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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Alex McGill says his company considered other options, but decided it wanted to be in East Longmeadow

Roughly 60 years ago, McGill Hose and Coupling opened on Benton Drive in East Longmeadow. About six months ago, it moved into a new building around the corner on Industrial Drive that is more than double the size of its old location.

McGill is a custom fabricator of hoses and tubes for a wide variety of industries, everything from fuel delivery to food and beverage to pharmaceuticals. In short, any industry that requires hoses and tubing can be served by the company. Alex McGill, vice president at McGill, said the pandemic and supply chain challenges have caused some hiccups, but at the same time brought more business from pharmaceutical companies, especially in the Northeast.

“The opportunity came about because of the level of service we offer and because we are accessible to our customers,” McGill noted. “Our willingness to work around the clock to make sure customers get what they need has won us quite a lot of business over the years.”

While the company could be located anywhere, and could have moved anywhere when expansion became necessary, McGill has chosen to remain in East Longmeadow.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors,” he said adding, “we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

Secure Energy Systems has a story that is similar in many ways. The company was located on Somers Road until 2016 when a fire destroyed the company’s building. Nearby Cartamundi provided temporary space for Secure Energy while it sought out a new location.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors, we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

“The owners of the company had purchased a property in Enfield, but it just didn’t feel right to them,” said Erin Bissonnette, senior energy sales representative for Secure Energy. “They wanted to stay in East Longmeadow because they felt this was their home and they didn’t want to leave.”

So, in 2018 Secure Energy found the right space a few doors down from the manufacturer Cartamundi on Shaker Road and bought the building that formerly housed the laser company Biolitec.

These stories are among many others that relate how East Longmeadow has become an increasingly popular home for families and businesses alike. As for the ‘why’ this is happening — there are many reasons for that, including quality of life, a still-favorable commercial tax rate, available land and property, and, overall, a pro-business approach that is prompting new businesses to settle there, existing businesses to stay, and entrepreneurs to find space there to get started, as we’ll see.

And while businesses owners are choosing to invest in the community, East Longmeadow is making investments in itself.

The East Longmeadow Town Council recently passed the Fiscal 2023 budget, which includes funding for 19 capital projects in town. One prominent project involves a major redevelopment of Heritage Park. According to Town Manager Mary McNally, the initial design and permitting phase of the redevelopment will come from Community Preservation monies. Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will cover the other 18 projects.

“They range from investing in the town’s IT needs to police cruisers, a fire engine and DPW trucks,” McNally said. “There are enough projects to stimulate lots of economic activity in town, providing we can get the contractors and the materials to get it all done.” 

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how all these many kinds of investments are paying off for East Longmeadow.

 

Right Place, Right Time

After a renovation that Bissonnette described as “down to the steel beams” Secure Energy, which specializes in the procurement of natural gas and electricity for its commercial and industrial clients, now has a modern, airy office with amenities for employees such as a kitchen, large gym, and an outdoor gathering space. And there is plenty of room for growth.

“We negotiate with the same suppliers the utilities use and lock in the price and a term for the energy commodity, whether it’s for 6 months or 60 months,” Bissonnette said.

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out. They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

As a result, a business can know what their energy will cost for the length of the term, a service more valuable these days than ever before.

“Some clients will forget they extended their term beyond 2022 and will call us in a panic,” Bissonnette said. “Then we reassure them that our energy advisors grabbed the lowest prices months ago and locked in that rate. As a result, customers who were concerned are now very happy.” 

Secure Energy is part of a growing, very diverse business community in East Longmeadow, one that takes full advantage of many amenities, including a favorable location near population centers and the border with Connecticut, as well as land on which to build and grow.

McGill Hose and Coupling is another example.

Erin Bissonnette

Erin Bissonnette says Secure Energy wanted to stay in East Longmeadow, because it “felt like home.”

As McGill employees settle into its new location, Alex McGill said the company’s next goal involves growing the business and the team working in East Longmeadow.

“We’re putting more of an emphasis on our employees,” McGill said. “We’re building a team atmosphere that has become a real catalyst for our recent growth.”

Using the strategy “if you treat your employees right, they will treat your customers right” is already paying off.

“We are poised for a nice shot of growth,” McGill continued. “We are paying attention to the future and investing in our employee culture serves as the guiding light for our growth.”

The same sentiments apply to the town and many of the investments it is making.

Indeed, as part of the budget, the town council also approved hiring for 13 positions in various town departments. McNally said Town Hall is scheduled to get 5 full time and one part time position out of the total.

“The staff at Town Hall work very hard to get things done,” McNally said. “Life would be easier if we had more staff, so I’m very pleased the council saw fit to fund these positions.” The extra staff presents a challenge of finding room where the new hires can work. The town is currently trying to find a balance between locating a department or two to another building without spreading municipal offices all over the town.

Meanwhwhile, a new high school represents a longer-term investment that is moving through town and state approval processes. The town will host three visioning sessions to show residents what a new school could look like and to solicit ideas from the public on what they would like to see for a new high school.

“These will be hybrid meetings so the public can take part in person or virtually,” McNally said. “I hope we get a good turnout and that people will participate.”

One of those 18 ARPA projects includes roof repairs to the current high school.

“This is a fix that can’t wait for the years-long process of building a new school,” said McNally.

Another investment trend in East Longmeadow involves people investing in themselves.

Grace Barone, executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said recent networking events she has held are attracting many young entrepreneurs. Barone said new pop-up shops are beginning to appear and most of them are women-owned businesses.

Grace Barone

Grace Barone

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out,” said Barone. “They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

One of those entrepreneurs recently leased space in the Reminder Building, where the Chamber office is also located. Chris Buendo, owner of the building, said he has welcomed startups to the Reminder Building and now has an eclectic mix of tenants. In fact, he allows tenants to provide a 60-day notice to break their lease instead of holding them to a typical one year or longer term.

“The shorter notice takes a little pressure off a start-up company,” said Buendo. “Rather than signing a long-term lease that they may later regret, I have faith that what they are doing is going to work so I want to relieve some of that pressure so they can succeed.”

The height of the pandemic was a scary time for commercial real estate, and Buendo said he lost many tenants who abandoned their office space to work from home. As the world slowly emerges from COVID concerns, he said business has come back.

“The good news is I’m getting calls again,” Buendo said. “Working from home is nice but it’s not a perfect scenario, so people are calling me to say it’s time to return to the office.” And return they have, as Buendo noted he has only one available space in the Reminder building.

Chris Buendo

Chris Buendo says growing interest in office space in the town is a sign of progress.

At the town level, in addition to the new jobs approved by the council, several key positions have turned over because of retirements and career changes. McNally explained that over the last year the town has brought on a new planning director and a new library director. McNally herself plans to retire when her contract ends on June 30.

At press time the town had chosen a new town manager and was in the process of negotiating the final contract before announcing the new person.

 

The Bottom Line

As for McNally, her next move is well planned.

“I’ll be on the golf course, at the ocean, or with my family, not necessarily in that order,” McNally said. “I’m a lawyer by training so I could re-new my license if I get bored, but for now I’m ready to call it a day.”

As she prepares for retirement, McNally is pleased that thanks to investments from the private sector and the town, East Longmeadow is in solid financial shape going forward and in a position to continue the remarkable pattern of growth it has seen in recent years. u

Features

A Changing Dynamic

By Amy Roberts

It is no secret that the workplace has changed significantly over the past several years, requiring employers to adjust their operating principles to keep pace with what employees need and want. While many have labeled this time as the Great Resignation, this movement might better be explained by the term…the Great Re-evaluation!

For whatever the reason, and there have been plenty in these last few years, people are re-looking at how they work, what they do for work, and the impact their work has on the world around them. Employees expect that their job brings purpose to their lives and expect an employer to help them meet this need. If they review their current job and don’t find the connection with their own purpose, they are leaving for a role in an organization that they feel can provide them with this crucial requirement.

Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts

When attracting candidates and holding on to talent, Employers are being challenged to improve their impact on just about everything. The people they employ, the people they serve and the value they bring to the greater good. This challenge has led many employers to look at their impact on the world and revamp their entire value system in order to compete.

Attractive benefit programs and competitive pay will only get an organization so far in an evolution of their value. Organizations have to consider more broadly their impact on the lives of people. All the people! Not just the people who buy their products or services or their shareholders or the people that work for them. This means caring about the communities in which they are a part and also caring about the world beyond their headquarters, subsidiaries, and offices.

While there are many ways to create an employer value proposition that helps an organization stand out and compete for talent, perhaps the most impactful is to establish a corporate purpose that considers the company’s role and contribution to society. In the development and communication of this purpose an organization can articulate their value to an employee and in turn attract people who see value in being a part of the work being done by the organization.

Once established it is critical to provide employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact as well as ways to participate in these efforts. In other words, employees want to be a part of a company that strives to make the world a better place and they want to do the work that helps to make it so.

Another aspect for employers to consider is how work gets done within the organization and the systems and structure around work. While more a practical component of an employer value proposition than a corporate purpose, this area of work has become increasingly scrutinized by the workforce. People want to be challenged in their work, excited by the mission of an organization, and contribute to the outcomes of the organization in a way that makes sense for them.

In order to do this, an employer has to consider the person doing the work as an important aspect of how the work will be done. This represents a huge paradigm shift in workforce planning and it requires an organization to examine its policies and procedures of work to determine how to go about this in a consistent and sustainable way.

We all know it would be impossible for an organization to design its work structure to handle all of the elements of a person, so one approach an employer can take is to set some basic tenets of how work gets done, usually in the form of establishing goals and outcomes required of each role in the organization and then be flexible enough to meet people where they are when it comes to how that work gets done. This can look different depending on the organization type and can vary even within an organization depending on the position. Flexibility in the workplace isn’t new, but the fact that it is a requirement for many people in the workplace has caused many organizations to rethink work hours, days of work, and the location of work.

In different times companies were doing great things to provide an inviting and calm workspace with nice desks, décor that complimented the values of the organization and convenience amenities like a café, gym or dry cleaner. Now an employer is seriously considering four-day work weeks, 35-hour schedules, remote work, hybrid work, work from anywhere, and unlimited time off, just to name a few.

The stakes are higher than ever to implement programs that provide an organization with the desired outcomes to be successful in a way that allows employees to live a meaningful and well-balanced life. u

 

Amy Roberts is executive vice president and chief human resources officer at PeoplesBank.

Accounting and Tax Planning

And Why Does it Matter to My Business?

By Colleen Berndt, CPA

 

State tax nexus refers to the amount and type of business activity that must be present before the business is subject to the state’s taxing authority. Every state has its own set of tax laws and required filings. In recent years, the whole concept of state nexus for sales tax and income tax has dramatically changed.

Traditionally, state tax was based on more of a physical presence test. Thus, if your business did not employ people and property in a particular state, then most often the business would not be required to register or file in that state.

As with many laws, it takes time for states to address issues and make changes for how business is transacted in the modern world. How we conduct business is changing at a faster and faster pace. The COVID-19 pandemic generated unprecedented e-commerce growth in various economies across the globe and is anticipated to continue to grow at a rapid pace.

Colleen Berndt

Colleen Berndt

“While the Wayfair decision did not directly impact income-tax nexus, the removal of a physical presence requirement for sales-tax nexus has definitely encouraged more states to enact a sales threshold as an indicator for income-tax nexus.”

The pandemic also resulted in millions of people across the world to become remote workers, creating another major shift in how modern-day business is conducted. Remote working has become the ‘new normal,’ almost overnight.

 

The Wayfair case – a major shift in state taxation

On June 21, 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., et al, that states can require an out-of-state seller to collect and remit sales tax on sales to in-state consumers even if the seller has no physical presence in the consumer’s state. 

In doing so, the court overruled 50 years of its own precedent. The decision allows states to define a sales threshold (either by dollar amount or the number of transactions) that will trigger a sales tax collection requirement.  

Since the Wayfair case, Massachusetts enacted legislation to change the state’s economic thresholds to $100,000 in sales with no transaction threshold. Most states now employ a dollar and/or a number of transactions threshold for sales tax collection and remittance. The frequency in which the tax must be remitted also varies greatly from state to state.

While the Wayfair decision did not directly impact income-tax nexus, the removal of a physical presence requirement for sales-tax nexus has definitely encouraged more states to enact a sales threshold as an indicator for income-tax nexus.

The increase in states employing an economic nexus standard, combined with the change in how business is transacted, has opened the door for a migration toward market-based sourcing. Market-based sourcing is the idea of taxes being imposed on where the service is consumed, rather than the location where the service was performed.

Under Massachusetts law, “doing business” includes every act, power, right, privilege, and immunity exercised or enjoyed in the Commonwealth, as an incident or by virtue of the powers and privileges acquired by the nature of such organizations, as well as, the buying, selling or procuring of services or property. In addition, Massachusetts will presume that a business’s corporation’s virtual and economic contacts subject the corporation to the tax if the volume of the corporation’s Massachusetts sales for the taxable year exceeds five hundred thousand dollars. Again, each state has its own unique set of rules to determine nexus.

 

Remote employees’ impact on nexus

Generally speaking, a remote employee will create nexus for the employer for tax purposes. Many states provided relief for pandemic-related circumstances, but most of those provisions have since expired. Nexus created by remote-working employees can create significant tax liabilities in new jurisdictions, especially for income tax purposes where the company has significant receipts from the state and the state apportions using a single sales factor formula, as many do. Massachusetts still utilizes a three-factor formula (sales, payroll and property) for most businesses. Most states have transitioned to sales as a single factor to determine apportionment.

 

The impact on recordkeeping

In order to ensure state tax compliance, businesses must keep records that perhaps were not required in the past. Thankfully, most businesses have a computerized accounting system, however, it may require more detailed information then previously needed to determine filing requirements.

For instance, the number of transactions by state may not have been a standard reporting item in the past. Another consideration is that the invoicing state may not necessarily be the state where the product is being consumed. If that is true, then the shipping records must become integrated into the accounting records to provide accurate sales-by-state reports. Given the digital footprint left by any type of transaction, states are aggressively pursuing businesses looking for some type of economic presence requiring the business to register and pay various tax types.

Also, employers must keep track of employees who work remotely by state. This can be especially challenging for hybrid employees who may reside in a different state than which the employer is located. The record-keeping requirements and then complying with all state filings (employment, sales, income, gross receipts, and franchise taxes) can be complex, costly, and overwhelming for small businesses.

Not only can it be very complicated and costly to ensure that a business is complying with all state filing requirements, the rules are complex and subjective in nature. This is why it is always best to consult with your tax advisor.

 

Colleen Berndt, CPA is tax manager with Lapier, Dillon & Associates PC; (413) 732-0200.

Accounting and Tax Planning

It’s Always Important to Know the Rules of the Road

By Garrett Kelly, CPA

 

Garrett Kelly

Garrett Kelly

‘Can I deduct vehicle expenses on my tax return?’

This is one of the most frequent and open-ended questions a CPA will get. As a CPA, if you have been in the game for any period of time, you probably know that the answer is: “it depends.”

Here are some other commonly asked questions questions and scenarios regarding automobile deductions — and some answers.

 

‘I have a personal vehicle that I use in my business. Can I take an automobile deduction?’

Yes, if the vehicle is used in the business for business purposes, you are allowed a vehicle deduction. How you take the deduction, and receive the tax benefit, depends.

This is where a CPA can really add value. Maybe it should be a 100% write-off of the cost of the vehicle in the first year. However, many times the tax deduction comes in the form of a lease agreement, auto reimbursement from the company, or business mileage deduction.

 

“I bought a vehicle in my business that is used 100% for business purposes. How much can I deduct and/or depreciate?”

Weight and use of the vehicle matters. You can deduct the full cost of the vehicle. However, it is either 100% deductible in the first year, or it is deducted over multiple years. The answer depends on the weight and use of the vehicle.

An SUV or truck whose gross vehicle weight (GVW) is more than 6,000 pounds, or a special-use vehicle, can be 100% deducted in the year it is placed in service in the business. This is achieved through 100% bonus depreciation. A car, whose GVW is less than 6,000 pounds, is usually limited on how much can be deducted in the first year, resulting in the vehicle being depreciated/expensed over multiple years.

If your business owns a fleet, five or more vehicles that are used 100% in the business, you are able to fully deduct the purchased vehicle without consideration of the vehicle’s weight. This can be done through Sec. 179 expensing or 100% bonus depreciation.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it highlights the differences based on weight and use.

 

‘Should I deduct actual vehicle expenses or mileage?’

We typically lead with this follow up question: “is the vehicle expensive and/or do you drive a ton of business miles each year?” That’s not a very technical response but it gets the conversation started.

For example, in 2021 Mike purchases a $65,000 vehicle weighing more than 6,000 pounds that is used 100% for business purposes. Mike drove 30,000 business miles out of 30,000 total miles in 2021 and expects similar mileage in future years. He expects around $3,000 of vehicle expenses each year. He plans to utilize this vehicle in the business for another five years. We would recommend using actual-expense method in this situation.

A $65,000 deduction in the first year is about four times what the business mileage deduction would be in 2021 (see example below). It would take at least four years for Mike to achieve the same amount in tax write-offs. Not to mention the annual maintenance costs that are deductible each year under the actual expense method.

However, if this vehicle only cost $25,000, we would recommend deducting mileage. Yes, the actual method may achieve an additional $7,450 deduction in year one, but then Mike is limited to just deducting actual expenses in future years (around $3,000 a year). Mike is looking at around a $17,550 mileage deduction every year for the next 5 years, a total of $87,750 in write-offs, compared to a total $37,000 in write-offs with the actual expense method.

Now, all that being said, the IRS requires you to choose a vehicle-deduction method in the first year the vehicle is placed in service. If you choose to deduct actual expenses in the first year, you are stuck with this method for the life of that vehicle. If you choose mileage deduction the first year, you are able to switch to actual expense in later years.

 

‘What is the 2022 business mileage rate deduction?’

58.5 cents per business mile; 18 cents per mile for personal medical, military, and moving expenses; and 14 cents per mile for charitable driving.

 

‘I would like to start tracking and deducting my business mileage. What do you recommend?’

A logbook you keep in your vehicle is a classic method. If you have a smart phone, we recommend the app, TripLog. If you use QBO, then you have access to a free mileage tracker that you can access through your smartphone (see links below for details).

https://quickbooks.intuit.com/accounting/mileage/#mileage-app

TripLog: Automatic Mileage Tracker App

 

The IRS requires certain information when tracking mileage. Be sure you are recording the following:

• Beginning and ending destination;

• Business purpose of trip;

• Miles driven;

• Dates of trip;

• Odometer reading at the beginning and end of each tax year.

 

Hopefully this provides some insight into some of the more common questions on this often-confusing matter. Reach out to your tax advisor for more detailed information or individualized tax planning. Vehicle deductions are some of the largest tax deductions a business owner gets, and you want to be sure you are maximizing this tax write-off.

 

Garrett Kelly, CPA, Tax Manager, specializes in tax planning and compliance for residential and commercial real estate, pass-through entities, and family groups.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Strategic Decisions Now Can Benefit You in the Long Run

It’s late June — time for, among things, thinking about your taxes. Actually, it’s time to do more than think about them. What’s needed is a hard look at matters ranging from business classification to expiring provisions to charitable donations, and then formulating strategies that will benefit you and your business for the long term.

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA

Accountants spend a lot of time talking to clients during tax season about the importance of tax planning. Now is that crucial time. As we approach the halfway point of 2022, tax planning discussions should be underway for many businesses and individual taxpayers

Starting early is important but plans should consider that tax rules might change at the end of the year and businesses and individuals simply can’t afford to not prepare for those changes. Additionally, some COVID-19 relief programs are set to expire this year, therefore businesses should be ready to document appropriately and/or take advantage of potential savings. With so much probable change, it’s important to carefully consider your options and make strategic decisions that could benefit you in the long run.

As a small business owner, tax planning should be a key part of your overall financial strategy. By taking advantage of tax breaks and deductions, you can minimize your tax liability and keep more money in your pocket. Here are nine strategies you should consider:

 

Review your tax liability for the current year

EventTake a look at your tax situation for the current year and estimate how much tax you will owe. This will help you determine if you need to make any changes to your withholdings or estimated tax payments.Event

Consider a tax status changeEventYour entity type not only impacts how you are protected under the law but it also affects how you are taxed. If you’ve outgrown your current business structure, or if you previously set up a structure that wasn’t the best fit for your business, you can elect to change your structure. Each entity type has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it is important to make sure you have a full picture before committing to your decision.

 

Amortization of research and experimental (R&E) expenditures

Due to law changes, companies are no longer allowed to fully deduct their R&E expenses. Instead, these expenses are amortized over a period, based on where their services are provided. Classification of expenses as R&E should be renewed.Event

 

Review expired provisions

Some of the tax relief provisions in 2021 the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) were carried over into 2022 by the Build Back Better Act. Principal among them are ARPA’s increases and expansion of the child tax credit, including its monthly advance payments, which have now ended as of the December 2021 payment. The Build Back Better Act was signed into law this past March 11 and included a renewal of that provision for 2022. Beyond those expiring provisions, a number of pre-ARPA “extender” items lapsed at the end of 2021, such as the treatment of premiums for certain qualified mortgage insurance as qualified residence interest and multiple energy and fuel credits.Event

 

Review the new limit on state and local tax deductions

For individual taxpayers, one of the biggest potential changes being lobbied is the possible restoration of the deduction for state and local taxes (SALT). If this proposal becomes law, it could have a major impact on your tax bill. As such, it’s important to think about how you would adjust your tax planning if the SALT deduction is restored or remains limited. Additionally, there are a number of other proposed changes to the tax code that could impact individuals, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest developments and plan accordingly.Event

 

Consider the Qualified Business Income (QBI) Deduction

The qualified business income (QBI) deduction, which provides pass-through business owners a deduction worth up to 20% of their share of the business’s qualified income. However, this deduction is subject to a number of rules and limitations. For example, owners of specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) are not eligible for the deduction if their income is too high. SSTBs generally include any service-based business, such as a law firm or medical practice, where the business depends on its employees’ or owners’ reputation or skill. If a business is eligible for a QBI deduction, owners should carefully weigh salary vs. flow through income.Event

 

Budget for larger charitable donations

Finally, if you’re thinking of making a charitable donation, recently you may not have benefited as much from the deduction for your donation as you have in the past. Since the TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction started effective 2018 and capped the SALT deduction, fewer people itemize their deductions on their tax return.

As a result, the tax benefits of charitable donations have been limited to those who itemize their deductions. If the SALT cap is increased or eliminated, the deduction for charitable contributions could be more beneficial. If you are considering more significant contributions, gifting appreciated stuck to qualified charities offers great benefits. You will get a tax deduction for the fair market value and not be taxed on the unrealized gain. Event

 

Remember, meals and entertainment are still 100% deductible.

For 2021 and 2022 only, businesses can generally deduct the full cost of business-related food and beverages purchased from a restaurant. (The limit is usually 50% of the cost.)

 

Review your accounting methods and records

It’s a great time to look at the books, and make a plan to adjust anything that should be changed while also planning for the future. Many times, unexpected changes come up that can impact your business and individual taxes that you may not have even considered. For example, will you have any major life changes, such as getting married or having a baby? Buying a house? Leasing a business vehicle? Hiring more employees? Relocating your business? Spending more than usual on talent acquisition? Investing or accepting cryptocurrency? These changes can have a significant impact on your tax liability.

 

No matter what changes are ultimately enacted into law, the key to successful tax planning is staying informed and being proactive. By taking the time to understand the potential implications of proposed changes and making strategic decisions now, you can help ensure a smooth tax season for yourself and your business in 2022.

 

Kris Drzal Houghton is a partner at the Holyoke based accounting firm, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C

Opinion

Opinion

By Alane Burgess

 

Social media platforms have become an essential part of life for the estimated 3 billion people around the world who log on daily. They keep us connected with family and friends, provide access to all types of information and the opportunity to build professional contacts to name a few of their popular usages.

Their presence in our lives is something that has been celebrated annually on World Social Media Day, June 30, since 2010. This represents a time period during which social media platforms have expanded in use across the globe as well as in this country. According to the Pew Research Center, such platforms are now used by seven in 10 Americans. In 2005, only 5% of Americans did, a figure that grew to 50% by 2011, and stands today at 72% of the public, according to the center’s research.

The use of social media can have a downside as well, as other surveys of users have reported.

Ongoing studies across the globe indicate that these platforms impact some users negatively, lowering self-esteem, disrupting sleep patterns, and raising issues of addictive behavior in their compulsive use.

