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Strong Medicine

As COVID-19 continues to upend nearly every aspect of life in the U.S., Congress has been working to relieve suffering Americans. Having passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18 in an effort to limit the spread of the pandemic and support relief efforts, Congress turned to stabilizing the economy. After days of furious negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and Trump administration officials, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. With a $2.2 trillion price tag, the act is the most expensive piece of legislation ever passed.

The act passed in the Senate by a unanimous vote late on March 25 and was passed in the House of Representatives on March 27. The President signed the bill into law later that day.

The CARES Act looks to make a significant impact on the economy by providing loan forgiveness, supporting small businesses, enhancing unemployment insurance, and providing federal loans to industries severely impacted by the pandemic. In addition, it provides tax relief and tax incentives for individuals and businesses alike. The majority of the tax relief is designed to increase liquidity in the economy, largely through the relaxation of limitations on business deductions and the deferral of taxes, but also with the introduction of recovery rebates for individuals.

In this article, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C., in conjunction with its affiliation with CPAmerica, presents some of the key elements of the CARES Act and how they will impact individuals and businesses.

INDIVIDUAL TAX RELIEF

Recovery Rebates

The most well-publicized provision is the $1,200 recovery rebates for individual taxpayers. The rebate amounts are advance refunds of credits against 2020 taxes, and equal to $1,200 for individuals, or $2,400 for joint filers, with a $500 credit for each child. The amount of each rebate is phased out by $5 for every $100 in excess of a threshold amount. This threshold amount is based upon 2018 adjusted gross income (unless a 2019 return has already been filed), and the phaseout begins at $75,000 for single filers, $112,500 for heads of households, and $150,000 for joint filers. Thus, the rebates are completely phased out for single filers with 2018 (or 2019, if applicable) adjusted gross income over $99,000, heads of household with $136,500 (or higher, depending upon whether status is established because of children), and joint filers with $198,000.

In order to be eligible for a recovery rebate, the individual must not be: (1) a non-resident alien, (2) able to be claimed as a dependent on another taxpayer’s return, or (3) an estate or trust, and must have included a Social Security number for both the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, and eligible children (or an adoption taxpayer identification number, where appropriate). The act includes additional rules for the application of the credit.

The Secretary of the Treasury has been directed to provide the rebate as rapidly as possible.

Retirement Plans

The CARES Act also waives the 10% penalty on early withdrawals up to $100,000 from qualified retirement plans for coronavirus-related distributions. For purposes of the penalty waiver, a coronavirus-related distribution is one made during the 2020 calendar year to an individual (or the spouse of an individual) diagnosed with COVID-19 with a CDC-approved test, or to an individual who experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of quarantine, business closure, layoff, or reduced hours due to the virus. Any income attributable to an early withdrawal is subject to tax over a three-year period, and taxpayers may recontribute the withdrawn amounts to a qualified retirement plan without regard to annual caps on contributions if made within three years.

This relief is commonly granted by Congress in the wake of major disaster declarations, such as those made after a major hurricane.

The act also waives all required minimum distributions for 2020, regardless of whether the taxpayer has been impacted by the pandemic.

Charitable Contributions

The CARES Act enhances tax incentives for making charitable contributions for the 2020 tax year. First, it allows an above-the-line deduction of up to $300 for charitable contributions made by individuals. This allows an individual to claim a deduction for a charitable contribution, even if the individual does not itemize deductions.

Additionally, the percent-of-adjusted-gross-income (AGI) limitations are increased for all taxpayers as well as for specific types of contributions. For the 2020 tax year, individuals can claim an unlimited itemized deduction for a charitable contribution, which is normally limited to 50% of AGI. In the case of corporations, the usual 10%-of-AGI limitation is increased to 25% for the 2020 tax year. Finally, the contribution of food inventory, the deduction for which is normally limited to 15% of AGI, is increased to 25% for the 2020 tax year.

Student Loans Paid by Employers

The act provides for an exclusion of up to $5,250 from income for payments of an employee’s education loans. In order for the exclusion to apply, the loan must have been incurred by the employee for the education of the employee (so, for example, the loan must not have been incurred to pay for the education of the employee’s child). The payment can be made to the employee or directly to the lender. The exclusion only applies for payments made by an employer after the date of enactment and before Jan. 1, 2021.

The $5,250 cap applies to both the new student-loan repayment benefit as well as other educational assistance (e.g., tuition, fees, books) provided by the employee.

