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Safety First

 

As the weather warms up and people spend more time outside getting their yards and homes ready for the summer, it’s important to keep safety in mind before taking on that next project, especially when dealing with electricity. Eversource is reminding customers that working around electric lines or equipment can be dangerous or even fatal if proper precautions aren’t taken.

“Safety is something we think about every day; it’s part of our daily workflow and is ingrained in all that we do,” Eversource Vice President of Safety Ken Bogler said. “Our crews work around electric equipment in all kinds of weather conditions and receive extensive training to make sure any repair, upgrade, or maintenance work is done as safely as possible. We want to make sure our customers are armed with the information they need so they can remain vigilant and take the necessary precautions when around electric equipment.”

“We want to make sure our customers are armed with the information they need so they can remain vigilant and take the necessary precautions when around electric equipment.”

Customers should always assume power lines are live. Anyone planning to work outside with ladders or power tools should know exactly where electric equipment is located, know what it’s touching, and have a plan to avoid it. Even a quick brush against an energized wire can cause serious harm.

Eversource encourages all customers to keep these additional safety tips in mind throughout the year:

 

Outdoor Safety Tips

• Don’t touch anything or anyone that’s touching a downed wire.

• Stay as far away as possible from downed wires and fallen trees that could have wires caught in them. Broken power equipment can feed electricity directly into the ground, charging the ground.

• For anyone in an accident with a car or other vehicle near a downed power line, stay in the vehicle until an Eversource worker or first responder says it’s safe to exit.

• Call before you dig. Call 811 or (888) 344-7233 at least three days prior to digging so that utilities can mark underground wires, cables, and pipelines.

• Keep kites, Mylar party balloons, model planes, and drones far away from power lines.

• Always store electrical equipment indoors and never use corded power tools in wet or damp conditions.

 

Indoor Safety Tips

• Avoid touching any bare wires, faulty appliances, or electrical outlets; always assume a wire or electrical appliance is energized.

• Cover unused wall outlets with plastic safety caps to protect small children and pets; consider installing tamper-resistant receptacles if your outlets do not currently have them to prevent foreign objects, other than electrical plugs, from being inserted into the outlet.

• Never overload outlets by using multiple adapters or power strips as this can cause overheating and fire.

• Regularly check wires and extension cords for signs of wear and replace those that are frayed or cracked.

• Keep an all-purpose fire extinguisher on every floor of a home; never attempt to put out an electrical fire with water.

• Install outlets with a ground fault circuit interrupter in rooms where water and moisture are present.

• Unplug appliances while cleaning or repairing them.

 

Education

Giving a Hand Up

 

On April 30, representatives from Holyoke Community College and the Springfield-based nonprofit I Found Light Against All Odds agreed to work closely to increase educational and workforce training opportunities for young women at risk for homelessness. 

HCC President George Timmons and Stefan Davis, CEO, president, and founder of the Springfield-based I Found Light Against All Odds, met at the college to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of the agreement.  

I Found Light Against All Odds provides support services for young women to help address social and economic issues that can lead to poverty and homelessness. Specifically, by signing this memorandum, HCC and the foundation agree to broaden support services for area women, ages 18-20, to help them obtain safe housing and career opportunities through education and training. 

“This agreement is firmly in line with HCC’s mission and vision to remove barriers to student success, to break cycles of poverty, and provide opportunities for education and training that will allow more young women to be successful, earn a livable wage, and enjoy all that life has to offer,” Timmons said.

According to statistics cited in the memorandum of understanding, Hampden County has a poverty rate of 16.9%, which is higher than the national average of 11.5%. Meanwhile, the poverty rates in Springfield and Holyoke are even higher at 25.5% and 26%, respectively. 

“This agreement is firmly in line with HCC’s mission and vision to remove barriers to student success, to break cycles of poverty, and provide opportunities for education and training that will allow more young women to be successful, earn a livable wage, and enjoy all that life has to offer.”

“At the same time, research shows that many community-college students in Massachusetts experience hunger and/or homelessness, as well as other types of basic needs insecurity that can serve as barriers to degree completion and thereby limit economic sustainability and mobility,” the memorandum states.

Davis thanked Timmons and HCC faculty for the partnership. “We look forward to working with you and your staff to help these young women that are in darkness, searching for light and education. These women have dealt with a lot of trauma throughout their lives and are looking for ways to end the cycle of poverty. This collaboration proves that we care about them and that they have our support.”

Through the agreement, the foundation is looking to connect with HCC’s existing academic support services, such as admissions and financial-aid counseling, as well as career and transfer advising and more. 

“It’s a natural fit between an agency that works to support young women and a college, HCC, which is known for its wraparound support model,” said Jeff Hayden, HCC’s vice president of Business and Community Services.

Before the signing, Davis introduced a video about I Found Light Against All Odds that featured interviews from two of its consumers. One of them was Alisandra Pantoja from Springfield, who attended the April 30 event. 

Pantoja also stood beside Davis as he put pen to paper. She will be taking advantage of all the opportunities outlined in the agreement as a student at HCC starting in September, and plans to major in human services. “I like working with people,” she said.

Education

Expanded Opportunity

 

On May 6, Senate leaders unveiled MassEducate, a proposal for tuition-free, universal community college for all Massachusetts residents, aimed at boosting the state’s workforce and expanding opportunity for students and families in every part of the Commonwealth.

The announcement was made during an event at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, where Senate President Karen Spilka, Senate Ways & Means Chair Michael Rodrigues, and Senate Higher Education Chair Jo Comerford gathered with members of the Senate, presidents of the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges, business leaders, students, and advocates.

“Today, we shift conversations about college from ‘I wish’ to ‘I will’ for thousands of students and families in Massachusetts,” Spilka said. “We are investing in talent that is right here at home and opening the workforce floodgates to employers who are starved for graduates, so Massachusetts keeps the competitive edge that we pride ourselves in.”

MassEducate would invest $75.5 million in new spending to cover tuition and fees for all residents, as well as up to $1,200 for books, supplies, and other costs to students who make up to 125% of median income in the state. Pell-eligible students already eligible for a books stipend through state financial aid would also be eligible for a stipend for books, supplies, and costs of attendance, for a combined amount of up to $2,400 per year.

“Today, we shift conversations about college from ‘I wish’ to ‘I will’ for thousands of students and families in Massachusetts.”

“With the historic investments announced today, ushering in universally free community college and more, the Senate doubles down on our commitment to build back the power and promise of public higher education,” Comerford said. “The Senate investments will propel the Commonwealth forward toward greater social equity and greater economic competitiveness.”

The Senate’s plan, which will be included in the chamber’s FY 2025 budget, would continue to invest in programs created in the FY 2024 budget, including $18 million in free nursing programs at community colleges and $24 million in free community college for residents over age 25.

Students would be eligible for free tuition, fees, and the stipend in the fall 2025 semester if the proposal is included in the Commonwealth’s final FY 2025 budget.

To support students whose education paths can be jeopardized by unanticipated life events, Senate leaders announced the creation of the Student Persistence Fund, a $10 million investment that would go directly toward aiding community colleges and state universities in supporting low-income students with such costs that are shown to put someone’s chance of finishing school at risk, such as transportation, childcare, or food insecurity.

Understanding that retention and graduation is directly tied to support systems like advising and career planning, the Senate also proposed an $18.3 investment in the Supporting Urgent Community College Equity through Student Services (SUCCESS) program, which is designed for community colleges to invest in wraparound supports and services using models proven to strengthen outcomes for students facing systemic barriers, especially for colleges’ most underserved populations.

To ensure the long-term fiscal sustainability of the program, the Senate’s proposal would institute annual tuition-increase caps at community colleges set at an inflation index. And to hold community colleges accountable for producing positive outcomes, the proposal creates a working group to re-evaluate community-college performance funding, aimed at better aligning state funding with key metrics such as student success and workforce alignment.

Recognizing that many Massachusetts students opt directly for four-year universities, the budget makes a $105 million investment in the Massachusetts financial-assistance program MassGrant Plus, which keeps college costs low for students at all public colleges in the Commonwealth. This increased investment builds on recent investments that have allowed all Pell-eligible students in Massachusetts to go to a community college, state university, or UMass campus without paying tuition or fees.

The proposal additionally includes policy directives to study future paths to success for the Commonwealth’s students. It directs the Department of Higher Education to improve the credit transfer pathway between two- and four-year institutions so students can easily transfer to a public four-year institution. It also creates a new commission to evaluate current state financial assistance for students to attend state universities and UMass and evaluate ways to further ensure accessibility and affordability of an education at these institutions.

Technology

The Science of Naps

A UMass Amherst sleep scientist, funded with $6.7 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has launched two unprecedented studies that will track over time the brain development of infants and preschoolers to confirm the role of napping in early life and to identify the bioregulatory mechanisms involved.

Rebecca Spencer, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences who is well-known for her groundbreaking research into napping, is testing her theories about what’s happening in the hippocampus — the short-term-memory area of the brain — as babies and young children undergo nap transitions.

This new research is expected to become the gold standard of scientific evidence that emphasizes the importance of healthy sleep for young children as their brains develop. The findings will help inform nap policies for preschool and pre-kindergarten and be useful to teachers and parents of both neurotypical and neurodiverse children.

“The work we’ve been doing has always pointed to this interaction of sleep and brain development,” said Spencer, who carries out research in her Somneurolab at UMass Amherst. “We think that kids get ready to transition out of naps when the brain is big enough to hold all the information of the day until nighttime sleep.”

The study involving preschoolers is a collaboration between Spencer at UMass Amherst; Tracy Riggins, a developmental psychologist specializing in memory development at the University of Maryland (UMD); and Gregory Hancock, a UMD professor of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology. Previous research by Spencer and Riggins showed differences in the hippocampi of kids who nap compared to those who have transitioned out of naps.

“The work we’ve been doing has always pointed to this interaction of sleep and brain development. We think that kids get ready to transition out of naps when the brain is big enough to hold all the information of the day until nighttime sleep.”

“So far, we’ve used cross-sectional approaches,” said Spencer, referring to research that analyzes data at one point in time, as opposed to longitudinal studies that involve repeated observation over time. “We really need to show longitudinally within a child that the point when they transition out of naps is predicted by a transition in the development of their hippocampus.”

The hippocampus is the short-term location for memories before they move to the cortex for long-term storage. Naps allow children with an immature hippocampus to process memories. Young children give up their afternoon nap, not based on their age, but their brain development, Spencer hypothesized.

“Naps are beneficial to everybody. Naps protect memory for everybody, no matter what age. Kids who are habitual nappers really need the nap. If they don’t nap, they get catastrophic forgetting. That’s the difference between habitual and non-habitual nappers — not how good is the nap, but how bad is staying awake,” she explained.

Added Riggins, “in the end, being able to tell parents that those little deviations from routine that keep their children from napping might not have these huge implications for a neurotypical child in the long run would be great. And the more we know about how the brain works in a typically developing child during this nap transition, the more we will be able to know about where we could possibly intervene to help neurodiverse children — like children with autism and ADHD, whose sleep patterns tend to be disrupted — since we will have some sort of scientific basis.”

 

Go to Sleep

The research team is recruiting 180 children, ages 3 to 5. The researchers will track their brain development, memory performance, and nap status over the course of one year at three checkpoints. During the first and second sessions, the children will wear activity-tracking watches and EEG equipment to record naps and overnight sleep. They will also play memory games before and after naps. The children will undergo an MRI brain scan during the third session.

Monica and David Dumlao signed up their son Miles, 4, for the preschool study after watching the Netflix documentary series Babies, which features Spencer in the episode about sleep. “We like learning about the neuroscience behind brain development,” Monica Dumlao said at a recent study session in Spencer’s lab. “We thought this was a good opportunity to contribute to the science about the importance of naps.”

In the three-part infant study on nap transitions and memory, Spencer is studying the period before and after babies transition from two naps — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — to one, richer afternoon nap. She is recruiting 140 infants 7 to 9 months old. The babies will play a memory game before and after their naps. Their brain activity will be recorded during their naps using a non-invasive electrode cap. The sessions will take place at 9, 12, and 15 months.

“We think as they are getting ready to drop the morning nap, staying awake in that morning interval will be less and less damaging to their memory,” Spencer said. “But we don’t think that’s going to happen with the afternoon nap at this age. We think the afternoon nap stays superimportant.”

Opinion

Opinion

By John Henderson

Let’s face it: we are living and working in a socially and politically divisive world that can have a negative impact on a company’s culture. So what can an organization do about this in order to create and sustain a culture of respect in their workplace?

It really comes down to courtesy — being polite and aware of other’s concerns and feelings, and practicing the good manners of saying “hello,” asking “how are you?” and actually waiting for the person to respond rather than continuing to walk by them.

We foster a culture of respect by appreciating everyone for their uniqueness and intrinsic worth as a person — what they bring to the team and organization. We realize that we must create a place where people can be their authentic self at work. We show that we value and support others. And the most important thing is that we accept people for who they are and what they do, but we don’t necessarily need to agree with their opinions or values.

The last one is where many organizations fall short by allowing people’s differences to get in the way of having a productive and positive environment where people feel valued and feel that they belong.

As in real estate, where the most important things are location, location, and location, the things that are most important to creating a respectful workplace are communication, communication, and communication. We must lead by example and communicate openly and constructively.

We must also have embedded in our culture the willingness to effectively address disrespectful behavior, not turn and walk away from it. When communicating, make sure it is clear, specific, and understood by the recipient by asking them to repeat back what they heard and what you agree upon. Most importantly, remember that our non-verbal communication is 70% of what is conveyed.

To foster a culture of respect does not have to be a difficult undertaking. Ensuring that the values and norms of the organization are understood by all is the first step, but living them is the next step that needs to be part of everyday life in your organization.

 

John Henderson is director of Learning and Development at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Law

Gainful Employment

By Abby M. Warren, Esq. and Virginia E. McGarrity, Esq.

 

Whether you are picking up a well-respected periodical or a celebrity newsmagazine, you cannot avoid reading about semaglutide injection drugs — drugs used to control blood-sugar levels for individuals with type-2 diabetes and weight loss.

‘Ubiquitous’ is the only word to describe the news coverage of these ‘miracle medications.’ As news has spread about these medications, their use has expanded far outside of Hollywood to individuals across the country, ultimately leading to a reported shortage. So, what impact, if any, does weight, weight loss, or the spread of such medications have on the workplace?

 

Weighty Considerations

First, studies have long concluded that discrimination based on appearance, including weight, occurs in employment and other areas of life and that it may disproportionally impact a specific group or groups of individuals. Likely in response to such evidence, effective Nov. 26, 2023, New York City passed a law protecting individuals who live in, work in, or visit the city from discrimination based on their height or weight regarding employment, housing, and public accommodations.

While New York City may be an early adopter of such a law, there may be more jurisdictions that follow this trend. Further, on the federal level, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that height and weight are generally unacceptable pre-employment inquiries as they may disproportionately impact employees of different protected characteristics. In short, weight has always impacted the workplace, including workplace decisions.

Second, there may be harassment or workplace bullying related to appearance, including weight. Harassment, whether sexual or based on other protected characteristics, can involve comments or actions related to the physical body and appearance. The same is true of bullying and targeting in the workplace. In today’s climate, where millions of employees are being prescribed or taking weight-loss drugs, this may include employees asking questions of a co-worker who has lost weight, asking whether a co-worker is taking a weight-loss drug, making judgmental statements, stigmatizing such individuals, and similar behavior.

While harassment and bullying related to appearance may not be new, such treatment based on the perception that an employee may be taking a weight-loss drug could be a more recent area with which human resources must grapple.

Third, workplace culture may be impacted by the recent focus on weight and weight-loss medications, and the level of such impact may depend on several factors. For example, the employer’s geographic location, the industry, the overall focus on health and wellness in the workplace, and the employer’s commitment to inclusivity and belonging may all impact how weight and height will be viewed, including using such weight-loss medications.

In light of these workplace considerations and the attention that these weight-loss medications have received in recent months, a number of employers have opted to implement clinical lifestyle programs and personalized weight-loss management plans. The goal of these programs is to reduce the number of employees who might benefit from weight-loss medications like Wegovy.

To the extent employers have control over their healthcare coverage (fully insured plans are typically subject to state insurance laws and individual determinations made by insurance carriers), the decision of whether to cover these weight-loss medications is a challenging one. While these drugs have potential for long-term improvement in the health of employees and can drive future cost savings for the health plan, the cost of covering them today may not align with budget constraints and sustained increases in healthcare spending over the long term.

For example, the current list price of Wegovy is more than $1,300 per month, and most patients take it indefinitely to maintain their weight loss. North Carolina recently announced it would no longer cover Wegovy and other similar weight-loss medications for its employees, estimating that such continued coverage would cause premiums to double for all employees (not just those who are taking the medications). While it is difficult to determine how many private-employer health plans are covering these weight-loss medications, it does not appear that such coverage matches the rampant surge in popularity these medications have experienced in the past year.

 

Advice for Employers

At this juncture in history, where celebrities, media, and the American public are hyper-focused on weight, including weight-loss medications, what actions can employers consider?

First, it is essential to continue fostering a positive and inclusive work environment that extends to weight, height, body shape, and appearance. Trainings, policies, town halls and education, and other visible commitments to such inclusivity can all support such a culture.

Second, businesses should establish specific training of managers, supervisors, and individuals involved in recruiting and hiring about weight and height discrimination and bias (including studies that have demonstrated the existence of this bias), and how these employees can foster an inclusive work environment, and remove any relevant barriers that may exist.

Lastly, employers may wish to review their current culture, policies, and benefits to determine if the employer is supporting the health and well-being of employees and their health journeys, and whether there are potential areas of improvement.

 

Abby Warren and Virginia McGarrity are partners at Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Conn. Warren is a member of the firm’s Labor, Employment, Benefits, and Immigration Group, while McGarrity is a member of the Employee Benefits and Compensation Group.

Healthcare News

Meeting a Need

 

MiraVista Behavioral Health Center recently announced the expansion of its facilities with the opening of new adult inpatient treatment beds. These adult beds are in addition to the 16-bed adolescent unit which was recently renovated and now reopened.

The addition of these specialized beds reflects MiraVista’s ongoing commitment to meeting the growing demand for high-quality mental-healthcare services. With mental-health challenges on the rise globally, the Holyoke facility recognizes the importance of providing comprehensive and compassionate care to individuals with mental illness.

“We believe that everyone deserves access to effective treatment in a supportive environment, and these new beds will enable us to provide specialized care to more individuals in need.”

“Our decision to expand our inpatient treatment capacity underscores our dedication to serving our community and the Commonwealth and addressing the increasing need for mental-health services,” said Shelley Zimmerman, MiraVista’s hospital administrator. “We believe that everyone deserves access to effective treatment in a supportive environment, and these new beds will enable us to provide specialized care to more individuals in need.”

The new adult inpatient beds will offer a range of therapeutic interventions tailored to meet the unique needs of each patient. MiraVista’s multi-disciplinary team of experts, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and nurses, will work collaboratively to develop personalized treatment plans focused on promoting healing and recovery.

In addition to individualized therapy sessions, patients will have access to group therapy, medication management, recreational activities, educational workshops, and peer support, all designed to foster personal growth and empowerment. MiraVista’s holistic approach to treatment emphasizes wellness and resilience, empowering patients to achieve lasting positive change in their lives.

Direct admission without first being seen in an emergency department is a new process MiraVista introduced with the reopening of its adolescent unit.

 

Hope and Support

MiraVista also recognized May as Mental Health Awareness Month with a flag raising on May 9 and by illuminating its façade green.

“Green is used for the month to symbolize hope and support for individuals living with a mental illness,” said Kimberley Lee, chief of Creative Strategy and Development. “Our clinicians work across populations to help patients successfully manage their mental-health challenges and lead fulfilling lives in community.”

In conjunction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) observance of the month, Lee explained, MiraVista will highlight on its social media the diverse mental-health needs of various populations and encourage people to wear green.

“These 31 days are about advancing better understanding of mental health as a component of overall health and the importance of seeking evidence-based treatment for it when needed,” she said. “Whether someone is navigating personal challenges or extending empathy to others, this month holds significance for us all in showing support for mental healthcare.”

Lee said MiraVista will follow SAMHSA’s suggested weekly themes in highlighting the mental-health needs of older adults, children and teens, marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and, as a result of bullying and discrimination, are at high risk for mental-health conditions.

“We are amplifying our efforts during May to destigmatize mental health, enhance understanding, and cultivate a supportive environment,” Lee said. “Promoting mental health and treatment for it benefits everyone — from the individual managing it to the family and friends who love them, to the community in which they live and contribute.”

Law Special Coverage

Challenging the Rule

By Trevor Brice, Esq.

 

On April 23, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a final rule banning non-competition agreements for all employees. While this action by the FTC was expected, there were many unanswered questions about the final impact of the non-compete rule in regard to existing non-compete agreements and its scope as applied to future non-compete agreements. These questions were answered under the final rule as promulgated.

 

Most Non-competition Agreements Banned

The FTC’s final rule banning all non-competition agreements is effective 120 days after its publication in the Federal Register. As of the effective date, all non-competition agreements are banned, with close to no exceptions, except for franchisor/franchisee relationships and for sales of a business between buyer and seller.