It’s no secret that people bully and harass others online or that how one sees oneself can take a hit when viewing what others post — or boast — online about how they look or what they have.

We are all vulnerable to disappointment that can put us at risk for mental health concerns when it comes to social media and expectations. Are we seeking validation for our feelings and comments, supportive comparisons for our lifestyle and new friends? Are we using it as a substitute for in-person engagement or even professional behavioral health counseling?

What I suggest to my clients is to consider how much time they spend daily on social media platforms and how it impacts their mood. Studies suggest links between increased symptoms of general anxiety and depression among users of multiple social media platforms.

I also stress that visiting social media is not a fix for loneliness, but an indication it is time for more focus on off-line activities for the benefit of our emotional wellness and physical health.

The Pew Research Center data shows YouTube and Facebook as the most widely-used online platforms with Americans across age, educational and income levels, with Instagram, Pinterest and Linkedin also popular.

Visiting and posting on them and others can be both fun and helpful as part of our daily or weekly routines. It is, however, as we celebrate this World Social Media Day June 30, important to be aware of their role and impact in our lives and to know when it is time for a digital detox. It is good to step away from such interaction for a day or two to know that we can and, if not, evaluate why.

 

Alane Burgess is the Clinic Director of the Mental Health Association’s BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center in Springfield; [email protected].

Women in Businesss

A Home Game

By Mark Morris

Jessye Deane, left, with  Diane Szynal.

Jessye Deane, left, with outgoing Franklin County Chamber director Diane Szynal.

While the specific job responsibilities are new, most everything else about Jessye Deane’s new assignment, as executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, isn’t.

Starting with the region this agency represents.

Indeed, Deane is a native of Bernardston and a lifelong resident of the county. So she is quite familiar with the region’s many assets — as well as the considerable challenges it faces, and has faced for decades now.

“When I’m out grabbing a coffee or dropping my kids off for softball, I hear all about the challenges businesses are facing,” Deane told BusinessWest. “Because I live here and run a business here, I feel intertwined with the local economy.”

Those sentiments help explain that, while Deane is no stranger to she is also no stranger to the ins and outs, ups and downs, of running a business or nonprofit. In fact, she’s had experience with both.

In her current position, Deane is the director of Communications and Development for Community Action Pioneer Valley. In her 12 years with the anti-poverty agency, the $36 million non-profit has seen an increase in private funding of more than 1,600%. Deane said her experience with Community Action has given her an education on the various strengths and challenges in each community in the county.

“I plan to get out to meet with businesses and start work on a community needs assessment. An important part of this role is to always ask our stakeholders if we are doing a good job; are we supporting them and are we being effective?”

“Community Action primarily serves Franklin County as well as offering services in other parts of Western Mass,” Deane said. “In my time there, I have become familiar with the differences in each community and the unique economic landscape in Franklin County. So, I come into my new role with that background.”

And with her husband Danny, Deane owns two F45 Training fitness studios, located in Hadley and West Springfield.

“When I hear about the challenges local businesses are facing it’s not some abstract concept,” Deane said. “As a business owner I’m facing those same challenges.”

What’s more, she is certainly no stranger to this chamber, and chambers in general. She’s served on the Franklin County chamber’s board since 2019, and before that, she as an Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce ambassador.

It is this considerable wealth of experience — with the region and the fundamentals of business, and the chamber — that Deane will bring to her position; she will begin in July, when current executive director Diana Szynal takes on a similar challenge — as president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

It is her intention to hit the ground running, and she already has what might be considered a solid head start.

When interviewing for the position at the chamber, Deane wanted to accurately convey her vision for the agency’s role in Franklin County as it relates to both tourism and as a business collective. So she presented a 14-page proposal.

“The best way for me to operate was to put it all on paper and say this is where I think we can go,” said Deane. “I also wanted to make sure that the vision I had in mind was supported by the board.”

While this vision provides a blueprint of sorts moving forward, Deane acknowledged that there is much that she has to learn — about chamber members and their current and anticipated needs, and about the chamber its role as well.

“With my transition into the role and this new business landscape in front of us, it’s a great time to take inventory of what’s working for the chamber and where we should add additional value,” Deane said, adding that, as someone who values numbers and metrics, she plans to gather qualitative and quantitative data to deliver on the objectives she has set for the chamber.

“I plan to get out to meet with businesses and start work on a community needs assessment,” she went on. “An important part of this role is to always ask our stakeholders if we are doing a good job; are we supporting them and are we being effective?”

Overall, this is an intriguing time for the chamber, which moved from Greenfield (and an office now occupied by Community Action Pioneer Valley) to Deerfield at the start of this year. The was made primarily for the chamber to locate its visitor center to a place where more people could access it. Prior to COVID, Historic Deerfield drew nearly 20,000 visitors every year.

Meanwhile, the chamber is building on experiences — and some confidence — gained during the pandemic, when it became, out of necessity, a greater resource to members and the business community in general, and also when it learned new and often better ways to do things.

Indeed, much of Szynal’s tenure at the chamber was spent helping businesses get through an unprecedented public health crisis, something Deane acknowledged and appreciated.

“Diana did an incredible job, and was able to provide growth and stability for our members during that time,” Deane said. “As a business owner I learned quickly that there is no playbook for doing business during a pandemic, which makes Diana’s accomplishments even more amazing.”

As for her own tenure, Deane said she is looking forward to putting all those many forms to experience to work — for the chamber and the county.

“I’m so honored to serve in this role because after growing up and now raising my family in Franklin County, I’m committed to the people here,” Deane said. “These folks are my neighbors and I’m going to do everything in my power to do right by them.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jaclyn Stevenson

Jaclyn Stevenson says Shakespeare & Company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer.

 

Jennifer Nacht describes the beginning of the summer season in Lenox as a light switch that clicks on to a time of “happy mayhem.”

Unofficially, the season begins after Memorial Day weekend, but Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, noted that the weekends leading up to the holiday were plenty busy, as well. In fact, as early as January she first began to see a vibrant summer on the horizon for Lenox.

Back then, Nacht had begun planning the Lenox Art Walk event scheduled for this month. Her attempt to reserve hotel rooms for artists who planned to travel to the event was more difficult than anticipated.

“I was able to find only three rooms after calling several different hotels back in January,” Nacht said. “They were all so apologetic and said that because of weddings and other events, every place was booked full.” 

This difficulty with finding rooms is just one indication of what promises to be a sizzling summer for Lenox, which, because of its tourism-based economy, faced innumerable challenges during the past two summers of COVID, and is poised for a breakout year.

Indeed, ‘healthy’ and ‘robust’ are terms that Marybeth Mitts, chair of the Lenox Select Board, uses to describe tourism in her community as high season, the three months of summer, commence.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019,” Mitts said, adding that, with a full summer of Boston Symphony Orchestra performances as well as a Popular Artists series, Tanglewood’s economic impact on Lenox and the Berkshires is considerable.

As one small snapshot, Nacht pointed out that James Taylor’s annual shows on July 3 and 4 will bring more than 36,000 people to town over just those two days.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019.”

Shakespeare and Company is another Lenox-based arts institution projecting not just a solid summer, but a solid year.

Indeed the theater company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer. Jaclyn Stevenson, director of marketing and communications, said the longer season is experimental, and will incorporate performances both indoors and outdoors.

Last year when COVID numbers stubbornly stayed high enough to threaten Shakespeare and Company’s ability to stage indoor plays, plans for an outdoor theatre that was a “someday” project, moved on to the fast track.

“The Spruce Theatre was constructed in 90 days in the summer of 2021,” Stevenson said. Modeled after the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, the stage rests in front of several tall spruce trees that are incorporated into the design.

“When the idea for it was presented in the context of COVID, it was much easier for everyone to understand the vision Artistic Director Allyn Burrows had for the theater,” added Stevenson.

While the company already had its outdoor Roman Garden Theatre that seats 280, the Spruce Theatre is a 500-seat facility with room to stage larger productions. In fact, the opening play for the Spruce Theatre was a production of King Lear featuring actor Christopher Lloyd in the title role.

“Having Christopher Lloyd here to christen the stage was a real coup,” Stevenson remembered. “It was the kind of fanfare we would not have been able to create otherwise in a COVID world.”

For this, the latest installment of its Ciommunity Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how Lenox is well-positioned to further rebound from COVID and take full advantage of what is expected to be a big year for the tourism sector — and communities that rely on such businesses to fuel their economy.

 

Art and Soul

The Art Walk is a good example of an event that was created at the height of the pandemic after the town was forced to cancel its annual Apple Squeeze event. As an alternative to the town-wide festival, Nacht and others developed the Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when Apple Squeeze would have taken place.

The first Art Walk consisted of 40 artists set up in different areas of town known as “artist villages.” These villages were arranged to accommodate only small groups of people with an emphasis on foot-traffic flow to keep everyone moving through the exhibits.

The event received great feedback and has quickly become a tradition in Lenox. Now in its third year, Art Walk features spring and fall editions. Meanwhile, the Apple Squeeze has returned, and will take place on Sept. 24.

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says the summer is looking very promising for Lenox and its many tourism-related businesses.

“It’s very validating to see these events that we put together on the fly are now becoming established,” said Nacht, noting that Lenox Loves Music is another event created during the pandemic that has had staying power.

In Lenox, music and entertainment are an important part of the town’s identity. When Tanglewood, Shakespeare and Company and the other entertainment venues shut down at the height of COVID, the chamber began working with the Berkshire Music School on a series of Sunday afternoon concerts, and Lenox Loves Music was born.

“The new events really help the merchants,” Nacht said. “Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

Like the Art Walk, the popularity of Lenox Loves Music has made it a keeper, with concerts every Friday in June and September.

“We run all these events in the shoulder months of May and June then September and October,” Nacht said. “Once our high season hits, beginning the weekend of July 4, we’re packed with visitors so we don’t need to entice tourists because they are already here.”

Shakespeare and Company is another organization that has extended its season to the shoulder months. In years past, the company would stage three plays by the Bard and three contemporary works. With the expanded season, it is staging two Shakespeare plays along with five or six modern plays.

“The mission of our company is based on the work of Shakespeare,” Stevenson said. “We choose our plays thoughtfully to reflect the spirit of the Bard and to show people new things.”

In addition to staging plays, the company also has a robust actor-training program and a nationally recognized theatre-in-education program.

Stevenson noted that a high-school-age theater group had recently performed Romeo and Juliet on the Spruce Theatre stage.

“The new events really help the merchants. Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

“It was so cool to see students on the same stage where actors from all over the world will be performing Much Ado About Nothing in July,” Stevenson said. “You could see the joy of them being in that space.”

 

Setting the Stage

To accommodate all the tourists visiting these attractions, and locals as well, Lenox has a number of projects in the works to refurbish some of its municipal buildings while plans are in the works to build several new structures for town departments.

Beginning with Town Hall, Mitts said improvements are underway to replace the carpet and curtains in the auditorium as well as install a new roof and gold leaf on the Town Hall cupola.

“The town has capital plans within the next five years to begin construction on a new wastewater treatment plant, and a new public safety structure to include the Lenox police and fire departments,” Mitts said.

In addition to roof and chimney repairs to the library, Mitts said a key project involves updating the HVAC system.

“We’re installing a new interstitial system to manage ventilation in the building,” Mitts said. “This is to ensure proper storage of the library’s collections including rare books and ephemera of the region.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of refurbishing project is taking place at Mass Audubon Society’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, a popular destination for hikers at all levels. Last July a wind and rainstorm felled thousands of trees and severely damaged a boardwalk at Pike’s Pond. With $200, 000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the state and private donations, cleanup and renovations are in progress.

“Many of the trails and structures have been restored, however, there is on-going work to bring the facility back up to the full capacity it enjoyed in June 2021,” Mitts said.

As for the chamber of commerce, Nacht said that while the pandemic really challenged the agency in many different ways, it also presented an opportunity for the chamber to show what it could do to support efforts in town.

“People are now confident in the chamber and look to us for help with their events,” Nacht said offering the example of a proverbial ‘good problem to have’ at a recent farmers’ market.

“The farmers’ market brought so many people to town there weren’t enough lunch places for people,” Nacht said. The chamber arranged for a food truck run by someone who had worked in Lenox restaurants for 20 years. “He was excited to be back in Lenox and tells people he’s living his dream with his food truck.”

“It’s nice to feel that kind of energy coming back to Lenox,” she went on, adding that energy levels are expected to soar even higher during what is shaping up to be a very memorable summer.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Carolyn Brennan

Carolyn Brennan says that while Hadley is a small town, the traffic and visitation it sees every day create some big-city challenges.

In some ways Hadley is a tale of two communities.

One is a small farming town, known locally — and even beyond — for its asparagus. The other Hadley exists on Route 9, the main artery running through town that can see up to 100,000 vehicles a day bringing people to shopping centers, universities, hotels — and neighboring towns.

This dual nature brings obvious opportunities and challenges — and many of both — to this Hampshire County community.

The opportunities are clearly evident all along Route 9 — retail outlets of every kind that bring people, and vital tax revenue, to the town. The challenges … they are clearly evident as well.

And one of the biggest is meeting the demands of those 100,000 vehicles using the town’s infrastructure with the staff and budget of a small town.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day,” said Carolyn Brennan, town administrator.

In the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, Hadley received $1.5 million, which was used to address repairs to two culverts as well as repairs to the dike that runs next to the Connecticut River. The town sought separate funding for its largest infrastructure project, a 2¼-mile reconstruction of Route 9. When complete the road will be widened for additional traffic lanes and bus shelters, and storm drains will be upgraded.

Brennan said that because Route 9 is a state road, the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is splitting costs with the town. Brennan explained that the town will open the road to fix the infrastructure below, and MassDOT will handle the widening and new pavement.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day.”

“The initial phase of the work has begun, like clearing brush and marking utility poles that will be moved,” Brennan said. “There will be much more activity in the next few months as the town begins to replace storm water and sewer lines.” The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

According to Brennan, communication is essential to keep traffic flowing while construction is occurring. Baltazar Contractors stays in close contact with the town when road work is planned. This approach is already paying dividends, as Baltazar had initially planned road work for May 13, the day of the UMass commencement ceremony at McGuirk Stadium.

“We quickly notified them to not do any road work that day to avoid a traffic tie-up,” Brennan said. “It would have been insane.”

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says businesses and events in Hadley are returning to their pre-pandemic levels.

Brennan also shares the weekly construction schedule with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Hadley has been incredible with communicating when road work will be taking place,” Pazmany said. “It allows us to let businesses know what the traffic patterns will be.”

And lately, traffic has been heavier as the region returns to something approaching normalcy after two years of pandemic.

Indeed, business in Hadley is definitely picking up, with Pazmany reporting that more businesses are returning to pre-pandemic hours of operation and events like the Asparagus Festival (June 11) are back on the schedule.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer,” Pazmany said. “The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a town that is much more than a bridge between Amherst and Northampton.

 

Fruits of Their Labor

Echoing Pazmany, Drew Perron, co-owner of Arizona Pizza at the Hampshire Mall said his business is vibrant, with numbers approaching those of 2019. He gave credit to his staff to help get through the worst of the pandemic.

“Many of our employees are long-termers and have been with us from seven to 12 years,” Perron said. “We made it through this entire ordeal thanks to their dedication.”

Once part of a chain, Arizona Pizza is now locally owned by Perron and his business partner. While its location is tucked around the back of the mall, customers have no problem finding it.

“I’m very thankful we have a number of regulars who kept us going through COVID and they continue to support us,” Perron said.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer. The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

With Cinemark theaters located next to Arizona Pizza, blockbuster movies help keep the restaurant busy.

“Doctor Strange came out last weekend, and that was a good weekend for us,” Perron noted. “I communicate with the general manager at Cinemark, because the more successful they are, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Perron and Cinemark working together is an example of the cooperative spirit that motivated Andrea Bordenca to locate two businesses in Hadley.

Bordenca is CEO for both Diversified Equipment Services & Consulting Organization (DESCO) and Venture Way Collaborative.

DESCO is a service company where technicians maintain and repair technology such as EKG machines, operating room tables, and similar equipment found in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Founded by her father in 1970, Bordenca worked through the ranks of DESCO with positions in quality assurance and sales. While her dad taught her some basics of business, Bordenca realized she had no leadership skills and was motivated to enroll in the Institute for Generative Learning (IGL) an international leadership training and coaching organization.

“I wanted to create a higher leadership role for myself to carry on the legacy of my father and of DESCO,” she explained, adding that she credits IGL for teaching her how to be a leader and how to grow the company by centering DESCO’s focus on building and aligning teams.

“Over the past 15 years, we have more than doubled in size, doubled in revenue, and quadrupled in profitability,” Bordenca said.

Her training at IGL so inspired Bordenca that she now owns the U.S. affiliate for the training organization. Other affiliates are in Latin America, the United Kingdom and Asia, making her one of four owners and operators of IGL.

That brings us to her second business, Venture Way Cooperative in Hadley, where IGL is located. While DESCO had been in Eastern Mass since its founding, Bordenca moved the company’s headquarters to the Venture Way location in May 2020.

“When I came to Western Mass I saw lots of collaboration and a sense of commitment for each other to succeed,” said Bordenca. “I just didn’t see that kind of collaboration in Eastern Mass.”

The two organizations currently have 61 employees, with Bordenca serving as CEO for both entities. DESCO has a national presence with an office in Miami and field technicians who work from home in various states. She was able to coordinate the company’s move to Hadley without losing any employees.

“We’re looking to triple in size over the next five years,” Bordenca said. “We want to share our culture and our ability to build teams and create engagements to other states.”

When BusinessWest spoke with Bordenca she was planning a ribbon cutting and open house to introduce more people to IGL and DESCO. To illustrate what happens at DESCO, a service technician will hold a demonstration at the open house of how they service a sterilizing machine. The technician will also work with something more familiar to most people, an ice machine — DESCO also services ice machines for restaurants, hotels and surgery centers.

“On the training side of Venture Way, I’ve invited local speakers to talk about the work they’re involved in to begin a dialog about the ways community members can help affect change together,” Bordenca said. “This is the first of many events like this and we’ve begun lining up great local leaders to present in the coming months.”

One way Bordenca sees Venture Way helping DESCO is by training a more diverse workforce to step in as older workers retire. She admitted that technicians in the industry have traditionally been mostly white and male.

“We want to make sure our industry is visible to all genders and races,” she said. “At Venture Way we can expose people to what we do and even offer mini courses so more people can get a taste of this as a career.”

Large numbers of workers reaching retirement age is happening in all professions. Brennan said it’s an ongoing challenge for Hadley.

“In the next few years, we will see a significant number of highly skilled, intelligent workers retiring and leaving with lots of historical knowledge about the town,” Brennan said. “The real challenge is encouraging younger people to work in municipal government.”

Brennan is working on a more robust internship program between UMass and the town to introduce public policy majors to the workings of a municipality.

“Once people start working with a municipality, they’re hooked for life,” Brennan said, relating to her own experience where, after working in municipal government, she took a job in the private sector for a short time but could not wait to get back into municipal work. “I was hooked, and we just have to get new people hooked.”

Pazmany, who recently took part in a workforce-strategies panel, said a trend is emerging where modern workers want to be part of something bigger than just having a job and are more concerned about a community focus in their work.

In her role at the chamber, Pazmany makes many direct connections among area businesses and has found new ways to help employers fill positions.

“Members are allowed to upload job listings, which we then upload to our social media sites,” Pazmany said. “We’ve posted hundreds of jobs in the past several months.”

 

Experts in Their Fields

Bordenca said she’s excited about moving DESCO to Hadley, calling it the perfect location for what the company does.

“Hadley is more centrally located to serve customers throughout the Northeast in places like New York and Vermont,” Bordenca said. “This location makes us feel closer to our employees and our customers in lots of ways.”

Perron concurred, noting that Hadley is a town that works well for his restaurant. He also gave credit to the current Hampshire Mall management as the best he’s seen in well over a decade.

“I like being a tenant here because the mall managers are very good about working with us and caring about us,” Perron said.

He’s also encouraged by the continued growth of the Route 9 corridor and the number of people it brings to the town.

“I see an uptrend happening here,” said Perron, who is clearly not alone in that assessment.

Law

A Matter of Policy

By Michael Roundy

 

Since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses small and large have been seeking insurance coverage for business losses incurred when the virus or governmental orders forced them to close their doors. Although policyholders have enjoyed mixed results, the outcome of insurance coverage lawsuits ultimately turns on the particular language of the policy at issue.

Two common provisions have become the primary focus of many of these suits: The physical damage requirement, and the virus exclusion. Cases continue to turn on the precise language used in these provisions, or on the absence of the provisions from the policy at issue. As more cases work their way through the state and federal courts, certain outcomes have become more predictable.

“Two common provisions have become the primary focus of many of these suits: The physical damage requirement, and the virus exclusion. Cases continue to turn on the precise language used in these provisions, or on the absence of the provisions from the policy at issue.”

Many cases have turned on the requirement, included in most but not all policies, that the coverage-triggering event must have caused “direct physical loss of or damage to” the property. Policyholders have argued that the physical harm or loss requirement is met in the COVID context because the virus itself is in the air at the business and physically changes the air, airspaces, property, and property surfaces, that require cleaning to remediate the harm, which has directly led to the loss of use of the property for its intended business purposes.

Insurers, on the other hand, have repeatedly argued that physical loss or damage must include some form of tangible damage or physical alteration to the property itself, rendering the property damaged or unusable such that it must be either discarded, replaced, or repaired.

For the most part, courts have agreed with the insurers on the interpretation of physical damage provisions, and have dismissed COVID coverage suits on the grounds that while the virus may contaminate surfaces, it does not damage them and therefore does not trigger the business interruption coverage that policyholders are seeking. Courts have held that even if the virus has contaminated certain surfaces, the contamination can easily be eliminated by ordinary cleaning and disinfection and the need for cleaning does not constitute a “direct physical loss.”

Even so, not all policies include the same “direct physical loss” language.

Courts, in their analyses, have placed emphasis on the immediacy of the word “direct” such that the absence of the term — a policy requiring only “physical loss” — may provide an opening for insured parties to argue for coverage despite the ever-expanding string of losses on the issue.

Other policies, less commonly, may lack the “physical loss” or “physical damage” requirement altogether. Careful and thorough analysis of policy language may reveal the availability of claims typically dismissed, depending on the specific language used.

However, even those cases that survive the physical-loss inquiry may often be dismissed by courts because of a so-called virus exclusion. In the wake of the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003, many insurers added specific virus exclusions to their policies, adopting language developed by industry groups.

Although SARS infected only a few thousand people, it led to millions of dollars of successful claims against commercial insurance policies for business-interruption coverage. Having been, in effect, forewarned, insurers were better prepared for the litigation arising from the COVID pandemic. Thus, even if a policyholder can demonstrate physical loss or circumvent the physical damage requirement, if there is one, many suits are also being dismissed on the basis of the virus exclusions that are now present in many policies.

Virus coverage cases have faced a particularly difficult time in federal courts, with almost half of them being dismissed on the basis of a lack of physical damage, the presence of a virus exclusion, or similar grounds. Roughly a third of the federal cases continue to work their way through the litigation process, and most of the remainder have been voluntarily dismissed. State courts have generally been more forgiving and provided policyholders with occasional victories.

For example, several state courts in Pennsylvania have either permitted claims to survive motions to dismiss or even granted plaintiffs summary judgment on the issue of the physical damage requirement, one finding that the loss of use was enough to satisfy the requirement. An Oklahoma court found that “direct physical loss” was satisfied where the property was rendered unusable for its intended purpose by the presence of the virus, without requiring any physical alteration of the property. Plaintiffs’ claims have survived dismissal in several California cases as well, where the courts concluded that the phrase “any physical loss” includes the loss of the ability to access or use the property.

Thus, it remains clear that the issues have not been definitively decided in all cases or all jurisdictions. Cases will still turn on the language used in the specific policy before the court and the court’s receptiveness to broader readings of the meaning of “loss.” Prosecuting and defending COVID coverage suits requires counsel adept at reviewing and interpreting policy contract language and conversant in the broader landscape of coverage suits playing out in multiple jurisdictions across the country. u

 

Michael Roundy is a partner in Bulkley Richardson’s litigation department; (413) 272-6200.

Innovation and Startups

Cooking Up Sustainability

By Kailey Houle

 

UMass Amherst Dining is serving up a new dish. Sort of. It’s called sustainability.