BUSINESS TAX RELIEF

Employee Retention Credit

The CARES Act grants eligible employers a credit against employment taxes equal to 50% of qualified wages paid to employees who are not working due to the employer’s full or partial cessation of business or a significant decline in gross receipts. The credit is available to be claimed on a quarterly basis, but the amount of wages, including health benefits, for which the credit can be claimed is limited to $10,000 in aggregate per employee for all quarters. The provision contains several requirements defining qualified wages, qualified employees, and qualified employers. The credit applies to wages paid after March 12, 2020 and before Jan. 1, 2021.

This is very similar to the paid leave credits granted to employers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law on March 18, with some changes to the requirements. Most significantly, neither the employee nor the employer have to be directly impacted by infection.

This is also similar to the employee retention credits Congress provides after major disasters, but with different requirements and limitations.

Payroll Tax Deferral

In order to free up employers’ cash flow and retain employees during times of quarantine or shutdown, the CARES Act defers the payment of payroll taxes. Payroll taxes due from the period beginning on the date the CARES Act is signed into law and ending on Dec. 31, 2020, are deferred. The 6.2% OASID portion of payroll taxes incurred by employers, and 50% of the equivalent payroll taxes incurred by self-employed persons, qualify for the deferral. Half of the deferred payroll taxes are due on Dec. 31, 2021, with the remainder due on Dec. 31, 2022.

Net Operating Losses

The act allows for a five-year carry-back of net operating losses (NOLs) arising in 2018, 2019, or 2020 by a business. Businesses will be able to amend or modify tax returns for tax years dating back to 2013 in order to take advantage of the carry-back. Under current law, only farming NOLs are allowed to be carried back, and the carry-back is limited to two years.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminated the carry-back of NOLs for tax years ending after 2017 and allowed for the indefinite carry-forward for NOLs. Prior to the TCJA, an NOL could be carried back two years, with longer carry-back periods for NOLs arising from a casualty or declared disaster or farming losses.

The CARES Act also eliminates loss-limitation rules applicable to sole proprietors and pass-through entities to allow them to take advantage of the NOL carryback. Additionally, the act allows for NOLs arising before Jan. 1, 2021 to fully offset income. Under current law, NOLs are limited to 80% of taxable income.

Minimum Tax Credits

The TCJA eliminated the alternative minimum tax for corporations for tax years after 2017, but allowed corporations to claim a refundable portion of any unused minimum tax credits through 2021. The amount of the refundable credit is limited to 50% of any excess minimum tax in 2018 through 2020, before being fully refundable in 2021. The act accelerates the year for which a fully refundable credit can be claimed to 2019, and allows corporations to elect to claim the fully refundable minimum tax credits in 2018.

Business Interest Expense Limitation

The TCJA limited the amount of allowable deductions for business interest (regardless of the type of entity) for tax years beginning after 2017. The limitation is generally the amount of business interest income for the year plus 30% of the taxpayer’s adjusted taxable income for the year. The limitation does not apply to taxpayers with average annual gross receipts for the prior three year below an inflation-adjusted amount. For 2020, this amount is $26 million or less.

The act increases the limitation amount to 50% of the taxpayer’s adjusted taxable income for 2019 and 2020 (with a special allocation election required for partnerships for 2019). In calculating the limitation for 2020, the taxpayer may elect to use adjusted taxable income for 2019.

The option to use 2019 adjusted taxable income in calculating the limitation is meant to counteract the likelihood that incomes will not be higher in 2020 because of the economic environment, whereas 2019 was generally a very high revenue year for businesses.

Qualified Improvement Property

When Congress drafted the TCJA, it allowed for 100% bonus-depreciation rules to apply to all MACRS property with a recovery period of 20 years or less. Before the TCJA, qualified improvement property was depreciated as 39-year residential real property, unless it separately qualified as 15-year qualified leasehold improvement property, 15-year retail improvement property, or 15-year restaurant property. Congress eliminated the three separate categories of 15-year improvement properties with the intention of making all qualified improvement property 15-year property. However, it failed to do so, and as a result, qualified improvement property is depreciated as 39-year property and not qualified for bonus depreciation.

This is known in tax circles as the ‘retail glitch.’ A technical amendment has long been promised and had been included in early drafts of several pieces of legislation since the TCJA became law in December 2017. However, it never made it into the final version of any piece of significant legislation voted on by either chamber of Congress.