Independent contractors are also included under the umbrella of employees that would no longer be subject to non-competition agreements under the final rule. This would effectively mean that many employees in industries such as film, finance, and other professional services now have the right to switch between employers, which the FTC states “will ensure Americans have the freedom to pursue a new job, start a new business, or bring a new idea to the market.”

Trevor Brice

Trevor Brice

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already vowed to block the rule, calling it ‘an unlawful power grab’ and arguing that the authority to govern non-competition agreements should be left to the states.”

However, and of note, the FTC does not have jurisdiction over nonprofit employers, so non-competition agreements are enforceable in this regard despite the FTC’s final rule.

 

Final Rule Retroactive as to Lower-wage Workers

In addition to prohibiting all non-competition agreements after the effective date of the final rule with limited exceptions, the FTC’s rule is retroactive, prohibiting certain non-competition agreements before the effective date of the rule as well.

Existing non-competition agreements can remain in effect as to senior executives, which are defined in the rule as employees in ‘policy-making positions’ making at least $151,164 per year. Existing non-competition agreements with employees who do not meet this definition are no longer enforceable per the final rule.

Despite the final rule, employers do not need to modify existing non-competition agreements by rescinding them. Employers do, however, need to notify their workers that the employer will not enforce non-competition agreements in the future. The FTC has included in its final rule model language for informing employees of this change, which can be communicated through email, text, or in paper format.

The final rule does not generally impact non-disclosure agreements or non-solicitation agreements unless they prohibit a worker from seeking or accepting work or operating a business. Employers should be aware that more restrictive state laws governing non-competition agreements remain in effect.

 

Challenges to Final Rule Looming

As of the announcement of the FTC’s final rule, challenges are already looming. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already vowed to block the rule, calling it “an unlawful power grab” and arguing that the authority to govern non-competition agreements should be left to the states.

The statement issued by the Chamber of Commerce goes on to note that, “since its inception over 100 years ago, the FTC has never been granted the constitutional and statutory authority to write its own competition rules. Non-compete agreements are either upheld or dismissed under well-established state laws governing their use.”

This announcement by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will undoubtedly lead to other challenges through the court system. Indeed, a Dallas-based global tax-services and software provider has already filed suit against the Federal Trade Commission over the impact of the final rule.

The FTC, as the Chamber of Commerce rightly points out, has no authority to write its own competition rules. The FTC can, however, make rules if it goes through the proper rule-making process, including introducing proposed legislation and leaving it open to comment for a certain amount of time, which did occur here.

However, even following this process does not ensure that the rule will stand. The rule still remains open to court challenges from the Chamber of Commerce, individuals, or organizations affected by the rule or any other stakeholders within the final rule. This could mean that changes would be on the horizon for the rule, and possibly a narrowing of its already expansive application.

 

Takeaways

As noted, the FTC’s final rule is already being challenged through the court system, and a challenge from the Chamber of Commerce will most likely follow suit. Therefore, if an employer has existing non-competition agreements, the employer may not need to rescind them just yet.

Further, if employers are intending to enter into non-competition agreements that are reasonable and enforceable under existing state laws, other options, such as non-disclosure agreements and non-solicitation agreements, may have to be used, but it would be prudent to wait on further ruling from the existing challenges to the final rule.

In the meantime, consultation with an attorney will aid in navigating the changing landscape of non-competition agreements.

 

Trevor Brice 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 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.

Health Care Special Coverage

Toward Their Best Life

 

The Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) recently announced the launch of its new community support program (CSP), which is part of its BestLife Clinic.

The program aims to help individuals who are facing social, economic, and environmental factors that significantly impact their ability to access healthcare and live independently. CSP is a mobile, short-term (three to six months), intensive case-management service that helps clients who are dealing with unemployment, food insufficiency, transportation, and housing issues.

CSP services are available to individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental-health, substance-use, or co-occurring disorder. To qualify for these services, individuals must have had either a psychiatric hospitalization discharge within the past six months, multiple emergency-room visits within the past 90 days, or documented barriers to accessing and consistently utilizing essential medical and behavioral-health services. Clients must be at least 18 years old and actively enrolled in therapy, and they must be residents of Hampshire or Hampden county and not receiving other case-management services.

“The services they provide allow for our clinicians, recovery coaches, and medication prescribers to focus on their main tasks of providing therapy, peer support, and treatment, while they also serve as another set of eyes helping to monitor our participants’ needs and overall well-being.”

“Community support programs are very important for our participants as well as for our other service providers, such as clinicians, recovery coaches, and medication prescribers,” said René Piñero, vice president of Behavioral Health and Clinical Operations. “The services they provide allow for our clinicians, recovery coaches, and medication prescribers to focus on their main tasks of providing therapy, peer support, and treatment, while they also serve as another set of eyes helping to monitor our participants’ needs and overall well-being.”

Clients who qualify will work with MHA’s behavioral-health case managers to improve their overall lives by developing their daily living skills and helping them access critical resources such as benefits, housing, and healthcare. Clients will also receive assistance with accessing recovery-oriented peer-support groups and temporary assistance with transportation to essential medical and behavioral health appointments.

CSP services are available via community outreach, telehealth, and in-person. MHA accepts referrals through its Central Intake Department and accepts MassHealth and some insurances. To get in touch, call (844) 642-9355 or email the BestLife Clinic at [email protected].

MHA provides access to therapies for emotional health and wellness; services for substance use recovery, developmental disabilities, and acquired brain injury; services for housing and residential programming; and more. Its goal is to provide person-driven programming to foster independence, community engagement, wellness, and recovery.

Business of Aging

Season of Change

By the Arbors Assisted Living

 

Senior planning presents significant challenges as society ages. Evolving care needs; quality of care; emotional, physical, and financial burdens on caregivers; social isolation and loneliness; and healthcare accessibility are all concerns families face when recognizing a need for change.

While change can be scary, it’s also an inevitable part of life and can lead to many positive outcomes, such as new opportunities and fresh perspectives. In regard to senior planning, here are some positive changes you may find in addition to improving the quality of life and overall well-being of your loved one:

Person-centered Care: There has been a shift towards person-centered care in senior living communities, focusing on individual preferences, needs, and goals. This approach emphasizes dignity, autonomy, and respect for seniors, allowing them to make choices about their daily routines, activities, and care.

Increased Focus on Wellness: Many senior living communities now offer comprehensive wellness programs designed to promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. These programs may include fitness classes, recreational activities, educational seminars, and mental-health support services.

“Many senior living communities now offer comprehensive wellness programs designed to promote physical, emotional, and social well-being. These programs may include fitness classes, recreational activities, educational seminars, and mental-health support services.”

Age-friendly Design: Senior living communities are incorporating age-friendly design principles to create environments that are accessible, comfortable, and supportive of older adults’ needs. This includes features such as wheelchair ramps, grab bars, non-slip flooring, and well-lit common areas.

Community Engagement: There is a growing emphasis on fostering community engagement and social connections among seniors in senior living settings. Communities offer social events, group outings, volunteer opportunities, and intergenerational programs to combat social isolation and loneliness.

Flexible Living Options: Senior living options have become more diverse and flexible to accommodate varying preferences and care needs. In addition to traditional assisted living and nursing home facilities, there are now more options for independent living, continuing-care retirement communities, and aging in place with home-care support.

Culinary Excellence: Senior living communities are elevating their dining experiences by offering restaurant-style dining, diverse menus, and nutritious meal options tailored to seniors’ dietary preferences and health needs.

Emphasis on Lifelong Learning: Senior living communities are providing opportunities for lifelong learning and personal enrichment through educational classes, workshops, and cultural activities. These programs help seniors stay mentally stimulated, engaged, and connected to their interests and passions.

Family Involvement and Support: Senior living facilities are recognizing the importance of involving families in the care and decision-making process. They may offer family-support services, communication channels, and family-engagement activities to foster collaboration and support among residents and their loved ones.

Advancements in Memory Care: For seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, there have been advancements in memory-care programs and specialized services. These programs focus on providing personalized care, sensory stimulation, and meaningful activities to enhance quality of life and preserve cognitive function.

 

Having the Conversation

Many families we encounter struggle with navigating this type of change with their loved ones. While we recognize the benefits and importance of senior planning, it’s important to understand that the seniors in our lives come from a different generation and may not fully grasp how much the industry has evolved.

Initiating a conversation can be the most challenging aspect. However, when explaining the need for change to a senior, it’s crucial to approach the discussion with empathy, respect, and clarity. Here’s how you might do so:

Acknowledge Feelings: Start by acknowledging any concerns or fears the senior may have about the proposed change. Let them know that it’s normal to feel apprehensive about new things, but change can also bring positive opportunities and improvements.

Highlight Benefits: Explain the reasons behind the proposed change and the potential benefits it could bring. For example, if you’re discussing a move to a senior living community, you might highlight the social opportunities, amenities, and support services available that could enhance their quality of life.

“If they’re concerned about losing independence, you could discuss how the new arrangement will still allow them to make decisions and maintain control over their life.”

Address Specific Concerns: Listen attentively to the senior’s concerns and address them one by one. Offer reassurance and practical solutions to alleviate any worries they may have. For instance, if they’re concerned about losing independence, you could discuss how the new arrangement will still allow them to make decisions and maintain control over their life.

Focus on Needs and Preferences: Emphasize how the proposed change aligns with the senior’s needs, preferences, and goals. Help them see how it could better meet their current and future needs, whether it’s improved safety, access to healthcare, or opportunities for socialization.

Involve Them in Decision Making: Involve the senior in the decision-making process and respect their autonomy. Encourage them to share their thoughts, preferences, and concerns, and consider their input when making plans for change. This can help them feel more empowered and in control of the situation.

Provide Support: Offer practical support and assistance throughout the transition process. This could include helping with logistics such as packing, moving, and settling into a new environment, as well as emotional support to help them adjust to the changes.

Highlight Past Successes: Remind the senior of times when they successfully navigated change in the past. Reflecting on past experiences of resilience and adaptability can help boost their confidence and willingness to embrace new challenges.

Offer Time and Patience: Give the senior time to process the information and adjust to the idea of change. Be patient and supportive, and avoid pressuring them to make decisions before they’re ready. Let them know that you’re there to support them every step of the way.

Stay Positive and Encouraging: Maintain a positive and encouraging attitude throughout the conversation. Focus on the potential opportunities and improvements that the change could bring, and express confidence in the senior’s ability to adapt and thrive in the new situation.

Follow Up and Check In: After the change has been implemented, continue to check in regularly with the senior to see how they’re adjusting and address any ongoing concerns or challenges. Offer ongoing support and encouragement as needed to help them navigate the transition successfully.

 

Conclusion

By approaching the conversation with empathy, understanding, and support, you can help your loved one feel more comfortable and confident about embracing change and navigating new opportunities in their life.

While we may be biased, we genuinely believe that embracing change during your loved ones’ golden years can be positive. As a family member, you’ll find comfort in knowing they’re receiving excellent care and enjoying a fulfilling experience.

Sales and Marketing Special Coverage

Getting the Message Across

 

Marketing and communications in 2024 are evolving further, with no signs of slowing down. The year ahead promises groundbreaking shifts, from artificial intelligence revolutionizing marketing and user engagement to big brands capitalizing on social media’s bite-sized content for enhanced product exposure. Add to this the rise of immersive digital experiences, and you have a transformative landscape. Here’s what the experts at the integrated marketing agency 9Rooftops have to say:

 

Creative Shifts: Renewed Nostalgia and Inspiration

By Scott Seymour

Adaptable Personalization: With advancements in customization and AI workflows, new opportunities arise to resonate in ways we never thought possible. People will have the freedom to consume content tailored specifically for them. The ability to create adaptable creative to match someone’s current mood or their desired need state is worth exploring. Then, having the design expressed in a way that is completely in sync with their personal aesthetic preferences will be incredibly valuable.

Minimalism and Decluttering: Now more than ever, with massive amounts of information coming at us at any given moment, a movement toward simplification is welcomed. Reducing clutter throughout all aspects of our lives, including incoming communications, allows people to truly focus on what matters most without unnecessary distractions. Carefully curated content and purposeful design choices will genuinely deliver on the principle that less is more.

“With advancements in customization and AI workflows, new opportunities arise to resonate in ways we never thought possible.”

Fantastical Inspiration: Sparked by AI image generation and fueled by possibility, we anticipate an acceleration of surreal, fantastical styles that provoke a sense of wonder and escapism. A hyper-real utopian aesthetic blurs the lines between reality and imagination. With this extraordinary style of captivating imagery, surreal illumination, and dreamlike color palettes, they will continue to delight and defy reality.

Rise of Kindness: Acts of kindness uplift people when they need it most. Brands that tap into this concept will deepen connections with their consumers in new ways. This will promote empathy, fostering a sense of gratitude that can be contagious.

Nostalgia Reimagined: Fueled by a need for authenticity, optimism, and a desire for what’s next, a foundation of shared nostalgic cultural connections, themes, and designs will create stronger social bonds. Blending this charm with a modern twist will keep things fresh and interesting.

 

Social Media Shifts: Connecting Through Social-first Tactics

By Julia Repisky

TikTok: It’s no surprise that this social-media platform will continue to reign; in fact, TikTok is anticipated to increase its user base to 900 million, an 8% increase, so being active is more paramount than ever in 2024, especially as the audience continues to diversify beyond just kids.

Bite-sized Content: Short, easily digestible content led TikTok and Instagram reels to their huge success, especially as attention spans continue to shrink. People want content they can consume in seconds, and your brand should be able to deliver that in an authentic way.

SEO on Social: Gen Z and Millennials rely on social for more than entertainment. About 40% of young adults between 18 and 24 use social media like a search engine, meaning you’ll need to go beyond just hashtags to hit the right keywords to make your social presence known.

Hybrid, AI Content: The AI buzz won’t calm down anytime soon and will become an integral part of social-media content creation, whether to help with inspiration, optimize content, or create something completely new. Don’t be afraid to play around with what AI can help you do.

Raw, Authentic Content: Social media isn’t the place for polished product placement anymore. Users don’t want perfection, but a feed full of relatable, highly (or even completely) unedited content that feels natural. In 2024, aim for less overanalyzing and creating more content in the moment.

 

Customer Relationship Management: Emerging Patterns and Insights

By Jenny Brenner

Decisioning and Personalization Relevancy: This has always been a key driver in connecting effectively with prospects and customers, and with new AI tools aiming to decrease technical barriers, automate, and ease integration, anticipate an even higher baseline for personalized product offerings, content, and communications in the marketplace. Revisit your personalization capabilities to ensure you’re scoring and maximizing output across transactional, behavioral, and situational data.

Zero-Party Data Campaigns: They’re not going anywhere, gaining popularity in 2023 as an initial outcome of cookie-deprecation announcements. Expect brands to continue to take advantage of these for turnkey data collection and application, which are well-suited for on-the-fly personalization, situational and environmental touchpoints, and driving conversion-rate optimization results.

Interactivity: In an increasingly digital environment, it’s even more challenging for brands to break through the clutter in inboxes and experiences. Increasing the interactivity of your digital touchpoints, from email to MMS/SMS, can help significantly boost engagement and results. Make interactive features and formats, like GIFs, quizzes, and countdown clocks a regular part of your digital brand experience to engage customers and deliver offers and content in a unique and memorable way.

Experiential Rewards: Engaging loyalty-program members requires a blend of transactional and emotional benefits. While transactional benefits — discounts, offers, points — can drive direct replenishment and purchase retention, incorporating experiences, whether gamified or as exclusive rewards, can drive brand differentiation, preference, and loyalty. Pilot a gamified or exclusive experiential element in your loyalty program to spark member interest and engagement.

“In an increasingly digital environment, it’s even more challenging for brands to break through the clutter in inboxes and experiences.”

Prioritizing Customer Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Increases in consumer privacy policy will continue into 2024, and as key platforms and providers decrease the amount of data shared back to marketers, brands need to find alternative measurement solutions across digital ecosystems. Prioritize defining, regularly calculating, and placing weight on customer-centric metrics alongside campaign KPIs in 2024 to provide a bigger picture of your campaign’s impact on ultimate goals: changing key behaviors and growing customer lifetime value.

 

Experience Marketing: Transformational Engagement

By Kate Bradbury

Immersive Digital Experiences: The introduction of the Sphere in Las Vegas has sparked a ton of excitement around the power of immersive artistic experiences where visual, sound, and physical form all come together in awe-inspiring ways. Advances in technology have made production more flexible and affordable for smaller-scale events. Moreover, discussing experiential marketing ROI through data science remains a way forward to measure results for a diversity of experience marketing strategies.

Scalable and Reusable: Efficient execution and long-term thinking around event assets will be critical as larger economic trends put pressure on marketing budgets. Creating event platforms that can scale up and down and reusable assets can help stretch marketing dollars. Plus, reusable assets help make events more sustainable.

Tech-powered Personalization and Customization: AI has seen a rapid technological increase and adoption rates. We think AI will enhance targeting and customization exponentially, allowing marketers to build dynamic experiences precisely tailored to their consumers from beginning to end. AI will also allow for consumer-driven, personalized experiences.

Exclusivity: FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, and post-COVID consumers are again placing an emphasis on gathering once-in-a-lifetime-style memories and experiences. Highly curated events with a level of exclusivity are a perfect fit for the right brand and can be magnified via an influencer approach.

“Online shopping is more convenient than ever, so if people are going to spend time going to a store, they want something special.”

Experiential Retail and Pop-ups: Online shopping is more convenient than ever, so if people are going to spend time going to a store, they want something special. Creating unique experiences with the full transformation of spaces or launching memorable pop-up shops are ways for brands to stand out. These dynamic and bespoke experiences help drive social sharing, additional brand impressions, and customer loyalty.

 

Digital Experience: Advancements in Personalization and AI

By Patti Mulligan

Hyper-personalization: As the practice of being treated as a unique individual increases loyalty, the demand for personalized experiences will continue to grow. AI will be increasingly reliant on analyzing customer data to facilitate these experiences. In fact, AI will offer real-time personalization of user experiences, which may result in immediate data analysis. An AI algorithm will immediately analyze a user’s actions on platforms, including clicks, navigation, and internal search queries, and adjust the website page’s products.

Sustainability: Developers will focus on improving performance of digital solutions, requiring less from servers and networks. There is a general concern across the spectrum of designers, developers, users, and customers who are committed to social responsibility and the environmental impacts of their experiences and products.

AI Integration: This is an obvious trend that is only gaining traction from development tools for more efficient coding to image generation and behavior insights. In fact, by 2030, the global revenue forecast for AI is projected to reach a mind-numbing $1.3 billion. Every big brand is traversing the AI landscape, including Google’s generative AI search experience. In theory, this will result in more data-driven designs that revolve around user insights.

Immersive Experiences: AR and VR will grow in usage and popularity and will be used increasingly to enable product interactions that are key to encouraging customer loyalty. Future evolutions will allow for virtual stores, enhanced product visualizations and experiences, and interactive product demonstrations. AR already enables virtual try-ons, which allows users to see how products look on them with their smartphones, helping encourage more confidence in the purchase process. Moreover, AR personalization allows you to see if that sofa looks right in your living room, or if that hat you found online will match your sport coat. Expect all these examples to evolve and expand into more consumer use cases.

Accessibility: A timeless requirement rather than a trend, accessibility should never fall out of the limelight. With one in four Americans having a disability, it is imperative for all users to be able to access websites. By implementing ADA guidelines, the benefits to companies are great as accessibility fosters inclusivity and quality, expands audiences, builds brand image and reputation, and prevents costly litigation.

 

The Creator Economy: New Influences

By Pamela Pacheco

Brand and Influencer Collaborations: Influencer marketing has become an integral part of brand promotion. In a 2023 Influencer Marketing Hub survey, an overwhelming 83% of respondents said they believe influencer marketing continues to be effective. Now, brands are taking it a step further by collaborating with influencers to create new products. This approach enables brands to leverage the influencer’s creativity and knowledge of their audience, resulting in more authentic products for their target audience. It also generates greater engagement and loyalty among consumers. This mutually beneficial collaboration between brands and influencers has proven to be effective in enhancing the overall success of marketing campaigns and will continue to evolve during 2024.

Social Commerce: In 2024, the alliance between influencer marketing and social commerce is set to rewrite the rules of online shopping. As the annual average social commerce sales per buyer is projected to grow 21.3% (according to an eMarketer report) this year and social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube continue to incorporate shopping features, influencers will act as the center, providing first-hand product reviews, live demonstrations, and real-time purchasing guidance to their audiences. This trend will enhance the shopping experience and offer brands a dynamic way to reach and convert consumers directly within their favorite social platforms.

“In a fun twist, employees are stepping into the spotlight as new influencers, leveraging their connection to the brand’s values and culture to cultivate deeper trust and engagement with consumers.”

Brand Employees Become Influencers: As this industry continues to evolve, brands are recognizing the potential within their staff. In a fun twist, employees are stepping into the spotlight as new influencers, leveraging their connection to the brand’s values and culture to cultivate deeper trust and engagement with consumers. Employees turned influencers will be encouraged to share their experiences, opinions, and knowledge about the brand to create authentic content that fosters deeper connections with consumers. So how are brands selecting these employees? They look for employees who are active on social media, have a considerable following, and possess strong communication skills. Now, anyone from the CEO to a sales associate can become a brand ambassador.