The dining program, long ranked among the best in the country, if not the best, is adding a focus on foods and their carbon footprint to what has been a steady diet of information provided to students about how to make smart choices about what to eat each day.

Ken Toong

Ken Toong says that by serving more plant-based dishes, UMass Dining is helping students on campus reduce their carbon footprint.

UMass Amherst Dining is teaming up with MyEmissions, a food carbon-label company, to bring a sustainability factor to the table, an initiative that could be considered part of a broader, campus-wide focus on carbon footprints — and how to reduce them.

Indeed, in April, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy proposed a plan to be a net-carbon zero university by 2032. And a survey of UMass students conducted this spring shows 75% believing their food choices impact the environment, and 76% believing it is important to reduce their carbon footprint. But they didn’t know where to begin.

“We started incorporating kelp on the menu — talk about a superfood; it’s a carbon sink, meaning it puts carbon back into the atmosphere. We partnered with a group in Maine that works with off-season lobstermen to grow kelp, and it’s going really well. We’ve done research and development on it, and again, we’re educating students that not only is kelp a superfood for your health, but it’s also a climate superfood.”

Low-carbon dining — an experience UMass is striving to perfect — refers to making food choices that have low greenhouse gas emissions associated with their life cycle. Examples of low-carbon foods include nuts, soy products, local vegetables, and dairy alternatives; high- carbon foods include beef, lamb, cheese, chocolate, and coffee. To combat higher emissions UMass sources its high carbon foods locally, and all of the low-carbon foods offered are grown locally and, in some cases, on campus.

“My team and I researched the issue and we have partnered with MyEmissions,” said Kathy Wicks, director of Sustainability at UMass Amherst. “They analyze each recipe for its carbon footprint. So we export our recipe, they analyze it, and then they send it back to us so we can put it on the menu identifiers and on the app.”

Elaborating, Wicks said that such analysis involves giving a rating — A through E, with A being the highest, or best grade — to each individual recipe based on its carbon footprint. A carbon footprint, as it relates to food, is the amount of carbon emissions, methane, or carbon dioxide involved in the food’s production. It takes into account the life cycle of whatever one is measuring, its land use, processing, transportation, and packaging. UMass has been able to reduce some of its carbon emissions already by partnering with local farmers and facilities to feed their students.

MyEmissions has worked with European restaurants to help them reduce their carbon footprint, but UMass Amherst Dining is the first university program in the country to be introducing an initiative like this. And as an anchor institution in the region and a recognized leader and innovator among dining programs, UMass is looking to tell a story others will follow.

“Yeah it’s delightful that we did it first, but it’s a better feeling knowing we can help our students make a better choice,” said Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, which oversees the dining program. “Food matters and I think this is an important thing for the UMass community.”

Wicks agreed, and noted that through this new initiative, the university hopes to better inform students about foods and their impact on the planet and perhaps inspire them to consider options — like kelp.

“We started incorporating kelp on the menu — talk about a superfood; it’s a carbon sink, meaning it puts carbon back into the atmosphere,” she explained. “We partnered with a group in Maine that works with off-season lobstermen to grow kelp, and it’s going really well. We’ve done research and development on it, and again, we’re educating students that not only is kelp a superfood for your health, but it’s also a climate superfood.”

Overall, plant-forward dining, and that includes kelp, helps to reduce the overall carbon footprint. Low-carbon foods are able to be grown, prepared, sourced, processed, and transported in ways that emit minimal greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Food production in the United States makes up 20% of overall greenhouse gasses and globally it’s about 30%. UMass Dining works with local fair-trade-certified farmers and rely on permaculture gardens to source their meals.

Kathy Wicks

Kathy Wicks says educating students on their food choices gives them the ability to take action to help the planet.

“We’ve been working with our local partners for a long time, we also work closely with companies around their practices and how they relate to sustainability,” Wicks said. “And this is a way we can help students practice everyday climate action with every food choice that they make.”

Wicks and others we spoke with stressed repeatedly that they are not trying to tell students what to eat. Rather, they are providing information that will help them make smart choices about what they might want to eat — information that goes beyond calories and ingredients and dives into a food’s overall impact on the planet

“We play a role in educating them on food literacy, but we also love to talk about food,” said Wicks. “We added this to the conversation because it is top of mind for so many people and the campus community as a whole.”

Carbon-use identifiers will be added to each menu, along with previous identifiers for allergies, ingredients, sustainability, plant-based, and locality.

“We have a very comprehensive menu system — we have identifiers for allergies, ingredients, and now they can assess it through the apps or on signs,” said Toong. “We just add it on the carbon calculator and put the rating on the menu.”

Toong said the Amherst campus is perhaps more diverse than ever, with many students, including those who are Asian, Latin, and Indian students seeking authentic cuisine that is mostly plant-based. More than 70% of the school’s menu items are already plant based, catering to vegetarians, vegans, and those with a more plant-driven diet.

“We’ve been working with our local partners for a long time, we also work closely with companies around their practices and how they relate to sustainability. And this is a way we can help students practice everyday climate action with every food choice that they make.”

“We know that plant-forward meals are going to be a trend; there is still meat, but smaller portions,” said Toong. “We only give three-to four-ounce red meat portions, and same thing with chicken. We’re selling more seafood and more plant-based dishes. This has really helped us make the decision to start the program.

“We’re not saying ‘don’t eat red meat,’ — we’re just suggesting smaller portion sizes,” he went on. “We don’t tell them what to eat — we provide them with information. But we want to promote more than just food, we want to promote culture and cuisine. Our goal is to work with students and the community to try to make the world a better place. We can do it by working together.”

Those we spoke with said the partnership with MyEmissions is merely another step in efforts to promote sustainability. They stressed the need to back up the information being provided with conversation about how to make smart choices.

“We’re not just going to put the information up there — we’re going to continue dialogue with our students about it and show them and give them tips that low-carbon dining is as easy as A, B, C,” said Wicks. “We’ve been dedicated to healthy, sustainable, delicious food for a long time. We always want to do more to enhance the student experience.

“We listen closely to what the students have to say,” she went on. “We listen closely to what they’re concerned about and what they are interested in and what their values are… the entire campus’ sustainability and the current issues with climate change are at the top of mind for everybody. So our expertise is food and customer service — that’s the area we want to do more. We know it has an impact on our environment.”

By making simple changes like trying out some new A-Rated dishes, anyone can help lower the carbon footprint — and those at UMass Dining know small changes like that can make a huge difference.

Technology

Protecting Yourself from IT Threats

By Charlie Christensen

 

As hackers, organized crime syndicates, and state-backed bad actors aggressively pursue ways to compromise the world’s data; business owners, leadership, and IT professionals continue to seek ways to counter these ever-growing threats to their information technology infrastructure. In this article, I will explore some of these threats, as well as the advancements in anti-virus/malware protection that are working to defend corporate and personal data every minute of every day.

Lastly, I will provide you with some key steps you should take to protect your business and data assets from attack.

Charlie Christensen

Charlie Christensen

The notion that you are just too small a company to worry about these threats, or that no one wants your data is a fallacy. Criminals are targeting small companies every day because they are easy targets.”

As someone who understands the threats we as IT professionals see every day, it is my hope that I can use this opportunity to provide the average businessperson with a better understanding of what they should focus on most urgently in today’s technology environment, and how they can better protect their business from being compromised.

• Ransomware: This is every company’s worst nightmare and is a topic that we could dedicate an entire article on. In short, ransomware is an extortion scheme that costs businesses billions of dollars per year. It most commonly spreads via malicious email attachments or links, software apps, infected external storage devices, and compromised websites.

Ransomware searches out every computer on the network and seeks to encrypt the data it finds. The only way to get the data back is to pay the extortion, usually via cryptocurrency which is largely untraceable. Not content with simple extortion, cybercriminals are now adding an additional element to the ransomware scheme.

Attackers will now download your data prior to encryption, and if you refuse to pay, they will threaten to release your data into the public domain. If the thought of this doesn’t lead you to a few sleepless nights, it should.

• Phishing, spear phishing, and whaling attacks: I think by now we all understand phishing. An attacker uses social-engineering techniques, like an enticing looking link, to get the end user to disclose some form of personal information such as a Social Security number, information, credentials, etc. Spear phishing, however, is a bit more focused and targeted. A spear-phishing message might seem like it came from someone you know or a familiar company like your bank or credit card company, shipping company, or a frequented retailer.

Whaling, on the other hand, goes after high-value targets such as C-level leadership or accounts payable. A whaling attack might look like an email from the CFO asking you to initiate a transfer to pay a large invoice. This is an incredibly common attack vector and one that relies on your team’s ability to identify it. Education and vigilance are your best defense.

• Advanced persistent threats: APTs happen when an intruder gains access to your systems and remains undetected for an extended period. They seek to quietly extract data such as credit card data, social security numbers, banking information, and credentials. Detection relies on the ability to identify unusual activity such as unusual outbound traffic, increased database activity, network activity at odd times. APTs also likely involve the creation of backdoors into your network.

• Insider threats: Although we are fixated on external threats, internal threats are more common and can be equally as damaging. Examples of intentional and unintentional threats include:

Intentional threats such as employees stealing data by copying or sending sensitive or proprietary data outside the company. This may occur via email/FTP, USB drive, cloud drive (One Drive, Dropbox, iCloud), or some other means. Often, these happen because someone fails to comply with security protocols because they are perceived to be inconvenient or “overkill.”.

Unintentional threats might include an employee clicking on a phishing email, responding to a pop up asking for credentials, not using a strong password, or using the same password for everything. It could also be a system that was not patched, a port that was left open on a firewall, or forgetting to lock a user account after termination.

• Viruses and worms: Frequently considered to be ‘old school’ threats, these still exist and can cause tremendous damage. Users should be careful about clicking on ads, file sharing sites, links in emails, etc. Their purpose is to damage an organization, systems, data, or network. However, traditional anti-virus software is usually effective at controlling them.

• Botnets: Simply put, a botnet is a collection of devices that have access to the internet like PCs, servers, phones, cameras, time clocks, or other commonly found networked devices. These devices are then infected by malware that allows criminals to use them to launch attacks on other networks, generate spam, or create other malicious traffic.

• Drive-by attacks: These are infected graphics or code on a website that gets injected into your computer without your knowledge. They can be used to steal personal information, or inject trojans, exploit kits, and other forms of malware.

While this list might seem exhausting, it only represents a few of the more common attack methods that we see daily. It also helps explain the emergence of a new generation of security products and platforms. To better understand how we look at information security, let me borrow one of the examples I commonly use when speaking to businesspeople and groups about building an effective Information Security Program.

Think of information security as an onion. Like an onion, information security programs are comprised of layers (firewall, backup, AV, email filtering, etc…) of protection surrounding the core (your data). As we build an information security program, we need to put layers of protection between the threat and the asset we are trying to protect. While the details of an information security program are outside the scope of this article, for the purposes of this discussion you only need to understand that there is no single magic product that can protect you from all threats. Anti-virus, or even the new generation endpoint detection and response (EDR) products are but one layer of protection in an over-arching strategy to protect your business from modern threats.

A brief history of antivirus (AV) products has them coming onto the scene in the late 1980s, with familiar names like McAfee, Norton, and Avast. These early products relied on signature-based definitions. Much like you look up a word in the dictionary, these AV products could catch defined threats, but they would easily fail to prevent attacks that had yet been discovered; or worse, that they had not yet downloaded an update for that would allow them to recognize the threat. Traditional AV changed very little until several years ago with the advent of Next Generation Antivirus. NGAV uses definitions coupled with predictive analytics driven by machine learning to help identify undefined threats.

The latest technology to hit the market is enhanced detection and response (EDR) or extended detection and response (XDR). These technologies continue to use traditional signature-based antivirus and NGAV, but they also introduce the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is used to constantly analyze the behavior of devices so it can detect abnormal activities like high CPU usage, unusual disk activity, or perhaps an abnormal amount of outbound traffic. This new generation of software not only detects an attack and warns you that it is occurring, but it can also isolate the attack to the device(s) that are infected by automatically taking them off the network and protecting the rest of your network. Some EDR products like SentinelOne also have threat-hunting capabilities that can map the attack as it unfolds. This mapping aids IT professionals in the identification of devices involved in the attack; a process that can take days or weeks when performed manually. XDR even goes a bit further in that it looks beyond the endpoint (PC, laptop, phone) and looks at the network holistically.

A good example of how EDR systems are being used as a layer of protection is how SonicWall firewalls combine a physical firewall with a suite of security capabilities like content filtering, DPI-SSL scanning, geo-blocking, gateway antivirus, and more to filter traffic before it enters your network. Then, with the addition of their Capture Client product (a collaboration between SonicWall and SentinelOne), they integrate the power of SentinelOne EDR with the firewall’s rules. This allows you to extend protections beyond devices inside the network and include company devices outside the network as well. This helps to eliminate gaps in protection that can exist with remote users.

The notion that you are just too small a company to worry about these threats, or that no one wants your data is a fallacy. Criminals are targeting small companies every day because they are easy targets. Large companies have armies of highly educated and well-paid people protecting their networks. And while a large company might represent a big score, hackers can spend years trying to penetrate a large network. However, they know smaller organizations have limited budgets and staff to protect their network. This makes it far more lucrative to hit 50 or 100 small companies for $100,000 than a single large company for, say, $2 million.

Investing in modern security products, building a sound information security program, and educating your team will pay off in the long run, as the question is not if you will be attacked — but when. The cost of the systems to protect you is far less the frequently irreparable harm caused by a breach or infection.

Many people say, ‘I have cyber insurance,’ but fail to put the necessary precautions in place to protect their systems and data. Little do they know that when they filled out the pre-insurance questionnaire and answered ‘yes’ to all the questions, they gave the insurer the ability to deny the claim. If you do not have written policies, use EDR (or at least NGAV), have a training program in place, and use multifactor authentication to protect user logins, you could be sealing your own fate. Insurers are no longer baffled by today’s technology and are aggressively investigating cyber claims. In fact, we are seeing significantly increasing numbers of denied claims.

There is little you can do after the fact to offset missing protections or enforcement of policies. By taking the appropriate steps to protect your network and systems you can hopefully minimize the risk of falling victim to an attack and ensure that your insurer will cover such a claim. Insurance companies will go to great lengths to cover legitimate claims at great cost. In fact, they can be their own worst enemy. In many ransomware attacks, insurance companies will simply pay the ransom because it is more expeditious to do that than it is to pay for the actual remediation. This, of course, only encourages the criminals while leading to higher premiums and greater risk to our technology infrastructure.

To close, I’d like to leave you with a few things that you can do to better protect your systems, data, and network.

• Take the time to understand what protections you have in place and engage a professional to help you identify any gaps in your information security strategy;

• Educate your staff on information security best practices and the threat spectrum. An educated workforce is one of your best protections. There are several great training tools that are inexpensive and easy to implement, such as KnowBe4;

• Implement a next-generation firewall that utilizes deep packet inspection and take the time to dial in the suite of security features that are designed to stop threats before they get into the network;

• Move to an EDR system rather than relying on a traditional signature-based antivirus;

• Be sure that all systems with access to your networks (computers, network equipment, servers, firewalls, IoT devices, cameras, etc.) are patched regularly to eliminate vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited;

• Do not run unsupported operating systems, equipment, or applications;

• Establish a set of written information security policies, and make sure everyone understands that they need to live by them; and

• Limit those with administrative credentials on your network. If an administrative account is compromised, you have given away the keys to the kingdom. Make sure users only have permission to get to the resources they need to do their job.

 

Charlie Christensen is president of East Longmeadow-based CMD Technology Group; http://www.new.cmdweb.com/; (413) 525-0023.

Technology

The Best Defense Is a Good Offense

By Sean Hogan

In a recent study, Stanford University and a top cyber security organization found that more than 85% of all data breaches are caused by human error. The standard practice for prevention of breaches is enabling tools to detect and prevent breach attempts.

Most breaches are prevented with tools such as anti-virus, spam filtering, and edge protection. But what about the attempts that slip through these defense systems? That’s where education comes in to play.

Cyber criminals are constantly evolving and changing their methods for cyber-attacks. The best software and security tools can eliminate many of the known attack methods but there is no company, security, or software package that that can claim 100% success for eliminating threats. The game is constantly changing, and to keep up with unknown threats and techniques it is critical that we all educate and train ourselves to be hyper vigilant when it comes to cybersecurity.

Sean Hogan

“In a recent study, Stanford University and a top cyber security organization found that more than 85% of all data breaches are caused by human error.”

It is critical to teach your staff about cyber-attacks. I tell my clients to always question everything; if you aren’t expecting an email with a drop box link, then don’t open it, and certainly don’t click the link. Hackers have upped their game when it comes to disguising malicious content. Hackers will use credentials from sources on the dark web, and the more thorough hacker will do some social engineering and gather information about the targets on public websites and social media platforms.

The more believable they are, the more effective they can be. I recommend scanning tools to alert companies whenever there are credential breaches that have appeared on the dark web. This will allow security teams to know when credentials have been breached, where credentials were breached, and who will provide the credentials. These tools will reveal passwords, password policies, or lack thereof.

Common passwords are one of the easiest low hanging fruits to be used by hackers. Let’s pretend you use your business email to log into an online app like Uber. If Uber is breached, the hackers will have access to your Uber password, but if you use that same password or a similar password elsewhere, like in your banking app, the hacker can use scanning tools and password-hacking tools to easily get into your other accounts. The object is to make it as hard as possible to breach your accounts; don’t make it easy for a junior hacker to wreak havoc.

We recently had a client forward us an email that he thought might be a phishing attack. All the details were accurate, everything was spelled correctly. The ‘sent from’ address had one difference, it was sent from a registered .net domain not the company’s legitimate .com address. Other than that, everything was accurate. The hacker had the wherewithal to create a domain and register that domain as a .net. (Lesson learned, reserve all similar URL’s to prevent this from happening!)

This one example was a sophisticated attempt to convince the client to create a wire transfer; the client now has a policy of triple-checking and confirming any transactions with multiple steps.

The best way to teach your staff about attacks is to create a fake phishing attack. We create and run fake attacks to our staff and our clients. We have a library to choose from, and we can simulate a bank request, a Netflix credential reset, a credit card alert just to name a few. These attacks mimic real attacks. The recipient reactions are tracked, and reports are made available after the campaign has expired.

The email is delivered (allowed on purpose past our filters), the recipient can open, click, and provide data. We call this the trifecta! Normally opening an email is not malicious by itself; clicking the link can activate embedded malware. If a recipient does take the bait, then the training software will automatically play an educational video that teaches that staff how they were fooled and what to look out for in the future.

When the campaign has ended the results are tallied in a report. The report will tell you how many opens, clicks, and credentials. The report will also indicate whether the end-user sat through the educational video. This is a great tool to use from a cybersecurity perspective. Teach your staff, install best-in-class edge protection, spam filtering, end-point protection, anti-virus, dark-web scanning, and backup. Overall, don’t overlook the most important step: Promote awareness and create a strong anti-cyber culture in your office.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology Inc.; www.teamhogan.com; (413) 779-0079.

Law Special Coverage

Common Compensation Blunders

By John Gannon, Esq.

Wage-and hour-compliance is never easy for businesses, and a recent decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) just made things harder.

In ˆ, No. SJC-13121 (Mass. April 4, 2022), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled that paying employees late is equivalent to not paying at all. This means employees are entitled to triple damages if they are not paid on time, because under the Massachusetts Wage Act, employers who fail to pay wages are liable for three times the unpaid wage amount (treble damages). With that case in mind, here are a few common compensation mistakes employers should avoid to ensure solid wage and hour compliance.

Failure to pay wages on time: The Massachusetts Wage Act requires employers to pay all wages, including any accrued, unused vacation time, to employees who are terminated on their last day of work. For employees who voluntarily resign, all wages are due on or before the next regularly scheduled pay date.

Too often, employers pay final wages a day or a week too late. This is especially common with unpaid commissions. The problem here is that under the Reuter v. City of Methuen case, those wages are not paid on time. Therefore, the employee is due triple damages under the Wage Act.

This is what happened to the City of Methuen; the city paid an employee her final paycheck of about $9,000 (including unused vacation time) about three weeks late. The court ruled that the employee was due almost $30,000 because the city paid the employee a few weeks late. Professional tip: Don’t make this same mistake. Make sure employees who are separated from work are paid all wages on their last day of work. If the final check is not ready the day you need to let someone go, have a process in place to suspend the employee while you work out cutting the final paycheck.

Misclassifying employees as independent contractors: It can be tempting to “contract” with an individual to provide services that are similar to what your employees do. This relationship has tax advantages, no need to worry about leave laws and other employment regulations, and a perceived sense of freedom to easily terminate the relationship if it does not work out.

“The Massachusetts Wage Act requires employers to pay all wages, including any accrued, unused vacation time, to employees who are terminated on their last day of work. For employees who voluntarily resign, all wages are due on or before the next regularly scheduled pay date.”

The problem is that classifying individuals as independent contractors (“I/C”) in this situation can be risky. This is because the I/C classification may violate the Massachusetts Independent Contractor statute, which requires workers to be classified as employees, not I/Cs, when the work being performed is similar to that of other employees.

The Massachusetts Independent Contractor statute also requires true contractors to: (1) be free from control and direction from the business (meaning, the contractors sets their own hours and performance standards); and (2) have their own independently established profession or business (meaning, the contractor has their own LLC, PC, or other established business entity). Even where an individual agrees to be classified as an independent contractor and paid via a1099, businesses run a risk of violating the Massachusetts Independent Contractor if all of the above-mentioned factors are not satisfied.

Travel time troubles: Both Massachusetts and federal law require employers to pay employees for non-commuting travel time during the day. This is commonly referred to as intraday travel. Here is the example provided by the federal Department of Labor: Barbara is a personal care aide providing assistance to Mr. Jones. Barbara drives him to the Post Office and grocery store during the workday. Barbara is working and the travel time must be paid.

What employers in Massachusetts might not know is that under state law you also have to reimburse Barbara for all “associated transportation expenses.” This means you need to pay her for costs like mileage, tolls, and parking (if applicable). It is unclear what employers have to pay for mileage, but the safe bet is paying in accordance with the IRS standard mileage rate, which is currently 58.5 cents per mile.

Meal break miscues: Massachusetts law requires employers to provide a 30-minute meal break to employees when they work more than six hours in a day. The break does not need to be paid; however, if an employee does any work during an unpaid break, the employee needs to be compensated for their time. This could be as little as answering a work-related phone call or making a few copies on the copy machine during a break.

Meal break time may be used by employees for activities other than eating, such as running an errand or taking a walk outside. The key here is that if the meal break is unpaid, workers must be allowed to use the time as they choose, including leaving the building/work premises.

Illegal deductions from pay: When it comes to paychecks, the general rule is that employers cannot make any deductions, with a few exceptions. Some deductions are federal or state mandated, such as any deductions for taxes or child support. Other deductions are consented to by employees, including money put toward insurance premiums and retirement benefits. Other than that, employers should not be deducting money from paychecks under almost any circumstances.

One common scenario where employers want to make a deduction is a situation involving a wage overpayment. In this case, a deduction might be ok if: (1) the employee agrees in writing to the overpayment and deduction; and (2) the deduction does not bring the employee’s earnings below minimum wage. Be sure to check in with employment counsel before making a deduction for an overpayment though, as it does have some potential risk. Also, be sure to never make deductions associated with damaging or failure to return company property (such as a cell phone or laptop). This is not allowed in any circumstances, and can lead to triple damages under the Massachusetts Wage Act.

 

John Gannon is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act; (413) 737-4753; [email protected].

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Celebrating Innovation

By Julie Rivers

The University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute (UMDI) turned 50 in 2021. It was a milestone, like many, that was marked in quiet fashion, and in this case, very quiet, because of the pandemic.

The actual celebration, in the form of an anniversary gala, came this year — May 3, to be precise. More than 150 people attended the event at the UMass Club in Boston, a gathering that offered UMDI and its supporters the long-awaited chance to reconnect, meet new people, and celebrate.

And there was, and is, much to celebrate.

Indeed, charged with social service, economic development, and community engagement, the Donahue Institute interfaces with many aspects of life in Massachusetts and beyond. In fact, UMDI has received global recognition for its economic research, program-evaluation capabilities, and workforce and educational initiatives.

Anticipating almost $25 million in revenues for fiscal year 2022, UMDI has about 175 employees with staff across the country, including all six New England states, Southern California, and Arizona. UMDI operates like a consulting firm, with 98% of its revenues being self-generated.