The CARES Act corrects this congressional oversight by defining qualified improvement property as 15-year property, thus allowing 100% of improvements to be deducted in the year incurred. The change is made as if included in the TCJA and, thus, is effective for property acquired and placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017.

The closures and quarantines related to the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially hard on small businesses, which include restaurants and local retail stores. This technical correction allows any expenses incurred by owners to make improvements to the physical premises related to these businesses to be accelerated into the 2017 or 2018 tax year on an amended return, or the 2019 tax year on a return due July 15, 2020.

Excise Tax Relief

The act also provides a temporary exception from alcohol excise taxes for alcohol for use in or contained in hand sanitizer produced or directed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration related to the pandemic. The act also suspends excise taxes on aviation and kerosene used in aviation fuel. The exception and suspensions are applicable to 2020 only.

ADDITIONAL PROVISIONS

The CARES Act is a massive act, the majority of which does not have a tax impact. However, some smaller, but no less significant, provisions impacting federal tax are sprinkled outside of the tax-related division of the act. These provisions include:

• The exclusion from tax of any forgiven small-business loans, mortgage obligations, or other loan obligations forgiven by the lender during the applicable period;

• A safe harbor from the definition of a high-deductible health plan permitting telehealth services to be included, even though such services do not carry a deductible;

• The inclusion of over-the-counter menstrual products as qualified medical expenses for purposes of distributions from health savings accounts and health flexible spending arrangements;

• Pension funding relief for failures to meet contribution requirements to defined benefit plans during 2020; and

• Allowing certain charitable employers whose primary exempt purpose is providing services to mothers and children to use small employer charity pension plan rules.

Construction

Home Makers

Walk-in closets in master bedrooms, low-emissivity windows, and laundry rooms are the most likely features in typical new homes in 2020, based on a recent survey of single-family home builders by the National Assoc. of Home Builders.

Energy-efficient features such as efficient lighting, programmable thermostats, and ENERGY STAR appliances will also be popular, as will open design concepts such as great rooms and nine-plus-foot ceilings on the first floor. Energy-efficient or eco-friendly features not likely to be included in new homes, however, are cork flooring in main-level living areas, geothermal heat pumps, and solar water heating and cooling.

Consumers continue to desire smaller homes, not only in overall square footage, but also the number of features, such as bedrooms and bathrooms. This four-year downward trend has led to the smallest average home size since 2011 at 2,520 square feet — only 20 square feet above the average in 2007, the pre-recession peak. The percentage of homes incorporating four-plus bedrooms, three-plus full bathrooms, and three-plus-car garages have also dropped to levels not seen since 2012.

“This points to an industry trying to meet the demands of the entry-level home buyer,” said Rose Quint, NAHB assistant vice president of survey research. “Builders are struggling to meet these demands, however, because of factors such as restrictive zoning regulations and lot prices, with the price of a new lot in 2019 averaging $57,000.”

NAHB also examined preferences among first-time buyers and repeat buyers to help builders determine what features are most likely to resonate in the market in 2020. When asked which they prefer, the majority of both first-time buyers and repeat buyers would rather have a smaller home with high-quality products and services than a bigger home with fewer amenities. The top features desired by both groups include:

• Laundry rooms;

• ENERGY STAR windows;

• Hardwood flooring;

• Walk-in pantries;

• Patios;

• Ceiling fans; and

• Kitchen double sinks.

These trends are reflected in this year’s Best in American Living Award (BALA) winners as well. For example, designers are including flex spaces that add increased functionality to laundry rooms, hardwood flooring and wood finishes to add warmth and character both inside and outside the home, and creating outdoor spaces that seamlessly integrate with indoor living.

“This points to an industry trying to meet the demands of the entry-level home buyer. Builders are struggling to meet these demands, however, because of factors such as restrictive zoning regulations and lot prices.”

“Every year, winners of the Best in American Living Awards showcase the best of what the home building industry has to offer,” said Donald Ruthroff of the Dahlin Group. “As the chair of the BALA subcommittee and BALA judging, I am privileged to see projects from across the nation, and those projects help me identify the design trends that drive discussions in our offices with our clients.”

Designers are also working to address attainability concerns by developing multi-family and higher-density projects that feel more like single-family homes to meet consumer interest at more affordable price points.