Macro- and Micro-Influencers Combine: The combination of macro- and micro-influencers will become a popular strategy for brands looking to diversify their audience reach and engagement in the world of influencer marketing. Macro-influencers typically have a larger following and higher social-media reach, while micro-influencers are more relatable and have a more niche following, which can result in higher engagement rates. By combining both types of influencers, brands can create a marketing campaign that appeals to a wide range of consumers and generates a higher level of engagement and loyalty.

Community-centric Influence: Influencers will shift their focus from chasing follower counts to nurturing social communities. This trend emphasizes meaningful engagements, discussions, and immersive experiences within niche communities, reshaping the influencer landscape.

 

 

Scott Seymour is executive vice president and chief creative officer, Julia Repisky is senior content and social media strategist, Jenny Brenner is group director of digital strategy and CRM solutions, Kate Bradbury is managing director, Patti Mulligan is vice president and director of digital experience, and Pamela Pacheco is senior social media strategist at 9Rooftops.

Wealth Management

Why the Assignment Is Best Left to a Professional

By Linda Dagilus, Steve Hamlin, and Janice Ward

 

Linda Dagilus

Linda Dagilus

Steve Hamlin

Steve Hamlin

Janice Ward

Janice Ward

Years ago, they might have been known as an executor or, in the case of a woman, an executrix. And you still hear those terms occasionally.

But today, the phrase commonly used in reference to an individual handling someone else’s estate is ‘personal representative.’ And while the title may have changed, the responsibilities haven’t. They are significant, and there may actually be more of them today — a list that includes everything from the administration of a will to the handling of funeral arrangements; from preparing a final accounting and tax return to selling an estate; from investigating all claims against an estate and handling them accordingly to, yes, finding a home, or homes, for the pets of the deceased.

This broad and imposing range of responsibilities explains why those with estates, and especially large estates or those with complex assets, should think carefully about whom they choose to be their personal representative to administer their estate after they pass.

While family members have historically handled these duties, increasingly individuals are leaving these matters to third-party professionals, specifically trust officers — and for very good reasons. The most basic is the often-uncomfortable reality that settling an estate can be an unsettling experience, one that can potentially damage and destroy personal family relationships and result in mistakes that a professional might otherwise avoid.

But there are many reasons why individuals are increasingly looking to professionals to be personal representatives. First, they may not have family to turn to, or family they would consider qualified. Indeed, this is a considerable amount of work, some of it complex in nature, to put on someone who is not an expert in this area and has never done it before.

“Those with estates, and especially large estates or those with complex assets, should think carefully about whom they choose to be their personal representative to administer their estate after they pass.”

Also, many people simply don’t want to saddle a loved one with all that responsibility, especially at what will likely be a difficult time for them emotionally and when they are also likely juggling many other aspects of life and work. Additionally, choosing one family member over another to be your personal representative can often lead to conflict with the family member(s) not chosen.

Many of those turning to professionals, such as the Estate Settlement team within Greenfield Savings Bank Wealth Management and Trust Services, are recently divorced or surviving spouses who have found themselves suddenly in charge of their household’s financial savings and investments that had previously been handled primarily by their spouse.

The full list of responsibilities handled by a personal representative helps explain why it is best left to a professional and not a family member. It starts with pets, especially when there is no one else living with the recently deceased individual, but also includes everything from getting mail stopped and forwarded to a new address to securing the property to changing the locks and shutting off the water.

But it quickly proceeds to other, more complex financial matters that include:

• Entering the will into probate and assuring that all legal requirements of the settlement process are completed;

• Accounting for all personal property and arranging for the support of the family;

• Collecting all life insurance, rents, and other amounts due;

• Obtaining appraisals of the property for required tax purposes;

• Preparing a final accounting of the estate; and

• Distributing the estate as directed by the will.

While choosing a family member may seem logical and respectful, and some family members may actually volunteer for this work, most individuals are not fully qualified to handle such duties, and even if they are, they would often be placed in a difficult situation where relationships can become strained and matters can be delayed.

There is often a perception of unfairness if one family member is making all the decisions that affect the personal finances and tax consequences of each beneficiary. For example, is this individual liquidating all the assets — which might cause significant capital gains to family members who pay high tax rates — and are those decisions equally fair and appropriate for all affected parties?

It is a fact: estate administration is complicated and time-consuming. Money can, and often does, complicate relationships. Money can make people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Money can breed distrust — and worse.

And that’s why the work of a personal representative is best left to a professional.

 

Linda M. Dagilus, vice president and trust officer, has more than 25 years of experience in the financial-services industry. Stephen B. Hamlin, CTFA, senior vice president and senior trust officer, is a certified trust and fiduciary advisor with more than 35 years of experience in trust banking and investment management. Janice E. Ward, Esq., CFP, first vice president and trust officer, is an attorney and certified financial planner with more than 20 years of experience in trust banking and wealth management.

 

Wealth Management

Securing the Future

By Patricia M. Matty, AIF

 

With the Secure Act 1.0 of 2019 and the updated Secure Act 2.0, which went into effect in 2023, there have been many important changes to the rules and regulations for retirement saving and investing over the past five years.

While the elimination of the ‘stretch IRA’ was a key feature of the first Secure Act, the update provides many enhancements for investors. (The so-called stretch IRA refers to leaving an IRA to a non-spouse beneficiary who could then ‘stretch’ distributions from the IRA over their lifetime, thus enhancing the tax-deferral feature of the IRA.)

As financial planners, one of our goals is to help clients save as much as possible for retirement in the most tax-efficient manner. This usually involves maxing out retirement-plan contributions (workplace plans like the 401(k) and 403(b), as well as IRAs), as well as deferring the income associated with retirement-plan withdrawals as long as possible.

“As planners, these changes often prompt investigating alternative ways to pass on wealth earlier to heirs, including layering in additional diversification with investments spread between retirement accounts, Roth IRA/401(k) plans, and non-retirement assets.”

Some key changes associated with these goals are summarized as follows:

• Starting in 2025, the workplace ‘catch-up’ contribution for individuals ages 60-63 will increase to $10,000 per year (from $7,500). The IRA catch-up contribution, which is now set at $1,000, will be indexed to inflation starting in 2024. For high-income earners, 2026 will see a change that restricts catch-up contributions in workplace plans to a Roth account in after-tax dollars.

• RMDs (required minimum distributions) from retirement accounts start at age 73, thanks to the Secure Act 2.0. Starting in 2033, this will increase to age 75. For retirees that have sufficient income and assets in non-retirement accounts, delaying RMDs as long as possible is generally preferred.

• The penalty for not taking your RMD decreased to 25% from 50% (of the RMD amount). This penalty will decrease to 10% if the IRA owner withdraws the RMD and files a corrected tax return in a timely manner. While these penalties are quite rare in our experience, the previous 50% rate was severe and too punitive.

Younger workers and their priorities also received some beneficial changes to the rules and regulations:

• Starting in 2025, businesses adopting new 401(k) and 403(b) plans must automatically enroll eligible employees at a contribution rate of at least 3%. We’ve found that inertia is the enemy when it comes to saving for retirement. Getting younger workers started on the habit of saving and investing is critical to reaping the benefits of tax-deferred growth over the long term.

• Student-loan debt and payments are often cited as a reason for not contributing to a workplace retirement plan. Starting in 2024, employers will be able to match employee student-loan payments with matching payments to a retirement account.

• For 529 college savings plans that have been open for at least 15 years, ‘unspent’ plan assets can be rolled over into a Roth IRA for the beneficiary (subject to a lifetime limit of $35,000).

These selected highlights represent a small sample of the changes brought about by Secure Act 2.0. On balance, we believe the changes provide enhancements to the ability of investors and savers to provide for a prosperous retirement.

As planners, these changes often prompt investigating alternative ways to pass on wealth earlier to heirs, including layering in additional diversification with investments spread between retirement accounts, Roth IRA/401(k) plans, and non-retirement assets.

Eliminating the stretch IRA is inducing non-spouse beneficiaries to take mandatory distributions out over a five- or 10-year period versus over their lifetimes. This can significantly increase the beneficiary’s tax bracket, which may not have been the intention of the financial/estate plan.

Here are just a few options your financial planner can help you look at to navigate these changes:

• Depending upon your own personal tax bracket, you may want to take larger IRA distributions and gift funds to your children before you pass.

• Convert pre-tax retirement assets to Roth IRAs.

• Diversify your savings between qualified and non-qualified accounts.

• If you give to charities, you can donate directly from your retirement accounts once you hit age 70. These gifts and distributions are tax-free to you and have zero tax implications on your income

• Take larger retirement-plan distributions (speak with your accountant and your financial advisor first to ensure this may be a good option, as taking larger distributions may also impact your Medicare premiums), and make annual gifts to your children while you are alive. If you are married, you have a higher AGI than if you are single in later years.

As is always the case, consult your financial professional or tax preparer to see how the changes in the Secure Act 2.0 affect your individual circumstances. This information is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as advice. St. Germain Investment Management does not offer any tax or legal advice.

 

Patricia M. Matty is senior vice president, financial advisor, and financial advisory director for St. Germain Investment Management.

Wealth Management

Stay the Course

By Jeff Liguori

 

One trillion dollars. That number of zeroes, 12 in all, is difficult to comprehend.

But in the world of investing, ‘trillion’ is becoming more common. Market capitalization, computed by multiplying the number of shares outstanding by the current price of that company’s stock, is a standard measure of valuation for a public company. There are currently seven stocks with a valuation that exceeds $900 billion: Microsoft, Apple, NVIDIA, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook), Alphabet (formerly Google), and Berkshire Hathaway, in order of size.

The valuation of those seven companies is currently $15.9 trillion in aggregate. At the start of 2020, the valuation of the same seven companies combined was roughly $5.6 trillion, and only two companies — Apple and Microsoft — had exceeded $1 trillion in market capitalization.

We will refer to these seven companies as the ‘Super Seven.’

Jeff Liguori

Jeff Liguori

“Comparing the output of a country to that of a technology company is a fun exercise, and not at all realistic, but it does illustrate the magnitude of these trillion-dollar behemoths.”

In a little more than four years, despite a global pandemic which took the S&P 500 down by nearly 30% in a month, the market cap of the Super Seven has increased by almost 300%, while the S&P 500 has returned almost 74%.

For perspective, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the U.S. is approximately $28 trillion, up from $22 trillion at the end of 2019, an increase of 27%. The U.S. workforce is about 134 million people, which means each worker contributes, on average, $209,000 to annual GDP. In contrast, the Super Seven have a total of 3.06 million employees (Amazon is more than half of that total) and should generate about $2.5 trillion in revenue this year, which equates to $827,000 of output per employee. Employees of the Super Seven contribute 300% more than the average employee in the U.S. contributes to our GDP.

If Microsoft was a country, it would be the sixth-largest in the world, slightly smaller than the GDP of India but larger than that of the United Kingdom. Apple would be the eighth-largest, in between the economies of France and Russia. If the two companies merged to form the country of Microapple, it would be the third-largest economy at nearly $6 trillion dollars, with fewer than 400,000 residents.

OK, maybe these are not fair comparisons.

Other than Berkshire Hathaway, the seven companies are technology-focused, which by their nature require fewer workers because the businesses are highly efficient. The U.S. economy is dominated by service jobs, and approximately 80 million of the 134 million employed are paid hourly. Comparing the output of a country to that of a technology company is a fun exercise, and not at all realistic, but it does illustrate the magnitude of these trillion-dollar behemoths.

What can this top-heavy market indicate about future returns? Jason Goepfert of Sundial Capital Research, which uses huge data sets to help frame market direction, looked at the performance of equally weighting the 500 stocks in the index versus the actual performance of the S&P 500, where it is weighted by size, thus dominated by the Super Seven.

In the past three years, the equally weighted index is up 25% versus 36% for the S&P 500. The gap widens further, a 75% versus 98% return, respectively, in the past five years. It is the second-widest spread since 1958. When was the gap higher? In late 1999, as the dot-com bubble was nearing a climax. Some market analysts are concerned that the artificial-intelligence boom, which has fueled growth in these large technology companies, is the new dot-com bubble.

Despite the average stock underperforming the S&P 500 for the past few years, there may be reason for optimism. My firm, Napatree Capital, put out commentary (click here) in October of last year highlighting shares of Target (TGT) as an example of a stock that could play “catch-up” and help fuel the rally. We noted that “shares of Target (TGT) are trading 25%-30% below its historic average valuation, and more than 50% below its peak valuation. The stock is down 27% year to date, after losing 34% of its value in 2022. If such stocks start to rally, it should be healthy for the broader market.”

Since Nov. 1 of last year, the price of Target’s stock has rallied nearly 65%. And it is a similar story for other bellwether stocks such as Citigroup (C), Delta Airlines (DAL), Home Depot (HD), Bank of America (BAC), Disney (DIS), and others, which had dismal performance leading into the third quarter of last year but have since beaten the S&P 500 by a wide margin.

If you’re frustrated by the returns in your portfolio, it implies that you don’t own large positions in a small number of stocks, mostly in the same sector. But stay the course. Prudent investing is built on broad diversification across a range of categories. Owning the underperformers may yield excellent results just yet. Following the tech bubble in 1999, those forgotten, boring, blue-chip-type stocks outperformed their tech brethren for nearly a decade.

Maybe past performance is an indication of future results.

 

Jeff Liguori is the co-founder and chief Investment officer of Napatree Capital, an investment boutique with offices in Longmeadow as well as Providence and Westerly, R.I.; (401) 437-4730.

Special Coverage Wealth Management

Living the Dream

By Barbara Trombley, CPA

Do you dream of retiring early? Do you picture yourself in sunny Florida at your vacation home during the winter and heading back to temperate New England for the summer? Playing golf, lying on the beach, enjoying grandchildren, and not adhering to a corporate work schedule — this is the dream of many, but is it a financial possibility? What are the pitfalls of an early retirement, and what can you do now to achieve your dream?

At the heart of the dream is financial independence. This means not relying on employment to fund your current lifestyle. Retiring in your 50s or at age 60 means that you cannot draw Social Security, and you need to figure out a healthcare plan. Many people today do not have access to pensions like the generation before us. So that means investing early and wisely is paramount to building the wealth needed to achieve your retirement dreams. Also, if you retire before age 59½, you need an investment account outside of your retirement plan to avoid a 10% penalty on withdrawals.

The most logical place to look for investments is your work retirement plan. Are you fully funding each year? At age 50, an employee can contribute $30,500 in 2024. That includes the catch-up contribution of $7,500. This may be the easiest place to invest as your funds are automatically withdrawn from your paycheck.

After your retirement plan, you can and should have a brokerage account or investment account with a financial advisor. These accounts come with many names, like individual, joint, non-qualified, etc., and send you a 1099 each year for your taxes. Many people are not aware of how easy it is to invest outside of your work plan. Investing in a well-managed portfolio, over time, will greatly increase your wealth.

“Many people today do not have access to pensions like the generation before us. So that means investing early and wisely is paramount to building the wealth needed to achieve your retirement dreams.”

Having a plan to withdraw from your portfolio is integral to a successful early retirement. Life expectancy is increasing, and inflation and market volatility may always impact your financial life. The old myth of withdrawing 4% of your portfolio and having it last for your lifetime may not work if you begin the withdrawals in your 50s.

Using a conservative rate of withdrawal and adjusting it for market volatility would be prudent. This means that a large nest egg may be needed to achieve your dream. Also, you may consider a type of insurance product called an annuity. At its core, an annuity provides a series of payments for a premium that you pay. There are many different types of annuities, so do your homework and understand the risks. Annuities can be valuable for providing a lifetime income stream that you may need to fund retirement.

When to start Social Security may be one of the most important decisions that a retiree can make. Yes, it adds a stream of income that will take the stress off retirement withdrawals, but taking it too early can be detrimental to a financially sound retirement. Social Security benefits are available at age 62, but they are reduced by approximately 32% of the full retirement-age benefit amount. Conversely, every year that a retiree waits after age 67, retirement benefits are increased 8% per year. Social Security planning should be approached with great care.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to an early retirement is finding a healthcare plan. Medicare does not begin until age 65. What do you do before then? Many early retirees go to the Health Insurance Marketplace, also known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace. You can compare plans and see if you qualify for subsidies based on your income. Your income is what is shown on your tax return, so having an investment account outside of your work retirement plan can be advantageous when withdrawing living expenses in early retirement.

Other options could be COBRA from your last employer, or perhaps your spouse still works and has access to a policy. A last, and expensive, option would be to pay for private insurance. Many of my clients find the cost of private insurance to be prohibitive, and that is the reason many wait until age 65 to retire.

Tax planning can also play an important role in an early retirement. Investments can have many different tax structures. Traditional 401(k) plans, SIMPLE plans, and IRAs are all fully taxable when withdrawn after age 59½. Roth 401(k)s and Roth IRAs are not taxed upon withdrawal. Non-qualified investment accounts or brokerage accounts have a variety of tax implications, including dividends, interest, and capital gains. Structuring the withdrawals from your different accounts can play a very large role in planning for retirement and may save a lot of money if done properly.

Lastly, the word ‘retirement’ means many things to many people. For some people, it means not working at all, which requires a plan for fully funding your living expenses. For others, it means leaving your full-time, stressful career and taking on a part-time ‘fun’ job or a different career altogether, which would help pay the bills until Social Security full retirement age. Working with an experienced financial planner and not making this decision to retire early on your own is always recommended.

 

Barbara Trombley is a financial planner with Wilbraham-based Trombley Associates. Securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Trombley Associates, a registered investment advisor and separate entity from LPL Financial. Asset allocation does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss. This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA, tax, legal, or investment advice. If you are seeking investment advice specific to your needs, such advice services must be obtained on your own separate from this educational material.

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Shlemon

In an instance of good intentions gone awry, an effort to hire people because of the skills they possess rather than their college degrees has turned into a concern that certified rehabilitation counselors may not be able to divulge their credentials to clients. That’s not helpful to anyone, especially the clients they serve: people with disabilities.

In January, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey signed an executive order requiring the state government to use skill-based hiring practices. That means the state would not ask its job applicants whether they held a college degree, or other advanced certifications, unless it was absolutely necessary for the job, potentially enabling people with relevant experience but not a degree to be hired.

As the leader of a national organization that advocates for people with disabilities, I see the value of skills-based hiring, which would open doors for qualified, motivated workers who may lack a particular degree.

The problem came soon after, with how the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission interpreted that order. Commissioner Toni Wolf suggested limitations on how the state’s certified rehabilitation counselors, or CRCs, use and disclose their certification to their clients.

That is a problem. Reducing the emphasis on credentials while hiring is one thing, but trying to erase their importance while performing the job is misguided. CRCs get their credentials from the organization I lead, the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. The certification is the national gold standard in the field of rehabilitation counseling for people with disabilities, and it leads to proven better outcomes. Indeed, the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure asks for proof of the certification to become a licensed rehabilitation counselor.

Certification for CRCs serves as a quality guarantee, an assurance for a person with a disability that their counselor has the skills, knowledge, and ethical standards to help clients live as fully and independently as possible. A CRC is required by their certification to focus on what the client can and wants to do in their life, and is trained to work toward those goals. The nationally accredited certification is the result of rigorous training, comes with a 50-page code of ethics, and is not lightly granted.

In this field, as in many professions, credentials are important. You trust a certified public accountant, not a bookkeeper, with accounting skills. You bare your soul to a licensed mental-health professional, not someone familiar with some aspects of mental health. When you need surgery, you rely on board-certified surgeons and anesthesiologists, not someone knowledgeable in human anatomy but unlicensed to practice. This is true as well with rehabilitation counseling.

Favoring just skills at the expense of credentials is risky in the field of rehabilitation counseling. The training, the degree, and, most importantly, the certification verify that they know what they are doing. A person hiring a rehabilitation counselor would want to be sure they could do the work, avoid unintentional harm, give accurate information, and not take shortcuts, like referring clients to mediocre employment opportunities misaligned to their skillset or failing to account for their functional limitations. The certification held by a CRC provides that assurance.

A CRC, for example, is committed to helping a person with disabilities find and keep a high-quality job that suits them and bolsters their independence, not just any job. We work with a vulnerable population. The certification is acknowledgement of that and serves as a promise that CRCs never forget their obligations to this population.

Being barred from divulging their credentials hurts the CRCs, too. It’s demoralizing and frustrating to be unable to speak about their qualifications. It’s an erasure of their professional identities.

I have no quarrel with Gov. Healey’s move toward skills-based hiring, which is beneficial to many people in many fields. We at CRCC favor legislation that increases access to certification, including the Tomorrow’s Workforce Coalition, which advocates for workforce-development policies that open up funding for certifications, including the CRC.

Commissioner Wolf’s track record is long and admirable. This is certainly a case of a move made with good intentions and unintended consequences. I hope the commissioner sees that and steps back from this move.

 

Pam Shlemon is executive director of the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), the national organization that sets the national standard for certification and advocates both for the profession and individuals with disabilities.

 

Autos

Change of Direction

A growing number of consumers across the U.S. are finding themselves upside down on their car loans as the used-vehicle market continues to stabilize and used values dwindle, according to the latest Edmunds Used Vehicle Report. Among the findings:

• Used-car values continue on a downward trend. The average transaction price (ATP) for all used vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2023 dipped to $28,371, a 4.4% decrease from $29,690 in Q4 2022.