At the gala, recently appointed Executive Director Johan Uvin offered what amounted to a state-of-UMDI address, and in a Zoom call with BusinessWest that involved several leaders of the institute, he did the same, highlighting what’s changed over the years and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t for this vital resource.

“As someone coming in from the outside, this is a solid model — it’s not broken,” he said of the institute’s method of operation. “The Donahue Institute has the autonomy and intellectual freedom to pursue work that is meaningful to society but that also aligns with its mission and capabilities.”

Over the years, that work, has come in a variety of forms, including everything from housing to the national Census; economic data and ways to measure it, to office automation. And the institute’s work has often to led to changes in how things are done and how issues are addressed.

Johan Uvin addresses attendees

Johan Uvin addresses attendees at the recent gala marking the Donahue Institute’s 50th anniversary.

Slicing through it all, Mark Melnik, director of UMDI’s Economic and Public Policy Group, used terms not often applied to such an agency.

“We’re a dynamic organization, especially for a public-service institute,” he told BusinessWest. “While entrepreneurial mode can be exhausting, it allows us to push corners.”

This unique blend of public service and entrepreneurship provides the institute to recognize and seize what he called “opportunities that just make sense.”

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest looks at these opportunities while reviewing the institute’s first 50 years of work and asking UMDI’s leaders what will likely come next.

 

History Lessons

In the beginning, the Donahue Institute focused on providing consulting services to state and local governments. Named for former president of the Massachusetts State Senate, the late Maurice A. Donahue, UMDI branched out in the mid-1980s by helping clients in the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

According to J. Lynn Griesemer, who served with UMDI for 31 years, including several as president, and still acts as a senior advisor, a breakthrough assignment in the early days of the institute was to assess how to most effectively introduce office automation into workplaces. While automation is incontrovertible today, back in the paper-laden manual task days of 1970s office life, the project was just one of many groundbreaking concepts the institute would help launch.

Another early assignment that would shape the future of the institute involved improving floor operations at the General Motors assembly plant in Framingham. However, while the project was underway, the plant began laying off shifts — but UMDI was already there as an implant that was well-positioned to lend a hand. Shifting focus, the institute helped the newly dislocated workers create resumes, get additional education, and ultimately find jobs or even start businesses of their own. Through this fortuitous timing, the institute quickly became the largest services provider to dislocated workers in the Commonwealth.

Donahue Institute

From left, former director of the Donahue Institute Eric Heller, former deputy director John Klenakis, former director Lynn Griesemer, Director Johan Uvin, and Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan

The federal government’s Department of Defense would then present the institute with an opportunity to help make systems uniform across military branches. This project allowed UMDI to develop the national credibility to successfully bid on the Head Start program, one of its core initiatives to this day.

From there, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld asked the UMass President’s Office to assist with an economic development initiative for the state. With the help of economic experts from across the UMass campus, UMDI worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to forge the MassBenchmarks project. To this day, MassBenchmarks assesses the Massachusetts economy through reports and analyses that it then produces and releases twice per year in journal form.  

These early projects laid the groundwork for UMDI to get approved as a vendor by the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA). This designation allows the institute to bypass the lengthy bidding process usually required to win large federal contracts. 

Indeed, the institute’s keen eye for evaluating opportunities and strategically selecting those that will open doors has built the solid foundation it now stands on.

Today, the Donahue Institute is comprised of 10 business units. However, despite the ever-growing diversification of its core capabilities, a vibrant and robust research component remains at the backbone. This includes both UMDI’s Applied Research and Program Evaluation unit and its Economic and Public Policy Research group, led by Melnik.

This group operates as a project-oriented consulting firm, much like a think tank, bringing academic expertise and methods to real-world social problems. The group works with demographic, labor market, and economic data to help state and municipal governments, planning agencies, and nonprofits guide broad public policy discussions.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts.”

One current project examines how to leverage new apprenticeship models to minimize employee retention challenges. Another potentially groundbreaking study involves using data gathered for COVID-related purposes to develop new and more affordable ways of providing healthcare services to consumers instead of funneling people into highly complex systems that they have to navigate on their own.

A core assignment for Melnik’s group is its work with the Secretary of the Commonwealth preparing for census enumeration, which is the basis for federal funding allocation and congressional seats. With help from UMDI’s population- estimates program, the state’s census data is head of class in the nation. This is especially noteworthy since census data is relied upon heavily for resource allocations and predicting where jobs will be. It also informs decisions around population projections used by the MassDOT and Mass. School Building Authority for school district planning.

The group’s portfolio also includes a two-phase initiative with Way Finders that uses Greater Springfield as a case study on housing market affordability. With a focus on upward mobility and wealth creation, the study seeks to answer what it’s like for low- to moderate-income families to live in a high-cost state.

“Wages are so much lower in the Pioneer Valley that more than 54% of renters are housing cost-burdened,” Melnik says. Additionally, the majority of those burdened are people of color.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts,” he explains. This is because it tells the story needed to inform public policy, including the future of transportation.  

Another of the institute’s long-term projects is the Head Start program, which it has been involved with since 2003.

UMDI’s New England Head Start Training and Technical Assistance group is co-directed by Rosario Dominguez, M.P.A. Dominguez says that when people think of the Head Start program, early childhood education is often the only thing that comes to mind. However, that barely scratches the surface of what the program does, as it begins at pregnancy and continues to support families through college.

With this long-term intervention approach, the program addresses intergenerational poverty by using what goes on in the classroom as a lens for examining how families can reach their financial goals, ultimately strengthening entire communities. Through the partnerships it forms, the program has the reach to solve issues much larger in scale than early childhood development, including informing policies that move social equity and upward mobility forward by helping education and social service organizations improve their systems.  

Beyond its regional and national footprints, Ken LeBlond, Marketing Communications manager, said UMDI also handles international work. Funded by the United States Department of State, the institute has contributed to economic mobility at the global level since 2004.

This includes its exchange program in which groups of 20-30 people from about 60 countries, such as Argentina, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe, come to Western Massachusetts each summer. The groups travel the region engaging in active learning, helping at the Amherst food bank and senior center, and working on river cleanup projects.

 

A Look Ahead

In August 2021, the Donahue Institute welcomed Uvin as its executive director. Uvin had previously served as assistant secretary of Education under the Obama Administration. Working alongside Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan, Uvin holds the distinction of being the institute’s first executive director to be hired externally.

When asked what is ahead for UMDI, Uvin talked about alternative models for providing health care and exploring different educational models in challenged communities to lift entire neighborhoods through training and interventions.

Additionally, Uvin is interested in looking at both the supply and demand sides of regional economies to shape how employers and individuals work together to create wealth.

He explained that the engagement process might begin with going into neighborhoods and asking, ‘what are your aspirations?’ This is important because, according to Uvin, “we are moving headlong into a labor shortage with the babyboomers retiring,” making it critical to have intentional conversations around economic development across many different populations.

While this may be a current focus for UMDI, these issues are not new to the Pioneer Valley, where economists and policymakers have been wrestling with similar challenges for decades. Uvin says that while high-tech industry sectors have grown across the state, it has not been an equitable geographic or demographic spread, with Gateway cities such as Springfield and Holyoke — where nearly half of the region’s minority population lives — being left behind.

Part of Uvin’s vision for the future is to explore work in sectors such as life sciences, which play a key role in the success of Central Massachusetts’ biotech manufacturing and Greater Boston’s R&D and lab-based growth.

This, he says, would involve lifting up underserved communities, which is critical because, on the business side, there are simply not enough workers to grow unless we find ways to include all populations. Representation of people of color in the best-paying jobs of the higher-tech sectors lags severely. In terms of where UMDI is at this point in contributing to solving inequities that plague underserved populations, he says they are in the discovery phase, talking to others on the grassroots level.     

As for the future, the institute is positioned to make great strides. With an executive director from the outside, a new perspective brought on by the COVID pandemic, and an impressive 50 years of success to build from, the institute is at a nexus for bringing widespread change to the communities it serves.

“It’s an exciting time for reflection and renewal — to articulate what has happened, organically anyway, through the COVID crisis, which is the discourse around social equity and social mobility,” said Melnik. “This has been part of our work for a while now and has bubbled up even more.”

In reflecting upon how the institute has evolved over the past fifty years, Uvin and others said it is also important to highlight what hasn’t changed, especially the institute’s model and entrepreneurial approach to its work.

Dominguez adds that what was once called public service has evolved into economic mobility and social equity.

“Although we are further defining what we do, our core values will always be the same,” she said. “How can our work impact communities in need? That’s the core — and that won’t change.” 

Uvin concludes, “we’re not done evolving. COVID revealed what didn’t make sense, and business must respond.” Offering employee support, childcare, mental-health services, and other perks will be integral.

Perhaps what will carry the Donahue Institute forward another 50 years will be that which has stayed the same — a solid culture, a public service-focused mission, and the keen ability to find opportunities that align with core values while also having the potential to open doors.

Special Coverage Technology

Making IT Happen

By Mark Morris

Mike Sheil

Mike Sheil, president, Whalley Computer Associates

Mike Sheil says he enjoys his work because his business — information technology — is always changing. And he acknowledges that this is an understatement, as recent events have shown.

Sheil, president of Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick, began his career with the computer reseller right after graduating from North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. After four years, he left for a medical device company where he stayed for another four years. Sheil returned to Whalley 24 years ago and rose through the sales ranks until being named president in June 2020.

His relatively new position comes with a lengthy job description, but, overall, he is charged with authoring the next chapters in what has become a long-term success story — a company that has grown exponentially from its humble roots over the past 43 years because of its ability to adapt to that constant change he mentioned.

The past two years, dominated in every way imaginable by the COVID-19 pandemic, provide a dramatic example of the company’s ability to respond to change, and, in many respects, lead clients through it.

“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week. If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”

Indeed, a banner hanging in the production area reminds employees that, when in doubt, they are to do what’s right for the customer, the company, and the individual. This clear guidance turned out to be valuable when COVID hit and flooded Whalley with sudden demands for products and assistance. With millions of employees suddenly leaving the office to work from home, Whalley clients needed the resources to make that happen.

“We helped companies with thousands of workers to get their folks set up at home,” Sheil recalled. “Some needed monitors and docking stations, while others sought upgrades to their data center because so many more people were tapping into their bandwidth.”

In one instance, a higher education client was looking for 400 laptops to outfit staff members who had been sent home to work.

“I received the request on a Saturday,” Sheil recalled. A colleague found the product, provided a quote for what it would cost, and sent it to the client. “For the first time in my career, I received a purchase order from a public university on a Sunday.” By Monday afternoon, 400 laptops were shipped to the university.

Whalley Computer Associates’ new building

Mike Sheil, left, says Whalley Computer Associates’ new building will allow the company to better serve its clients.

Looking ahead, Sheil said Whalley will soon begin to grow its physical presence with a new 84,000-square-foot building next to its current headquarters in Southwick. Plans call for locating the OEM division in the new space as well as expanding warehouse storage and improving delivery options.

“The new building allows us to go to our clients and let them know we can do even more for them, so that’s exciting,” Sheil said. “This is an opportunity to grow our business in North America while showing our commitment to Southwick and Western Mass.”

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Whalley’s long and intriguing history, and at what’s next for a business that helps its clients get it — and IT.

 

Taking Big Bytes

Tracing that history, Sheil noted that, in the early 1970s, Agawam math teacher John Whalley purchased a small software consulting firm that had a few clients. Working out of his basement after school and during the summer months, Whalley began to add customers, and by 1979 established Whalley Computer Associates.

By 1984 he moved the business out of the basement and in 1985, left teaching to concentrate on growing his company. Whalley is now CEO of the company, which is located in a 62,500-square-foot state-of-the-art building where 200 employees provide products and services to more than 20,000 customers around the world.

Whalley customers range from small businesses to corporations, as well as educational institutions and healthcare organizations. Clients tell Whalley representatives what challenges they need to address in their computer systems. Whalley then orders the product, configures it to fit the client’s needs, then delivers and installs the product at the client’s site. There are other resellers who simply order the product and send it directly to the client, who usually don’t have the space to handle a computer system shipment. Sheil said Whalley is different because it takes a hands-on approach.

“Once we receive the product it’s completely handled by Whalley employees,” Sheil said. “From the engineers and technicians who configure the products, to the people who drive our trucks and install the systems, everyone has a vested interest in doing it right.”

And during the pandemic, the company’s resolve to do it right was certainly tested, a test Sheil said it has passed.

“COVID and supply chain issues have been challenging, yet we experienced growth during that period,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all thanks to our people who were flexible and willing to respond to all these requests.”

The OEM division of Whalley provides custom design of technology systems for clients. When COVID hit and that division temporarily shut down, most organizations would have laid off workers. Instead, OEM employees were sent home with a laptop and a project to work on to benefit the company.

Heather Kies was given the assignment to plan several events for the company. A project manager with OEM, Kies also had a marketing background and enjoyed getting back into this area. She handled the assignment so well, Sheil promoted Kies to Marketing Manager in January and asked her to run the company’s new marketing department, which previously existed only informally as part of business development.

Whalley Computer Associates has a long track record

Mike Sheil says Whalley Computer Associates has a long track record of adapting to change and being nimble in its efforts to serve clients.

These days Kies is working on various company events, including preparations for a major tech conference that takes place in December.

“I’m also busy getting the word out on who we are so people understand all the services we can provide,” Kies said.

While the height of COVID brought unspeakable horrors, it also forced companies to think differently about how to stay in business and meet customer needs. Sheil is one of many who believes that making the pivot and finding new ways to get the job done is a silver lining to the dark cloud that has been with us for more than two years.

“When COVID hit we had to patch different products together because we couldn’t get the materials we wanted,” Sheil said. “As a result, our people figured out how to get clients what they need despite supply chain issues.”

One of the most profound changes since COVID is the growth in hiring people who work far away from the company’s headquarters.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve brought on new employees in Tennessee, Florida, and Texas,”
Sheil noted. “We can now hire folks out of the region to grow our reach.” Whalley won a recent contract in Pennsylvania and is seeking a salesperson for that area.

“This makes sense for us because these folks live there, they know the area and we can support them from here.”

Whalley offers clients different options to store data on the cloud. Sheil explained some clients want to store all their data remotely in the cloud, others choose to split between the cloud and on-premise servers, while other clients prefer to keep their on-premise storage. Having expertise in cloud storage has helped Whalley clients get around some supply chain issues.

“When clients order a storage device and then learn it will be up to six months before they see it, we can offer them cloud storage while they wait,” Sheil said. “When their device finally arrives, they can take it off the cloud. It gives them flexibility.”

In addition to shipping products out the door, Whalley has seen growth in its managed- services area, which Sheil explained as the first line of defense for the client.

“With remote workers logging in at all hours of the day, internal IT staffs are straight out keeping their systems going,” Sheil said. “From our data center, our managed services staff may see a problem developing before it actually becomes a problem.” Using the example of a defective hard drive, Sheil said his staff would notify the client’s IT director and immediately replace the device.

“In many cases, before the client is even aware of a potential issue, there’s an overnight envelope on its way with a new hard drive,” Sheil said. “In this way we can be an extra set of eyes for them.”

Security is an area that continues to grow and remains essential.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the products we sell for cyber security,” Sheil said. “We also provide knowledge to our clients so they can prevent ransomware attacks and other threats.”

 

Screen Test

When he looks to the future, Sheil admits that as a sales professional for 34 years, he always sees the glass as half full. After Whalley found success despite a pandemic and a supply chain crunch that continues, he believes the company is now poised for explosive growth.

“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week,” Sheil said. “If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”

In seven years, the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Sheil said he’s excited about the upcoming anniversary while he reflected on how far Whalley has come.

“It’s good to know that we’re a company where you can stay more than 30 years and have a career,” he said. “We want to keep on growing our business while at the same time remain a great place to work in the future.” u

Law

Case in Point

By Alexander Cerbo, Esq.

 

As most employers are aware, non-payment of wages claims can be made under both state law, the Massachusetts Wage Act (“MWA”), and federal law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Although similar in many respects, the MWA and FLSA have several important differences.

First, under the FLSA, either a two-or three-year statute of limitations applies, depending on whether the claimant can demonstrate that the employer acted “willfully.” On the other hand, the MWA provides for a strict three-year statute of limitations. Also, the FLSA allows a prevailing plaintiff to recover costs, attorney’s fees, and potential liquidated damages (i.e. damages collected as a result of a breach of the contract) equal to the amount of lost wages.

Essentially, employees can recover “double damages” or double the amount of back pay damages for unpaid overtime. On the other hand, remedies under the MWA are even greater. Plaintiffs can recover attorney’s fees and costs, both of which are subject to treble, or triple, damages.

When deciding which law to bring a wage claim under, Massachusetts plaintiffs often file under the MWA because of the greater remedies available to them under the MWA. However, this is not always the case.

In a recent matter before the highest court in Massachusetts, several restaurant workers asserted unpaid overtime claims under the FLSA. But these plaintiffs cannot assert these claims under the MWA because restaurant workers, as well as other service-industry employees, as a matter of law, are not entitled to overtime wages. Nevertheless, they attempted to argue that violations of the FLSA entitled them to damages under the MWA. The SJC disagreed, holding that remedies afforded under the state MWA are to be preempted by the federal FLSA where employees’ claims for unpaid overtime wages arise exclusively under federal law.

While this decision is good news for employers, the remedies available under the FLSA remain considerable. To avoid these substantial damages, employers should ensure internal procedures are in place, and consistently followed, so as to guarantee all employees are paid wages owed to them.

 

Alexander Cerbo is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Mike McCabe

Mayor Mike McCabe says he’s gained needed feedback from his visits with business owners and monthly coffee hours.

Four months into his new job, Westfield Mayor Michael McCabe says he loves his work.

“I’m able to make an impact in areas that I wouldn’t have thought I could; the job requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’m used to doing,”said McCabe, who, after serving for 36 years in various capacities with the Westfield Police Department, unseated incumbent Donald Humason in last November’s election.

The same two men squared off in 2019, to a different result, obviously. McCabe ran then, and tried again last year because he thought he could use his leadership skills and ability to build relationships to move the city forward in several key areas. Early in his first year in office, he can already point to some progress and the potential for much more.

He starts downtown, where he’s made a point of visiting every business from Park Square to the Great River Bridge. And as he did so, he visited some that opened just months and even weeks ago, a sign of resilience and growth in a central business district that has struggled for many years.

“I’ve spoken with all the store owners, and I take part in a coffee hour with the chamber every month,” said McCabe, adding that these listening tours are educational in many respects; they let him know what businesses are concerned about, a list topped by traffic.

That’s one topic in McCabe’s wheelhouse, as his last few years with the police department were as traffic commission chairman.

One major traffic issue involves entering and exiting the Mass Turnpike in Westfield. McCabe is working with the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to create a new eastbound entrance to the turnpike known as a slip ramp. This would greatly benefit truck traffic while at the same time, relieve much of the backup at the turnpike entrance.

“I’m able to make an impact in areas that I wouldn’t have thought I could; the job requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’m used to doing.”

“The idea is that once you get to the top of North Elm Street, you take a right and you don’t have to stop until you get to Boston,” McCabe said adding that the ramp would reduce wait times for north bound traffic by 66%. “That’s a big number.”

It would also cut in half the wait times for vehicles trying to exit the turnpike from the west during rush periods, where vehicles are often lined up for a half mile trying to access the exit ramp.

While the slip ramp has not yet received formal approval, McCabe said feedback from the state so far has been good. “Fundamentally, there were no issues with what we are proposing,” he said.

Beyond downtown and the turnpike proposal, McCabe and other municipal and business leaders can point to progress on several other fronts, including plans to create a hyper-scale data center in the northwest corner of the city.

According to McCabe, the data center is still only in the planning stage, but if it comes to fruition, this campus of buildings could be the largest development ever undertaken in this region.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty, general Manager of the Westfield G&E says his internal goal is to see 99% of the city with fiber optic access by 2024.

The plan is for the data center to occupy some 155 acres in the northwest corner of the city and cost $2.7 billion when complete.It would serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for big data companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Overall, McCabe and other city leaders say Westfield’s bevy of assets — from its location off the turnpike to its abundance of developable land center; from its municipal airport to its municipal utility, which offers a potent mix of attractively priced energy and high-speed internet — are paying dividends for the community and making projects such as the data center feasible.

That much is made clear in this, the latest installment ofBusinessWest’sCommunity Spotlight series.

 

Things are Looking Up

Westfield Barnes Municipal Airport is one area of town where things are literally taking off.

According to Chris Willenborg, airport manager, nearly 50,000 takeoffs and landings occur at Barnes every year. A $4.7 million taxiway apron that was completed late in the fall allows the airport to accommodate larger aircraft and improves operations on both the civilian and military side of the airport.

“Neary 3,700 student athletes fly through Barnes on sports team charter planes,” Willenborg noted. “These flights are typically larger aircraft, which we can now accommodate.”

Three new hangars are currently under construction that will allow Barnes to have 12 to 15 more aircraft based there.

“Right now, there is a waiting list to store aircraft at Barnes,” Willenborg said. “The leases, fuel fees and other associated costs will all generate revenue for Westfield.”

With the Mass Turnpike and I-91 close by, Barnes has become an appealing airport for business aviation, which has Willenborg looking for even more hangar development. Work has also begun for what Willenborg called a “major project in the pipeline.”

“We have a $15 million to $20 million taxiway project going out to bid next year,” he said. “It’s in the design phase now and will involve relocating and widening one of our taxiways.”

On the military side of the airport, Westfield currently houses a fleet of F-15 fighter jets. Last year the Department of Defense invited air bases to make their case for hosting F-35 jets and Barnes made its bid. The DOD is expected to decide by May or June.

“The most important thing about this process is that Barnes will be getting a new fighter jet,” Willenborg said. “We will either bring the F-35 here or we will get the brand-new F-15 EX fighter. Either way, we are anxiously awaiting their decision.”

Developments at Barnes are just some of the newsworthy projects in the northern, industrial end of the city.

Indeed, another growth area for Westfield involves James Hardie Building Products, which will soon move into the former Old Colony Envelope building. Hardie manufactures construction siding products such as backer board, a drywall-type sheet used in wet areas such as bathrooms.

Meanwhile, off Route 202, both Home Depot and Lowe’s maintain distribution centers for the region. Another major retailer will soon join them as Target is planning a warehouse in the same area.

The city has been able to attract these large distribution centers — and become the preferred site for the hyper-scale data center — because of its location, inventory of land and available properties, and the abundance of cheap power and high-speed internet.

Those last two selling points come courtesy of the Westfield Gas & Electric and Whip City Fiber, a division of the G&E continues to install its fiber optic high-speed internet infrastructure in Westfield and many small towns. Tom Flaherty, general manager for the G&E, said Whip City is on track to have 85% of Westfield covered by this time next year.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette says nearly 20 new businesses have opened in Westfield during the pandemic, a sign of entrepreneurial energy in the city.

At the same time, the company is bringing high-speed internet to 19 towns in Western Mass where no internet infrastructure previously existed. For towns like Cummington, Windsor, Heath, and others, it’s an economic boom.

“Real estate agents are using access to Whip City Fiber as a selling point to sell homes,” Flaherty said. “Because they now have internet access, one town official told us they are building five new houses, where before they were lucky to build one house every other year.”

Critics of Whip City Fiber have complained about resources going to other towns while sections of Westfield are still without fiber optic internet. Flaherty said revenues from Whip City Fiber customers in Westfield and the hill towns will help pay for finishing the job in town.

“We have most of Westfield covered and we are tackling some of the more complex and costly areas now,” Flaherty said. Installing the fiber optic cables in apartment complexes and in areas with underground wiring is more complicated and expensive.

“Officially, we hope to see 99% of Westfield with fiber optic access by 2025,” Flaherty said. “My internal goal is 2024.”

 

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, back in downtown Westfield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette reported that small businesses continue to open in Westfield.

“During the pandemic, nearly 20 new businesses opened; that blew my mind,” he said. “These folks had made the decision to pursue their vision and were undaunted by the pandemic.”

As COVID numbers get under control and the weather warms up, the chamber has returned to hosting in-person events.

“We thought that was important because it’s tough to network from behind a screen,” Oulette said. “When people can be present with each other it leads to more clients and more job opportunities. It even opens the door for us to meet businesses who might want to join the chamber.”

While membership dropped off during the pandemic, Oulette is hoping to grow from the current 230 members to 300 by the end of the year.