Coronavirus

Novel Solutions

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

It has only been a few weeks since the novel coronavirus made its way to our shores, but life as we know it has changed completely and will, perhaps, never be quite the same again. After a near-record-low unemployment rate in February, nearly 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, a figure that shattered the previous record of about 700,000 set back in 1982. The report confirms what the plunging securities markets have foreshadowed for the past few weeks — that the coronavirus is killing more than just those who are losing their lives to the disease; it is killing businesses and livelihoods as well.

How long this crisis will continue is impossible to predict. Health experts warn against lifting stay-at-home orders, opening non-essential businesses, and loosening social-distancing recommendations too early; economists worry that the economic consequences will be worse for Americans than the actual disease. But however long this new normal persists, the country has borne witness to another unbelievable sight, a welcome bright spot amid so much uncertainty — a sharply divided Congress coming together to try to mitigate the crisis.

Its first emergency measure? Legislation called the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA). It imposes significant new obligations on all private employers with fewer than 500 employees. Below is a summary of this unprecedented new law.

What new rights does the FFCRA provide to employees? The FFCRA requires covered employers to provide the following to all employees:

• Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay if the employee is unable to work or telework because the employee (1) has been quarantined (either by government order or on the advice of a healthcare provider) and/or (2) is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis. Employees will be paid their full wages, up to a maximum of $511 per day ($5,110 total) for these sick-leave reasons; and

• Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay if the employee is unable to work or telework because the employee (1) must care for someone who has been quarantined (again, either by government order or on the advice of a healthcare provider), (2) must care for a minor child whose school or childcare provider is closed or unavailable due to the virus, and/or (3) is experiencing a “substantially similar condition,” which has yet to be defined but will be the subject of regulations to be issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. Employees will be paid two-thirds of their wages up to a maximum of $200 per day ($2,000 total) for these sick-leave reasons.

• Employees who have been employed by a covered employer for at least 30 days may also take an additional 10 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds their wages to continue to provide care for a minor child whose school or childcare provider remains closed or unavailable due to the virus. This also caps out at $200 per day.

How are we going to pay for this? Important question! Qualified employers that pay sick leave will receive a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement through tax credits for all qualifying wages paid under the FFCRA, up to the appropriate daily and aggregate payment caps. Here’s how the IRS explained it will work:

• If an eligible employer paid $5,000 in sick leave and is otherwise required to deposit $8,000 in payroll taxes, including taxes withheld from all its employees, the employer could use up to $5,000 of the $8,000 in taxes it was going to deposit for making qualified leave payments. The employer would only be required under the law to deposit the remaining $3,000 on its next regular deposit date.

• If an eligible employer paid $10,000 in sick leave and was required to deposit $8,000 in taxes, the employer could use the entire $8,000 of taxes in order to make qualified leave payments and file a request for an accelerated credit for the remaining $2,000.

In its guidance, the IRS also stated that “reimbursement will be quick and easy to obtain. An immediate, dollar-for-dollar tax offset against payroll taxes will be provided. Where a refund is owed, the IRS will send the refund as quickly as possible.” Let’s hope this rings true.

Which employers are covered by the FFCRA? The FFCRA covers certain public employers and all private employers with fewer than 500 employees. For purposes of this count, employers must include all full-time and part-time employees in the U.S. (or any U.S. territory or possession), including any employees who are on leave, as well as temporary employees and day laborers supplied by an agency (with limited exceptions). Independent contractors need not be counted, but employers who may be a joint employer with another business or are owned even in part by another entity should consider consulting an employment attorney for additional guidance.

Are any employers exempt from the FFCRA? Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for exemption from the requirement to provide sick time or FMLA leave due to school closings or the unavailability of childcare if doing so would “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” Regulations outlining this exemption are expected to be published by the Department of Labor in April.

When does this go into effect, will this leave be available forever, and do we need to notify employees? The law is effective April 1, 2020, and expires on December 31, 2020. And, yes, employers are required to post a notice in the workplace on the FFCRA requirements in a conspicuous place.

We are facing an extraordinary crisis. While this law will certainly be a challenge for employers to grapple with, it is important legislation that helps keep workplaces safe by encouraging sick employees to stay home. It also provides much-needed job and financial protection to employees who are home with their children because schools and daycares are closed. One piece of advice: don’t wait until the sick-leave requests start coming to get your questions answered. Our firm has been working around-the-clock with businesses and organizations that understand they need to plan now for the impact of this historic legislation. Be as prepared as possible, and stay safe.