• Trade-ins with negative equity are on the rise, as 20.4% of new vehicle sales with a trade-in had negative equity in Q4 2023 — the highest in two years — compared to 17.7% in Q4 2022 and 14.9% in Q4 2021.

• Consumers who are upside down on their auto loans owe more than ever before. The average amount owed on upside-down loans climbed to a record high of $6,064 in Q4 2023, compared to $5,347 in Q4 2022 and $4,143 in Q4 2021.

“A storm is brewing in the used market as incentives and inventory continue to trickle back into the new-vehicle market,” said Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights. “With demand for near-new vehicles on the decline, used-car values are depreciating similarly to the way they did before the pandemic, and negative equity is rearing its ugly head.”

Edmunds analysts note that consumers who paid above MSRP for a new vehicle during the pandemic are the most vulnerable to falling underwater on their car loans because their newer tradeins are the most susceptible to dramatic decreases in value.

According to Edmunds data, one- and two-year-old vehicles are experiencing the most significant drops in value compared to older used vehicles. Compared to Q3 2022 (when used vehicle values were at their peak), Edmunds data reveals:

• The ATP for one-year-old vehicles in Q4 2023 dropped to $38,720, a $6,763 decrease;

• The ATP for two-year-old vehicles dropped to $32,583, a $3,294 decrease; and

• The ATP for 10-year-old vehicles dropped to $12,447, a $1,304 decrease.

“During the last few years, consumers could jump into new-car loans, and their tradeins were shielded from negative equity because some dealers, desperate for used inventory, were willing to pay near original purchase prices,” Drury said. “These days, consumers need to be more careful — especially if they’re trading in newer vehicles — because near-new cars are being hit the hardest by depreciation.”

Although a downturn in used values is negatively affecting a growing share of new-car owners, Edmunds analysts note that there’s a bright spot for car shoppers with bigger budgets. In an analysis of ATPs of used vehicles up to three years old compared to ATPs for new vehicles, large luxury cars offered an average discount of $48,111 — the greatest dollar savings across all vehicle segments — with new vehicles going for $118,309 compared to $70,198 for used. Large mainstream SUVs also offered a notable average discount of $19,966, with new vehicles going for $76,131 compared to $56,164 for used.

“If you want to save big on used versus new, you still have to be willing to spend big,” said Joseph Yoon, Edmunds’ consumer-insights analyst. “Unfortunately, the most price-sensitive consumers seeking affordable transportation will have a much harder time finding discounts because the supply of older used vehicles is still pretty restricted.”

Looking forward, Edmunds analysts caution that a number of factors influencing used-vehicle prices will make trade-in values increasingly difficult to predict heading into 2024.

“As near-new vehicles sit on dealer lots for longer periods of time and automaker incentive programs continue to change dramatically month to month, dealers will likely be hedging their bets against value reductions as they manage their inventory,” Drury said.

Toward the end of 2023, Edmunds experts issued a number of predictions for the vehicle-sales industry, with 15.7 million new cars to be sold in 2024, a 1% increase from the estimate of 15.5 million new vehicle sales in 2023. Electric-vehicle (EV) market share is expected to tick slightly higher to 8% of total new vehicle sales in 2024, up from 6.9% in 2023.

Still, hybrids remains the more comfortable choice for the majority of Americans seeking electrified options right now. According to Edmunds data, hybrid market share increased to 9.7% in November 2023 from 4.9% the year prior.

Healthcare News

Breathing a Little Easier

About 3.4 million children and 13.6 million adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with what’s known as immunoglobulin E-mediated (or IgE-mediated) food allergy, causing reactions ranging from mild to moderate (including hives and swelling) to severe and life-threatening, such as anaphylaxis.

More than 40% of children and more than half of adults with food allergies have experienced a severe reaction at least once, and it is estimated that food-related anaphylaxis results in 30,000 medical events treated in emergency rooms in the U.S. each year.

That’s why so many are encouraged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of Xolair (omalizumab) injection for immunoglobulin E-mediated food allergy in certain adults and children 1 year or older for the reduction of allergic reactions that may occur with accidental exposure to one or more foods.

Xolair was originally approved in 2003 for the treatment of moderate to severe persistent allergic asthma in certain patients.

“This newly approved use for Xolair will provide a treatment option to reduce the risk of harmful allergic reactions among certain patients with IgE-mediated food allergies,” said Dr. Kelly Stone, associate director of the Division of Pulmonology, Allergy, and Critical Care in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “While it will not eliminate food allergies or allow patients to consume food allergens freely, its repeated use will help reduce the health impact if accidental exposure occurs.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 6% of people in the U.S. in 2021 had a food allergy, and exposure to the particular food (or foods) to which they are allergic can lead to potentially life-threatening allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis.

There is currently no cure for food allergy. Current treatment requires strict avoidance of the food(s) the patient is allergic to and prompt administration of epinephrine to treat anaphylaxis should accidental exposures occur.

Palforzia (peanut allergen powder) is an oral immunotherapy product approved in patients ages 4 to 17 for the mitigation of allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, that may occur with accidental exposure to peanuts, but its benefits are restricted to peanut allergy. Xolair is the first FDA-approved medication to reduce allergic reactions to more than one type of food after accidental exposure.

“Over the past 35 years, I have seen how debilitating food allergies can be for patients and their loved ones, as they are consumed by the fear of accidental exposure,” said Dr. Robert Wood, director of the Eudowood Division of Allergy, Immunology and Rheumatology at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and principal investigator of the OUtMATCH study that led to FDA approval.

“While allergic reactions to exposures are common and often severe, there have been limited treatment advancements for food allergy,” he added. “The results of the OUtMATCH study showed that anti-IgE therapy could significantly reduce the occurrence of allergic reactions across multiple foods in the event of an accidental exposure.”

OUtMATCH stands for Omalizumab as Monotherapy and as Adjunct Therapy to Multi-allergen OIT in Food Allergic Children and Adults.

“Living with food allergies has a profound impact on patients and their families, causing significant stress and requiring constant vigilance,” said Dr. R. Sharon Chinthrajah, associate professor of Medicine at Stanford School of Medicine, Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, and OUtMATCH co-lead study investigator.

“The OUtMATCH study demonstrated that anti-IgE therapy increased most patients’ threshold for an allergic reaction,” she added. “This presents an important new treatment option for patients and families in its potential to reduce the risk of allergic reactions from accidental exposures they may face in day-to-day life.”

 

Caution Warranted

As noted, Xolair isn’t a cure, and patients who take it must continue to avoid foods they are allergic to. Xolair is intended for repeated use to reduce the risk of allergic reactions and is not approved for the immediate emergency treatment of allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. There are 160 different foods that cause IgE-mediated food allergy.

Still, detailed results from the OUtMATCH study showed treatment with Xolair increased, for a majority of trial participants, the amount of peanuts, tree nuts, egg, milk, and wheat they consumed without an allergic reaction, dramatically lessening the results of accidental ingestion or cross-contamination.

Xolair is a drug (in the class of drugs called monoclonal antibodies) that binds to IgE, the antibody type that triggers allergic reactions, and blocks IgE from binding to its receptors.

Xolair’s safety and efficacy in reducing allergic reactions in subjects with food allergies was established in one multi-center, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 168 pediatric and adult subjects who were allergic to peanut and at least two other foods, including milk, egg, wheat, cashew, hazelnut, or walnut. Researchers randomly gave subjects either Xolair or placebo treatment for 16 to 20 weeks.

The primary measure of Xolair’s efficacy was the percentage of subjects who were able to eat a single dose (600 milligrams or greater) of peanut protein (equivalent to 2.5 peanuts) without moderate to severe allergic symptoms, such as moderate to severe skin, respiratory, or gastrointestinal symptoms, at the end of the treatment course.

Of those who received Xolair, 68% (75 of 110 subjects) were able to eat the single dose of peanut protein without moderate to severe allergic symptoms, compared to 6% (3 of 55 subjects) who received placebo. Of note, however, 17% of subjects receiving Xolair had no significant change in the amount of peanut protein tolerated (they could not tolerate 100 mg or more of peanut protein). As a result, continuation of strict allergen avoidance is still necessary, despite treatment with Xolair.

The key secondary measures of efficacy were the percentage of subjects who were able to consume a single dose (1,000 milligrams or greater) of cashew, milk, or egg protein without moderate to severe allergic symptoms at the end of the treatment course. For cashew, 42% who received Xolair achieved this endpoint, compared to 3% who received placebo.

For milk, 66% who received Xolair achieved this endpoint, compared to 11% who received placebo. For egg, 67% who received Xolair achieved this endpoint, compared to none of the 19 who received placebo. As a result, Xolair treatment is approved for certain patients with one or more IgE-mediated food allergies.

 

Optimistic Outlook

In the U.S., Genentech and Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. have worked together to develop and co-promote Xolair.

“Xolair offers patients and families an important new treatment option that can help redefine the way food allergies are managed and reduce the often-serious allergic reactions that can result from exposure to food allergens,” said Dr. Levi Garraway, Genentech’s chief medical officer and head of Global Product Development. “We look forward to bringing this treatment to the food-allergy community who have long awaited an advancement.”

Other allergy experts are equally hopeful.

“As more and more people are affected by food allergies, the need for a new approach to help prevent serious and often life-threatening allergic reactions and emergencies is critical,” said Sung Poblete, CEO of Food Allergy Research and Education. “As someone with food allergies, I know firsthand the significant impact they can have on people and their loved ones, and I share in the community’s excitement for this approval.”

Kenneth Mendez, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, added that “the stress of living with food allergies can weigh heavily on people and their families, particularly when navigating events like children’s birthday parties, school lunches, and holiday dinners with friends and family. Given the growing prevalence of food allergies, this news offers hope to the many children and adults who may benefit from a new way to help manage their food allergies.”

Women in Businesss

Navigating the Process

By Jennifer Sharrow, Esq.

 

Women- and minority-owned businesses play a vital role in our local economies. They also play a larger role within communities in general — they serve as gathering places, education centers, and inspiration for future generations of entrepreneurs.

But, much like they represent our community, often largely by reason of the makeup of their ownership, they face challenges of historic and continuing discrimination. This can result in issues with access to capital, less favorable terms in negotiating contracts, and challenges finding suitable office or commercial spaces.

Formal certification as a woman- and/or minority-owned business can help alleviate some of those burdens. There are a number of different organizations that provide this certification. The state of Massachusetts has the Supplier Diversity Office; the U.S. Small Business Administration has the 8(a) Business Development Program and the Women-owned Small Business Federal Contract Program; and there are a number of private groups that issue certifications and provide other support, such as the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

Jennifer Sharrow

Jennifer Sharrow

“Our women- and minority-owned businesses are already proud of their accomplishments, and now more than ever they deserve to celebrate their status.”

Getting certified brings new opportunities from federal agencies, state and local governments, and certain large corporations, who often designate a percentage of contracts for certified women- and minority-owned small businesses. Certification may open up access to exclusive networking, training, and educational programs for business owners. Certification may also increase eligibility for loans, grants, and programs specifically designated for certified entrepreneurs, such as management and technical-assistance programs.

All certification programs contain similar requirements, and if you’re an owner looking to get certified, you will want to start gathering information about the business, information about you, and information about the ways that you lead the business.

 

The Business

This will include standard documentation that the business is legally operating in good standing. Typical documents submitted about the business include formation documents filed with the secretary of State, governing documents such as the bylaws, financial records, and copies of lease agreements and customer contracts.

It is possible for a newly formed business to get certified, and where certain documentation is unavailable, such as tax returns, the certifying program will generally accept replacement documentation or narrative answers about the business operations.

 

You as an Owner

This will include proof of ownership of the business, such as stock certificates or the operating agreement, showing that the business is at least 51% women- or minority-owned. Additionally, the owner will need to submit personal information in the form of a photo ID, evidence of citizenship, and a résumé.

 

How You Manage the Business

This is very important. The certifications generally require not just 51% ownership, but also that the women and minority owners exert substantial control over the operations of the business. These aren’t programs for propping up a token leader, but instead for acknowledging those who have had to run their business while jumping over additional hurdles due to their race, gender, ethnicity, or other diverse class status.

Evidence for this often takes the form of answering a series of questions on who has the power to make financial decisions; take charge of bidding, negotiation, and signing of contracts; supervise employees, and manage the office.

 

What’s Next

Most programs will involve back-and-forth communication with the program certifiers, and for the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, an investigator is assigned after submission of the application for verification and additional information gathering on the business.

Once approved, in addition to taking advantage of the benefits offered through the programs, the certification gives bragging rights. Our women- and minority-owned businesses are already proud of their accomplishments, and now more than ever they deserve to celebrate their status. A formal certification will only further benefit the business, and when they grow, we all reap the rewards.

 

Jennifer Sharrow is an associate with the law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C. in the Corporate Department, and is licensed to practice law in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Healthcare News Special Coverage

A Blooming Challenge

By David Robertson, MD, MPH, MBA

Spring is a season of rebirth and rejuvenation, with flowers blooming and the world around us turning from brown to green. However, for many area residents, this beautiful transformation comes with a less-welcome companion, with Springfield consistently ranking as one of the worst cities in the country for allergies and asthma.

This year, the warm winter that just came to an end is set to extend the allergy season, bringing about an early and possibly more intense onset of symptoms for allergy sufferers.

 

The Warm Winter Effect

Typically, cold winters help delay the start of the allergy season by keeping plants dormant and the ground frozen longer. A warmer winter can lead to an earlier thawing and activation of outdoor molds in the soil. This early activity, combined with spring rains, means that outdoor mold spores are already circulating, ready to trigger allergy symptoms. With tree pollen following closely behind, residents may find themselves in the midst of a particularly challenging allergy season.

 

Understanding Allergies and Asthma

Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to substances in the environment, known as allergens, which are harmless to most people. These can include tree, grass, and weed pollens; molds; animal danders; and dust mites. When these allergens are inhaled or come into contact with the skin, they can cause symptoms such as sneezing, itching, runny nose, and watery eyes.

“Managing allergies and asthma requires a multifaceted approach. The three basic strategies for dealing with environmental allergens are avoidance, medications, and allergy immunotherapy.”

For some, allergies can also exacerbate asthma, a condition characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs, leading to wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. Asthma can be triggered by allergens as well as changes in the weather, making the spring season particularly challenging for individuals with both allergies and asthma.

 

Strategies for Relief

Managing allergies and asthma requires a multifaceted approach. The three basic strategies for dealing with environmental allergens are avoidance, medications, and allergy immunotherapy.

The first line of defense is to minimize exposure to allergens. This can include staying indoors on days when pollen counts are high, using air purifiers at home, and changing clothes and rinsing off after time spent outside. Some people also find wearing masks or even protective eyewear helpful, particularly with activities that may increase allergen exposure, like cutting the grass and gardening.

Many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications can help manage symptoms of allergies and asthma. Antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, and eye drops are widely used to alleviate allergy symptoms, while asthma sufferers often use prescription inhalers to control their symptoms. However, choosing the right medication can be daunting due to the vast array of options available.

For those with severe allergies, allergy immunotherapy, which includes allergy shots and sublingual tablets, may be an option. This long-term treatment gradually desensitizes the body to specific allergens, potentially providing lasting relief.

 

Navigating Treatment Options

While many effective treatments are available over the counter, selecting the right product can be challenging without professional guidance.

In studies, nasal steroid sprays like Flonase or Nasacort are the most effective family of medicines for helping with congestion, sneezing, and post-nasal drip, but many people do not like using them. They may not be right for everyone, particularly people prone to nosebleeds or with glaucoma or cataracts.

Oral antihistamines, like Allegra, Claritin, or Zyrtec, can help with sneezing and itching, and these new antihistamines are not supposed to cause drowsiness, though everyone’s body is different. Antihistamine eye drops can help with itchy, watery, or swollen eyes, but can also cause or worsen dry eyes.

Oral decongestants can provide temporary relief of sinus pressure, but can also cause increased blood pressure and insomnia, so we generally recommend minimizing these medications. Nasal decongestant sprays like Afrin can provide temporary relief of congestion, but should not be used for more than two or three days in a row because they can cause increased congestion.

All of these medicines are available in less expensive generic forms, which most people find equally effective.

Given the number of treatment options and potential side effects for some people, it may beneficial to consult with a healthcare provider or an allergist to develop a personalized treatment plan. If you already have a treatment strategy that works for you and your family, now may be a good time to get a few boxes of your preferred medicine — in the last few years, there have been occasional shortages at the peak of allergy season. But leave enough for your neighbors!

 

The Road Ahead

As Springfield and the surrounding region brace for a longer allergy season, staying informed and proactive in dealing with allergens will be crucial for those looking to enjoy the spring while keeping their symptoms in check.

By understanding the triggers, using effective management strategies, and seeking professional guidance when necessary, allergy sufferers should be able to navigate the challenges of spring allergies and asthma with increased confidence.

 

Dr. David Robertson is an allergist and clinical immunologist and owner of Western Massachusetts Allergy, LLC in Springfield.

Law

Prepare for Compliance

By David A. Parke, Esq.

 

The new reporting rules that became effective Jan. 1, 2024, under the federal Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) now require many small businesses and other entities to file reports with the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). FinCEN estimates there are more than 30 million entities that are subject to these reporting rules on their effective date.

The CTA is intended to provide law enforcement with a means to combat crimes, like money laundering, that are aided through the use of shell companies. The CTA applies to ‘domestic reporting companies’ and ‘foreign reporting companies,’ as defined in the rules. This article will focus on domestic reporting companies.

Under the CTA, a reporting company, subject to the CTA, must file information with FinCEN regarding itself and its beneficial owners. For a reporting company formed on or after Jan. 1, 2024, the company must also report information regarding the individuals who created the company. Any changes to previously reported information must also be reported in a timely manner to FinCEN. The rules specify the information that must be reported about a reporting company and its beneficial owners and company applicants.

David A. Parke

David Parke

“The CTA is intended to provide law enforcement with a means to combat crimes, like money laundering, that are aided through the use of shell companies.”

A domestic reporting company under the CTA is any corporation, limited-liability company, or other entity created by filing a document with the secretary of State or a similar office under the law of a state or Indian tribe, unless exempt. There are 23 categories of entities that are exempt from reporting. The exemptions include highly regulated entities like issuers of securities registered under Section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, banks, insurance companies, regulated public utilities, and certain tax-exempt organizations. Many small entities are likely not covered by an exemption and will need to report. The rules define more specifically the conditions of each exemption.

One exemption is for a ‘large operating company,’ as defined in the rules. This is a company that employs more than 20 full-time employees in the U.S., has an operating presence at a physical office within the U.S., and has more than $5 million in annual gross receipts or sales, excluding gross receipts or sales from sources outside the U.S., according to the company’s federal income-tax return for the previous year.

A ‘beneficial owner,’ whose information must be reported to FinCEN, is any individual who exercises substantial control over the reporting company or who owns or controls, directly or indirectly, at least 25% of the ownership interests of the reporting company. The reporting rules address various types of direct or indirect control or ownership arrangements under which an individual would be a beneficial owner.

An individual would be included as a beneficial owner if that individual is a ‘senior officer,’ which includes the president, chief financial officer, general counsel, chief executive officer, chief operating officer, or any other officer who performs a similar function. The rules also include as a beneficial owner any individual who has authority over the appointment or removal of any senior officer or a majority of the board of directors or similar body, or has substantial influence over important decisions, including decisions of the type enumerated in the rules.

A ‘company applicant,’ whose information must be included for a domestic reporting company created on or after Jan. 1, 2024, is an individual who files the document that creates the company, and the individual who is primarily responsible for directing or controlling the filing where more than one individual is involved.

Any domestic reporting company created before Jan. 1, 2024, must file its initial report with FinCEN by Jan. 1, 2025. Any domestic reporting company created during 2024 must file within 90 days. Any domestic reporting company formed on or after Jan. 1, 2025 must file within 30 days. The deadlines are measured from the earlier of actual or public notice that creation is effective. If there is a change in any information previously reported to FinCEN regarding a reporting company or its beneficial owners, an updated report must be filed with FinCEN within 30 days.

FinCEN has an E-filing website for reporting information (boiefiling.fincen.gov), and charges no filing fee. FinCEN has also published a Small Entity Compliance Guide and Frequently Asked Questions to provide guidance regarding the CTA reporting rules. FinCEN allows for use of a FinCEN identifier, which is a unique number assigned by FinCEN to an individual who applies for such a number and submits the information required of a beneficial owner or company applicant. The reporting company’s report may include the FinCEN identifier in lieu of the information otherwise required for the individual.

The consequences of non-compliance can be significant. It is unlawful under the CTA for any person to willfully provide or attempt to provide false or fraudulent beneficial ownership information to FinCEN, or to willfully fail to report complete or updated beneficial ownership information to FinCEN. Under the CTA, violators are liable for a civil penalty of not more than $500 for each day the violation continues, and may be fined not more than $10,000, imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.

An entity that is or may become a reporting company should consider establishing an internal compliance program to identify reportable changes and assure that the necessary information is received in a timely manner. A company should also consider if any changes should be made to its governance documents to require beneficial owners to provide (again, in a timely way) the information needed for the reporting company to comply with its CTA reporting obligations.