Several efforts are in place to encourage small business activity, such as a vacant-storefront initiative, where the city will subsidize a new business by covering half their rent payments for up to two years. There’s also a façade initiative that involves repairing and restoring building fronts for businesses in the city.

McCabe has a vision for downtown that emphasizes retailers who sell consumables.

“That means taking a chance on offering places with eclectic food and more diversity than what’s currently available downtown,” he said.

The mayor also made a promise to himself regarding the hole in downtown where the former Newbury’s store stood before it was destroyed by fire more than 30 years ago. McCabe has plans to turn that lot into a public green space.

“I’d like to see it used for farmers markets or tag sales, or just to have a nice place to eat lunch outside,” he said. “We could do a lot of different things with that space.”

He hopes the green space will be completed by the end of the summer.

“I want to bring the idea forward,” he said. “If it works — great, if it doesn’t, a green space is still better than what’s there now.”

Another goal for McCabe involves creating a sustained partnership with Westfield State University. Linda Thompson joined WSU as its new president just a few months before McCabe became mayor. Because they both began their respective jobs around the same time, McCabe is hopeful they can work together for their mutual benefit.

“President Thompson is a great person to work with and I’m looking forward to what we can do,” McCabe said. “My goal is to have Westfield State graduates consider staying here when they finish college.”

As Westfield pursues all its potential, there may be many new traffic issues in the future. That’s one challenge McCabe would gladly invite.

“I’m all about transportation,”said the man wearing a classic car pattern on his tie.

Health Care

Shining Example

By Elizabeth Sears

The team at Charlene Manor

The team at Charlene Manor displays the banner announcing that the facility has been honored with the Silver Achievement in Quality Award.

Sometimes accolades and honorifics cannot compare to the rewarding aspects of certain fields of work.

Just ask the staff members at Charlene Manor, a skilled nursing facility in Greenfield that is part of the Berkshire Healthcare system. When speaking with BusinessWest, employees at the facility were unanimous in their opinion that while winning awards — and Charlene Manor recently earned a notable honor — is important, it’s the reasons behind those awards that are far more significant.

“In a hospital, you have people that come and go; in a skilled nursing facility, many of these residents are with us for a long period of time,” Margie Laurin, Charlene Manor’s marketing communications coordinator, explained. “We experience their milestone birthdays with them, we experience their joys and their pains. It’s much more than just providing clinical care — it’s providing that care with a level of compassion that I have not seen in any other work that I’ve done prior to being in this industry.”

Charlene Manor is celebrating its 35th year in operation, having opened in 1987. It has been growing and evolving ever since while remaining true to its mission — to give back to the community and provide a quality level of specialized programs and services that range from cardiac recovery to hospice and palliative care; from diabetes management and education to stroke recovery.

Which brings us to that award. The facility achieved an important distinction in 2021 — the American Health Care Assoc./National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) Silver Achievement in Quality Award.

“We experience their milestone birthdays with them, we experience their joys and their pains. It’s much more than just providing clinical care — it’s providing that care with a level of compassion that I have not seen in any other work that I’ve done prior to being in this industry.”

“Silver recipients have to outline their systematic approaches, and they have to demonstrate their quality and clinical outcomes and the sustainability of their organizational and process results that are linked to these outcomes to ensure success — how they meet certain challenges, and make sure that they meet key customer requirements,” said Laurin, noting that

Charlene Manor was one of two facilities in the Commonwealth that received this achievement.

To put that into perspective, there are more than 400 facilities providing such services in the state. Charlene Manor is the only skilled nursing facility that received this award — the other winner was an assisted living facility from eastern Mass.

“With our silver award, we were able to clearly demonstrate that we made improvements,” said Ashley LeBeau, administrator of Charlene Manor. “We responded to the feedback, which is really the key when you’re asking someone for feedback. You must then respond to it, put plans in place to improve it; we were very much able to do that.”

The team members at Charlene Manor can speak to this improvement with concrete evidence from over the years. The facility has a five-star rating from the Department of Public Health, and that rating has been maintained for more than two years. Customer satisfaction surveys from both short-term and long-term residents have shown improvement as well, and that demonstration contributed to Charlene Manor earning the silver award, said LeBeau.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Laurin and LeBeau about the Silver Award, but more about what went into earning it and what the honor says about the facility and its team.

 

Shining Examples

The term ‘skilled nursing’ oftentimes is used interchangeably with assisted living and nursing homes, when in actuality they are quite different. Skilled nursing care refers to a patient’s need for care or treatment that can only be performed by licensed nurses. It can take place in a variety of settings — hospitals, assisted living communities, and in the case of Charlene Manor, skilled nursing facilities.

Skilled nursing is regulated by the Department of Health Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). To be certified by CMS, skilled nursing communities must meet strict criteria. They are subject to periodic inspections to ensure the quality standards are being met.

“That’s why this silver award is so critically important and such an honor — because these are such stringent criteria to have to be met so above and beyond,” said Laurin.

Skilled nursing can encompass a wide range of care. It can mean short-term care after someone has had surgery, physical or occupational therapy, IV therapy, as well as many other forms of care.

“With our silver award, we were able to clearly demonstrate that we made improvements. We responded to the feedback, which is really the key when you’re asking someone for feedback. You must then respond to it, put plans in place to improve it; we were very much able to do that.”

The majority of Charlene Manor’s referrals come from hospitals, but its reach has recently expanded. Due to its high-quality service and the surge seen in hospitals from the pandemic, the Department of Public Health chose to partner with Charlene Manor. Another important collaborative relationship Charlene Manor has is with Pioneer Valley Hospice & Palliative Care.

Skilled nursing staff include a variety of positions including RNs, LPNs, CNAs, medical directors, speech/language pathologists, and resident care assistants. And these professionals work together as a team.

Resident care assistants (RCAs) play an integral role within the facility. It’s an introductory role where individuals who are just starting off in the healthcare career can explore if it’s the right fit for them. They spend an intimate amount of time with residents, providing the most amount of care per day to patients while simultaneously building strong relationships with them.

Charlene Manor focuses on recruiting and aiding those entering the field, now more than ever — since the pandemic began, the skilled nursing industry has lost 241,000 caregivers according to AHCA.

“For this reason, it is critically important for us as an organization — we put in place strategies and do everything we can to encourage and nurture and promote these skilled caregivers within our facilities,” said Laurin. “And Charlene Manor specifically has been a community that has had a really strong history of providing employment opportunities and having good care around these positions.”

LeBeau started as a dining services aid at Charlene Manor’s sister facility in Leeds when she was in high school. She’s been with the organization ever since, going from working in dining services to becoming the director of Admissions. She then earned her AIT, went on to get her administrator’s license, and has been administrator at Charlene Manor now for 11 years.

“One of the things that I am most proud of as a Berkshire Healthcare employee is that our opportunities for growth in this organization are unmatched,” she went on. “There are so many opportunities for growth in this organization.”

LeBeau’s story provides just one example of such growth and opportunities for advancement. Indeed, Berkshire Healthcare offers a nursing program called Stepping Stones which, if accepted, provides aspiring healthcare professionals a tuition-free path to earning certifications and attending nursing school.

“We’ve had a number of entry-level staff go through nursing programs through our Stepping Stones program to become LPNs, RNs … some have gone through to get their BSN, and it’s just incredible the amount that we reinvest because we are not-for-profit,” said LeBeau. “We have a mission, and part of our mission is to reinvest in our people, and we do that every single day here.”

Indeed, while the AHCA/NCAL Silver Achievement in Quality Award is a noteworthy honor, recognition is not the motivation behind Charlene Manor’s skilled nursing services. The most rewarding aspect for those working at the facility is the ability to serve those in Franklin County and beyond.

“The rewards are immense. But speaking about providing care to this population — our residents and patients that we serve become much, much more than that,” said Laurin. “They’re like family. That’s why it’s critically important to recruit and invest in long-standing employees, because these are relationships. This is an industry that is about relationships. Not just the relationships with the residents, but with their families as well.”

A Focus on Care

Simply put, Charlene Manor has put in extraordinary efforts to help take care of their community members, and its Silver Achievement in Quality Award Silver is just one of many examples of how their work is paying off.

“As an organization, we are very proud of the work that Charlene Manor, and Ashley and her team, have done — especially during such a challenging time,” said Laurin.

Restaurants Special Coverage

They Have a Lot on Their Plate

Bill Collins

Bill Collins

One restaurateur called it a ‘triple whammy.’ He was referring to a combination of forces — specifically soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and an ongoing workforce crisis — that are standing in the way of a full bounce back from two years of COVID. Despite these issues, restaurant owners are optimistic that 2022 will bring something approaching normal. Eventually.

By Mark Morris

When 2022 began, Bill Collins was anticipating a full year of uninterrupted business for his restaurant, the Center Square Grill. He did not foresee what he called a “major punch in the face” that shut down the restaurant for six weeks.

In January, one of the thermostats in the restaurant’s dining room failed, causing one sprinkler head to freeze. When the heat came back on, the ice in the line moved and activated the sprinklers. By the time Collins could shut off the sprinklers, the restaurant had taken on nearly 15,000 gallons of water.

“The basement was a nearly complete gut job,” Collins said. “In the dining room, we replaced floors, seating, and several walls.” It took exactly six weeks to go from the flood to opening the doors once again.

Locating a contractor can take six weeks, so how did Collins make the repairs to Center Square and re-open so quickly?

“I looked to my customer base and called the contractors who are regulars at the restaurant,” he said. “They had a vested interest in getting us back open.”

In some ways, the sprinkler incident is a metaphor for the struggle for area restaurants as they look to make a full comeback after the pandemic. Just when people are dining out again and restaurant owners are looking to make up for two years of lost business, they are getting hit with spikes in food costs, increased labor costs — when and if they can find staff, that is — and various supply challenges that affect food and kitchen operations.

“I looked to my customer base and called the contractors who are regulars at the restaurant. They had a vested interest in getting us back open.”

“It’s a triple whammy,” said Ralph Santaniello, co-owner of the Federal Restaurant Group. “In some ways, this has been more challenging than the pandemic.” He quickly admitted that while the pandemic was a crushing event that came out of the blue, governments, communities and vendors all came together to help everyone get through it.

In addition to the Federal in Agawam, Santaniello and partner Michael Presnal own Posto Italian in Longmeadow and Vinted Wine Bar in West Hartford. Following his parents, who were in the restaurant business, Santaniello said he has been in the industry his whole life and has never seen prices as crazy as they are today.

“We used to plan out the business to see where we would be in five years, then it went to five months, and now it feels like it’s five minutes,” Santaniello told BusinessWest.

Everyone we spoke with discussed the challenge of rising costs. Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant in Lenox, said that even after forecasting for increased costs, they were 6% higher than anticipated in the first quarter alone.

Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant

Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant, says price increases on food the past six months have been “insane.”

“That’s huge and we don’t know where it’s going from there,” said Telle. “In the last six months price increases on food have been insane.”  

Adding to the craziness in food costs is unpredictability of what will be affected next.

Andrew Brow, chef and owner of Highbrow Wood Fired Kitchen in Northampton said all restaurants plan their menus with a balance of higher-cost items such as filet mignon and less expensive ones such as pasta. In the past, Brow bought braised short ribs at $5 per pound rather than New York strip steak which costs $10 to 12 a pound. Supplies are so mixed up now, that the short ribs cost as much as the New York strip which hasn’t increased in price.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to the price hikes,” Brow said. “One week mushrooms will triple in price, the next week it’s chicken and spinach.”

 

Food for Thought

Creating different dishes is one way restaurateurs are adjusting to the chaotic, soaring prices. When scallops escalated from $108 for an eight-pound case to $223, Collins created a new dish that included shrimp, which has held a more stable price. Instead of an entrée with six scallops, he offered in its place a shrimp and scallop entrée using three scallops and three shrimp.

“We used to plan out the business to see where we would be in five years, then it went to five months, and now it feels like it’s five minutes.”

“This way we can keep the dining price where it is and still offer delicious fun food that people expect when they come here,” Collins said.

Gas and electric bills are another area where prices are going up with no end in sight. Santaniello explained that restaurants, by design, are energy intensive with usage increasing in the summer.

“We have air conditioning running all day and night in the summer because when it’s 98 degrees and humid outside people expect to be comfortable when they go into a restaurant.”

It’s not surprising that take out containers spiked in price and were difficult to find at the height of the pandemic. Supply-chain issues also affected restaurants in less obvious ways. Santaniello said he needed a part for an oven door, something that would normally take a week to get, if the repair person didn’t already have one in their truck.

“We waited two months for the part,” Santaniello said. “So, we were down an oven for two months, and that’s difficult in a busy kitchen.”

Santaniello and Telle are experiencing busier than normal kitchens because as customers are returning to their respective restaurants, labor shortages have forced both men to cut back on the hours when they are open.

Andrew Brow

Andrew Brow says there has been “no rhyme or reason” to price hikes on food in recent months.

“Business has been great because of the pent-up demand of people wanting to go out to eat,” Santaniello said. “Our biggest issue is keeping up with that demand because we’re still looking for employees.”

Before the pandemic, the Federal operated six days a week. Now, in order to give his staff some time off, they are open only 4 days a week.

“The pandemic exacerbated a problem that our industry already had with finding enough workers,” Santaniello said. Advertising on job search sites such as Indeed and a restaurant specific site called Poach has brought limited results.

“We found our biggest success came from advertising on Facebook.”

For 13 years, Alta was open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. These days, hours have been reduced to 6 nights a week and lunch hours were cut.

“We reduced our hours because we couldn’t hire more people,” said Telle. “I didn’t want my staff to have to work six double shifts, so I closed lunches to protect our staff.”

Telle is currently interviewing people with the hope of offering lunch hours again by late spring.

“We always get busier as the sun comes out,” he said adding that business also gets a big boost from all the tourists who visit Lenox in the summer.

Collins called it the best investment he’s ever made when he paid his staff their full salary during the six weeks Center Square was closed for repairs.

“It’s so tough to find qualified people that it made sense to us,” Collins said. “Most of my team has been with me for quite a while and it would have been tough to replace them if they had to leave and find other jobs.”

There are signs that open restaurant positions may be starting to get filled. Brow reported that Highbrow is fully staffed and he was able to hire a full staff for his new restaurant Jackalope in downtown Springfield.

“Even though wages are up much higher than pre-pandemic, the workforce is back,” Brow said.

As the weather gets warmer, all the restaurant owners look forward to expanding their outdoor dining. They all expressed gratitude to state and local officials for keeping this lifeline open even after diners were allowed back inside.

“I’m sure there are some people who are not comfortable coming back into a restaurant,” Collins said. “I think we’ll start seeing them once outdoor dining picks up.”

On May 1, Telle began accepting reservations for summer dining at Alta.

“People are making reservations into July and August,” he said. “And 85% of those are requests to sit outdoors.”

Collins added, “fresh air is not going out of style anytime soon.”

Summer also brings with it the opportunity to support local farms. Telle said working with local farms allows him to control some of the price increases, though he understands local prices will be higher this year than in the past.

Collins buys as much local produce as he can. In fact, his menu credits Szawlowski Farms in Hadley with supplying potatoes for their French fries.

“When tomato season kicks in we will buy them from Meadowbrook Farm in East Longmeadow,” Collins said. “Nothing tastes better than fresh local produce.”

 

The Bottom Line

Between outdoor dining and customers who are excited about eating out again, the restaurant owners all remain positive about this year and beyond.

Santaniello, describing himself as an optimist by nature, said, “I’m hoping by the fourth quarter of this year we will see some stability in pricing and as more people return to the workforce it will benefit our industry.”

Telle said he’s hopeful about hiring new staff and looks forward to a busy summer. “Right now, we’re following the same business patterns as a regular year.”

With Jackalope scheduled to open on May 11, Brow expressed gratitude despite all the uncertainty. “For those of us who made it through, it was worth the wait.”

For Collins the year started with closing for six weeks to fix major water damage. Despite that setback, Center Square is still on track to have its busiest year ever. He philosophized that a restaurant experience is more than just food.

“People need to go out and socialize. They need to feel that connection,” Collins said. “When they don’t, they get depressed and grumpy.”

He concluded, “that’s why we’re all back and we’re pumped to be here.”

Home Improvement Landscape Design Special Coverage

Lay of the Land

Dave Graziano

Dave Graziano, project manager of the Landscape Division at Graziano Gardens.

For area landscapers, the pandemic created a boom in business as consumers working at home and unable to go on vacations decided to improve their surroundings and invested accordingly. There is still some of that going on, but noticeably less, with consumers enjoying more spending options, while also experiencing considerable anxiety over sky-high inflation. While there is still plenty of work, landscapers confront a host of challenges, from workforce issues to shortages of materials to soaring gas prices.

By Mark Morris

 

The phones are ringing at landscaping companies this spring — but not at the same frenzied pace of the last two years. And that’s just one of many trends to watch as the calendar moves to mid-spring

Overall, consumers People are more cautious about spending their money this year, said Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping in Hadley, and, at the same time, they certainly have more spending options than they did in 2020 and even 2021.

“Those who have the money and want to improve their yard are still going to,” Omasta said. “For everyone who was on the fence about it … not so much.”

Steve Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare in Chicopee, concurred with that assessment. He said that while his company has backlog of business through June, he’s not as confident about the rest of the year.

“We’ve had internal discussions that we don’t have as many leads compared to this time last year,” he told BusinessWest. “People are still requesting work but we’re wondering if we will be as busy as last year.”

Two years ago, the pandemic forced people to spend more time at home. Many looked at their outside surroundings and decided they needed to invest in their yards, in many cases using money that would normally go toward a vacation away from home. This created a huge boom for landscapers who could barely keep up with all the demand for their services.

“Now that people are able to travel again, it seems like the COVID spending is slowing down,” Omasta explained, adding that on top of leisure travel increasing and people returning to the workplace, landscapers are experiencing an unseasonably cold spring that brings with it other challenges.

“Every year is different,” said Dave Graziano, project manager of the landscape division of Graziano Gardens in East Longmeadow. “If you talk with any independent businessperson there is some worry this year about what’s coming.”

That worry usually involves how to handle increased business costs, finding workers, and managing supply chain issues with various products. And landscapers are certainly having to cope with all those issues and more.

“Those who have the money and want to improve their yard are still going to. For everyone who was on the fence about it … not so much.”

Indeed, all the landscapers we spoke with have commercial clients as well as residential customers. Rachel Loeffler, landscape architect and principal with Berkshire Design Group in Northampton, said there is often competition, if one can call it that, between commercial and residential when supplies are short.

“Sourcing for plants can be challenging in normal times,” Loeffler said. “Now contractors check with five or six nurseries when they would normally go to one.” This scramble for plants often means finding substitutes.

As a landscape architect, Loeffler often recommends using products like cedar wood that will remain durable for years to come. When cedar became, in her words “extremely expensive” it changed the conversation with clients.

Steve Corrigan leads his crew as they install pavers at Loomis Village in South Hadley

Steve Corrigan leads his crew as they install pavers at Loomis Village in South Hadley, one of many current projects for his company, Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare.

“They had to go back and figure out how to build something that was durable and sustainable, but would also fit their budget,” Loeffler said.

Even world events affect landscaping materials. Omasta pointed out that many of the minerals found in fertilizers come from Russia. “So, some of our supply chain issues are based on what’s going on in the Ukraine.”

For this issue and its focus on landscaping and home improvement, BusinessWest talked with several business owners and managers in this sector. These discussions revealed the full breadth of challenges facing these companies — as well as the ample opportunities for continued growth.

 

Root Causes

Omasta told BusinessWest that, while it’s getting a little easier to find products — with the accent on little — items are coming in at premium prices that are generally 30% to 50% higher than last year.

But finding some products and materials remains a challenge, and the shortages result from a variety of reasons.

As just one example, Both Graziano and Omasta noted the difficulty in finding large evergreens and other large-caliber trees. And Loeffler said the recession of 2008 is the reason why it’s difficult to find such trees now.

“The trees that are available now were cultivated some 10 to 15 years prior,” Loeffler said. “In 2008, many nurseries cut back on their normal planting because of a big drop in demand.”

Overall, tree shortages and rising prices of everything from lawn-care products to bricks are just some of the challenges facing landscapers.

Indeed, on the commercial side of the ledger at Mountain View, Corrigan said his crews are working on several projects in Eastern Mass for parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields. While travelling up to an hour and a half from his home base in Chicopee is a common practice, fuel prices are forcing Corrigan to refigure what vehicles he sends to specific jobs.

“Our crew trucks use a lot of fuel so we leave them at the jobsite and go back and forth with different vehicles,” said Corrigan, adding that he’s looking to conserve whenever and wherever he can, because the numbers are so staggering.

“Last year we spent about $280,000 on fuel,” he said.“With prices increasing, if we use the same amount of fuel as 2021, it will add more than $100,000 to our costs unless we do something different.”

With more than 40 vehicles in the company’s fleet, costs can add up quickly. A newer vehicle might offer better gas mileage — if you can get one, that is.

“We placed an order for three new vehicles back in December,” said Corrigan. “And we won’t see them until July or August.”

Meanwhile, finding enough labor to get the job done remains a challenge.

Corrigan said his company has 95 people on the payroll and he could easily add another 10 — if he could find them. “Just before COVID, we hired a full-time recruiter, because even then we were having trouble finding help,” he noted, adding that the landscaping sector tends to attract young, entry-level people.

Many candidates get disqualified for failing their drug screen or for bad driving records, he went on, adding that he remains optimistic about the labor front. “We’ll get through it, one person at a time.”

Staffing has remained steady for Omasta Landscaping, thanks to a core group that has been with the company for several years. While landscape construction jobs remain hard to fill, Omasta said he had the opposite experience when hiring for clerical and office jobs.

“We took out ads for office people and the response has been tremendous,” Omasta said. “It seems there are people in the job search right now, whether it’s a career change or looking for a different job.”

While coping with these day-to-day issues and challengers, landscapers are also responding to longer-term trends, many of them involving the environment, cost-effectiveness, or both at the same time.

Rachel Loeffler says there is often competition between commercial and residential customers when supplies of certain products are short.

Loeffler told BuisnessWest she is doing more “lifecycle-costing” for projects. With this method, she will evaluate the installation of two similar materials — for example granite curbing vs. concrete curbing.

“We look at initial upfront cost, how long before each needs to be replaced, and then the cost over 100 years … and it’s crazy,” said Loeffler. “While granite is more expensive at the onset, over a 100-year period it’s significantly cheaper.”

She explained that concrete curbing has a useful life of about 15-20 years, so any time the asphalt paving is replaced, a new concrete curb will need to be built. With granite, a bucket loader can pick up the curbing and reset it each time the area is paved.

Loeffler admits most people don’t get excited about curbing, and she understands that project managers may opt to save money in their budget by using concrete, though granite proves to be a less expensive choice over the long term.

In a similar vein, Corrigan said changes are happening with the safety surfaces on new playground construction. For many years, landscapers have covered the areas around playground equipment with a thick installation of wood chips. The specs now call for poured in place rubber surfacing.

“It can cost four to five times more than wood chips, but project owners want it because the rubber works better from a safety perspective and they don’t have to go back every year to dress off the wood chips,”Corrigan said. The two-part process involves a base mat with a colored surface on top. In order to meet safety requirements, the rubber surface goes through a series of tests that mimic children falling on it.

 

Getting the Real Dirt

Looking at the proverbial big picture, Omasta said he understands that people don’t think about landscaping on cold, raw spring days, and there have been quite a few of them lately. “Once we start seeing sunny 70-degree days, the phone will ring off the hook,” he said, expressing optimism that his company, and this sector, will continue to flourish in these challenging times.

Graziano concurred, noting that the cold and windy weather has kept early customers from browsing at the garden center and from booking landscaping services.

“We’ve had a little slower April, but most likely May and June will be crazy — it’s the nature of the business,” he said, adding that nature, meaning Mother Nature, is just one of many issues to be confronted during what will likely be a different kind of year.

Health Care Special Coverage

Mind Over Matters

By Mark Morris

Alyssa Bustamante

Alyssa Bustamante, an occupational therapist with ServiceNet.

According to the Center for Neurological Studies, someone in the U.S. sustains a brain injury every nine seconds. You can do the math.

All brain injuries that are not hereditary are considered acquired brain injuries. One well-known type is a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which results from a car accident, sports injury, a fall, or other incident. The other type of acquired brain injury (ABI) results from events such as a stroke, encephalitis, a brain tumor, or other medical issue.