John S. Gannon and Erica E. Flores are attorneys at the law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Coronavirus

Bold Response to a Crisis

By Scott Foster

The CoronaCrisis has been a roller coaster for business owners. Starting almost a month ago, the rumblings of disruption began and have now erupted into complete and utter chaos. Business owners have been forced to make stark decisions — restaurant owners laying off their entire workforce; ‘non-essential’ businesses shutting down on 36 hours notice; whether and how to support employees facing three, then six weeks of cancelled school; supply-chain disruptions; canceled orders; canceled events; and more. Business owners have openly wondered, ‘how will my business survive?’

Fortunately, once the legislation pending in the U.S. Senate becomes law, which is widely expected, business owners — including sole proprietors and gig-economy workers — will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth.

Coined the Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act, the proposed provisions would appear to apply to every for-profit business with fewer than 500 employees (again, including sole proprietors). The act would allow these businesses (whether a corporation, LLC, partnership, or some other form of entity) to obtain a loan to cover payroll costs, including healthcare premiums and paid time off, rent, utilities, mortgage payments (interest, not principal), and interest on other pre-existing loans for an eight-week period falling between Feb. 15 and June 30, with a maximum loan amount of $10 million. The loan would be non-recourse, require no security or personal guarantees, and bear interest of only 4% with a repayment period of 10 years.

But this is not like any other loan ever offered. This loan would be forgiven in an amount equal to the sum of payroll costs, payments of interest on any covered mortgage, payments on any covered rent obligations, and covered utility payments. The amount to be forgiven would be reduced if the business reduced its workforce, and the forgiveness would not apply to payroll costs of any employees who were paid more than $100,000 in 2019. And the best part, unlike other debt that is forgiven by the lender, any amount forgiven under this program will be excluded from gross income.

To summarize, if you are a business and are willing to keep your employees on the payroll, pay your rent or mortgage, and stay in business, the federal government is prepared to pay your rent, your utilities, and your payroll (for employees making under $100,000 annually) for eight weeks, and the payment is tax-free. It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers (especially in this time of historically low unemployment). 

We would expect loans under this program to start being processed by late April or early May, with funding happening as soon as the loans can be closed. The program is relying on banks and commercial lenders to aggressively participate as the primary lenders under the program, so you should be able to continue working with your current bank. 

Given the tight timeframe and the unprecedented scope of this program, Bulkley Richardson is preparing for an unusually high level of lending in the local market and will be prepared to help our clients navigate this new program, get the necessary loans, and submit the backup needed to qualify for the forgiveness.

Scott Foster is a partner at Bulkley Richardson.

Coronavirus

How to Survive in a Down Economy

By Nicholas LaPier, CPA

Businesses, and especially small businesses, are dealing with a situation that is in many ways unprecedented in both nature and scope: coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, this crisis has impacted almost every industry sector and each specific business, except for supermarkets and online-delivery specialists such as Amazon. No one really knows how long this crisis will last or what the economy will look like on the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic.

Despite the unique aspects of this crisis and the depth of the disruption to the economy in general, there are basic rules, or guidelines, when it comes to business disaster planning, and they apply to the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Here is a quick checklist of items that I use when talking with clients about this crisis — and any down-economy situation.

• For starters, if you don’t have a disaster-recovery plan, create one. If you do have one, take it out of the drawer and review it. Also, modify the plan over the next few months based on actual experience, and create one as you go by documenting decisions and results.

• Consult your most respected business advisors for advice. This list includes your CPA, bankers, and peers.

• Conserve business assets, both cash (cash flow is tantamount to survival in times of disaster) and investments (don’t sell underperforming investments unless necessary).

• Review current operating costs as compared to expected revenues. And if your costs far exceed the projected revenues, first determine how long the shortage is and how the short term can be funded. Options, and there are many, can include:

– Contribute additional owner capital;

– Access your currently available business line of credit;

– Utilize your existing cash reserves;

– Start reviewing all SBA and state lending programs in place now because of COVID-19. You may even want to start the application early — as of this writing, the initial Massachusetts emergency loan program has already been exhausted;

– Review your commercial insurance policies for business-interruption coverage and how to submit a claim;

– Take a reduced owner compensation. Not only will this help cash flow for the business, you will reap some payroll tax savings as a result;

– Assess where a reduction in workforce makes sense;

– Make a careful assessment before incurring new costs and expenses;

– Accelerate collection efforts on unpaid receivables;

– Enhance your selling efforts — increase your social media posts and other media outlets, while staying the course with advertising and marketing campaigns; and

– Consider closing for a short period to curtail as many costs as possible.