These new reporting requirements will affect many entities. It is important for companies to inform themselves of the CTA’s requirements, determine if the CTA applies, and prepare for compliance.

 

David A. Parke is a partner in the Business/Finance department at Bulkley Richardson.

Law

Unmarried Parents Are Still Parents

By Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley, Esq.

 

More and more frequently, people are opting not to get married, but are still desirous of having children and becoming parents, whether or not they are in a committed relationship with their partner. The decision to have a child or children creates a permanent connection to the other parent, regardless of the marital status of the parents.

Unmarried parents have various types of relationships. We see unmarried parents that live together, some have separate households but spend time together, and many are not together any longer and may have new relationships. The unmarried parents need to navigate how to bring up their child together while being apart. This requires that both parents understand that the other parent has a right to be in the life of the child. The law supports the idea that fathers and mothers both have the right to parent their children, even if unmarried.

Emotions of the parties often cloud their judgment when considering the role of the other parent in the life of the child. Did the parties break up? Has one person (or both) moved on? Was the relationship short-term without commitment and lacking a foundation between the parents? The history of the relationship is certainly impactful on the parent; however, first and foremost, parents need to be reminded that fathers need to be responsible, present, and cooperative with the mothers of their children, and mothers need to encourage, support, and accept the relationship a child has with their father.

 

The Child’s Best Interest

The standard in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to determine a parenting plan and custodial relationship with children and parents starts with a best-interest standard. The presumption is that both parents should play a role in the life of a child unless it is not in the child’s best interest. It is often difficult for a parent to separate their feelings about the other parent when trying to determine the parenting relationship. It is clear, however, that simply because someone is not a good partner does not mean they should not be in the life of their child.

Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley

Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley

“First and foremost, parents need to be reminded that fathers need to be responsible, present, and cooperative with the mothers of their children, and mothers need to encourage, support, and accept the relationship a child has with their father.”

When parents are not married, the law provides that, absent an agreement or court order otherwise, the mother has sole legal and physical custody of the child. This is rebuttable and is not intended to prevent fathers from having equal footing in the lives of their children.

More times than not, with good communication, the parents can develop a parenting plan that provides for both parents to be involved in the legal decision making for the major medical, educational, and religious decisions of the child. This is what is known as legal custody. Parents can agree to share legal custody and make these major decisions together.

If they are unable to agree, a court may order shared legal custody if a history of the parents being able to work together to make these decisions can be demonstrated. Even if the court does not order shared legal custody, both parents still have the right by statute to have access to the medical and educational information and records of the child. It does not mean that a parent is excluded from knowing these things about their child.

There are always exceptions that need to be considered, such as domestic violence or history of restraining orders, which impact the ability of the court to grant certain relief if the parents are unable to agree.

It is worth reiterating that, if the parents are able to put their feelings about the relationship with the other parent aside and focus on the child, they can in most circumstances — if certainly not every one — develop a parenting relationship where both parents can be involved in the child’s life.

Parenting plans that deal with the actual parenting time the parties spend with the child should include the normal parenting plan, a holiday schedule, and vacation schedule, so that there is a clear plan for each parent’s time with the child. The location of pick-up and drop-off of the child, the specific time for exchange of the child, and who may transport the child are critically important in developing the parenting plan. Being clear and specific with these terms may create a plan that will reduce conflict between the parties when they may not both have the same philosophy about co-parenting with the other parent.

Parenting plans should also deal with child support, health insurance, uninsured medical expenses, extracurricular activities and payment of those expenses, education of the child, and the primary residence of the child, at a minimum.

The parenting plan also can include terms around communication. Communication is key, and throughout the child’s life, there are going to be countless times when the parents will need to discuss or exchange information with the other parent, make a decision together, or attend parent-teacher conferences, activities, or countless different life events.

A method of communication can be defined, such as through text, a parenting application which tracks communication, or through parent meetings on a scheduled basis. Regardless of the method, it is often key to successful co-parenting for there to be set rules as to where, when, and what the parents talk about.

By agreement, parents can include terms around phone calls or video calls with the child, as well as any other contact they want to have in between their parenting time. Language that fosters a positive and supportive parenting relationship between the child and the other parent can be included by agreement of the parents to prevent disparaging, disrespectful discussions.

 

The Court as a Last Resort

If the parents are unable to agree on how to develop a parenting plan, the court ultimately has the jurisdiction to make the decision. The court will do its job, but most every judge will encourage the parents to come to an agreement if they are able to do so, as they know their child better than anyone.

If the court is ultimately the decision maker, the court will consider the age and developmental stage of the child, the individual needs of the child, the history of the relationship between the parents, how close the parents live to each other, the parents’ work schedule, and problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, or a criminal record.

Naturally, this is not the exhaustive list, and the topics of this article are general. When navigating these issues, you should seek advice of an attorney in order to understand all the issues that need to be addressed and understand your rights as a parent.

 

Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley is a shareholder with the law firm Bacon Wilson, P.C. and chairs the firm’s Family Law department. She is a certified family law mediator, a member of the Springfield Women’s Leadership Council, a member of the United Way of Pioneer Valley board of directors, and is licensed to practice law in both Massachusetts and Connecticut; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

 

Law

Walking a Fine Line

By Trevor Brice, Esq.

 

As Massachusetts employers know, one of the best defenses to a discrimination or retaliation suit is to implement preventive measures. One of the most commonplace of these preventive measures is anti-harassment training courses for the workforce that can show the employer is in compliance with state and federal law.

However, a recent case shows that this preventive measure, while it is virtually always a helpful addition to an employer’s preventive measures against discrimination and retaliation, can go too far if not managed or implemented properly.

 

Anti-harassment Training Can Benefit the Workplace

Generally, anti-harassment training is a helpful addition the employer’s tool chest for preventive measures against discrimination and harassment. It gives employees the tools to be able to identify situations in which employees are harassed, discriminated against, and/or retaliated against; identify the classes upon which discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are illegal; and utilize the employer’s reporting procedures to prevent further discrimination, harassment, and retaliation when it is identified.

When deployed properly, anti-harassment training has the effect of creating, at the very least, a discussion in an educational environment about the influence of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation within the workplace.

“Generally, anti-harassment training is a helpful addition the employer’s tool chest for preventive measures against discrimination and harassment.”

Anti-harassment training also makes for an open forum in which employees can learn basic concepts that will make for a safer and inclusive environment that will help to prevent illegal discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The court in the recent case of De Piero v. Pennsylvania State University acknowledged the positives in anti-harassment trainings, stating that “training on concepts such as ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ implicit bias, or critical race theory can contribute positively to nuanced, important conversations about how to form a healthy and inclusive working environment.”

 

Anti-harassment Training Can Create a Hostile Work Environment

However, the court in De Piero also pointed to a more novel concept, that anti-harassment training can make for a hostile work environment. The plaintiff in De Piero sued on the hostile work environment theory, stating that he had to attend at least five conferences or trainings that discussed racial issues in “essentialist and deterministic terms, ascribing negative traits to white people or white teachers without exception and as flowing inevitably from their race.”

In order to prove hostile work environment, the plaintiff had to prove that he suffered intentional discrimination because of his protected status; the discrimination was severe or pervasive, it detrimentally affected him, and it would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances (Castleberry v. STI Grp.).

In this case, the defendant employer moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint, stating that the anti-harassment training did not create a severe or pervasive work environment and that it did not interfere with the plaintiff’s work performance.

However, the plaintiff succeeded, with the court ruling that the plaintiff had pled sufficient facts to go forward with his hostile work environment claim. Specifically, the court stated that the plaintiff “was obligated to attend conferences or trainings that discussed racial issues in essentialist or deterministic term, ascribing negative traits to white people or white teachers without exception.”

The court pointed out a training in which the trainer in the anti-harassment conference forced the plaintiff and other white and non-Black people to hold their breath longer to feel pain. It is this and other examples from the defendant’s anti-harassment training that led the court to conclude that the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim could survive.

 

Conclusion

While the De Piero decision points to how employers can have possible liability when implementing preventive measures, employers should not abandon anti-harassment training and other preventive measures. The court specifically stated that anti-harassment training can aid employers and that “discussing in an educational environment the influence of racism on our society does not violate federal law.”

The takeaway from the De Piero decision is therefore not to eliminate anti-harassment training, but to instead emphasize that the communication and substance of these trainings matter and that anti-harassment trainings can violate federal law if not implemented properly. If employers have questions or concerns about their anti-harassment training following this decision, it is prudent to contact employment counsel.

 

Trevor Brice 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.

Healthcare News

Easing the Load

 

Currently, there are more than 11 million family members and friends across the country providing care to more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Caring for those living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia poses special challenges for family caregivers. As dementia symptoms worsen, caregivers can experience increased emotional stress, depression, anxiety, and new or worsened health problems. Caregivers often experience depleted finances due to disruptions in employment and paying for healthcare or other services.
“Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s takes longer, lasts longer, is more personal and intrusive than most other diseases, and takes a heavy toll on the health of the caregivers themselves,” said Monica Moreno, senior director of Care and Support for the Alzheimer’s Assoc. “During the course of the disease, caregiving tasks escalate and become more intensive. Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers are often managing multiple conditions, including memory loss, co-morbidities, loss of mobility, reduced communication skills, and behavioral and personality changes.”

Alzheimer’s Caregiving by the Numbers

• More than 11 million people in the U.S. are providing unpaid care to a person living with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
• Eighty-three percent of the help provided to older adults in the U.S. comes from family members, friends, or other unpaid caregivers.
• Nearly half of all caregivers (48%) who provide help to older adults do so for someone with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
• Among primary caregivers of people with dementia, more than half take care of their parents.
• Approximately two-thirds of caregivers are women, and one-third of dementia caregivers are daughters.
• Approximately one-quarter of dementia caregivers are ‘sandwich generation’ caregivers, meaning they care not only for an aging parent, but also for children under age 18.
• In 2022, the lifetime cost of care for a person living with dementia was $377,621.
• Seventy percent of the lifetime cost of care is borne by family caregivers in the forms of unpaid caregiving and out-of-pocket expenses.
• Forty-one percent of caregivers have a household income of $50,000 or less.
Source: Alzheimer’s Assoc.

Across the country, 59% of dementia caregivers report high to very high emotional stress due to caregiving, and 38% report high to very high physical stress due to caregiving. Seventy-four percent of dementia caregivers report they are “somewhat concerned” to “very concerned” about maintaining their own health since becoming a caregiver.

To help caregivers balance competing priorities while maintaining their overall health and well-being, the Alzheimer’s Assoc. offers these tips:

• Find time for yourself. It’s normal to need a break from caregiving duties. No one can do it all by themselves. Consider taking advantage of respite care or help from family and friends to spend time doing something you enjoy.

• Become an educated caregiver. Understand the disease, its progression, and accompanying behavioral and physical changes. Know resources in your community that can help.

• Build a support network. Organize friends and family who want to help provide care and support. Access local caregiver support groups or online communities such as ALZConnected to connect with other caregivers. If stress becomes overwhelming, seek professional help.

• Take care of yourself. Try to eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest. Making sure that you are healthy can help you be a better caregiver.

• Accept changes. Eventually, your loved one will need more intensive kinds of care. Research care options now so you are ready for the changes as they occur.

• Know you’re doing your best. It’s normal to lose patience or feel like your care may fall short sometimes. You’re doing the best you can. For support and encouragement, consider joining an online or in-person support group.

“As difficult as it may be, caregivers need to make their health and well-being an equal priority,” Moreno said. “Maintaining your health can help you be a better caregiver. No caregiver should face this disease alone. The Alzheimer’s Association is here to help.”

The Alzheimer’s Assoc. provides local support and programs to families facing this devastating disease, including a 24/7 helpline staffed by master’s-level clinicians and specialists who are available 365 days a year and can help families navigate a variety of disease-related issues. Call (800) 272-3900.

Law Special Coverage

New Year, New Protections

By John S. Gannon, Esq.

 

Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued a final rule that provides businesses with guidance to be used when evaluating whether a worker should be classified as an employee or an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The DOL is also expected to issue a final rule that will extend overtime protections to an estimated 3.6 million salaried workers who are currently exempt under the law. Read on for more details about both of these developments.

 

Employee or Independent Contractor?

There are lots of reasons why a business would want to classify an individual as an independent contractor instead of an employee. For starters, employees are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay protections, while independent contractors are not.

Moreover, Massachusetts employees are afforded rights and protections under the state Paid Family and Medical Leave program and the Earned Sick Time Law. Employees can also take advantage of workers’ compensation benefits when they are injured on the job, and typically can collect unemployment if they lose their job. Independent contractors do not get these benefits.

As a result, agencies like the DOL and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office consider misclassifying employees as independent contractors to be a serious problem. To combat this, DOL recently released guidance that explains how to analyze whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor under the FLSA.

The new rule is generally considered more employee-friendly than previous guidance, and it looks at the ‘economic realities’ of the working relationship. If the economic realities show that the worker is economically dependent on the employer for work, then the worker is an employee. If the economic realities show that the worker is in business for himself or herself, then the worker is an independent contractor.

The following factors are used to guide the assessment of whether a worker is an employee under the FLSA or an independent contractor in business for himself or herself:

• Opportunity for profit or loss depending on managerial skill. If the worker has no opportunity for profit or loss in connection with the project they are working on for the business, they are probably not in business for themselves, and therefore employee status is suggested.

• Investments by the worker and the employer. This factor looks at whether the individual uses their own tools/equipment and the labor of others to further a true business. If these investments are being made, it suggests the worker is an independent contractor.

• Permanence of the work relationship. Independent-contractor relationships are typically set for a defined period of time, or until a project is finished. If the relationship is continuous/indefinite in duration, it suggests an employee-employer relationship.

• Nature and degree of control. Independent contractors set their own schedules free from supervision by their clients or customers. Conversely, if the worker is being supervised and has a set schedule, employee status is suggested.

• Whether the work performed is integral to the employer’s business. This factor looks at whether the work is critical, necessary, or central to the potential employer’s principal business, which indicates employee status. Where the work performed by the worker is not critical, necessary, or central to the potential employer’s principal business, this indicates independent-contractor status.

• Skill and initiative. The focus here is on whether the worker uses their skills in connection with business initiative. If the worker does, that indicates independent contractor status; if the worker does not, that indicates employee status.

Proper classification of workers is of critical importance to employers. As explained above, when an employer misclassifies an employee as an independent contractor, the worker cannot take advantage of numerous workplace protections afforded to employees. This can lead to significant administrative penalties for businesses, not to mention costly misclassification lawsuits. When the classification analysis is a close call, employers should consult with their employment counsel prior to making the determination to avoid costly mistakes.

 

New Overtime Protections for Millions of Employees

Last fall, the DOL announced a proposed rule that would increase the salary threshold for exemptions from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements under the executive, administrative, or professional exemptions — otherwise known as the EAP exemptions.

As a reminder, in order to qualify for an EAP exemption, employees generally must be paid a salary of at least $684 per week ($35,568 annually). The DOL’s proposed rule would raise the current minimum weekly salary threshold for exempt employees to $1,059 per week, which amounts to $55,068 annually. In short, this means that most employees with a salary of less than $1,059 per week will soon be entitled to overtime when working more than 40 hours in a workweek.

The DOL’s proposed salary threshold rule would also automatically update these earnings thresholds every three years. We expect the rule will be finalized in April, and may go into effect as soon as June. With the 2024 presidential election approaching, the Biden administration will want to finalize this rule as soon as possible to avoid a new administration rescinding the rule.

 

Bottom Line

We encourage clients to take a proactive, preventive approach to wage and hour laws. Consider having your compensation practices audited by experienced counsel to be sure your business is not mistakenly classifying employees as independent contractors. Also, an audit will help spot overtime exemption problems before litigation ensues.

 

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

Opinion

Opinion

By State Rep. Aaron Saunders

 

I grew up in a home where it was OK to ask if you were OK, mentally or physically, at the dinner table. This was not common during the 1980s, when a stay in a psychiatric ward could be a mark against you for life, but my dad was a psychologist, and my mother, a teacher.

They knew the importance of conversations with their boys about feelings, expectations, and disappointments and not just a skinned knee and how you got it.

I was reminded of this recently during a visit to the newly renovated adolescent unit of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke. Its recent reopening brought back on line 16 much-needed inpatient beds in Western Mass. for youth ages 13 to 17. The redesigned environment enhances delivery of care and healing for this population, in which recent government data estimates that nearly 50% have had a mental-health disorder at some point in their lives.

Massachusetts, with its Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform, introduced last year a Behavioral Health Line to call 24/7 and network of community behavioral-health centers that provide broader access to mental-health services for those in crisis. The state, too, has added inpatient psychiatric beds to ease Emergency Department boarding that continues for all age groups.

We, as legislators, need to ensure that there is ongoing funding for such services and adequate reimbursement rates for such beds, as well as for addiction-treatment programs. Mental-health and substance-use disorders co-occur frequently, and it is important for both to be treated.

We also need to continue to consider policies that address staffing shortages and issues like educating students and their families on the importance of mental healthcare.

Yet, there is another barrier — stigmatization — around lessening disabling behavioral-health conditions. Massachusetts has a campaign that seeks to educate that addiction is a chronic illness and not a personal choice, but stigma and misinformation continue to prevent individuals with behavioral-health issues from seeking treatment.

You can’t legislative away all stigma. We all need to be better-educated that mental illness can be treated and that there are steps to be taken to prevent poor mental health from progressing to where it interferes with daily life. This is what I reflected on during my recent visit to MiraVista.

I hear from my constituents of the need for services close to home and, in applying the lessons learned from my parents in asking my own three children about their feelings, I get a look into their day in an age when bullying and pressure to engage in unhealthy behavior can come from anywhere.

We all need to be more open to talking with our families, friends, and healthcare providers about our mental health and that of those in our care, as this, too, is part of the roadmap to raising emotionally healthy children and staying emotionally healthy, too.

 

State Rep. Aaron Saunders represents the 7th Hampden District.

Accounting and Tax Planning

Make the Right Choice

The Internal Revenue Service today reminds taxpayers that carefully choosing a tax professional to prepare a tax return is vital to ensuring that their personal and financial information is safe, secure, and treated with care.

Most tax-return preparers provide honest, high-quality service. But some may cause harm through fraud, identity theft, and other scams. It is important for taxpayers to understand who they’re choosing and what important questions to ask when hiring an individual or firm to prepare their tax return.

Another reason to choose a tax preparer carefully is because taxpayers are ultimately legally responsible for all the information on their income tax return, regardless of who prepares it.

The IRS has put together a directory of federal tax-return preparers with credentials and select qualifications (irs.treasury.gov/rpo/rpo.jsf) to help individuals find a tax pro that meets high standards. There is also a page at irs.gov for choosing a tax professional that can help guide taxpayers in making a good choice, including selecting someone affiliated with a recognized national tax association. There are different kinds of tax professionals, and a taxpayer’s needs will help determine which kind of preparer is best for them.

 

Red Flags to Watch Out For

There are warning signs that can help steer taxpayers away from unscrupulous tax-return preparers. For instance, not signing a tax return is a red flag that a paid preparer is likely not to be trusted. They may be looking to make a quick profit by promising a big refund or charging fees based on the size of the refund.

These unscrupulous ‘ghost’ preparers often print the return and have the taxpayer sign and mail it to the IRS. For electronically filed returns, a ghost preparer will prepare the tax return but refuse to digitally sign it as the paid preparer. Taxpayers should avoid this type of unethical preparer.

In addition, taxpayers should always choose a tax professional with a valid preparer tax identification number (PTIN). By law, anyone who is paid to prepare or assists in preparing federal tax returns must have a valid PTIN. Paid preparers must sign and include their PTIN on any tax return they prepare.

 

Other Tips

Here are a few other tips to consider when choosing a tax return preparer:

• Look for a preparer who’s available year-round. If questions come up about a tax return, taxpayers may need to contact the preparer after the filing season is over.

• Review the preparer’s history. Check the Better Business Bureau website for information about the preparer. Look for disciplinary actions and the license status for credentialed preparers. For CPAs, check the State Board of Accountancy’s website, and for attorneys, check with the State Bar Assoc. For enrolled agents, go to irs.gov and search for ‘verify enrolled agent status’ or check the IRS Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers.

• Ask about service fees. Taxpayers should avoid tax-return preparers who base their fees on a percentage of the refund or who offer to deposit all or part of the refund into their own financial accounts. Be wary of tax-return preparers who claim they can get larger refunds than their competitors.

• Find an authorized IRS e-file provider. They are qualified to prepare, transmit, and process electronically filed returns. The IRS issues most refunds in fewer than 21 days for taxpayers who file electronically and choose direct deposit.

• Provide records and receipts. Good preparers ask to see these documents. They’ll also ask questions to determine the client’s total income, deductions, tax credits, and other items. Do not hire a preparer who e-files a tax return using a pay stub instead of a Form W-2. This is against IRS e-file rules.

• Understand the preparer’s credentials and qualifications. Attorneys, CPAs, and enrolled agents can represent any client before the IRS in any situation. Annual Filing Season Program participants may represent taxpayers in limited situations if they prepared and signed the tax return.

