modeling the process is a good place to start.

“I learned something this week I want to share with you. I had a call with a client that could have gone better. I’m going to tell you what happened and then I’ll discuss some ideas about how I would handle something similar in the future.”

The more you practice this exercise, the greater the gains you should experience.

STEP SIX: Develop a Schedule and Stick with It

Almost anyone can follow the first five steps some of the time, but those who get the most out of staff meetings hold them consistently. They publish a meeting schedule, and they stick with it. They may shorten a meeting from time to time or reschedule, but they don’t treat their chance to gather the team as the least important priority.

Good staff meetings aren’t perfunctory activities that add little value. On the contrary, when used to their full capacity, they are a dynamic management tool. Now what are you going to do about yours? u

Kate Zabriskie is the president of Business Training Works Inc., a Maryland-based talent development firm. She and her team help businesses establish customer service strategies and train their people to live up to what’s promised; www.businesstrainingworks.com.