• While addressing the short term, business owners must be focused on how the long term can be funded as well. Options here include:

– Additional owner capital/resources;

– Longer-term reduction of owner compensation;

– Continued reduction of workforce;

– Identification of other cost-saving measures;

– Enhanced sales and collection efforts;

– Obtaining SBA, state, or traditional lending programs; and

– Additional loans from non-traditional sources, such as leasing companies and non-equity partners.

As noted earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways unique when it comes to business disasters. It is unlike a natural disaster, a recession, or a terrorist attack like 9/11.

But it is like all those others in that it is a situation that requires careful planning — and execution of a plan.

Nicholas LaPier, CPA is president of West Springfield-based Nicholas LaPier PC CPA; (413) 732-0200; [email protected]

 

Coronavirus

By Andrew Morehouse

We’ve all been to the supermarkets. Households are stocking up on food in response to coronavirus (COVID-19). But let’s not forget there are tens of thousands of individuals across Western Mass. who can’t even get to a supermarket — elders, people with disabilities, and households who must rely on unreliable public transportation. Others can, but they can’t even afford to buy enough food to feed their families, much less stock up for two weeks’ worth as suggested by public officials.

To make matters worse, many of these households have children whose schools are now closed and are not providing essential school breakfasts and lunches that so many families rely on to feed their children day in and day out. Some but not all schools are preparing meals for children to pick up at schools or at ‘summer’ meal sites (check out www.meals4kids.org/summer).

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and its network of 174 local feeding partners across all four counties — Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden — continue to operate as we do year in and year out, providing healthy food to the most vulnerable in our communities. We are all establishing measures to prevent transmission of coronavirus, such as social distancing, hand washing, and wearing protective gloves to ensure that our visitors can receive healthy food safely.

Many food pantries are now pre-packaging food to hand out, often outdoors, in order to minimize contact. Most, if not all, of the meal sites are now making meals to go, which patrons can pick up and take with them. If you are in need of food assistance, visit our website, www.foodbankwma.org/get-help, for a listing of all local feeding sites, and be sure to call prior to visiting to make sure they are open.

We’ve instituted similar safety measures at our biweekly and monthly Mobile Food Bank.
Twenty-one of the 26 sites continue to operate in ‘food deserts’ where access to healthy food is nonexistent. We’ve instituted similar safety measures at senior centers where volunteers distribute bags of groceries to thousands of elders monthly at our 51 brown-bag sites. Many remain open, and we are also working with those that have closed to seek permission to continue to distribute food in their parking lots.

Right now, we have enough food to distribute through our vast regional emergency food network. This is likely to change as the coronavirus persists. You can help by donating — every dollar you give provides four meals. We also have enough volunteers, but this is also likely to change. Please visit www.foodbankwma.org/volunteer for updates.

In addition to distributing food, we are working with our partners across the Commonwealth and nationally to advocate for public food assistance. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continues to have the greatest impact in nourishing those who receive this federal benefit. Most SNAP recipients are children, elders, people with disabilities, and individuals working part-time and on minimum-wage incomes. SNAP provides nine meals for every meal provided by food banks. And SNAP is proven to be the single most powerful economic stimulus. This is no time to be cutting SNAP benefits; in fact, we should be increasing them.

Now is the time for all of us to band together as a community to ensure the health and food security of everyone.

Andrew Morehouse is executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Inc. in Hatfield.

Coronavirus

Don’t Lose Touch

By Meghan Rothschild

The last two weeks have been an unprecedented storm of chaos for anyone managing a business, small or large. Effectively communicating changes in event plans, services, and fundraising strategies is no small feat and requires consistency and strategy. Staying in touch with your clients and customers has never been more challenging, yet more important.

We at Chikmedia have been navigating these communications challenges not only for clients, but for ourselves as well. Remaining calm, proofreading before you click ‘post,’ and applying a strategy are your best bets. We’ve drafted some go-to tips and tricks for ensuring your business looks polished and communicative during this time.

Identify your primary team/spokesperson during this time. As is true with any crisis, you must put together your decision-making team. Your primary spokesperson should not be the president or business owner, as you need a buffer for filtering information between the key decision maker and your primary audiences.