• Never sign a blank or incomplete return. Taxpayers are responsible for filing a complete and correct tax return.

• Review the tax return before signing it. Be sure to ask questions if something is not clear or appears inaccurate. Any refund should go directly to the taxpayer — not into the preparer’s bank account. Review the routing and bank-account numbers on the completed return and make sure they are accurate.

• Taxpayers can report preparer misconduct to the IRS using Form 14157, Complaint: Tax Return Preparer (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f14157.pdf). If a taxpayer suspects a tax-return preparer filed or changed their tax return without their consent, they should file Form 14157-A, Tax Return Preparer Fraud or Misconduct Affidavit (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f14157a.pdf).

 

Extended Hours

In addition to this advice, the IRS also announced nearly 250 IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers around the country will extend their weekly office hours to give taxpayers additional time to get the help they need during the filing season. The extended office hours will continue through Tuesday, April 16.

The Springfield office, located at 1550 Main St., offers extended hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For questions about available services or hours of operation, call (413) 788-0284.

The expanded hours at the assistance centers reflect funding and staffing made possible under the Inflation Reduction Act, which is being used across the IRS to improve taxpayer service, add new technology and tools, as well as help tax-compliance efforts.

“This is another example of how additional IRS resources are helping taxpayers across the country,” IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said. “Adding extra hours provide more options for hardworking taxpayers to get help with their tax issues. The IRS is continuing to work hard both during the upcoming tax season and throughout the year to find ways to make it easier for people to interact with us.”

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Potential Tax Relief

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA

This article, written on Feb. 2, highlights the U.S. House of Representatives’ Jan. 31 passage of the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024 (H.R. 7024). However, it’s important to note that the details are subject to change pending the Senate’s vote and the ultimate signing into law by the president.

Despite concerted efforts to get the bill to the Senate in time for the current tax-filing season, this deadline has unfortunately lapsed, causing some concern over timing and efficacy. However, lawmakers remain optimistic about swift passage in the subsequent stages, aiming to minimize the impact on the IRS and enable prompt relief for taxpayers.

 

INDIVIDUAL TAX RELIEF

One of the core components of this legislation includes an increase in the child tax credit, a move set to benefit families with children across the nation. This concept is further strengthened by the introduction of a refundable portion determined per child, a clear advantage for growing families.

The proposed bill introduces a single change regarding the child tax credit. Currently, the credit is $2,000 per child for taxpayers who do not exceed certain income thresholds. A portion of this credit can be refunded up to $1,600 in 2023. The refundable portion is limited based on the number of qualifying children and the taxpayer’s earned income.

Under the proposed law, the refundable amount will be calculated per child, resulting in a total refundable amount. This change applies to the 2023-25 tax years. Additionally, the maximum amount of the refundable credit will be increased to $1,800 for 2023, $1,900 for 2024, and $2,000 for 2025. The overall child tax credit will also be adjusted for inflation from 2024 onward.

Kristina Drzal Houghton“One of the core components of this legislation includes an increase in the child tax credit, a move set to benefit families with children across the nation. This concept is further strengthened by the introduction of a refundable portion determined per child, a clear advantage for growing families.”

Notably missing from this legislation was a provision that addresses an aspect of the state and local tax deduction, which was capped at $10,000 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. The $10,000 cap applies to taxpayers filing either single or married filing jointly. Advocates were hoping for a provision to increase the married filing joint cap to be twice the single cap and eliminate that marriage penaly.

 

BUSINESS TAX RELIEF

In a bid to support the innovative spirit of America, the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act also includes provisions to delay the requirement to capitalize and amortize research and experimentation expenditures. This is further bolstered by an extension of the 100% bonus depreciation for properties in service prior to Jan. 1, 2026.

For the hardworking business sector, the Act provides an increase in the Code Sec. 179 deduction limitation and expense limitation for property put into service post-2023.

 

Research and Experimental Expenses

Under current law, domestic research and experimental expenditures incurred in tax years starting after Dec. 31, 2021 must be amortized over five years. Previously, these expenses could be immediately deducted in the year they were paid or incurred. Research or experiment costs outside the U.S. are deductible over a 15-year period. The proposed law would postpone the application of this rule for research and experimental costs related to domestic activities until tax years starting after Dec. 31, 2025. There will be no change for activities outside the U.S. The bill includes transitional rules for research credits and accounting changes.

Observation: H.R. 7024 provides that a taxpayer can reflect the retroactive application of Section 174 expensing via a change in method of accounting with either a one-year Section 481(a) adjustment or an elective two-year Section 481(a) adjustment. Alternatively, eligible taxpayers generally would be permitted to amend their first tax year beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2022, to reflect current expensing of eligible Section 174 expenditures. Due to the late passage of this bill, businesses may want to consider applying for an extension of time to file their returns so they can analyze which of the three options is most beneficial for them.

 

Business Interest Limitation

Under current tax law, prior to 2022, the calculation of adjusted taxable income for the business interest expense limitation (Code Sec. 163(j)) excluded deductions for interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization, or depletion (IBITDA). However, starting from 2022, only deductions for interest and taxes were considered, excluding depreciation, amortization, and depletion. The new law would reintroduce depreciation, amortization, and depletion for tax years starting after Dec. 31, 2023, and before Jan. 1, 2026. Additionally, taxpayers can choose to include depreciation, amortization, and depletion for tax years beginning after 2021 and before 2024.

Observation: H.R. 7024 provides that a taxpayer can reflect the retroactive application of using IBITDA to calculate the interest limitation. The bill does not provide as much information on how to effect the retroactive elction as it does with Section 174. Taxpayers with large limitation in 2022 may find it advantageous to amend their returns for this retroactive adoption. It is also unclear if you can elect to provide the provision for 2023 without amending 2022.

For the hardworking business sector, the Act provides an increase in the Code Sec. 179 deduction limitation and expense limitation for property put into service post-2023.

 

Bonus Depreciation

The most recent change, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, allowed for immediate expensing of qualified property placed in service between Sept. 17, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2023 (100% bonus depreciation). Starting in 2023, the first-year depreciation gradually reduces (80% in 2023, 60% in 2024, 40% in 2025, 20% in 2026) until it is eliminated for property placed in service in 2027. The proposed bill extends 100% bonus depreciation for property placed in service before Jan. 1, 2026 (Jan. 1, 2027 for longer production period property and certain aircraft). In 2026 and 2027, the 20% and 0% bonus depreciation rates would continue to apply.

 

Increased 179 Deduction

Under current law, businesses can choose to expense certain qualifying property instead of depreciating it. This includes tangible personal property, off-the-shelf computer software, and qualified real property used in the active conduct of a trade or business. The deduction is limited to an inflation-adjusted amount. In 2024, the deduction is capped at $1.22 million, reduced dollar-for-dollar by expenses exceeding $3.05 million.

 

Employee Retention Credit

The Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC) was established in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The purpose of the credit was to provide businesses with a credit against certain payroll taxes if they retained employees during lockdowns that may have impacted their income. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 extended the credit and expanded its scope to include Medicare taxes and dropped the precentage threshold for revenue decrease establishing eligibility for the credit. Taxpayers were able to make ERTC claims until April 15, 2025, despite the expiration of the period for which the credit can be claimed.

The IRS has identified fraudulent claims made by taxpayers, often unknowingly, facilitated by third-party processors (COVID-ERTC promoters) who boldly advertised on television and plagued businesses with calls implying that almost any business qualified due to facts and circumstances. To address this issue, the IRS temporarily suspended the acceptance of new claims in late 2023 while investigating potential instances of fraud in its backlog. Additionally, an amnesty program was established for taxpayers to voluntarily withdraw unqualified claims or repay the credit without penalty.

The proposed bill aims to combat fraudulent claims by increasing penalties for COVID-ERTC promoters, extending the limitations period on assessments of ERTC claims to six years, and imposing reporting requirements on COVID-ERTC promoters similar to promoters of listed transactions. Notably, the bill sets Jan. 31, 2024 as the deadline for making ERTC claims.

 

In Addition

In an effort to reduce compliance burdens on businesses, the Act raises the filing threshold for Form 1099-NEC and 1099-MISC from $600 to $1,000 for payments post-Dec. 31, 2023. The $1,000 will be adjusted for inflation.

 

IN SUMMARY

In essence, the Tax Relief for American Families and Workers Act of 2024 is a comprehensive package addressing varied aspects of the American economic landscape with a keen eye on relief and progression. These changes aim to promote economic growth, support independent contractors and businesses, and address housing affordability concerns.

While the House’s passage of the Act marks a significant milestone, it’s important to keep a vigilant eye on the upcoming Senate proceedings, as the Act still requires approval there before becoming law.

 

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

 

Features

It’s Not Going Away

By Linn Foster Freedman

Consumers have embraced the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools in their everyday lives since ChatGPT was introduced into the economy last year. Employees are using AI technology in their workplaces, which causes risks to companies. In addition, third-party vendors are embedding AI technology into their products and services, often without companies’ knowledge, and are using company data to teach AI tools.

This article provides practical tips to evaluate the use of AI tools within an organization and by third-party vendors, how to minimize that risk, and how to approach the use of AI tools as technology advances.

Although AI technology has been in existence for decades, it has become mainstream over the past year with the arrival and novelty of ChatGPT’s use by consumers. When consumers embrace technology before companies, it is only a matter of time before consumers start to migrate that use into the workplace, whether it is approved or not.

Companies are struggling with how to introduce AI tools into their environment, as the risks associated with AI tools have been well-documented. These include copyright infringement, use and disclosure of personal information and company confidential data, bias and discrimination, hallucinations and misinformation, security risks, and legal and regulatory compliance risks.

These risks are real and compelling, especially when employees are sharing company data with AI tools. Once employees upload company data to an AI tool, that data may be used by the AI tool developer to teach its AI model, and the company’s confidential data may now be publicly available. Further, many companies are embedding AI into their products or services, and if you are disclosing confidential company data to vendors, they may be using your data to teach their AI tools or feeding your confidential data to other third-party AI tools.

Linn Foster Freedman

Linn Foster Freedman

“Companies are struggling with how to introduce AI tools into their environment, as the risks associated with AI tools have been well-documented.”

The risk is daunting, but manageable with strategy and planning. Here are some tips on how to wrap your arms around your employees’ use of AI tools in your organization. Tips to manage the risk of vendors using AI tools will be addressed later on.

 

Tips for Evaluating Your Organization’s Use of AI Tools

1. Don’t put your head in the sand. AI is here to stay, and your employees are already using it. They don’t understand the risk, but it seems cool, so they are and will continue using it. They will use any tool that will make their jobs easier — that’s human nature. Embrace this fact and commit to addressing the risk sooner rather than later. Ignoring the issue will only make it worse.

2. Don’t prohibit the use of AI tools in your organization. AI tools can be used to increase efficiencies in the workplace and increase business output and profits. Prohibiting its use will put you behind your competition and be a failed strategy. Your employees will use AI tools to make their work lives more efficient, so getting ahead of the risk and communicating with your employees is essential to evaluate and develop the use of AI in your organization.

3. Find out who the entrepreneurs and AI users are in your organization. Encourage the entrepreneurs in your organization to bring use cases to your attention and evaluate whether they are safe and appropriate. There are many uses of AI tools that do not present risks. The use cases should be evaluated, and proper governance and guardrails should be implemented to minimize risks.

4. Develop and implement an AI governance program. While AI tools are developing rapidly, it is essential to have a central program that will govern its use, internally and externally. Gather an AI governance team from different areas in the organization that will be responsible for keeping a tab on where and when AI is used; a process for evaluating uses, tools, and risks; putting guardrails and contractual measures in place to reduce the risk; and processes to minimize the risk of bias, discrimination, regulatory compliance, and confidentiality. The team will start slow, but once processes are in place, they will mature and pivot as technology develops.

5. Communicate with your employees often about the risks of using AI tools, the company’s AI governance program, and the guardrails you have put in place. Companies are better now than ever at communicating with employees about security risks, particularly email phishing schemes. Use the same techniques to educate your employees about the risks of using AI tools. They are using ChatGPT because they saw it on the news or one of their friends told them about it. Use your corporate communications to continually educate your employees using AI tools in the company and why it is important that they follow the governance program you have put in place. Many employees have no idea how AI tools work or that they could inadvertently disclose confidential company information when they use them. Help them understand the risks, make them part of the team, and guide them on how to use AI tools to improve their efficiency.

6. Keep the governance program flexible and nimble. No one likes another committee meeting or extra work to implement another process. Nonetheless, this one is important, so don’t let it get too bogged down or mired in bureaucracy. Start by mapping the uses of AI in the organization, evaluating those uses, and learning from that evaluation to become more efficient in the evaluation process going forward. Put processes in place that can be replicated and eventually automated. The hardest and most important work will be setting up the program, but it will get more efficient as you learn from each evaluation. The governance program is like a mini-AI tool in and of itself.

7. Be forward-thinking. Technology develops rapidly, and business organizations can hardly keep up. This is an area on which to stay focused and forward-thinking. Start by having someone responsible for staying abreast of articles, research, laws, and regulations that will be important in developing the governance program. Right now, a great place to start is with the White House’s Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence. It gives a forward-thinking view of the development of regulations and compliance around AI that can be used as a prediction of what’s to come for your governance program.

8. Evaluate the risk of the use of AI tools by vendors. The AI governance team should be intimately involved with evaluating vendors’ use of AI tools, which is discussed in more detail below.

 

Tips for Evaluating the Risk of Use of AI Tools by Vendors

1. Carefully map which vendors are using AI tools. It might not be readily apparent which of your vendors use AI tools in their products or services. Team up with your business units to question which vendors are or may be using AI tools to process company data. Then, evaluate what data is disclosed and used by those vendors and determine whether any guardrails need to be put in place with the vendor.

2. Implement a process with business units to question vendors upfront about using AI tools. Business units are closest to the relationship with vendors, providing services to the business unit. Provide questions for the business units to ask when pursuing a business relationship with a vendor so you can evaluate the risk of using AI tools at the start. The AI governance team can then evaluate the use before contract negotiations begin.

3. Insert contractual language around the disclosure and use of company data and using AI tools. Companies may wish to consider developing an information security addendum (ISA) for any vendor with access to the company’s confidential data if they do not have one in place already. As the AI governance team evaluates the disclosure and use of company data to new vendors and the use of AI tools when processing company data, vendors should be questioned on the tools used, security measures used to protect company data (including from unauthorized use or disclosure of AI tools), and contractual provisions on the use of AI. Contractual language should be clear and concise about the vendor’s obligations and the remedies for a breach of the obligations, including indemnification. This language can be inserted in the ISA or the main contract.

4. Evaluate and map existing vendors’ use of AI tools. There may be some vendors you have already contracted with that are using AI tools to process confidential company information of which you are not aware. Prioritize which vendors have the highest risk of processing confidential company data with AI tools and review the existing contract. If applicable, request an amendment with the vendor to put appropriate contractual language in place addressing the processing of company confidential information with AI tools.

5. Add the evaluation of AI tools to your existing vendor-management program. If you have an existing vendor-management program in place, add the use of AI tools into the program going forward. If you don’t have an existing vendor-management program in place, it’s time to develop one.

 

Conclusion

Now is the time to implement a strategy and plan around the use of AI tools within your organization and externally by your vendors. It seems daunting, but the risk is clear and will be present until you address it. Hopefully, the tips in this article will help you start taking control of AI use in your organization and by your vendors and minimize the risk, so you can use AI to make your business more efficient and profitable.

 

Linn F. Freedman is a partner and chair of the Data Privacy + Cybersecurity Team at Robinson+Cole.

Health Care Healthcare News

Off on the Right Foot

 

Did you include better health in your New Year’s resolutions?

Health experts at Baystate Health suggest setting realistic goals and prioritizing what is most important to you, taking small steps, and remembering not to beat yourself up if you encounter a setback in your health goals for 2024. Here are three goals to consider as you continue on your journey:

 

Improve Your Blood Sugars

From Dr. Cecilia Lozier, chief of the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Baystate Health:

There are three important approaches to improve your blood-sugar numbers as we start the new year. First, moderate your carbohydrate intake. No dramatic approach is needed. If before you would take two scoops of potatoes, now consistently take one and fill the empty space with non-starchy vegetables.

Dr. Cecilia Lozier

Dr. Cecilia Lozier

“Moderate your carbohydrate intake. No dramatic approach is needed. If before you would take two scoops of potatoes, now consistently take one and fill the empty space with non-starchy vegetables.”

Second, increase your physical activity. Using your muscles will push sugar into your cells and out of your bloodstream. The more you move and are physically active, the better your numbers will look. Third, modest weight loss. Losing between 5% and 10% of your body weight will have a dramatic impact on how you metabolize sugar. Speak with your healthcare provider to personalize this approach for you.

 

Address Sleep Problems

From Dr. Karin Johnson, medical director, Baystate Health Regional Sleep Program and Baystate Medical Center Sleep Laboratory, Baystate Health:

Stress levels are higher today in the world we live in. While stress can make sleeping well more challenging, it is important to prioritize sleep, which is necessary for health and well-being. Most adults function best with seven to eight hours of sleep, and teenagers need around nine hours.

Good-quality sleep is important for preventing infections and keeping your immune system working well. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived people don’t mount the same immune response after vaccinations as good sleepers, so it is important to make sure you get a good night’s sleep prior to getting a flu or COVID vaccine, for example.

Keeping a regular sleep schedule will allow your body’s internal clock to help you get the best night’s sleep. If you are having difficulty sleeping or show signs of poor-quality sleep with loud snoring, difficulty staying asleep, urinating frequently at night, or daytime sleepiness or tiredness, you may benefit from a sleep-medicine evaluation.

 

Control Your Weight

From Eliana Terry, registered dietitian, Baystate Noble Hospital:

Is your New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, exercise more, or achieve another health-related goal? The new year brings with it the opportunity to start on a path toward wellness or, if you’ve already done so, to maintain healthy habits. However, it can be difficult to make these goals stick with all the challenges the year throws our way. What is the best way to be successful in achieving your health resolutions? Consider the following.

• Be specific with your goals. Instead of ‘I will eat healthier,’ consider something like ‘I will replace four sodas per week with water.’ Setting a more specific goal can help you actually check whether you have completed the goal each day and, thus, be successful long-term.

• Make sure your goals are measurable. If your goal is weight loss, for example, set a measurable amount with a time frame to reach your goal by. For example, ‘I want to lose 10 pounds by April 2024’ and ‘exercise for 30 minutes, three times per week’ are more measurable goals than ‘lose weight this year.’

• Make your goals realistic for you. For example, if you travel daily for work, ‘no longer eat on the go’ as a resolution may be unrealistic for your lifestyle. You may find yourself giving up by February if you have purchased any meals out. This hinders any progress you could have made in a longer period. Instead, try a more realistic and flexible goal such as ‘pack a healthy lunch to keep in a cooler four times per week.’

Set yourself up for success this year with specific, measurable, realistic resolutions. Otherwise, you may find yourself quickly frustrated by your inability to stick to and achieve your goals.

Cover Story Creative Economy

Music Will Live Again

By Emily Thurlow

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman, executive director of the Parlor Room Collective
Photo by Emily Thurlow

There’s a lot to love about the Iron Horse Music Hall.

Though it’s not as apparent from the outside, with its large storefront windows covered in layers of tape holding up posters advertising myriad performers and upcoming shows, the downtown space holds countless special memories for lovers of live music in Western Mass., as reflected in its venerable slogan, “music alone shall live.”

Over the course of its more than four decades in existence, thousands of musical acts have graced the stage at the historic Northampton venue — one of a handful of hotspots, in fact, that helped define the city as an entertainment destination.

Whether leaning on the balcony railing or sitting at a table, or swaying from side to side at the edge of the stage, audiences of multiple generations have been entertained time and time again by artists like jazz musicians Freddie Hubbard and Bobby McFerrin, singer-songwriters from Brandi Carlile to Robyn Hitchcock, rockers like Graham Parker and the Smashing Pumpkins, and contemporary folk icons like Dar Williams and Dan Bern.

And while concertgoers and performers alike cherished the intimate atmosphere within the historic walls, it’s no secret that the Iron Horse also carries a less-pleasant legacy with regard to uncomfortable room temperatures, underwhelming bathrooms, and a poorly maintained green room — not to mention labor complaints and an extended closure that marred the last few years of the venue’s previous ownership by Eric Suher.

The the new owner, however — a nonprofit called the Parlor Room Collective that operates other small, local performance spaces — has plans to make those less-appealing accounts a thing of the past and reopen the Iron Horse this May.

“This is a living place. You can have people seated around the outside on the balcony or standing, and you could have college kids moshing and dancing in the pit while you have all of their parents eating a nice meal around the outside. Everyone feels safe.”

Nearly halfway to the $750,000 goal of a capital campaign launched in November, the Valley-based nonprofit continues to call on the public to invest in the Iron Horse Music Hall. The Parlor Room Collective will use that investment to expand and renovate the facility’s footprint to enhance the overall experience for patrons and improve the space for artists, which will, in turn, bring people together through music as it did not so long ago, said Chris Freeman, executive director of the Parlor Room Collective.