The effects of a brain injury are unique to each individual. The professionals who work with afflicted patients design individualized treatment plans for each patient. Everyone involved shares a common goal — to help the patient get back to their maximum level of function and independence.

BusinessWest talked with three professional groups that work with brain injury patients at different stages of the recovery process. Those associated with these groups shared common thoughts on what they do and the underlying goals behind their work.

A brain injury is very often a life-changing event, they said. And those who work with those who have suffered such injuries dedicate themselves to helping patients get the most out of what could be considered their new life.

 

Thought-provoking Examples

When a person suffers a brain injury, they receive their initial care at an acute care hospital such as Baystate Medical Center or Mercy Medical Center. The next step is a stay in a rehabilitation facility such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts in Ludlow, where the typical patient may spend from seven up to 21 days, depending on the severity of the brain injury.

“In the beginning we spend lots of time educating patients and their families about what to expect with brain injuries and how the brain heals.”

Because our brains affect all our physical and mental functions, evidence-based research has shown that a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment results in the best outcomes. According to Julie Bugeau, an occupational therapist with Encompass, their approach to care involves making sure the medical staff, along with the occupational therapist, physical therapist, and speech therapist work closely together as a team.

“Brain injuries are complex, so we need all these disciplines to make sure the patient’s needs are addressed,” she told BusinessWest.

When brain injury patients arrive at Encompass, each one has a different level of severity, so the first few days are usually spent on developing a plan for recovery and preparing the patient for what they will encounter in therapy.

“In the beginning we spend lots of time educating patients and their families about what to expect with brain injuries and how the brain heals,” said Stefanie Cust, a physical therapist with Encompass. “We would like to get them up and walking right away but not everyone is ready for that so we may take a couple days to understand where they are and what they can do.”

Managing expectations for the patient and their family is an important part of the therapy process because everyone progresses differently and at their own pace. Bugeau said patients will often have a personality change and become easily agitated or inappropriate in the way they speak or interact with others.

physical therapist

Stefanie Cust, left, a physical therapist at Encompass Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, and Julie Bugeau, an occupational therapist at Encompass, demonstrate a device to improve use of the hand and wrist.

“We don’t want families to get angry with their loved ones because they are acting in a certain way,” Bugeau said. “That’s why constant communication with the family and everyone on the team is critical to managing their expectations.”

A walk through the facility at Encompass reveals what looks like a large gymnasium with people working out on various machines. While standard fitness machines are part of the mix, there is also an array of specialized equipment designed to help people regain movement in areas of their bodies that were affected by brain injury.

Sometimes the equipment is as simple as parallel bars to aid in walking or a set of stairs. Other times high-tech equipment is used such as interactive touch screens to help the patient regain coordination, reaction time and cognitive abilities.

Cust and Bugeau demonstrated a Bioness H200 a device that fits on the forearm and is used to simulate normal wrist and finger movement for neuromuscular rehabilitation. By using a tablet, a therapist controls the H200 to aid the patient in opening and closing their hand. It’s also used to help build back wrist and hand muscles through repeated movements.

“People with brain injuries need someone to encourage them to get up and move, otherwise they will just sit and do nothing.”

The goal of the therapists at Encompass is for patients to return home. Before patients are discharged, they leave with a recovery plan to help the patient going forward. A case manager gets involved to prepare the family and prepare the home before discharge. In many cases the patient will need outpatient treatment, whether at a facility or at home. Encompass puts patients and families in touch with community resources to keep moving toward recovery goals.

 

Finding a New Way

As late as the 2010s, patients with brain injuries in Massachusetts who required care beyond what they could get at home were mandated to live in nursing homes. A class-action suit resulted in creating two waivers, one for ABI and one known as a Moving Forward Plan (MFP) waiver. Both waivers make it possible for other organizations in the community to provide long-term treatment for people suffering from brain injuries.

Mental Health Association (MHA) created the New Way Services Division to specifically offer treatment for people with ABI. The agency owns nine houses located in communities in and around Springfield. Each residence looks like a typical family home and accommodates up to four adults.

“These residences are the person’s home for as long as they need it to be,” said Sara Kyser, vice president of the New Way Services Division at MHA. “While some folks are likely to spend the rest of their days there, we also have many people who gradually need fewer services and they are able to return to their families.”

Each person has an individualized treatment plan, most of which include regular visits from occupational, physical, and speech therapists. Nurses also visit each home to assist with such things as re-learning taking medication and other tasks. One of the homes is designed to be a transition step where instead of receiving highly intensive support the person is more on their own but still has a safety net.

Lexi Stockwell

Lexi Stockwell says the Strive Clinic at ServiceNet helps those with brain injuries continue to make progress in their recovery.

“The goal is to bring people back to where they were or to a less-restricted setting,” Kyser said. “When possible, they can return to their family and still access outreach supports.”

One of those supports is The Resource Center (TRC) run by MHA. Serving as a day service, Kyser explained that this is where people can work on an array of interesting activities to help with physical and mental rehab in ways that don’t feel like therapy.

“Instead of squeezing a tennis ball, they are doing art projects, engaged in writing, and one of our most popular activities working on wood projects,” Kyser said.

While these activities provide physical therapy, they also help people work on their social skills. Kyser said impulse control is often affected by a brain injury, so learning how to interact with the world again takes some practice.

When BusinessWest visited, staff at TRC were preparing gardening kits in time for planting season.

“The idea is for these folks to learn about and actually plant their own gardens at their own homes,” Kyser said. “They will then harvest and incorporate the fresh fruits and veggies into their nutrition program to bring the whole thing full circle.”

 

Striving for Improvement

ServiceNet is also a provider of long-term rehabilitative care. Through its Enrichment Center in Chicopee, ServiceNet runs the Strive Clinic to help those afflicted with brain injuries to continue to make progress in their recovery.

According to Ellen Werner, director of operations for ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic, the motivation for Strive became apparent after learning about people who were sitting at home with brain injuries who needed therapy.

“People with brain injuries need someone to encourage them to get up and move, otherwise they will just sit and do nothing,” said Werner.

Part of the recovery process also involves persuading people to try things when they don’t think they need to participate. Alyssa Bustamante, an occupational therapist with Strive, said that she and her colleagues try to make patients understand that recovery happens when all the therapies work together. Left to their own devices, patients will tend to only take part in their favorite activities.

“Everyone loves physical therapy, so they all want that,” said Bustamante, adding that one patient felt she didn’t need speech therapy because she just wanted to be able to get dressed. “This person had trouble sequencing the steps to get dressed, which is cognitively based, and speech therapy helps with that,”

Keeping active is essential to prevent brain injury patients from reaching a plateau and backsliding in their recovery. At the beginning of the pandemic many brain-injury patients lost therapy sessions. By the time they were able to return, Werner said that many came in deconditioned and could not do as much as before.

“They still had the foundation of the therapy, but they had lost endurance,” Werner said.

The Strive Clinic has adopted the motto of “Never say Never” to encourage patients to always set new goals in rehabilitation. As an example of that spirit, Werner and Bustamante discussed the case of a gentleman named Bill (not his real name.)

Bill had suffered a stroke more than 10 years ago, and had a below-the-knee amputation. Though he had a prosthetic device for his leg he wasn’t interested in leaving his wheelchair. Enrolled in the day program at the Enrichment Center, Bill would sit in the hallway outside of Werner’s office. When she would attempt to engage and ask, ‘What would you like to do today?’ Bill’s response was, ‘Shut up and leave me alone.’

Bustamante and Lexi Stockwell, a physical therapist with Strive also began speaking with Bill and gradually convinced him he was capable of more than just sitting in his wheelchair.

“At first, with help from others Bill could take about five or six steps on the parallel bars,” Stockwell said. “Now he can pull himself out of his wheelchair, grab the walker on his own and walk 50 feet. That’s big progress in a year.”

Bustamante said Bill has also developed better coping strategies and he speaks in more positive terms. “He’s finding the joy in himself and spreading it.”

Werner added, “Bill now refers to himself as the mayor of the Enrichment Center and he’s become an advocate for our program.”

Bill’s story is an example of how it’s never too late to make progress with a brain injury.

“Everyone needs to keep busy, especially people with brain injuries,” Werner said. “Just because someone says they don’t want help, we keep asking to see how we can get them moving and get them involved.”

Kyser spoke to a misperception that contends the first 90 days after diagnosing a brain injury is the real opportunity to make progress on a patient, but after six months that opportunity is gone.

“That’s baloney,” Kyser said noting that in the past, services didn’t exist after six months, so without engagement it was no surprise that the person was hitting a plateau.

 

The Bottom Line

Thanks to the efforts from agencies like Encompass, MHA and ServiceNet, brain injury patients are making progress every day re-gaining the use of their muscles, many can walk again, and, most importantly, live with independence after their injuries.

“There’s so much that can be done as long as the person is engaged in their therapies,” Kyser said. “My hope is as we’re getting better at this, we will see even more progress.”

Opinion

Opinion

 

Much has been made of Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent endorsement of east-west rail in Massachusetts.

It came at a meeting late last month with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other key stakeholders in the bid to expand east-west commuter rail. And the immediate question on everyone’s minds is ‘what does this mean?’

Well … it could make all the difference in the world.

The governor’s endorsement was one of the key missing piece in this puzzle, and a large piece at that. Baker has said he’s never really been opposed to the concept; rather, he just had questions, primarily about how much this would cost, who would administer the rail system, and how much land would have to be taken to create it.

These questions and others have been answered, or soon will be, leaving fewer of those pieces of the puzzle to fall into place for a project that just a few years ago seemed like a good idea — especially for the western part of the state — but had much too steep a price tag and seemingly too little support statewide to become reality.

Now? On BusnessTalk, BusinessWest’s podcast, Neal said the stars are aligned for east-west rail in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a year ago.

Indeed, funding for the project, seemingly the biggest question mark and hurdle facing this project could be much less of an issue thanks to the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which will, by Neal’s estimate, bring $9 billion to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the federal government put another piece in place when it approved freight carrier CSX’s acquisition of Pan Am Railways — on condition that Amtrak would have access to tracks in and out of Springfield.

And then, there’s Baker’s endorsement. Although he’s in office only eight more months and candidates to succeed him have already announced their support of east-west rail, his support of the plan is critical at this juncture. That’s because things need to start happening this year if funds from the infrastructure bill are to be ticketed for this rail project.

Baker has recommended the establishment of a Massachusetts passenger rail authority to apply for federal funds and administer expanded east-west commuter rail, and he further recommends that it be established before this legislative session ends. His support of the concept might help get that done.

East-west rail still has many, hurdles to clear, and in many respects, it remains a long shot. But Neal is right. The stars seem to be aligned, and a project that was the longest of shots just a few years ago may finally be gaining some needed momentum.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Questions and Answers

 

Increasingly, third-party sites like Airbnb and VRBO have made it easier for individuals to rent out their homes and condos and generate revenue. Given these trends, it’s important to understand both the tax benefits and tax implications before listing your property for lease.

By Elliot Altman, CPA, MST

 

Are you a current host or considering renting your property on third-party vacation sites?Understand the tax benefits and implications before listing your property.

Elliot Altman“If you are a property owner, it is important to understand the tax benefits that come with owning rental properties.”

Whether you are a first-time host or an experienced pro, it’s important to consider the responsibilities as much as the benefits. What follows is a comprehensive tax guide for vacation rental owners that covers everything from how to report your income to the IRS, to what deductions you can claim.

 

Benefits to renting out a room or vacation property

With the rise of the sharing economy, more and more people are renting out their homes on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO. Third-party sites like these can offer a variety of advantages.

First, you can reach a large audience of potential renters. Both sites have millions of users, so you’ll be able to find people from all over the world who are interested in staying in your rental. Second, you can set your own price and terms. You’re in control of how much you charge and what kind of rental agreement you want to have with your guests. Finally, renting through a third-party site can be a great way to earn extra income. With careful planning, you can make sure that your rental property is profitable.

 

What is taxable and what is not?

When you’re renting out your property, it’s important to know what income is taxable and what is not. Generally, any money that you receive from renting your property is considered taxable income. This includes rent, cleaning fees, and any other fees that you charge your guests.

However, there are some exceptions. For example, if you rent out your property for less than 14 days per year, the income is not considered taxable. Additionally, if you use your rental property for personal use part of the time, you may only have to pay taxes on the portion of the income that comes from renting it out.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions related to taxes and your Airbnb and Vrbo rentals.

Do I have to pay taxes on rental income?
If you rent out your vacation home, spare room, or apartment for more than 14 days a year, you are required to pay taxes on the rental income. This includes all income you collect from rent, cleaning fees and any other additional fees.

How much tax will I have to pay?
The exact amount of tax you owe will depend on a number of factors, including the location of your rental property and the amount of income you earn. In most cases, you will be required to pay federal, state, and local taxes on your rental income.

State and local taxes on rental income vary depending on the location of your rental property.

What expenses can I write off?

People who rent out their homes on Airbnb and VRBO can write off a number of expenses on their taxes. These expenses can include the cost of repairs, cleaning, and furnishings. You will need to allocate rental and personal use in order to write off the expenses. In addition, rental property owners can deduct the costs of advertising and paying fees to the rental platforms. However, it is important to keep detailed records of all expenses in order to maximize the tax benefits. For example, receipts for repairs should be kept in order to prove that the expense was incurred. By carefully tracking their expenses, Airbnb and VRBO hosts can ensure that they take advantage of all the available tax benefits.

Do I need to collect occupancy tax?

The answer depends on the laws in your area, but in general, if you’re renting out a room or portion of your home for less than 30 days at a time, you are likely required to collect and remit occupancy taxes.

These taxes, which are also sometimes called lodging taxes or tourism taxes, are typically imposed by state or local governments in order to generate revenue from visitors. They can range from a few percent to over 10% of the rental rate, so it’s important to be aware of the laws in your area before listing your property. (Massachusetts state room occupancy excise tax rate is 5.7%).

One of the benefits to renting your property through a third-party site, is that they may have an automated feature that determines which taxes are applicable for your listing, collects and pays occupancy taxes on your behalf. Always check to see if this setting is available and if you need to opt in for it to be activated.

Am I considered self-employed if I have rental income?

Unlike wages from a job or a business, rental income isn’t considered to be earned income. Instead, it’s considered to be passive income by the IRS, and therefore is not subject to self-employment tax.

Will third-party rental sites provide me with a tax form?

There are a few factors that will determine if you will receive a tax form from your third-party site. The 1099-K form is used to report income from transactions that are processed through a third party. This includes credit card payments, PayPal payments, and other forms of electronic payments. The form will report the total amount of income that you received from Airbnb or VRBO during the year, as well as the total number of transactions.

Third-party sites, such as Airbnb and Vrbo, typically will provide you with form 1099-K if you meet certain thresholds such as:

• Processed more than $20,000 in gross rental income through the platform, and

• Have 200 or more transactions during the year.

 

Note that these are only general guidelines, and you may still receive a 1099-K form even if you don’t meet both of these criteria.

Maximize Your Tax Benefits on Your Rental Property

If you are a property owner, it is important to understand the tax benefits that come with owning rental properties. It’s important to speak with a tax professional so that you can get the most benefit from your rental properties and ensure that you are taking advantage of all available tax breaks.u

 

Elliot Altman, CPA, MST is a Senior Manager at the Holyoke based accounting firm, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Employment Special Coverage

Work in Progress

 

Since its inception, the SummerWorks program administered by the Commonwealth Corp. has opened doors for young people and introduced them to the world of work. This year, as the program expands to include individuals ages 22-25, it is primed to open more doors — and potentially create more opportunities, for employees and employers alike.

By Kaily Houle

 

David Cruise is more than familiar with the vast potential of Hampden County’s young people and their importance to the region’s business community.

As the president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, he administers a program called YouthWorks, a state-funded summer-employment program that helps teens and young adults gain the skills and experience needed to not only find and keep jobs, but to begin to design a path toward success.

He’s watched over the years as the program has helped introduce young people to the world of work while also assisting area cities, towns, non-profits, and for-profit businesses with finding needed help and, sometimes, long-term employees.

And this year, he’s anticipating that he’ll see more of all of the above.

Indeed, program administrators are expanding the age parameters of YouthWorks in order to reach a broader range of young adults in the region. Initially, the program was offered to people ages 14 to 21, but now young adults from 22 to 25 are able to participate as well. The mindset behind this expansion of the program is to help more people enter or return into the workforce by providing them with jobs, leadership development and career-exploration opportunities, and various skills training.

“The intent is to take young people, primarily those that live in high-risk, urban areas like Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, Westfield, and provide them with the opportunity of a structured work experience that usually lasts five to six weeks.”

“The intent is to take young people, primarily those that live in high-risk, urban areas like Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, Westfield, and provide them with the opportunity of a structured work experience that usually lasts five to six weeks,” Cruise told BusinessWest, adding that the young people participating are not the only ones who stand to benefit.

Those hiring these individuals benefit as well, he said, adding that this is true at any time, but especially when businesses in every sector of the economy are struggling to find enough help to function at full capacity.

The YouthWorks program will see a boost in funding this year, from $2.5 to $3.17 million — enough to fund more than 700 summer jobs and another 130 evening and weekend jobs during the school year. These initiatives are aimed at getting young adults back into the workforce. Because some of these youth, especially those between the ages of 18 and 25, were displaced from the workforce — either by being disconnected from school or working — YouthWorks gives them the opportunity to find not only a job, but a career they can grow into.

“They may be working part time or under the table, but they’re not in a job that is going to lead them to success,” Cruise explained. “They’re not in a job where they’re in a career that will eventually allow them to make a family-sustaining wage and live at a level they feel comfortable; we have a lot of people beyond the age of 21 that are in the marginal labor market.”

YouthWorks was able to receive its funding a year earlier to aid in planning and serve young people more efficiently. In the past, the agency has received separate funds for the summer program and the year-round program. This year, they’ve combined the funds into one lump sum.

“This is the first time we’ve done that; it’s significant because now we can tie together the summer programming and the work we do during the school year,” said Cruise. “Several of the youths involved in our summer program can continue on into our year-long program.

“So it has a nice continuity to it,” he went on. “We’re not offering full-time positions, but we do think our older youth have an opportunity to not only have a successful summer program, but to also get into a company that can offer a full-time position if that is what they want to do.”

 

The Job at Hand

Cruise has long been an advocate of summer jobs — not only as a way to introduce young people to the workforce, specific lines of work, and the soft skills needed to succeed long-term, but also as a way to help at-risk young people find alternatives to the streets and the trouble often found there.

But the YouthWorks initiative has always been a win-win-win, he went on, adding that the initiative has benefitted several sectors of the economy — manufacturing and the broad hospitality sector, to name a few — as well as individual businesses and nonprofits, and area cities and towns as well.

Dave Cruise says summer jobs bring benefits to both employees and employers.

Dave Cruise says summer jobs bring benefits to both employees and employers.

And at a time when many sectors are still contending with an ongoing workforce crisis, there are more opportunities for young people and businesses to benefit, with young adults participating in Youthworks now having a better opportunity to find a job that will last longer than the five-to six-week program.

“I believe there are some opportunities in the private sector, because many companies are having a difficult time finding the sufficient staff to do their work,” said Cruise. “It’s hard in the summer to bring someone on for five to six weeks, but if we do a good job matching the young people to the particular site, that five-to six-week summer program can potentially turn into something full time. We’re pretty confident that some of that is going to happen with our older groups.”

Meanwhile, a main focus for YouthWorks is to teach young adults the importance of work and the employability skills they will need to not only find a job, but to keep that job moving forward. Young adults will learn the importance of communicating with your work colleagues, showing up on time, being open to constructive criticism, working in a team concept, developing critical thinking and judgment skills.

“The technical skills they learn on the job are really important also, and we don’t consider them to be secondary,” Cruise went on. “We want to be sure the young folks are getting a real sense of the value and the importance of work — that work is good, work is healthy. It’s very exploratory with our 14-and 15-year-olds but those soft skills are just as important as they are for the 21-to 25-year-olds.”

Focusing on urban areas allows young adults to provide for not only themselves, but also for their families, said Cruise. Participants between the ages of 16 and 25 will be working 100 to 220 hours over the five-to six-week program, making $14.25, Massachusetts minimum wage.

“It’s a job where … they won’t get rich, but they’ll earn money to help continue to support their families and themselves,” he noted. “They’re not taking their check and running to the Apple store — they have other priorities.”

Young adults will be placed in one of the three organizations working with YouthWorks. They have placement opportunities at New England Farm Workers Council, MassHire Holyoke One Stop Career Center, and Valley Opportunity Center. The goal this summer, as noted, is to provide 740 jobs for the summer program and about 130 jobs during the fall.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the jobs secured by young people through the YouthWorks program were remote in nature, said Cruise, adding that as workplaces return to something approaching normal this year, participates should see a mix of working conditions, which will only add to the learning experiences.

“We want young people to not only experience hybrid and remote work and how that happens, but see it as something they have to adapt to and deal with as they deal with their career path,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Cruise emphasized that, despite the name of the program, those within the extended age range will not be treated like children. The purpose of the program is to help people — whether they be adolescents or adults — realize their potential and become successful members of the workforce.

“It’s hard to take a 25-year-old or an 18-year-old and call them a youth,” he said. “I don’t make that mistake calling them youth; they’re young adults … they’re adults, period. We treat them like adults. We respect them as adults.”

The summer program is going to begin the weekend after the Fourth of July. Applications are still available at the three organizations partnered with YouthWorks, online, and in most high schools in Hampden County.

 

Beyond a Paycheck

Since it was launched decades ago, the summer-employment program has been all about opening doors for young people, said Cruise.

These open doors lead to learning experiences on many different levels — from acquiring a specific skill, to understanding the importance of showing up for work on time, to discovering well … how to make a living.

Sometimes, these open doors lead to much more — not just a summer job, but a career. And with the expansion of the SummerWorks program to a broader age group this year, the hope, and the expectation, that more doors will be opened and many more young people will march through them.

Construction Special Coverage

A Framework for Continued Growth

D.A. Sullivan & Sons.

Mark Sullivan, center, with several members of the team at D.A. Sullivan & Sons.

It started with a few people building a home in Williamsburg in 1897. And over the past 125 years, the firm that came to be known as D.A. Sullivan & Sons Inc. has expanded in every way a construction firm can. Its vast portfolio of projects includes construction and renovation of schools, libraries, hospital facilities, dormitories, churches, and much more. While there are many keys to the success of the firm, it’s fourth-generation president says it all comes down to relationship-building.

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Mark Sullivan knows the elements of a successful building — strength, stability, durability, to name a few. And he should know — he’s the president and executive project manager of D.A. Sullivan & Sons, a construction company in Northampton.

Sullivan also knows firsthand that these same elements are essential for a successful company.

While constructing schools, churches, municipal buildings, and more, the Sullivan family has built an enduring business with a strong foundation. Indeed, D.A. Sullivan & Sons is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year — a milestone that speaks to the impressive legacy the Sullivans have built.

“Now I’m the fourth generation — my brother Dennis and myself are the fourth generation,” said Mark. “Our nephew, Andrew, joined us a few years ago, he’s the fifth generation. Hopefully we’ve got more to come.”

The company was started by his great-grandfather, Dennis A. Sullivan (D.A.) along with his brother, in 1897. They worked mostly on houses in Northampton — the city they’ve been based in for the past 125 years. Initially the pair traveled wherever the work was, even as the company grew, but for the past 75 years D.A. Sullivan & Sons has concentrated its services from Pittsfield to Worcester.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons acts as a construction manager or a general contractor. Sometimes it even acts as an owner’s project manager or “OPM” for towns that are undergoing building projects. It acts as a consultant to shepherd municipalities through the whole process of a public building project — undertakings that are often large and complex in nature.

“As a construction manager or a general contractor, we’re responsible for everything,” Mark Sullivan explained. “We self-perform with our own forces — more work than most firms our size. We’re responsible for the coordination of the entire process,” Sullivan said.

Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan says that relationship-building has been the key to success for this family business.

Of course, the industry has evolved dramatically since the company started all those years ago — the nature of commercial work has changed considerably since D.A. Sullivan & Sons was established in 1897. Even in the 35 years that Mark Sullivan has been with the company, he notes that technology and efficiency have been ever-improving.

“It used to be that my brother and I would each run three or four projects, we had a secretary with us, and that was it,” he explained. “Now you’ll have teams of personnel for each project. You can have four or five people dedicated to a single project … it’s worlds apart from where we were 55, even 35 years ago,” Sullivan said.