Outline and implement compliance strategies. Explain what you are doing to comply with CDC recommendations, such as, social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizing, and encouraging staff to work remotely.

Write your plan down. Make sure you have committed to compliance policies that work for you and your business. Don’t say you’re offering hand sanitizer if you don’t have it in house yet.

Ensure your entire team is up to date. Your staff should be well-versed in what the plan is moving forward. Arm them with the copy points they need to communicate effectively to the public, your customers, and other important constituents. 

Make a public statement. If you haven’t done this already, you should, immediately. Even if you are not currently operating or client facing, you must acknowledge what is happening in the world; otherwise, you appear reckless and out of touch. Include information on how it will impact your customers and your business.

Use all of your channels when communicating. Use e-news, social media, signage, your website — whatever you currently use to communicate to clients.

Continue to post. Even when you do not have an update, you must continue to acknowledge and keep your customers informed. They will want to hear from you regularly.

Navigate the official updates from the CDC. Make sure everything you post has been confirmed by two sources and is factual. Do not share content that is not confirmed, not vetted, or from unreliable sources.

Continue to produce regular content. Don’t make it all about COVID-19. Do not stop posting or let your social channels go dormant, as algorithms will penalize you. It may feel awkward to post regular content, but it’s important to maintain some consistent messaging and normalcy on behalf of the business.

Start developing your post-virus plan now. How are you going to get people back through the door when this is all over? Will it be through an event or a major sale? What about a big contest or giveaway? Be thinking about how you will re-engage your audience when the competition will be at its highest. Do not wait: have the plan prepared and ready to go for when the world begins to spin again.

Should you have questions or need assistance, don’t hesitate to shoot us a note at [email protected]. You can also visit our website, www.chikmedia.us, for more information.

Meghan Rothschild is president of Chikmedia.

Coronavirus Features

Lessons Learned from Experience

By Nancy Urbschat

Nancy Urbschat in her home office.

Nancy Urbschat in her home office.

Many of you are experiencing work at home for the first time, and without the luxury of months of planning like those at our marking firm, TSM Design, did when we decided to go virtual on Jan. 1, 2019.

We are now in the midst of a global pandemic, and socially distancing people is the only way to flatten the COVID-19 curve. (Now that’s a sentence I would not have imagined writing, let alone living through. But here we are.)

These are challenging times for everyone. Our concept of normalcy is changing daily. We barely have time to catch our breath before there are new rules of engagement. Businesses have gone from limiting the size of meetings to prohibiting travel and work-at-home orders.

During TSM Design’s morning Zoom on March 16, we started the meeting discussing the impact the virus was having on our lives. Our conversation then turned to all of you who are just starting to work at home. We wondered if we could be helpful sharing what we’ve learned during these past 15 months.

Your Office

• Create a designated workspace in your home. The kitchen or dining-room table is not ideal.

• If possible, position your desk by a window. Then don’t forget to open the shades.

• While you’re working with no one else around, you have the luxury of cranking up the volume on your favorite tunes. No earbuds necessary!

• Don’t assume that your reputation for a messy desk is suddenly going to change now that you’re home.

Virtual Meetings and Conference Calls

• Be mindful of your meeting attendees’ view inside your office.

• If your video is on and no one can see you, uncover your camera. (This has happened on more than one occasion.)

• If you have a barky dog, leave your audio on mute until it’s your turn to speak.

• Project a professional image — at least from the waist up.

• Try never to schedule a virtual presentation with multiple attendees gathered around one computer screen. It’s deadly when you can’t see audience reaction.

• If you have a camera, please turn it on. Keep the playing field level. If you can see me, I ought to be able to see you.

• Provide tutorials for people who are new to videoconferencing platforms.

• Assume the role of facilitator. Pose questions, talk less, listen more.

Productivity

• Take a brisk walk before you start your workday.

• Maintain a regular morning meeting with your team. We try to Zoom every day at 8:30 a.m.

• Try to get your most challenging work done early in the day.

• Save your work frequently — especially if you have a cat that likes to walk across your keyboard.

• Keep a running to-do list. Go ahead and celebrate what got crossed off at the end of every day.

• Don’t sit for hours on end. Get up. Do a few stretches. Walk around the block.

• Don’t eat at your desk. Go to your kitchen and make lunch. Savor it. Then go back to work.