“Our mission at the Parlor Room Collective is to enhance the health and vitality of our community through the power of music. We have witnessed the magic of our local music scene and its ability to fuel the engine of our economy, enhance the overall well-being of our community, and contribute to our cultural vitality,” Freeman said. “And now we stand at a pivotal moment in our journey as a nonprofit arts organization. We have a unique opportunity to revive a local treasure that has resonated with music lovers for generations: the Iron Horse.”

 

The Good, the Bad, and the Disgusting

Many who have entered the music industry at a grassroots level have performed at one point or another at the Iron Horse, Freeman said.

Take singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, for example. Prior to taking home numerous Grammy awards for her eponymous 1988 debut, Chapman played at the Northampton venue, long before it was the multi-level experience it is today, Freeman noted.

“From John Mayer and Wynton Marsalis to Allen Ginsberg and Beck … the amount of performers that have played here goes on forever, and in every genre,” he said.

Before earning that reputation, the 20 Center St. mainstay was known as the Iron Horse Coffeehouse. At the time of its opening in 1979, the club’s capacity was limited to 60 people. Co-founded by Jordi Herold and John Riley, the venue was named for a work of sculpture that Herold’s mother had created.

About a decade — and a few expansions — later, the club could accommodate 170 seats and had became known as the Iron Horse Music Hall. Suher, a notable Northampton developer, purchased the venue in 1995 and owned it until its sale to the Parlor Room Collective in 2023.

Though he’s spent considerable time in the space, Freeman still marvels at how the unique venue lends itself to an eclectic, multi-generational experience. “This is a living place. You can have people seated around the outside on the balcony or standing, and you could have college kids moshing and dancing in the pit while you have all of their parents eating a nice meal around the outside. Everyone feels safe.”

At the same time, the venue has presented some unpleasantness for its guests. In recent years, some artists have publicly addressed such issues. Freeman recalled attending a show for Vanessa Carlton, who talked about how cold she was during her 2017 performance at the venue.

Carlton, best known for her 2002 hit single, “A Thousand Miles,” publicly thanked an audience member who loaned her fingerless gloves via a post on Twitter, stating, “it was freezing on stage” and Suher’s Iron Horse Entertainment Group “wouldn’t turn the heat up.”

In response, Suher denied Carlton’s assertions and told the Daily Hampshire Gazette at the time that “the performer was cold on the stage. The venue temp was 70 degrees.”

Carlton further spoke of the disarray in the green room, which was also located in the basement. On Twitter, she posted a photo of furniture with ripped and torn fabric and cushions collapsing and urged owners to toss it, so that she would return to the venue again in the future.

Though the space allowed fans to get close to artists, the space wasn’t especially welcoming, Freeman noted, adding the green room was known in the area for its poor condition, and the basement was the only place on site equipped with bathrooms. “These two disgusting bathrooms are supposed to serve 250 people — including the artists. They’re so, so gross.”

“Understanding its history, I kept thinking about how it’s just such an important place for our whole community, and I thought that somebody has to reopen this place.”

As for the HVAC unit, Freeman said the Iron Horse is in need of a serious upgrade. He explained the challenges of trying to keep a packed house well-regulated, whether the meant warm enough or cool enough. “There are tons of famous artist complaints of playing in here with it being 90 degrees — and 20 degrees outside.”

 

Music and Memories

Freeman’s knowledge of the Iron Horse goes well beyond his time as a board member for the Parlor Room. Growing up in Farmington, Conn., he would often attend shows at the Iron Horse with his father. The Valley’s music scene was especially attractive to him and made him want to move to the area, he said.

“Northampton was kind of like a grungy, artsy, cool place where people knew about artists. People had an understanding of bands that ran a little bit deeper than whoever’s on the big country radio station or the big pop stuff,” he said. “I remember the first time I came here. I knew I wanted to be a musician, and I thought that if I could just open a show at the Iron Horse, I’ll have made it.”

By his 10th or 11th visit to the Iron Horse, Freeman did just that and performed with the Americana/folk-rock group he helped found, Parsonsfield.

His band, which was signed to the Signature Sounds record label, was among the first artists to perform at the Parlor Room, located at 32 Masonic St. — just a block away from the Iron Horse. The Parlor Room was founded by Signature Sounds Recordings in the fall of 2012 as an “artist-and-audience-friendly” listening room, performance space, and school of music, he explained.

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman sits on the Iron Horse’s prominent stairs to the second level, where the new restrooms will be located.

Freeman spent roughly a decade touring with Parsonsfield at venues throughout the U.S. In February 2022, he transitioned into the role of executive director of the Parlor Room and played a critical role in helping the organization transition into a nonprofit music venue and school last January.

On a near-daily basis, Freeman, who is now a resident of Northampton, would find himself walking by the Iron Horse, seeing the legendary venue remain dark.

“Understanding its history, I kept thinking about how it’s just such an important place for our whole community, and I thought that somebody has to reopen this place,” he told BusinessWest. “This was a place that is the heart of the whole Western Mass. music scene. The culture and the city around it made me want to move here.”

Freeman’s understanding of the value of the property led him to reach out to Suher. This past September, the Parlor Room announced it had reached an agreement with Suher to purchase the business, which includes the venue’s liquor license.

The Parlor Room signed a 15-year lease to not only operate the business at its current space at 18 and 20 Center St., but also to expand into 22 Center St. Connecting the adjacent storefronts will allow the Iron Horse to have a dedicated bar and community space and will increase the venue’s overall square footage by 40%, he explained.

Once renovations are completed and the Iron Horse has reopened, the Parlor Room will be, as its name suggests, a collective that encompasses three projects: the Iron Horse, the Parlor Room, and the Parlor Room School of Music. The original Parlor Room venue on Masonic Street will live on as the headquarters for the School of Music and an intimate performance venue.

“My main goal is, I wanted this place to come back, and I wanted to live in a city that has music — that’s why I moved here in the first place. My secondary goal is to make the Parlor Room become just as big of a part of this community,” Freeman said. “The ability to merge these together and to make sure that this place comes back — in the right way and with the right mission and in line with the community’s goals — felt like a really important thing to do.”

 

What’s the Plan?

With the aim of reopening this spring, the Parlor Room has set an ambitious renovation timeline that’s already underway, while the capital campaign continues. To date, the campaign has surpassed $317,500.

Among the biggest costs will be an upgraded sprinkler system and HVAC unit, Freeman said. The first phase of renovations also encompass updates to flooring, a new sound and lighting system, and stage and bar enhancement funded in part by a $73,000 American Rescue Plan Act grant from the city of Northampton.

The nonprofit has also partnered with Dave Schrier, co-owner of Easthampton’s Daily Operation, to redesign the dining and bar experience at the Iron Horse.

Phase two of the renovations will focus on accessibility and other upgrades. Instead of the two basement bathrooms, the new space will include 10 bathrooms that will be relocated for increased accessibility. This also includes two bathrooms accessible for those who use wheelchairs, in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. A wheelchair lift will also be installed to make the stage accessible for all.

The Parlor Room Collective will also establish a brand-new green room that includes private bathrooms with a shower. A new floor layout will allow for 300 people for standing-room-only events and variations of more than 200 people seated in new furniture.

“There is no better investment in our community — and what, historically, has seen Northampton as a community thrive, business-wise — than bringing back the Iron Horse and having this place open 250 nights a year with a bar, with the way that it impacts other restaurants and tourism in the area,” Freeman said.

To donate to the “Revive the Iron Horse” capital campaign, visit ironhorse.org.

Healthcare News Special Coverage

One Workout at a Time

By Emily Thurlow

Steve Conca

Steve Conca, owner of Conca Sport and Fitness

Between platefuls of coma-inducing turkey, complete with all the fixings, and palatable pies and pastries, it’s safe to say that many people are happy to see the hearty overindulgences of the 2023 holiday season firmly in the rear-view mirror.

For many, the start of the new year provides an opportunity to start out on the right foot, by developing better habits and establishing goals. Through myriad resolutions, one theme that tends to stand out year after year is health.

Notably, an October 2023 survey from Forbes Health/OnePoll revealed that 48% of U.S. adults say improving fitness is a top priority for them in 2024. Google Trends also released data showing that some of the top health-related searches in January include meal preparation, healthy meal ideas, and gym memberships.

And while some say they resolve to lose weight or improve their health in January, it often takes another month before they will deliver, said Danny Deane, who owns two local F45 Training franchises with his wife, Jessye.

“February is the number-one month in the fitness industry, with September being second,” he said. “In January, everybody starts to think about it, and then, by the time February rolls around, they’re really making good on their promise.”

Whether it’s during the winter doldrums or as the leaves begin to turn in the fall, local fitness studios and gyms continue to see positive gains in this post-pandemic climate — in both their business and their clients.

“I think people are realizing that putting an investment into themselves pays big dividends.”

“I think people are realizing that putting an investment into themselves pays big dividends,” said Steve Conca, owner of Conca Sport and Fitness in West Springfield.

During the pandemic, gyms and fitness centers were severely challenged by shutdowns and limitations on the amount of people in a space at any given time. For some, the impact was minimal. For others, it’s been rather extreme.

F45 Training

One key to success at gyms like F45 Training is accountability with a workout partner.

In fact, 25% of fitness studios and gyms have closed permanently since the onset of COVID-19, according the National Health & Fitness Alliance, an industry group.

However, Jon Davis, owner and performance director of Powerhouse Training in East Longmeadow, said business is “as good as it ever has been.”

Powerhouse Training, which Davis founded in 2010, offers sports-specific lessons for baseball and softball athletes as well as general performance training in speed, agility, strength, and mobility. The majority of his clientele includes athletes between age 8 and pro-rank levels.

Because Powerhouse Training provides more of a specialized kind of exercise regimen, Davis said he didn’t see the decline in attendance that many commercial gyms did. He said he’s also found that parents are valuing their children’s access to being physically active.

“I think a lot of parents realize the importance of having their kids get outside and socialize and stay active, for not only their physical health, but also their mental health,” he told BusinessWest. “Since we provide more of a specialized training, the kids really can’t train on their own, and they need assistance as well as special equipment, and they need a lot more space. So I think we were a necessity for them, which has certainly helped out.”

The group training, which involves youth athletes coming in two to three times a week, costs between $145 and $195 per month. Prices range between $50 and $90 for baseball lessons and $50 and $75 for fitness training.

 

Investing in Health

For the most part, Conca’s entire membership stuck with his gym. He expressed gratitude for the tight-knit community, or “family,” that is Conca Sport and Fitness, which first opened in 2009.

For months, all the personal training and small-group training was done outside. Unlike more recent weather patterns, the forecast remained relatively sunny, with little precipitation. And once the clouds of the pandemic restrictions cleared, he actually saw a slight resurgence.

“People are always going to want the newest, latest, and greatest thing — and, certainly, some of those innovations are really helpful — but honestly, I think learning good form and focusing on staying balanced, working mobility, and strength training will never get old.”

“I think it’s opened people’s eyes to realize, ‘I really wasn’t taking great care of myself,’ so it’s led them to want to invest in themselves,” he said. “Here, we call investing in yourself a health savings account. The more you can put in now, the more you can reap the benefits.”

In addition to personal training and group training, Conca Sport and Fitness also offers health nutrition and wellness coaching. Memberships range between $209 to $349 a month, with individual sessions ranging between $20 to $37.

“When people come here, they aren’t just going to bang out a few workouts, high-five, fist-bump, and ‘see ya later,’” he said. “It’s a whole process that includes teaching people how to take better care of themselves as they age.”

As for the Deanes, the couple, who opened their first gym, F45 Training Hampshire Meadows in Hadley in 2018, decided to open a second location in West Springfield in 2020.

“A lot of doors closed throughout the last couple years in the fitness world, but we are lucky enough to be on the other side of it and are actually above pre-COVID numbers at Hampshire Meadows,” Danny said. “We made it through.”

The 45 in F45 stands for 45 minutes of functional fitness, with sessions led by two personal trainers in a motivating team environment, said Jessye Deane, who is also executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council.

F45 Training does not employ heavy equipment or machinery

F45 Training does not employ heavy equipment or machinery, but it does include the use of kettlebells, free weights, and body-weight-based movements.

“The goal is really functional fitness. It’s scalable and adaptable, so it fits every fitness level,” she said. “A lot of times, what we hear is that folks go to the gym and want to get healthier, want to be able to move better, and want to be able to feel better, but they don’t quite know how to work the machines or they don’t know what they’re doing, and they get hurt, or they get frustrated. And this is kind of the answer to that. All you have to do is walk through the door, and we will take it from there.”

Every day, the gym features a different workout. F45 Training does not incorporate heavy equipment or machinery, but it does include the use of kettlebells, free weights, and body-weight-based movements.

The workouts for the Australian-based franchise combine elements of high-intensity interval training, circuit training, and functional training. The West Springfield location also currently offers a free seven-day trial, and the Hadley location is offering a seven days for $7 offer.

Trends come and go, but according to the area gym owners BusinessWest spoke with, having a healthier lifestyle comes down to the basics.

“People are always going to want the newest, latest, and greatest thing — and, certainly, some of those innovations are really helpful — but honestly, I think learning good form and focusing on staying balanced, working mobility, and strength training will never get old,” Davis said. “I think those tend to produce the best results.”

Conca agreed, noting that, as people age, he explained, they lose strength, muscle mass and function.

“Father time just begins chipping away,” Conca said. “That’s why maintaining muscle mass and strength levels — the fundamentals — is super important. I’d argue that it’s more important than so-called cardio, because you can get a good cardiovascular response with some very good strength training.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, muscle mass decreases approximately 3% to 8% per decade after age 30. After age 60, the rate of decline is even higher.

While F45 workouts have the adaptability to pull in emerging trends, Jessye Deane emphasized that trends are not the mainstay of the gym.

“We want you to feel great now, and we want you to feel great in 20 years — that’s our motivator,” she said. “The focus of our programming is to make sure that we’re providing people the safest, most effective functional fitness workout they can have.”

One way F45 workouts tap into recent trends is through supersets, she added. A superset includes performing a set of two different exercises back to back with little to no rest in between. One example of this would be doing a set of 10 push-ups, followed immediately by pull-ups.

 

Sticking with It

Finding motivation to stick with any new habit can be difficult, of course. It can potentially be even harder when the only opportunity to dedicate time to fitness is before the sun rises or well after it sinks below the horizon. That time crunch, combined with inclement winter weather, can make someone want to shed their new goal before they even begin.

One way Conca and the Deanes have seen clients stick with their fitness routines is by not doing it alone.

“Accountability is key. Having a group of people that you’re excited to see every day helps,” Jessye Deane said, adding that her husband is her workout partner. “Danny is my accountability partner. He wakes me up every morning whether I want to or not.”

At Powerhouse, Davis coaches each athlete differently based on their personality. Some kids may require more positive affirmation to help build their confidence, while others require him to be blunt and upfront and tell them directly what they’re doing incorrectly.

“It’s getting to know these athletes — getting to know what they like, what they don’t like, what motivates them, and then trying to find out what makes them tick and make sure that, when it’s time to push, we know what button to push,” he explained.

Throughout his tenure, Davis has produced more than 100 All-Western Mass. high-school all-stars, 13 All-Americans at the high-school and collegiate levels, and three Western Mass. Players of the Year in football, baseball, and girls lacrosse. He’s also helped produce 10 Major League Baseball draft picks out of the high-school ranks, including Isan Díaz and Seamus Curran.

At Conca’s gym, motivational phrases festoon the walls, including quotes from famous folks ranging from Wayne Gretzky to Amelia Earhart. The gym also features a so-called ‘strong wall’ that includes one-word motivational phrases that clients create to help drive their personal success. At the time of this interview, Conca was still tinkering with the specifics of the acronym LIFT, with the goal of lifting others up.

For those looking to dip their toe into the fitness and exercise pool, Jessye Deane said anytime is a good time to start.

“There is nothing more important than your health,” she told BusinessWest. “Whether you’re working out at an F45 or you’re doing yoga or you’re visiting any of the wonderful studios in the Valley, we really want people just to feel better and be healthier.”

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Sandra Mauro

 

As human-resource professionals partner with their organization’s senior leaders to set priorities for 2024, we at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) can’t help but reflect on the 2023 workplace predictions and ask, how effective were we at deciding where to focus our efforts, and, more importantly, did we move the needle on the critical issues we faced?

In 2023, seven key challenges were forecasted. Number one was quiet hiring, challenging us to look internally and determine if our workforce strengths would meet future organizational needs. Number two was equitable flexibility for frontline workers, an inspirational idea to open up the dialogue for frontline workers to freely express their preferences on how, when, and with whom they work.

Three through six were manager support, pursuing non-traditional talent, coping with stress, and workplace civility. Number seven? Technology and the entrance of AI.

Focusing forward on 2024, two through seven are green workplaces, civil culture, defining the new workplace, psychological safety, learning and upskilling, and career advancement. What a difference a year makes. AI has catapulted to number one.

When we think about AI and ask what will my organization do (or not do) with this new technology, we first need to acknowledge that Gen Z now makes up 23% of our 2024 workforce. This generation literally grew up with technology at their fingertips from the time they could touch it, and will expect nothing less in their workplace. Gen Z is not only tech-savvy, they are highly motivated for change thinking and will quickly move into key positions with great influence over our workplaces.

Yes, the demand for faster information, revolutionary thinking, and finding how and where AI can enhance — or threaten — our workplace will dominate our organizations. And equally important on every generation’s mind are the other six priorities.

There is no question 2023 was filled with turning our organization’s energy from day-to-day survival to blazing our future path. We tiptoed through return to the workplace, fought through scarce candidate pools, and contemplated solutions to quiet quitting and disengagement.

With our sights on what to implement to stay relevant in 2024, we need to collaboratively decide where we are going to focus our resources. Now more than ever, we need to keep our doors open and ask for employee ideas, buy-in, and commitment. Fight not only to align your operational objectives, but to nurture your organizational values, welcome authenticity, and embrace a culture where collaboration across every department is encouraged and celebrated.

And when 2025 is around the corner, let’s reflect back together and ask again, how did we do? After all, what gets measured gets done.

 

Sandra Mauro is a human resource business partner at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Opinion

By Dr. Negar Beheshti

In a world where the pursuit of perfection can sometimes overshadow the significance of self-compassion, MiraVista Behavioral Health Center emphasizes the need for New Year’s resolutions that prioritize mental health and are both realistic and achievable. This approach aims to reduce the pressure often associated with traditional New Year’s resolutions and promotes a more holistic perspective on personal growth. The key themes are:

Prioritize self-care rituals. Resolve to incorporate daily self-care rituals into your routine. This could include activities like meditation, reading, taking a warm bath, or going for a nature walk.

Establish healthy boundaries. Set clear boundaries in your personal and professional life. Learn to say ‘no’ when necessary and prioritize activities that contribute positively to your well-being.

Cultivate mindfulness and presence. Make a commitment to being more present in the moment. Practice mindfulness through activities like meditation, deep-breathing exercises, or simply taking a moment to appreciate the present.

Nurture positive relationships. Focus on building and strengthening positive relationships. Invest time in meaningful connections with friends and family, fostering a support system that contributes to your emotional well-being.

Limit screen time. Reduce the time spent on electronic devices and social media. Allocate time for activities to promote mental health, such as reading, engaging in hobbies, or spending quality time with loved ones.

Practice gratitude. Start a gratitude journal and make it a habit to reflect on the positive aspects of your life. Regularly expressing gratitude can shift your focus towards positivity.

Engage in regular physical activity. Choose physical activities that you enjoy and make them a regular part of your routine. Exercise has proven benefits for mental health, releasing endorphins that can boost mood and reduce stress.

Seek professional support. Break down the stigma surrounding mental health by committing to seeking professional support when needed. Therapy or counseling can provide valuable tools for managing stress, anxiety, or other mental-health challenges.

Embrace a healthy sleep routine. Prioritize sleep by establishing a consistent sleep routine. Ensure that you are getting enough restorative sleep each night, as it plays a crucial role in mental and emotional well-being.

Learn a new skill or hobby. Engage your mind in positive and creative activities by learning a new skill or picking up a hobby. This can provide a sense of accomplishment and contribute to your overall sense of well-being.

 

Dr. Negar Beheshti is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and chief medical officer for both MiraVista and TaraVista Behavioral Health Centers.

Employment

Starting Fresh

By John S. Gannon, Esq.

 

The new year often brings new challenges to your business. But it also brings new opportunities. Picture this scenario: after months of searching, you have just recruited a person who seems like the perfect fit for a position you have been struggling to fill.

While this is certainly good news, there is more heavy lifting to be done. Employers must create and implement an effective onboarding experience that will help improve employee retention and increase job satisfaction. Here a few tips and suggestions that can create positive and effective onboarding experience for new hires.

 

Have a Plan

As with most things in the workplace, employers should have a carefully considered plan in place when it comes to onboarding new employees. This means devising an onboarding strategy aimed at ensuring new hires get the most out of the introductory period. Leaders from different departments should be included in the overall onboarding strategy to make sure important aspects of mission statements, strategic plans, and workplace culture are effectively communicated to new employees.

Remember that onboarding is more than a one or two-day orientation, and a successful onboarding plan takes a true team effort.

 

Ensure Legal Compliance

New hires also come with new legal obligations. For instance, all new employees must complete a form I-9, and employers are required to review the proper employment authorization documents to establish employee identity and authorization to work in the U.S.