And it’s not just the industry that’s been evolving and growing.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has also grown considerably, now having more than 50 employees. However, it’s important to note that there are certain elements to the company that have not changed, even after all this time. The firm continues to be a community-oriented family business, and it is still equally as committed to maintaining close relationships with its clients as it was over a century ago.

“Because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve worked with almost every municipality in Western Mass, we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the private colleges and schools in the area,” Sullivan told BusiniessWest. The Eaglebrook school in Deerfield, in particular … that relationship is three decades old. It culminated a few years ago in their new science, art, and music building, which was a signature project on campus. That was a lot of fun.”

For this issue and its focus on the region’s construction sector, BusinessWest looks at the 125-year history of D.A. Sullivan. Along the way there has a been a good deal of that fun that Mark Sullivan described, but mostly hard work, attention to detail, lots of that relationship-building, and adding on that solid foundation that was put down when William McKinley was roaming the White House.

 

From the Ground Up

Just a quick look at the portfolio of completed projects on the firm’s website provides some deep insight into the diversity of work the company has taken on in recent years and some perspective into how it has changed the landscape in the region — figuratively, but in some cases, also quite literally.

Indeed, the firm handled the recent project to renovate Springfield’s Pynchon Park, which links the downtown to the Quadrangle area. It also took on a massive renovation of Chicopee’s historic City Hall, a project that included rehabilitation of the auditorium, exterior work on the main building, and renovation to the existing clock tower and numerous stained windows.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has been changing the landscape

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has been changing the landscape at UMass Amherst for decades, including this dormitory built in the 50s.

Meanwhile, the firm also took on projects to renovate the Worcester Public Library, Gamble Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College, the Fitness Center at Mass. College of Liberal Arts, and the 646-foot-long Fine Arts Center Bridge on the UMass Amherst campus, a complex undertaking that ultimately created more space for the Art, Theater, and Music departments.

Going back further, the portfolio includes projects (some could be called landmarks) such as the Blake Arena on the campus of Springfield College, the Springfield Materials Recovery Facility, Northampton’s new post office, Westfield High School, and countless others.

“Because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve worked with almost every municipality in Western Mass, we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the private colleges and schools in the area.”

Taken collectively, these projects show how the firm has evolved over the years and taken its teams across New England and well beyond. They also show how the firm has consistently added to a diverse list of clients over the years, while also maintaining relationships for years, and, in some cases, several decades.

Perhaps the best example of this is UMass Amherst. Indeed, one of the firm’s longest-standing relationships is with the university, said Sullivan, noting that the firm built 12 of the original 13 dorm buildings there, several other buildings, including Curry Hicks Cage, former home to the basketball team, and is still working with UMass today.

“I just came back from the previously mentioned Newman Center at UMass, which is a new facility for the Springfield Diocese,” he noted. “We haven’t built a church in a couple decades, so that’s been an interesting project.”

This relationship with UMass, one of many that go back 40, 50, or more years, explains why D.A. Sullivan is able to celebrate 125 years in business, and why five generations from the family have worked there.

“We’re a fifth-generation firm, which is incredibly unique. I believe we’re Northampton’s oldest firm,” said Sullivan. “We’ve just been here a long time and it’s crazy to think that my brother and I have been working for more than 35 years,”

Of course, maintaining such an accomplished family legacy comes with a daunting amount of responsibility. Not only do the projects themselves present challenges, but there is the added stress of each new generation keeping the company alive.

“We’re starting to think about that next leadership group coming behind us, and hopefully they’ll shepherd the company to the next century,” Sullivan said, “There’s a certain pressure to keep it going and not screw up on my watch, but we’ve been thankful throughout the years for the relationships we’ve had and the project’s we’ve built. We’ve got great people. More than anything, the people that work for us and with us, have enabled us to stick around for as long as we have.”

The team at the firm is consistently adding to that already large and diverse portfolio of projects with a number of current initiatives.

They include renovation of the public library in Grafton, the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst, renovation of Goessmann Labs at UMass, renovation of the home for the Carpenter’s Local 336 headquarters, and a closely watched initiative in Easthampton called the One Ferry project.

This is an effort to stimulate economic development in the city by renovating a collection of abandoned mill buildings, said Sullivan, adding that the One Ferry Project has been and will continue to be a very important project for Easthampton and the surrounding area.

“It’s a build-out of a campus of old mill buildings, and we’re on phase two right now, which is Building 5,” he explained. “We’re looking toward phase three, which is either a renovation of Building 7 or new construction of a new facility next to the mill building.”

He told BusinessWest that the mill area has been a blight on Hampshire County for many years, and D.A. Sullivan & Sons is working with One Ferry Project developer Mike Michon to write an intriguing new chapter in the history of the property.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons is also currently providing general contractor services for the construction of a new library building in Greenfield, a project that started last fall. Sullivan said this is the type and size — $5 million to $35 million — project the firm specializes in.

As it turns 125, D.A. Sullivan obviously has quite a bit to celebrate — a glorious past, a solid present, and a promising future with new milestones to mark.

 

History in the Making

As noted earlier, the images on the company’s website and the photos in its vast archives tell a story.

Its main theme is one of longevity — 125 years is a milestone in any business — but it’s really about the forces that made such longevity possible — excellence, perseverance through the tough times (and there were many of them over the years and the decades), an ability to change with the times, and enduring relationships with scores of clients.

And the best part about this story is that there are many chapters still to be written.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany have presided over many grand openings in downtown Amherst in recent months, testimony to the community’s comeback from the pandemic.

 

If business openings are any indication, Amherst is poised for a strong rebound from a pandemic that has been very rough on its mostly tourism-and-hospitality-based economy.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) said that, by the end of August by her estimation, at least 13 new businesses will have opened in downtown Amherst.

“We’re watching a lift that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Gould, who shares office space with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Claudia Pazmany.

The two women and their organizations are working together along with town officials to drive economic empowerment and development for Amherst, and, as recent events demonstrate, it’s working.

Pazmany has presided over 10 ribbon cuttings over the past few months and her calendar has plenty more of these celebrations scheduled in the coming weeks and months.

“Many of these businesses opened during the pandemic and now want to celebrate because they have lasted and even grown their businesses,” Pazmany told BusinessWest.

All this activity in Amherst represents a strong comeback of sorts from the many side-effects of the pandemic. As the community where UMass Amherst and Amherst College are located, it has been described as the quintessential college town. When the pandemic hit and colleges were shut down, the economic impact was abrupt and severe.

“Overnight, nearly 50,000 people left the area,” Gould recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

One way to get an idea of the economic impact colleges have on the town is to look at the number of undergraduate students there. But Gould pointed out that the real impact of students on a town must include all the people who support them, like faculty, staff, and even all the friends and parents who visit the students. When the pandemic hit and campuses were abandoned, Amherst experienced what life would look like without its colleges.

Paul Bockelman

Paul Bockelman says housing is just one of many priorities that have emerged in discussions about how to best spend ARPA funds.

“Once everyone left, our businesses ran at 20% to 30% capacity— and that’s not sustainable,” Gould said. To put it another way, business was off 70% to 80%. “Having the colleges open and the students back fills my heart with joy.”

As noted, these students — and all those who support them or might come to visit them — will see a number of new businesses, especially in the downtown area. That list includes the much-anticipated Drake performance venue, which opened its doors late last month. The Drake meets a long-recognized need for a live-performance venue and it is expected to bring people to Amherst from across this region and well beyond, said Gould, adding that it will likely be a catalyst for more new businesses.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses. In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

But the Drake is far from the only addition to the landscape, she noted, adding that there are new restaurants, retail shops, and more, bringing an ever-more-eclectic mix of businesses to downtown that will make that area more of a destination.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on Amherst, which was hit very hard by the pandemic, but is moving on from that two-year nightmare is every way imaginable.

 

On the Town

As part of the effort to bring Amherst out of the COVID era, the Chamber and BID began a campaign to promote Amherst as a destination titled “What’s Next? Amherst Area.”

Pazmany explained that this campaign promotes the quality of life in Amherst and surrounding areas.

“We focus on three things: the outdoor adventures available here, our iconic cultural institutions — think colleges and the Emily Dickenson Museum — and the ability to have a global dining experience among our restaurants,” she said.

Global dining is more than hyperbole, as downtown Amherst lists 43 restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world. Each one has an intriguing story.

Indeed, Antonio Marquez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to Amherst because his wife’s family lives there. As he researched where to open his restaurant, Mexcalito Taco Bar, Marquez considered several towns in the Pioneer Valley and credits destiny for making Amherst his choice.

“This is the best spot for us because we have a family connection here and we like the fact that Amherst is a university community,” Marquez said.

While Mexcalito was ready for business prior to the pandemic, Marquez held off when the world shut down and decided instead to open in July 2021. Now 10 months in business, Marquez said his goal with Mexcalito is for customers to learn something new about Mexican culture through the eatery’s food and drinks.

“When people come in, they feel a different ambience, hear different music,” Marquez said. “We’re looking to do more with sophisticated Mexican cuisine and we will be adding 20 new drinks to our cocktail menu.”

He added that Amherst is the right place for Mexcalito and appreciates his relationship with the town. “We’re feeling like we fit here, it’s pretty cool.”

The broad goal moving forward is create more of these ‘fits,’ said Gould and Pazmany, noting that the Drake is another intriguing example.

That facility fills the need for a music venue for downtown, said Gould, adding that her mindset as she tries to help bring other new businesses to the town is to meet other identified needs.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses,” Gould said. “In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

That strategy is reflected in the 13 businesses that are opening in the next few months. Among the businesses Gould hopes to see are a fish market, a brewery, and a breakfast/lunch café.

“I have a list of businesses Amherst needs,” Gould said. “We don’t have them yet, but we’re working on it.”

 

House Money

While the business community is rebounding from COVID, the real estate boom that began during the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in Amherst.

An outdated perception of Amherst is that only college students and retirees lived there, said Pazmany, adding that these days, when a house goes up for sale real estate agents are bombarded with at least a dozen cash offers, all above the asking price.

“Because the pandemic has allowed a number of people to work from anywhere, many are choosing Amherst for the quality of life it offers,” Pazmany said. “One realtor told me most of her clients are people who grew up here and are returning.”

In a good news/bad news twist, UMass and Amherst College are contributing to the housing shortage as both keep moving up academic ranking lists.

“We’re seeing people from literally all over the world who want to do their post-graduate work at UMass,” Gould said. “That means they need somewhere to live.”

And the town intends to use some the $9.8 million it has received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to help such people find a place. Indeed, $2 million has been earmarked to begin to address some of the affordable housing concerns in the community.

Housing was just one of many priorities identified by the town as it went about gathering information and soliciting opinions on how to spend ARPA monies, said Paul Bockelman, town administrator, adding that the public and key stakeholders identified 17 different areas to address.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

With the projects finalized this past November, Bockelman reported progress in using the ARPA funds in areas such as filling firefighter and paramedic positions, as well as adding a position in public health. The ARPA funds also included a $750,000 allocation for economic development, specifically to support the creation of the Drake.

As for other developments in town, a $36 million project is underway to renovate and expand the historic Jones Library. Plans call for maintaining the stone exterior while adding space and making it one of the most environmentally efficient buildings in town.

Not far from Jones Library, the Emily Dickenson Museum has a $6 million renovation underway. When the museum re-opens later this year, it will display a collection of period furniture and costumes used in the Apple TV series Dickenson. The show’s producers bought actual period pieces for the show and offered them to the museum at the end of the series shooting.

“The TV show has brought Emily Dickenson to a whole new generation who are now obsessed with her,” Gould said.

For all the good things happening, both Gould and Pazmany admit that Amherst’s business community faces the same challenges every municipality faces, from supply chain issues to inflation to the ongoing workforce crisis.

“As restaurants are still staffing up, they are doing what they can, even if it means reduced hours instead of being open all the time,” Pazmany said. “As they are working through it, we’re asking everyone be patient during these times.”

While outdoor dining saved many restaurants from going under, Gould pointed out that most outdoor set-ups were thrown together with a few jersey barriers and no budget. The BID has received a grant to run a pilot program with several restaurants to show what outdoor dining looks like when it’s done right.

“If we can show the community how this looks when it’s done properly, we can encourage more permanent outdoor dining destinations,” said Gould.

One more challenge, she noted, involves encouraging people to set aside the “add to cart” option of having everything delivered. Instead, she suggested that consumers go out and meet a shopkeeper.

“You can walk into a store and make a human connection,” Gould said. “Amazon was a safety net when we needed it but we can now go down the street to browse.”

 

The Bottom Line

Pazmany added that a new breed of entrepreneurs is opening shops in Amherst.

“There’s a revival of people who want to be business owners,” she said. “They are proud to be here and eager to help.”

Both women look forward to the positive changes that are taking shape in the next couple of years.

“When I think of Amherst in 2023 and 2024, I see a new way of life that is refreshed and yet remains historic,” Gould said. “We do everything we can to keep the town beautiful, but it needs a face lift, and we’re excited because it’s about to happen.”

Accounting and Tax Planning

Cryptocurrency Taxation

By Jonathan Cohen-Gorczyca, CPA, MSA and Tyler Pickunka

 

Jonathan Cohen-Gorczyca

Jonathan Cohen-Gorczyca

Tyler Pickunka

Tyler Pickunka

Cryptocurrency has become ever more popular over the past few years, so much so that there are athletes being paid in it, sports arenas are changing names to cryptocurrency exchanges and platforms, and even commercials are being aired during the big football game; it has transcended into everyday culture.

Now, cryptocurrency is more accessible than ever, and with so many new phone and computer applications, anyone can buy and sell the digital currency at any time. As it has become more popular, government and regulatory agencies have taken notice and are dedicating more time and funds to changing laws, issuing notices for non-reporting and tax avoidance, and closing the gap in treating it like any other tradable security.

What follows are some basic, but frequently asked, questions to assist you with your cryptocurrency, tax filings, and common treatment for taxation.

 

How do I obtain cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency can be purchased on numerous online platforms whether on your computer or phone. Some of these platforms are strictly cryptocurrency only, while others also allow the trading of publicly traded securities. Certain traditional investment companies have created funds to allow you to purchase, hold, and sell shares of cryptocurrency with your regular investments. This can remove some of the perceived risk of buying and selling on the online platforms.

 

How is cryptocurrency taxed?

Cryptocurrency is taxable when a taxpayer sells virtual currency for U.S. dollars, exchanges one type of virtual currency for another, receives virtual currency for services, and mines virtual currency. While trading, exchanging, receiving, or giving virtual currency for services are considered capital gains or losses for tax purposes, mining virtual currency is considered ordinary income.

Mining virtual currency is the actual process where new cryptocurrency is created and enters into markets.

 

Can I gift cryptocurrency?

Yes, but cryptocurrency is not exempt from gift-tax filing requirements if you want to transfer holdings to someone else. The fair market value at the time of the gift, and not the basis, is the value used for gift tax purposes. Your existing basis of the Cryptocurrency transfers to the giftee; this treatment is like stocks. The holding period is transferred as well when determining short- or long-term capital gains if the giftee is to sell or transfer the gift.

 

When do you check the box on the tax return?

In recent years, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has added a question to page 1 of the Form 1040 regarding cryptocurrency to better regulate the taxation of cryptocurrency and hold taxpayers accountable for reporting their taxable transactions. The box on the tax return should be checked for all taxpayers who received, sold, exchanged, or disposed of any financial interest in any virtual currency. If you buy and are holding onto virtual currency and have not done any of the above, you do not need to check this box. If you select “No” and are involved in the active buying and selling of cryptocurrency, this could be considered perjury on an official government form.

 

Do you have recommendations that make tax reporting easier?

Dissimilar to publicly traded securities, most cryptocurrency platforms do not issue a Consolidated 1099 statement tracking gains or losses. A taxpayer will most likely receive a 1099 MISC or 1099-K. These two tax forms do not provide enough information to make determinations such as if the cryptocurrency was held short-term or long-term, but rather just an aggregate of all activity. One option is to find an online platform that provides this report at year-end.

Another option is to use a third-party software where you can consolidate your trading activities and can generate a report at year-end to hand to your accountant. If you are just provided with multiple ledgers, it is very difficult (almost impossible) to decipher your activity throughout the year.

Understanding the tax implications for cryptocurrency is a must if you have or plan to have it. Contact your accountant for additional information about cryptocurrency and what that may mean for your specific tax situation.

 

Jonathan Cohen-Gorczyca, CPA, tax manager, has been with Melanson for 10 years andspecializes in individual and business tax returns, compilations, and review engagements; Tyler Pickunka is a recent graduate from Westfield State University who has been a part of the Melanson tax team since 2020.

Employment

The DOL Is Set to Ramp Up Audits

By Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq.

 

The Department of Labor (DOL) hasannounced it intends to increaseFamily and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) audits on employers. Businesses across many industries continue to face scrutiny by the DOL on their FMLA procedures due to an increase in FMLA violations.

Prepare yourself now and give your FMLA procedures a spring cleaning. The following steps are a great way to stay prepared:

Review your FMLA policy. It needs to include eligibility requirements (i.e., the reasona for FMLA leave), call-in procedures, an explanation of benefit rights during leave, and much more.

In addition to providing your FMLA policy in your handbook, post it prominently where it can be viewed by your employees and applicants. Keep in mind that if a substantial portion of your workplace speaks a language other than English, you must provide the poster in that language as well.

“Examine all existing forms to ensure they comply with FMLA regulations. The DOL loves to examine FMLA forms during an audit.”

Review your FMLA forms. Examine all existing forms to ensure they comply with FMLA regulations. The DOL loves to examine FMLA forms during an audit. You will also want to review legally compliant correspondence that may apply to FMLA leave.

Review your FMLA practices and procedures. When doing so, ask yourself: What procedures are used by my managers when an employee reports an absencethat may be covered by the FMLA? Do our procedures ensure that all requests for leave,regardless of whether “FMLA leave” is expressly requested, reach the appropriate manager or HR? Do we have procedures in place for contacting employeeswhile they are on FMLA leave? All these questions and others are important to keep in mind.

Also, be sure to maintain all employee data the DOL will want to see. Keep in mind the DOL tends to conduct broad record requests, so you will want to make sure your recordkeeping is consistent with all regulations and requirements. And remember: all FMLA-related documentation, such as above, must be kept for a minimum of three years and be kept separate from an employee’s personnel file.

Train, train, and train! Train your employees on all things FMLA! For most companies, managers are the first line of contact. If they are not comfortable with proper FMLA leave procedures now, this may create issues later on. You will greatly reduce the risk of a potential FMLA violation in the future by training now.

FMLA audits are not cut and dry and need to be taken seriously to avoid any potential violations. Lastly, do your managers understand how FMLA, PFMLA, and ADA intersect? They should.

Taking the proper steps now can help make a DOL audit go more smoothly.

 

Alexander Cerbo is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-law matters at theRoyal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

 

Employment

Case in Point

By Trevor R. Brice

 

All discrimination lawsuits strike fear into the hearts of employers, but perhaps none more so than complaints alleging sexual harassment.

In addition to damaging company image, these lawsuits also involve investigations into uncomfortable and hidden aspects of employees’ lives. These lawsuits can also lead to big damages. It is not uncommon for juries to award harassment victims with six or even seven figures in damages.

Businesses often ask: ‘How can we guard against this risk?’ First and foremost, it involves creating an inclusive workplace culture that stresses respect and dignity, for which effective training and appropriate employee discipline are the keys. However, when things go wrong, prompt and thorough investigations can put an employer back on track. They can also save a business from liability if the investigation is conducted in an adequate manner.

“Sexual harassment and assault claims in Massachusetts are particularly thorny for employers, as Massachusetts courts have shown a tendency to allow a lowered standard for Plaintiffs to win on sexual harassment or sexual assault complaints.”

In a recent ruling that highlights the importance of workplace investigations, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts considered the case of Sara Caruso v. Delta Airlines Inc. The Plaintiff Sara Caruso (“Caruso”) was a flight attendant for Delta based out of Boston. In August 2018, Caruso served as a flight attendant on a flight from Boston to Dallas on which James Lucas (“Lucas”) was working as first officer. The flight crew, including Caruso and Lucas, stayed overnight at a hotel in Dallas after going out for dinner and drinks. At some point after dinner, Caruso became intoxicated, and subsequently she and Lucas engaged in various sexual acts. Caruso had no recollection of the incident.

The next morning, when Caruso arrived for work late, she apparently was suspected of still being drunk. She was given a breathalyzer test at the airport, which she failed, and was subsequently suspended. The next day, during her suspension, Caruso notified her supervisor about what happened with Lucas. When Caruso reported this, Delta’s Human Resources department immediately started an investigation, which included obtaining statements from all of Caruso’s colleagues, including Lucas, that had socialized with her on the night in question.

Delta also attempted to obtain the key card swipe record and video footage from that night, which the hotel would not release. Delta also interviewed Lucas twice. Lucas stated he and Caruso engaged in consensual touching but did not have intercourse. Lucas was found to be credible and was not disciplined. Caruso later filed a lawsuit claiming sexual harassment.

The court eventually dismissed Caruso’s lawsuit. This was largely due to the fact that Delta went above and beyond to investigate Caruso’s claims, including interviewing Lucas twice, interviewing all Delta employees that socialized with Caruso on the night in question, and attempting to secure the key card swipe record and video footage from the hotel within days of Caruso’s allegations.

Delta followed all investigatory steps that they could, even exhausting its investigation at the hotel when it could not get the video footage and card swipe record. It was these remedial actions that saved Delta from liability, as no negligence could be found in Delta’s investigation. This led the court to grant summary judgment for Delta on Caruso’s sex discrimination claims.

 

Takeaways

The Caruso case shows that Massachusetts employers can shield themselves even against the most serious of co-worker sexual assault allegations by conducting thorough investigations once a complaint is made. Sexual harassment and assault claims in Massachusetts are particularly thorny for employers, as Massachusetts courts have shown a tendency to allow a lowered standard for Plaintiffs to win on sexual harassment or sexual assault complaints. Indeed, liability for supervisory sexual harassment is almost automatic. The ruling stresses the importance of interviewing all possible witnesses to an assault, as well as gathering all evidence to the complained of sexual conduct if possible. This type of prompt response to an employee’s complaint of co-worker sexual harassment or assault can reduce an employer’s amount of exposure to these types of claims.

 

Trevor Brice, Esq. is an associate with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott, P.C. He has regularly advised and represented clients in state and federal courts, as well as at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO), and other state agencies; [email protected]

Construction

A Powerful Argument

By Mark Morris

 

Ted Mendoza and Darci O’Connor note that the carbon-zero project at UMass Amherst will touch all of the more than 280 buildings on the campus.

Ted Mendoza and Darci O’Connor note that the carbon-zero project at UMass Amherst will touch all of the more than 280 buildings on the campus.

UMass Amherst chose Earth Day to announce an ambitious effort to convert the power systems for the entire campus to renewable energy by 2032.

UMass Carbon Zero puts the university at the “vanguard of a big idea,” according to UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy who added that the project will have ramifications far beyond the campus.

“For every advancement the university has made, there has always been support at the highest levels to create room for students to take part and learn.”

“UMass Amherst will be a leader of carbon-mitigation efforts in the Commonwealth while educating the next generation of leaders in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said. “Carbon Zero will also serve as a model for other large research universities as they pursue their own energy transitions.”

Massachusetts has set a target to reach carbon neutrality in all state systems by 2050. The UMass Carbon Zero effort has been in the works for two years to figure out the best way to achieve sustainability and a carbon-free future. The effort began with a task force that received input from hundreds of staff, faculty, and students to assess what it would take to move the entire campus to using renewable energy for all its heating, cooling, and electrical usage.

UMass officials estimate the project will cost at least $500 million over the 10 years, with funding expected from federal, state, corporate and philanthropic sources.

The main elements in designing a carbon-free system for the university will incorporate low-temperature hot water heating paired with geothermal heating and cooling. The plan also involves using a combination of battery-stored solar energy collected at UMass and purchasing energy from the green electrical grid.

Ted Mendoza, a capital projects manager for facilities at UMass Amherst noted that certain areas of campus make more sense for geothermal while other areas will incorporate low-temperature hot water heating.

“We have four buildings right now where we can run a pilot for geothermal and will expand that to 40 buildings,” Mendoza told BusinessWest. “What we learn from the pilot we will roll out to the entire campus.”