• Give yourself permission to give in to small distractions. If there is a pile of dishes in the sink that’s bothering you, do the dishes. Then go back to work.

Your Mental Health

• Get a good night’s sleep, with plenty of deep sleep and REM. It might be a good time to buy a Fitbit or other device to track your sleep and your heart rate.

• Eat healthy, and stay hydrated.

• Use your newfound virtual-meeting tools to stay in touch with family and friends.

• Schedule a Zoom dinner party.

• Take care of one another.

• Be kind to everyone.

Some Final Thoughts

After a while, the novelty of working from home may wear off. If and when that happens, we hope you’ll remember all of the service-industry workers who have to show up to work in order to get paid. And remember the healthcare workers who are on the front lines, doing battle against the virus, who continue to be in harm’s way without adequate masks and other critical protection.

No one knows how long social distancing will be required or whether more dramatic actions will be necessary. We find ourselves wondering whether people are taking this pandemic seriously and doing what’s necessary to avoid a bona fide human catastrophe. Recent photos from Fort Lauderdale beaches were mind-boggling. Yet, in that same social-media stream, there were posts about acts of courage and heroism.

This is a defining moment for us. Will future generations take pride in how we were able to make sacrifices, pull together, and care for each other?

Your Homework Assignment

So, first-time work-at-homers, get yourself set up, settle in, and shoot me an e-mail about how it’s going.

Nancy Urbschat is president of TSM Design; [email protected]

Coronavirus

We’re in This Together

From the Better Business Bureau

We don’t know how long COVID-19 crisis, with its shutdowns and social distancing, will last, but small businesses certainly need your support to make it through these uncertain times.

This crisis is affecting all types of small business. This includes places you use every day, such as your local coffee shop or favorite lunch place, but also businesses that might not immediately come to mind. The closures and cancellations hurt services like home-improvement contractors, daycare providers, dry cleaners, and car mechanics, as well as healthcare businesses, such as your dentist or chiropractor. Even business-to-business fields, such as the graphic designer who designs your office’s brochures or the accounting firm who does the books, are feeling the impact.   

By closing their doors temporarily, small businesses are helping to keep their customers and employees healthy. But the loss of income makes it tough to cover ongoing expenses like rent and salaries. These tips help ensure your favorite businesses have the cash they need to make it through these lean times.  

Here are the Better Business Bureau’s practical tips on how everyone can support small businesses — with or without spending money.

• Buy a gift card for later. Many small businesses that have had to close are offering gift certificates at discounted rates for when they open back up. Look on their websites and social accounts.

• Skip the refund and take a rain check. If you paid in advance for an event, such as theater or concert tickets, a class, or a service, consider taking a credit for the future instead of asking for a refund. These businesses will appreciate not needing to issue so many refunds right now.

• Commit to future work. While right now may not be the best time to start that home-renovation project, your contractor will appreciate you committing to future projects when business opens back up. The same goes for any future event or project.

• Shop (locally) online. Local shops and vendors may have closed their physical doors, but many still run online shops. Look for them on social media or check the their website for links to their online marketplace.

• Look for virtual classes. People who work in training or professional development — this can be anyone from your personal trainer to the person teaching your office’s public-speaking workshop — are finding creative ways to move their instruction online. Even though your local gym is closed, your favorite yoga teacher may be hosting a live class online. The same goes for people who offer professional trainings. Now may be a good time to brush up on your skills through an online course.

• Get takeout or delivery. Many restaurants and breweries are now offering takeout even as they close their dining rooms. Support these local institutions by getting your food or drinks to go and enjoying them at home.

Not everyone has the financial resources to pay in advance. So, if your own wallet is feeling the pinch, here are some free ways to support small businesses.

• Write an online review. This is a good time to finally get around to reviewing your favorite local business. These five-star reviews help companies rank well in search engines and on other listing services. This is an easy, free way to show your favorite small businesses that you support them.

• Like and share on social media. Help your favorite business reach a broader audience by liking and sharing their information on social media. This will help them reach future customers and gain more exposure.

• Tell your favorite businesses that you appreciate their work. These are tough times. Keep morale up by reaching out to the businesses in your community and letting them know that you appreciate their hard work.

In these times, many people will be working remotely. In addition to accessing BusinessWest online, readers may wish to add their home address. To do this, e-mail [email protected], visit  https://businesswest.com/contact-us/subscribe/, or call 413.781.8600.