This large-scale transformation is not just a capital project. The university offers more than 500 classes on climate science, energy, technology, and other topics related to sustainability, so the Carbon Zero project will also be an opportunity to educate and train students.

“This is a chance to reboot our campus buildings and brand us as a destination for academic and operational interests. I see UMass attracting scholars, planners, engineers, and technicians looking to gain experience in the operation and maintenance of these new forward-thinking systems.”

In addition to the learning piece, students often provide new ideas, said Darci Connor Maresca, assistant director of the School of Earth Sustainability at UMass Amherst.

“There’s a value add in working with students because they push the envelope,” said Connor Maresca, adding that including students in major efforts is the way UMass does business.

“For every advancement the university has made, there has always been support at the highest levels to create room for students to take part and learn,” she said.

There’s data to back up the rationale for including students. Mendoza cited a United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) survey that showed 91% of students agree that their place of study should actively incorporate and promote sustainable development.

“This is a chance to reboot our campus buildings and brand us as a destination for academic and operational interests,” Mendoza said. “I see UMass attracting scholars, planners, engineers, and technicians looking to gain experience in the operation and maintenance of these new forward-thinking systems.”

Both Maresca and Mendoza credit the UMass Chancellor as an early champion of the project. In many ways Subbaswamy sees UMass as a local community.

“Given our size, we are responsible for nearly 20% of overall greenhouse gas emissions among Massachusetts public facilities,” Subbaswamy said. “This makes us the single largest contributor among state entities. Our success in energy transition means success for the commonwealth.”

With a target date of 2032, it’s time for everyone to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

“Unlike any other capital project we’ve ever taken on, this effort will have to touch all 280-plus buildings,” said Mendoza. “That means new and old; big and small; they are all part of the project to transition our entire campus to 100% renewable energy.”

Construction

Filling Today’s Needs

By Mark Morris

When Craig Sweitzer built his first dental office 37 years ago, he thought it was the coolest thing he had ever done.

As owners of Sweitzer Construction, Craig and his wife, Pat, enjoyed learning the unique design requirements and the technical knowledge required to build dental suites, known as operatories.

“We like to work on projects that are new, fresh, and exciting,” Sweitzer said. “Dental offices fit that bill because dental technology is evolving, and it’s fun to stay current with it.”

In a recent string of projects, the Sweitzers’ firm built or renovated three dental practices in the Berkshires, all owned by women dentists. Berkshire Dental Arts and Krol and Nazarov Family Dentistry, both in Pittsfield, and Shire City Endo in Lenox all presented different challenges to the team, among them building dental practices during a pandemic.

Dr. Sarah Martinelli said the building where her practice, Shire City Endo, does business began as a “rectangular brick box.” Built in 1978, three different banks occupied the site before Martinelli purchased the building in February 2020. Having worked in the area, she knew that dentists referred patients for endodontic work from all over the region, so the central location of this building on Route 7 in Lenox made it an ideal spot.

Craig Sweitzer explained that, when dentists plan a renovation or construction project, they will meet with him early in the process. From the choice of equipment to how each room lays out, together they form a plan.

“By purchasing this unit, it saved us from ripping out the ceiling and replacing the entire ventilation system. That would have been absolutely disruptive.”

“There are lots of decisions to be made,” he said, “from where the plumbing and electrical lines go to whether the doctor is right-handed or left, and do they want cuspidors or just suction?”

A dental-equipment supplier also enters the picture early on to work in partnership with the construction crew and the dentist.

“We do all the underground, behind-the-wall, and under-floor infrastructure work to make sure it will accommodate the specialized equipment the doctor ordered,” Sweitzer said.

Craig and Pat Sweitzer

Craig and Pat Sweitzer say the dental practice owner is closely involved in the design process from the start.

Dental offices fit that bill because dental technology is evolving, and it’s fun to stay current with it.”

For Shire City Endo, part of the early work involved removing a drive-up window left over from the banking days. When the crew was drilling into the foundation to run plumbing and electrical lines, they ran into another legacy of the building’s former use.

Foundation floors in banks are usually much thicker than those in regular commercial buildings to deter would-be thieves from tunneling in from underneath. After much more effort, the crew was able to install the necessary lines in the right places.

“I wasn’t worried before about someone tunneling into my practice,” Martinelli said jokingly. “And I sleep well at night knowing I’m protected from that now.”

The thick floors didn’t slow down the project too much, but as Pat Sweitzer noted, coordinating schedules with the medical supplier is an important part of the process. “The whole project is orchestrated for our crews to finish their work just as the medical equipment and the installers are available.”

As a general contractor, Sweitzer Construction is well-acquainted with the difficulties of sticking to schedules during the pandemic, not to mention recent price increases for raw materials. Lumber is the most notable building material to see wild price increases of up to 250%. Craig said he does not use much lumber, but instead uses steel studs to frame walls in his commercial projects. Still, he noted that steel has begun catching up to lumber in price and difficulty to get when it’s needed.

“We order materials long before we need them and then hope they arrive somewhere around the time we are ready to use them,” he explained. “It takes our office staff much more effort to make sure materials get here on time.”

 

Go with the Flow

When the pandemic first hit, air flow inside buildings suddenly became an essential consideration, especially in healthcare facilities. Sweitzer and the HVAC subcontractors who work with his company began to study how to design new systems and retrofit old ones to keep everyone safe.

Whether COVID-19 had existed or not, Martinelli knew she would have to replace the entire HVAC system in her building. Sweitzer and Mark Edwards from M&E Mechanical Contractors, the HVAC subcontractor for the project, installed a state-of-the-art negative-air system for all the operatories at Shire City Endo. Sweitzer explained it as a system that captures pathogens in the air which are immediately pulled out of the room by an exhaust fan before they can spread. In the past, operatories often had exhaust vents in the ceiling. The standard now is to locate these lower on the wall.

“Dentists and hygienists work in people’s mouths, the main path of respiration,” he said. “With lower vents, any pathogens are directed down to the floor instead of into the provider’s face.”

Dr. Anne Barnes

Dr. Anne Barnes says the 1960s-era space she took over in 2018 “just didn’t work” for today’s cutting-edge dentistry.

Martinelli appreciated that she had the opportunity to install a new HVAC system to deal with COVID and any other airborne maladies. At the same time, she saw her colleagues struggle to find answers on how to retrofit their offices to mitigate risks and improve air quality.

By purchasing this unit, it saved us from ripping out the ceiling and replacing the entire ventilation system. That would have been absolutely disruptive.”

Because Sweitzer and Edwards had been so helpful to her, Martinelli coordinated a Zoom call with the contractors and the Berkshire Dental Society, so dentists could get answers on how to manage air ventilation in their practices.

“Craig and Mark were great resources to the entire dental community, who had plenty of questions on how to keep their patients and staff safe,” she said.

Pat Sweitzer was on the Zoom call and credited Martinelli for organizing it. “The dentists had done lots of research, and we had done lots of research,” Pat said. “It was a time when everyone was learning how to contain COVID through different HVAC systems.”

Dr. Anne Barnes, who runs Berkshire Dental Arts, is one of the dentists who chose to retrofit her office with an air purifier that turns over the air in the entire room in three minutes. She said it does an excellent job, and while it’s a large piece of equipment in the corner of the room, it beats the alternative.

“In addition to knowing all the building codes that pertain to dental-treatment rooms, he also knows how to navigate the whole permitting process.”

“By purchasing this unit, it saved us from ripping out the ceiling and replacing the entire ventilation system,” she said. “That would have been absolutely disruptive.”

In 2018, Barnes established Berkshire Dental Arts after assuming Dr. Neil Pyser’s practice located on South Street in Pittsfield. The building was constructed in the 1960s by four dentists, and while it has changed hands several times over the years, the interior space was not much different from when it was first designed.

“What was here just didn’t work for me and wasn’t planned out for today’s dentistry,” Barnes said. As a captain in the U.S. Army Dental Corps, she had access to all the latest equipment, so while she knew what she wanted, the challenge was how to fit it in a predefined space.

At Martinelli’s recommendation, Barnes asked Sweitzer for help on how to make better use of the defined footprint of the building.

“Craig helped me troubleshoot and think about ways to convert the space we have into something more efficient,” she said. Her practice consists of four operatories, two used by Barnes, with hygienists working in the other two rooms.

She and her husband, Charles, who is also the practice manager, had a mental picture of how the operatories should look, but admitted they didn’t have the expertise on how to bring in new equipment without sacrificing elbow room.

“I wanted to make each room functional and comfortable to work in,” Barnes said. “Craig knows how much space you need around the chair and where to place all the plumbing and electrical hookups we use.”

She enjoys her redesigned office because she now has the equipment to do 90% of her lab work in house instead of sending it to an outside firm. For example, if a patient wanted to change the color of a crown, they would normally have to make an appointment two weeks after their visit while the crown goes to a lab. Because Barnes now has a ceramic oven in her office, the patient needs to wait just 15 minutes for the adjustment.

“A ceramic oven is a small piece of equipment,” she said, “but if you don’t have the counter space for it, you’re out of luck.”

Martinelli was also pleased with her office renovation, noting that she appreciated Sweitzer’s strong knowledge of dental-building infrastructure.

“In addition to knowing all the building codes that pertain to dental-treatment rooms, he also knows how to navigate the whole permitting process,” she said. “And he knew what needed to be done to check all the boxes at the end of the job.”

 

Tooth of the Matter

The knowledge the Sweitzers acquired to build dental offices has allowed his company to expand into other highly technical projects. From photovoltaic solar work to building clean rooms for high-tech companies, their business keeps expanding. Even with the new areas of focus, though, Craig still enjoys dental-office construction.

“Dentistry keeps changing, and there are always technical parts to it,” he said. “Besides, dental construction was my first love, and the complexity is still fun.”

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Food Service, Chicopee Public Schools; Age 39

It’s called the ‘Curbside Cafeteria.’ That’s the name now attached to an intriguing concept cooked up by Melanie Wilk and her team at Chicopee Public Schools.

Wilk is the Food Service director at CPS, and she’s constantly looking for new and impactful ways to improve the nutrition and overall health of not only students but all those in this community. Which brings us to the Curbside Cafeteria.

“A lot of families in Chicopee don’t have transportation to get to meal sites — we saw a big need,” said Wilk, who, with her team, was able to purchase a food truck with a Food Security Infrastructure Grant awarded by the state. Starting this summer, it will provide mobile meals to students on their way to school, during after-school activities, or at parks during the summer months — free of charge.

This intersection of nutrition and community is where Wilk’s passion lies. The Chicopee native wasn’t always interested in nutrition, but that changed after relocating to the Big Apple.

“I moved to New York for seven years, and I think that’s where my interest in nutrition kind of sparked,” she explained. “It was a little bit more trendy in New York to know about healthy foods.”

After returning home, Wilk pursued a degree in nutrition at UMass Amherst, although she never dreamed she would end up working for a public school system.

“Nobody intends to end up in food service,” she admitted, but while doing her food-service rotation at Chicopee Public Schools, she realized it was much different than she thought.

“We have a very large farm-to-school program, so we partner with several local farms and distributors in the area to do fresh fruits and veggies,” she recalled. “And that was so interesting to me and so different … that they were trying to provide such fresh and local foods on kids’ trays.”

Shortly after Wilk graduated, she stepped into her what became her dream job. About one year later, the pandemic struck. She mobilized her staff to use a safe drive-up method of serving meals; from March 2020 through June 2021, she and her team served more than 1.5 million free meals to Chicopee families.

Just three years since starting with CPS, Wilk couldn’t imagine herself anywhere else. She is working hard to ensure that hers is not just a food-service program, but a community program with a mission of combating food insecurity and helping children create healthy relationships with food.

 

— Elizabeth Sears

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Vice President of Marketing, Country Bank; Age 32

For Justin Roberts, being vice president of Marketing at Country Bank is all about giving back to the community.

“It all goes back to my interest that I’ve always had in giving back and making sure that individuals and organizations continue to succeed, especially the ones that have important missions that support the communities and the individuals that live in them and that need help,” he told BusinessWest.

Roberts’ desire to support individuals who need help was the driving force behind Suit Up Springfield, a nonprofit he founded eight years ago that provides professional attire in the form of suits, shirts, and ties to individuals graduating from high school or college, and individuals being released from incarceration who need assistance with their professional development. The program has provided attire to thousands of young men in the Greater Springfield area.

Additionally, Roberts has developed a partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, providing professional attire to all inmates in the post-incarceration program. He’s even an honorary Hampden County deputy sheriff.

Beyond Suit Up Springfield, Roberts’ role at Country Bank has allowed him to be active with countless organizations.

“We do so much good and give back so much time, talent, and treasure to the community, which has always really been such an important part of my mission, my personal mission statement,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to both personally and professionally give back in so many ways, whether it’s sitting and serving on some boards or volunteering for some organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Square One, or my board involvement at AIC, where I did my undergrad and MBA work. It just all ties back to the opportunities that I have to continue to give back and support the communities and the individuals that make them up.”

Currently, Roberts is vice president of the Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity board. He’s been involved with building 10 homes in the past five years for families in need of good, affordable housing in Western Mass. He was instrumental in raising more than $150,000 to build Tommy’s House, a house built in memory of Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, who died as a result of an act of domestic terrorism at the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Center in Tennessee in 2015.

Outside of his work and volunteering, Roberts loves to spend time with his family, his partner, Heather, and their two daughters, Maxie and Charlie. He loves playing golf, cooking, and eating good food.

 

— Elizabeth Sears

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Business & Community Liaison, Work-based Learning Coordinator, Westover Job Corps; Age: 34

Students at Westover Job Corps (WJC) receive technical training to pursue successful careers. Thanks to the efforts of staff members like Walter Rice, the students also learn how to have a successful life.

In his role with WJC, Rice builds relationships with employers in the community to create internship opportunities for students, so when they graduate with industry-certified training in welding, plumbing, electrical, and other skills, they have a path to employment.

That represents only part of the training, as Rice works with students to learn interviewing and interpersonal skills.

“We make sure students work on what they need to succeed on the job and to make sure they are empowered with independent living skills to maximize their personal lives,” he noted.

While sometimes called “soft skills,” he contends interpersonal skills are life skills that help a person represent their brand, and when combined with technical skills, the result is a truly successful person.

Rice is involved in about a dozen different community efforts in Western Mass. to make life better for young people. One notable recognition came from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Excellence in Community Outreach and Prevention.

“We had a speaker series called ‘You Can Be Who You Want to Be,’ where WJC graduates shared stories of how they were able to succeed in their careers and encouraged young people they could do the same,” he noted.

Rice lives by a philosophy of always doing his best and living in the moment.

“The most defining moment we can have is right now,” he said. “No matter what is going on, I have to give 100% of myself and try to make a difference right now.”

At the same time, he can see the bigger picture.

“All of us who work in the community have many people standing behind us and many who came before us,” he said. “Because of the work we’ve done collectively, our community is stronger.”

Proud of all his accomplishments at WJC, Rice recently joined the United Way in a similar role as a liaison for business and community organizations.

“I enjoy working in Western Mass. because we can really have an impact and help others,” he said. “It’s just an honor to serve our community.”

 

— Mark Morris

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Marketing & Communications, Caring Health Center; Age 38

Aundrea Paulk likes to cut through the noise and deliver messages that resonate with her community. She is a natural born creator who loves the idea of trying to create new and exciting experiences for other people.

“What made me get into marketing was the fact that you were able to do these kinds of things in that field, whether it was for nonprofit, for-profit, in any kind of sector,” she explained. “If you’re in the marketing field, you’re able to be creative, but you’re also able to create experiences.”

As director of Marketing & Communications at Caring Health Center, a healthcare facility serving residents of the Greater Springfield area, Paulk is responsible for leading its marketing, digital-strategy, and brand-management efforts. She also handles analytics, communications, and public relations.

One aspect of the job she particularly loves is special events. “We create so many opportunities to connect with the community; it’s my joy,” she said.

During the pandemic, Paulk was a driving force behind the center’s multi-faceted campaign to inform and educate the public.

“I was involved with the communication strategies, such as creating various culturally and linguistically tailored videos for our community in several languages to first help them understand what COVID is, but secondly to make sure that they know how to stay safe during these times,” she explained. “I had them translated so that they were more easily digestible and that one could relate with the information that was there.”

Outside of her position at Caring Health Center, Paulk has her own company, Soiree Mi. It’s a local event-planning and design business that offers creative and personalized services for both private and corporate clients.

Paulk is committed to giving back to the community by organizing female-empowerment events while simultaneously raising awareness for causes that support women and families in Springfield. Soiree Mi’s events have raised money for such causes as Square One, the Endometriosis Foundation of America, and the YWCA of Western Massachusetts.

Paulk’s civic contributions don’t stop with Soiree Mi. She is currently a board member for the Springfield Boys and Girls Club and has also volunteered her marketing services for Strategic Alliances at Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

Outside of her many roles in the community, Paulk loves spending time with her family. She’s also a fan of art — she enjoys visiting museums and even does some painting herself.

 

— Elizabeth Sears

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Senior Vice President, Financial Advisor, Morgan Stanley; Age 36

When John Pappas helps clients put together financial plans, he starts by asking what is important to them. Their answer is often family, a sentiment shared by Pappas himself.

As a third-generation financial advisor in the Pappas Group at Morgan Stanley, Pappas also values family. His main priority involves continuing the legacies of his grandfather — who started the practice — and, more recently, his father.

“It’s not often you have three generations in the same line of work,” he said. “It’s important for me to build on the great reputation my grandfather and father have established.”

Pappas finds the most satisfaction helping families organize their finances and form a plan that works for them and the generations that follow. This approach has made him a top producer in the Springfield Morgan Stanley office and has brought national recognition.

Forbes magazine included him on its most recent list of America’s Top Next-Gen Advisors. While he appreciates the honor, he credits it to the people around him.

“This is not a one-man show,” he said. “I received the honor thanks to a whole team of people dedicated to continuous improvement.”

Early in his career while working in Boston, Pappas became a Big Brother to a young man and saw for himself that positive mentoring works.

“There are no bad kids, just kids brought up in tough circumstances,” he said. “Positive mentoring can change someone’s life. Again, it’s about family and taking care of the next generation.”

Now treasurer and board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County, Pappas has continued his connection with the organization. “I like the idea of helping children find a path to success because it makes them and their family proud.”

This fall, he will be the next board president for the Children’s Study Home, following a proud family tradition. Both grandmothers have served on the board, with his grandmother on his mother’s side a past president. His father is also a past president.

“This is another third-generation opportunity afforded me because many years ago, my family recognized the important work Children’s Study Home does in our community,” he said.

In short, Pappas lives by the credo to always help others.

“If you can lend a hand to help someone achieve their goals, then you should do it. That’s how I live and what I would like to be known for.”

 

— Mark Morris

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Owner, Cellf Juices; Age 30

Jazlinda Navarro wants to help everyone squeeze the most out of life — figuratively but also quite literally. She’s the owner of Cellf Juices, Springfield’s first cold-press juice bar, which has become a manifestation of her entrepreneurial spirit — and passion for health and nutrition.

Navarro had aspirations of getting into a pharmacy program, but that changed after a month-long trip to Honduras. While there, she learned of the benefits of fasting, proper nutrition, and juice. Once she returned home, she began juicing for herself.

“I started juicing, and then one of my friends asked me about it — next thing you know, I’m juicing for my friend and then her friend … it became a chain thing,” she explained.

Navarro started selling her juices at a local salon. They became such a hit that she became inspired to help more people with fasting and nutrition.

“I knew I wanted to make something in Springfield,” said Navarro, a UMass Amherst graduate who signed a lease for space in a building on Bay Street, but couldn’t open her doors because of the pandemic.

She admits that this was a scary time, but she decided to utilize all she knew to keep her business dreams alive. As a result, she started offering outdoor spinning classes to bring in income. Her perseverance paid off, and she was able to renovate the space on Bay Street and officially open Dec. 12, 2021. She has since expanded her offerings with a variety of smoothies. Free smoothie tastings quickly lured customers to the store, and business took off from there.

“Our second month was really like a boom from out of nowhere,” she said. “We hit really good sales.”

Cellf Juices also recently began a recycling program. It teamed up with Urban Garden Composting to recycle juice pulp into compost. The business donates all the compost to local gardens and farms. Having a degree in horticulture and biology, Navarro knows the benefits of using compost in gardens. Cellf Juices also uses recyclable bottles and offers discounts to clients who return juice bottles.

Navarro’s goal has always been to help people take control of their health and their lives by making healthier choices. She encourages everyone to stop by and give her smoothies and juices a try. The most popular offering is the Brook Smoothie, a peanut-butter-based smoothie. And if you stop by, you’ll likely see Navarro with her goldendoodle, Bomar.

 

— Elizabeth Sears

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

President, Quality Fleet Service Inc.; Age: 37

Nick Moynihan believes success comes to those who aren’t afraid of hard work.

Since childhood, Moynihan had an interest and an ability to fix mechanical things. At age 20, while working as a fleet mechanic, he bought a business that was about to close. Included in the sale were two trucks — only one worked — and a list of a dozen customers. When he reached out to the customers, all but two doubted this young man could handle their business.

“It was always my plan to go out on my own,” he said. “When the opportunity came at age 20, I thought, ‘even if I fail, I can recoup the lost years.’”

Mobile service for industrial fleets is a niche business, and servicing heavy equipment in the field presents its own set of challenges. That’s why Moynihan put in the work seven days a week at all hours to establish and grow his business.

“I had two choices: either get it done, or my customers would find someone else who would,” he said.

The hard work is paying off. Moynihan is president of Quality Fleet Service (QFS) and oversees two dozen mobile crews to repair heavy-duty trucks and industrial equipment for customers all over New England.

While mobile service is the main part of the business, Moynihan opened a state-of-the-art repair facility in 2016 that employs more than 50 people.

“Visitors to QFS always remark how busy the service bays are,” he said. “That actually represents about one-tenth of what we’re working on at job sites all over New England.”

The crews are so spread out that he plans to open service facilities in Central Conn. and Eastern Mass.

Mechanics at QFS receive certified training to repair any piece of equipment from the major manufacturers. This designation brings in business from area dealers who insist on service that meets the manufacturer’s standards.

QFS has partnered with Smith Vocational High School to teach students workplace skills, and one student is a part-time welder with the company.

“This is our way of introducing the next generation to the business,” Moynihan said.

He also serves on the board for Clinical & Support Options in Northampton because of its emphasis on holistic services to people throughout Western Mass.

Moynihan strongly believes in leading by example and that no one is above any job, including him.

“We have a successful company because we do the work,” he said.

 

— Mark Morris

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Senior Account Executive, Integrated Digital Specialist, WWLP-22News; Age 35

Kelly McGiverin’s involvement in Western Mass. can be traced back to the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round — and she has certainly grabbed the brass ring.

She worked at the merry-go-round through high school and while getting her bachelor’s degree in business management and marketing at Elms College. During her senior year of college, she took an internship at WWLP-22News, which was the jumping-off point into her marketing career.

Indeed, McGiverin soon joined the marketing and public-relations firm Market Mentors, where she gained considerable experience in marketing, advertising, and the digital industry, including backend digital-platform development.

“I decided to take a leap into a marketing agency; I went over to Market Mentors, and that is where I really fell in love with the area,” she said. “I was able to meet so many different clients, attend a lot of different networking events, expand beyond the digital to learn all about the TV, the print, the radio, the billboards — helping clients run events and really do everything I love, and getting involved in so many different local businesses.”

Now, McGiverin is back at WWLP-22News working her “dream job” as senior account executive. She coordinates media buys for digital and TV campaigns, among other duties.

Outside of her business accomplishments, she is dedicated when it comes to community service in the city of Holyoke. After years of consideration, she followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and joined the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade Committee in 2015. She has played a critical role ever since — she organized and chairs the Battle of the Bars, a top fundraising event, and acts as a liaison between the parade and WWLP-22News.

“The passion behind that comes from the history of my Irish heritage and my family growing up watching the parade,” she said. “My grandfather sitting outside of our house on a stool talking to everyone, my Nana baking corned beef every parade morning … just everything about it is, again, where that passion drives from sitting on the parade committee.”

Her civic leadership doesn’t stop there. She recently returned to the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round by joining its operations committee, volunteering her time to work with committee members to work on their social-media presence. Additionally, she is a board member of the Holyoke Boys and Girls Club as well as secretary for its executive committee.

It’s clear to see that McGiverin is a true leader — in all areas of her life.

 

— Elizabeth Sears

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