Employees should also know what their compensation and benefits package will look like. And, depending on the size of the business, distribution of polices on benefits like sick time and paid family leave should be part of the onboarding process.

John Gannon

John Gannon

“Leaders from different departments should be included in the overall onboarding strategy to make sure important aspects of mission statements, strategic plans, and workplace culture are effectively communicated to new employees.”

Finally, although not legally required in Massachusetts, employers should strongly consider conducting education and training programs on preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Keep in mind that this type of training may be required as part of the onboarding process if you have employees working outside Massachusetts.

 

Protect Confidential Information and Trade Secrets

Sometimes, what you don’t know can hurt you the most. Unfortunately, bringing on new employees can put businesses at risk of unwanted access to sensitive trade secrets and other confidential business information of your competitors.

For instance, suppose you bring on a new sales executive who has worked for one of your competitors for the last decade. What if that person brings spreadsheets or other documents with sensitive information about his former employer’s top accounts? If handled improperly, this could expose the new employer to legal risk for misappropriation of trade secrets and unlawful inference with business relationships. Similarly, if new employees try to recruit their former colleagues or contact former clients to drum up business in violation of anti-solicitation provisions, this could create legal risk for the new employer.

On the other hand, businesses need to take steps to protect their own confidential business information from disclosure into competitors’ hands. This can (and should) be addressed during the onboarding stage. First, new employees should be instructed in writing not to take any documents, data, or other sensitive business information with them when they leave their former employer. In addition, new employees who have access to your confidential information should be required to sign agreements confirming they will not take or otherwise misappropriate your sensitive data.

These are commonly referred to as non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. If your employees have access to sensitive or confidential business information as part of their jobs, and you do not have up-to-date NDAs in place, consult with labor or employment counsel with experience in trade-secret protection strategies.

 

Consider Using Mandatory Dispute Resolution Agreements

In a perfect world, every employment relationship would be smooth and harmonious. However, there are times when employees and employers disagree. In most instances, these differences can be resolved through internal dialogue without resorting to outside resources, such as lawyers and court systems. But, of course, disputes do arise where internal dialogue does not produce a satisfactory result.

One way to avoid costly employment litigation when disputes cannot be resolved internally is through the use of alternate dispute resolution (ADR) agreements, which call for private mandatory mediation and/or arbitration in lieu of court.

Mandatory ADR agreements have a number of practical advantages for employers. First and foremost, mediation/arbitration is typically both less expensive and speedier than a jury trial. Alternate dispute resolution can also shield businesses from unwanted publicity associated with public lawsuits. This is because mediation and/or arbitration involve private hearings that typically do not reach media outlets.

If ADR agreements sound like they might work for your business, they definitely should be part of your onboarding plan.

 

John Gannon is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal employment laws, trade-secret protection, and strategies for alternate dispute resolution; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

A Brave New Year

By Lauren C. Ostberg, Esq. and Michael McAndrew, Esq.

 

Artificial intelligence — specifically, natural-language chatbots like ChatGPT, Bard, and Watson — have been making headlines over the past year, whether it’s college writing teachers’ attempts to avoid reading machine-generated essays, the boardroom drama of OpenAI, the SAG-AFTRA strike, or existential anxiety about the singularity.

On the frivolous end of the spectrum, one of the authors of this piece used ChatGPT to find celebrity lookalikes for various attorneys at their firm, and learned that ChatGPT defaults to the assumption that, irrespective of race or gender or facial features, most people (including Lauren Ostberg) look like Ryan Reynolds. On the more serious end, the legislatures of state governments, including those in Massachusetts and Connecticut, have labored over bills that will harness, regulate, and investigate the power of AI.

Lauren Ostberg

“The legislatures of state governments, including those in Massachusetts and Connecticut, have labored over bills that will harness, regulate, and investigate the power of AI.”

In Massachusetts, for example, the Legislature is considering two bills, one (H.1873) “To Prevent Dystopian Work Environments,” and another (S.31) titled “An Act Drafted with the Help of ChatGPT to Regulate Generate Artificial Intelligence Models Like ChatGPT.” The former would require employers using any automatic decision-making system to disclose the use of such systems to their employees, and give employees the opportunity to review and correct the worker data on which those systems relied. The latter, sponsored by Hampden County’s state Sen. Adam Gomez, aims to regulate newly spawned AI models.

While the use of AI to draft S.31 is, in its own right, an interesting real-world application of AI, the use of AI in this way is not the only important part of S.31, which proposes a regulatory regime whereby “large-scale generative artificial intelligence models” are required to register with the attorney general. In doing so, AI companies would be required to disclose detailed information to the attorney general, including “a description of the large-scale generative artificial intelligence model, including its capacity, training data, intended use, design process, and methodologies.”

In addition to requiring the registration of AI companies, S.31 (if passed) would also require AI companies to implement standards to prevent plagiarism and protect information of individually identifiable information used as part of the training data. AI companies must “obtain informed consent” before using the data of individuals. To ensure compliance, the bill gives the AG enforcement powers and grants it the authority to propound regulations that are consistent with the bill.

While S.31 provides robust protections against using data garnered from citizens of the Commonwealth in programming AI models, it may fail because of the amount of disclosure required from AI companies. As part of a new and fast-moving field, AI companies may be hesitant to disclose their processes, as is required by S.31.

Michael McAndrew

Michael McAndrew

“This proposed legislation is, of course, just the beginning of government’s attempts to grapple with the ‘responsible use’ (an Orwellian term, if ever there was one) of AI and technology.”

Though commendable in its effort to protect creators and citizens, S.31 may ultimately drive AI-based businesses out of the Commonwealth if they fear that their competitively sensitive AI processes will be disclosed as part of the public registry envisioned by S.31. However, the structure of the proposed registry of AI businesses is currently unclear; only time will tell how much information will be available to the public. Time will also tell if S.31 (or H.1873, referenced above) makes it out of committee and into law.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut

This past June, Connecticut passed a law, SB-1103, that recognizes the dystopian nature of the government using AI to make decisions about the treatment of its citizens. It requires that — by, on or before Dec. 31, 2023 — Connecticut’s executive and judicial branches conduct and make available “an inventory of all their systems that employ artificial intelligence.” (That is, it asks the machinery of the state to reveal itself, in part.)

By Feb. 1, 2024, the executive and judicial branches must also conduct (and publicly disclose) an “impact assessment” to ensure that systems using AI “will not result in unlawful discrimination or a disparate impact against specified individuals.” ChatGPT’s presumption, noted above, that every person is a symmetrically faced white man would be much more serious in the context of an automated decision-making system that impacts the property, liberty, and quality of life of Connecticut residents.

This proposed legislation is, of course, just the beginning of government’s attempts to grapple with the ‘responsible use’ (an Orwellian term, if ever there was one) of AI and technology. Massachusetts has proposed the creation of a commission to address the executive branch’s use of automated decision making; Connecticut’s new law has mandated a working group to consider an ‘AI Bill of Rights’ modeled after a federal blueprint for the same. The results — and the inventory, and the assessments — remain to be seen in the new year.

 

Lauren C. Ostberg is a partner, and Michael McAndrew an associate, at Bulkley Richardson, the largest law firm in Western Mass. Ostberg, a key member of the firm’s intellectual property and technology group, co-chairs the firm’s cybersecurity practice. McAndrew is a commercial litigator who seeks to understand the implications and risks of businesses adopting AI.

Law

Dispelling Medicaid Myths

By Hyman G. Darling, Esq.

 

It seems like every day a client tells me they are going to protect their assets from long-term care expenses by making a gift of $10,000 to their children. If this writer got paid every time a client misspoke about this rule, he quite possibly could be retired.

First of all, the amount a person can gift to a child or another person on an annual basis is $17,000 per year without having to file a gift tax return. ($18,000 in 2024). Any amount over this annual amount will require a gift-tax return to be filed, but at the current time, the exclusion of the gifts is $12.92 million ($13.61 million in 2024). Therefore, most people should not be concerned about limiting a gift to $18,000.

Hyman Darling

Hyman Darling

“If the person has an interest is protecting assets from long-term care expenses, they can make gifts five years prior to needing care, give a child a remainder interest in a house, create an irrevocable trust (also a five-year lookback), or purchase a long-term care policy or hybrid policy.”

Again, this is only a tax rule, not a Medicaid rule. Any amount that is given to a person triggers a five-year waiting period, which means basically that the amount of the gift, whether it is $5 or $500,000, carries with it a five-year look-back. The donor will not be qualified for Medicaid benefits until either the five years is lapsed or all of the funds transferred are utilized for the benefit of the donor. There is no threshold for a de minimis amount that may be given without triggering the look-back. Some states even question and disqualify Christmas, anniversary, and birthday gifts.

Here is a relatively short list of permissible expenditures that do not normally disqualify a person for Medicaid eligibility, although these amounts may vary from state to state:

• $2,000 personal-needs account;

• Pre-paid burial account;

• $1,500 burial account earmarked specifically for funeral and related expenses;

• Purchase of any necessary medical equipment;

• Payment of expenses of a home while a person is living there;

• A home while the person is living in it (with a limit on equity in some states);

• Personal belongings and household goods; or

• One car.

All other assets, including jointly owned bank accounts, CDs, retirement plans, revocable trusts, second cars, second residences, value of life insurance, U.S. savings bonds, etc., are countable and will have to be spent on a person’s long-term care. Unless a person (usually a child) can prove that they contributed to the parent’s accounts, these assets are not protected as the account will be deemed to be owned 100% by the parent, and thus counted as long-term care assets.

Of course, there are many exceptions to the rules, such as having a minor child, a disabled child, or a child who is blind.

If the person has an interest is protecting assets from long-term care expenses, they can make gifts five years prior to needing care, give a child a remainder interest in a house, create an irrevocable trust (also a five-year lookback), or purchase a long-term care policy or hybrid policy. If a person is not interested in these options, then the decision is to take their chances and hope they are never institutionalized.

While this article is repetitive of prior articles, hopefully the annual exclusion rule for taxes will be understood by more people so that the misinformation will not continue to be spread. There is no substitute for good legal advice from a qualified elder-law attorney when considering any Medicaid or tax-planning strategy or transfer.

 

Hyman Darling, a shareholder at Bacon Wilson and chair of the firm’s estate-planning and elder-law department, is recognized as the area’s preeminent estate planner, with extensive experience with all aspects of estate planning, trusts, tax law, probate and estates, guardianships, special-needs trusts and planning, elder law, and long-term care planning, and additional specialties including adoption and real estate; (413) 781-0560.

Healthcare News Special Coverage

Bridging the Gap

By Emily Thurlow

With classic Christmas carols softly emanating from a TV across the room and an Irish wolfhound named Veren panting rhythmically a short distance behind her, Barbara Chiampa pedaled a stationary bicycle on a recent afternoon at Mont Marie Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center’s therapy gym.

With guidance from Reliant Rehabilitation physical therapy assistant Tara McCauley, Chiampa was working on improving her balance and walking. After noting improvement in her gait and movement with a handheld assist, Chiampa paused for a few kisses from Veren, a 2-year-old therapy dog.

The staff at the Holyoke facility benefits from the canine too, said his handler, registered occupational therapist Sylvia Korza of Reliant Rehabilitation. “He comes to work with me, and he loves everybody. He’s great for therapy — even the staff. He helps lift everyone’s mood.”

The gym, which was expanded in 2016, features several pieces of equipment dedicated to improving mobility, including parallel bars and practice stairs. Beyond the machines, the therapy gym offers opportunities for McCauley and Korza to customize regimens that are tailored to the specific needs of patients recovering from medical procedures, injuries, or illnesses.

The therapy offered at the center’s gym is one of multiple subacute rehabilitation care services offered at the 84-bed Mont Marie facility, which was built in 1962 and formerly owned and operated by the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. In 2014, Mont Marie was purchased by Tryko Partners, which is headquartered in New Jersey, and is managed by its healthcare subsidiary, Marquis Health Consulting Services. Mont Marie is one of 10 of Marquis’ facilities in Massachusetts.

In recent years, the licensed nursing facility’s short-term rehabilitation care services have continued to grow, adding new programs and certifications, to meet the growing needs of the community.

A need for subacute or short-term rehabilitative care can emerge after a hospital stay for hip surgery or a stroke, or if an individual needs some physical strengthening or medication management, said Natasha Pieciak, administrator at Mont Marie.

“Baby Boomers are getting older, so as the population ages, there’s more of a demand for supportive services. We’re not a hospital — we’re kind of like a step down; we’re supportive services to bridge that gap between home-care services and the hospital.”

Initially, the 26-bed first floor was dedicated to this service, but it has since expanded to the 29-bed second floor as well. At times, admissions have jumped as high as 50 per month.

“There are a lot of factors that influence this growth,” said Pieciak, who has served as administrator of the center since September 2022. “Baby Boomers are getting older, so as the population ages, there’s more of a demand for supportive services. We’re not a hospital — we’re kind of like a step down; we’re supportive services to bridge that gap between home-care services and the hospital.

“With the aging population, I think these services become more needed out in the community, so we’re here to support people in that way, so they can be successful at home. People want to be at home, so we’re really here to try to support them to get them ready to do that.”

Barbara Chiampa

Barbara Chiampa pedals an exercise bicycle at Mont Marie Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Holyoke.

Through Mont Marie’s partnerships with Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and Holyoke Medical Center, as well as referrals from Mercy Medical Center in Springfield and Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Pieciak said Mont Marie has been made aware of the growing demand for these rehabilitative services.

“We work closely with our partners within the hospital systems; we collaborate,” she said. “With Baystate, for example, we have weekly calls with their accountable-care organization management team, who will follow a patient from hospital to home, and we communicate with them, and they tell us what they’re seeing, what their needs are. We’re just really building that relationship and working with them to help identify and meet the needs that we’re seeing out in the community.”

“The goal of these specialty programs is to educate and train the residents how to manage and live with their conditions.”

In working with Baystate, Pieciak said Mont Marie has become one of two skilled-nursing facilities that have qualified for a waiver for the three-day requirement under the Medicare Shared Savings Program. The waiver eliminates the requirement to have a three-day inpatient hospital stay prior to a Medicare-covered, post-hospital, extended-care service.

What this means, Pieciak explained, is that, if a patient is in a hospital emergency department but don’t have a three-day stay, instead of going back home and potentially falling or fracturing a hip, they could go to Mont Marie as long as they meet a skilled need.

“This is huge because there’s a gap there,” she said. “Residents would go home and could potentially have worse outcomes. What we’re doing is bridging that gap from hospital to home.”

In addition to physical and occupational therapies, Mont Marie’s subacute rehab offers speech therapy up to seven days a week.

 

Life Goals

Within its major focus on subacute rehabilitation care, Mont Marie offers three specialty programs: cardiopulmonary, chronic kidney disease management, and heart failure.

“The goal of these specialty programs is to educate and train the residents how to manage and live with their conditions,” Pieciak said.

Natasha Pieciak

Natasha Pieciak says Mont Marie works closely with its partners within hospital systems.

The cardiopulmonary rehabilitation program is physician-led under the direction of a pulmonologist and focuses on helping patients achieve the most active life possible despite any physical limitations and/or cardiopulmonary diagnoses. The program, which is geared toward individuals with diagnoses of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), post-lung transplants, emphysema, and acute respiratory failure, offers access to lab and radiology services, tracheostomy care and management, nebulizer therapies, bladder scanning, and several oxygen therapies, including liquid nitrogen.

The renal program is focused on reducing symptoms of chronic kidney disease, increasing a patient’s quality of life, and promoting independence. Mont Marie offers onsite dialysis provided by American Renal Associates, consultative visits by staff nephrologists, diabetic management and education, a monthly support group, and health coaching.

In October, Mont Marie received its skilled-nursing facility heart-failure certification from the American Heart Assoc. (AHA). In order to be considered eligible for this certification, facilities must be located in the U.S. or a U.S. territory and implement a heart-failure program that uses a standardized method of delivering clinical care based on current evidence-based guidelines.

“This was a huge accomplishment,” Pieciak said. “There are very few facilities that are credentialed. The American Heart Association has armed us with innovative methods and additional tools so that we can be trailblazers and give our heart-failure patients the best care.”

The vetting provides an evidence-based framework for evaluating skilled-nursing facilities against the AHA’s science-based requirements for heart failure patients, including care coordination, clinical management, quality improvement, program management, and patient and caregiver education and support.

According to the AHA, nearly one in four heart failure patients are readmitted within 30 days of discharge, and approximately half are readmitted within six months. It has also been suggested that about 25% of readmissions may be preventable.

“We’re trying to get ahead of hospital readmissions,” said Raymonda Sample, the lead for the heart-failure program and unit manager.

With the certification, Mont Marie has been provided with access to centers on treating heart failure and its co-morbidities.

Sample noted that one of the biggest benefits to the staff’s education on the heart-failure program is being able to educate patients on how they can live more independently with fewer flareups of their disease.

To that end, Mont Marie uses what’s called a ‘zone tool.’ The traffic-light color-coded guide indicates an all-clear, or green, when a patient has no shortness of breath; chest pain; swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, or stomach; or weight gain of more than two pounds. It’s time to call a doctor if a patient is in the so-called warning (yellow) zone, when they’re experiencing dizziness; dry, hacking cough; more shortness of breath; uneasy feelings; no energy; difficulty breathing when lying down; swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, or stomach; or weight gain of three or more pounds in one day or five pounds in one week.

A medical alert, or red zone, is when the previous symptoms have been exacerbated and a patient is having a hard time breathing or is experiencing unrelieved shortness of breath while sitting still, chest pain, or confusion.

In addition to this tool, Sample has created an entire guide board for staff that she also uses to educate family members of patients. The tool helps provide a better continuity of care, she explained.

“With this education, we are able to identify how the patient is feeling for the day,” she said. “If say, the patient is in the middle of therapy and they’re feeling short of breath, or telling the therapist maybe they haven’t eaten much in the last couple of days, or not sleeping well — there’s a sort of board out there where you can see the different signs and symptoms of heart failure.”

 

Safe at Home

Even though a patient has a plan in place to be discharged from the facility following treatment at Mont Marie, care doesn’t end at the door.

“When we discharge patients, we do follow-up calls with the patient just to find out how the transition back home goes, the home care services … we make sure they’re seen by their primary-care physician within 10 days, and if they don’t have a scale, we make sure we send them home with one,” Sample said. “This is so both our patients and the staff recognize the signs and symptoms of heart failure, so we can try to avoid rehospitalization.”

Law Special Coverage

Guilty by Association

By Trevor Brice, Esq.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment. However, the ADA does not require an employer to assist — or in other words, accommodate — a person without a disability due to that person’s association with someone with a disability.

Still, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee or applicant because of that person’s association with someone with a disability. This is what is called ‘associational discrimination,’ which, in the below case, was due to another’s disability under the ADA.

On Sept. 19, 2023, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), announced that it had sued a private school for associational discrimination under the ADA. According to the EEOC’s announcement, the school allegedly discriminated against one of its teachers by refusing to renew her contract over her daughter’s disability.

Trevor Brice

Trevor Brice

“An employer cannot discriminate against an employee or applicant because of that person’s association with someone with a disability. This is what is called ‘associational discrimination.’”

This was “precisely the kind of conduct the ADA’s associational-discrimination provision was intended to prohibit,” said Rosemarie Rhodes, EEOC’s Baltimore Field Office director. On Dec. 15, the EEOC announced that the matter had been settled for just over $85,000 by the private school, with the school to pay $50,858 in back pay, $4,428 in interest on the back pay, and $30,000 in non-wage damages.

This settlement brings associational-discrimination enforcement into the limelight and presents more scenarios for employers to look out for and train their employees on for the new year.

 

Associational Discrimination and the ADA

Associational discrimination based on another’s disability requires “that (1) the employee was qualified for the job at the time of the adverse employment action, (2) that the employee was subjected to an adverse employment action, (3) that the employer knew at the time of the adverse employment action that the employee had a relative or associate with a disability, and (4) that the adverse employment action occurred under circumstances raising a reasonable inference that the disability of the relative or associate was a determining factor in the employer’s decision” (Carey v. AB Car Rental Servs. Inc.).

The EEOC, in its announcement, stated that the school was aware of the teacher’s daughter’s disability and that it decided to not renew the teacher’s contract because it assumed (without investigation, or even asking the teacher) that her daughter’s disability, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, would undermine the teacher’s focus and commitment to her job. The school instead decided to renew the contracts of other teachers who had less experience and tenure than the teacher whose daughter had a disability.

In its complaint, the EEOC pleaded the requirements of an associational-discrimination claim based on disability through the circumstances described in its announcement. The teacher performed her job satisfactorily, according to the EEOC, making her qualified for the job at the time the private school refused to renew her contract. In order to not be qualified for her job, the school would have had to demonstrate the teacher had performance deficiencies or otherwise could not perform the essential functions of her job.

Further, the private school subjected the teacher to an adverse employment action by not renewing her employment contract. An adverse employment action can be any action by an employer that takes away a benefit of an employee’s employment, e.g. taking away a company car, suspension from employment, termination, etc.

“Without both knowledge and a reasonable inference, associational discrimination will most likely be unactionable. Nevertheless, it is important to stress to employees that discrimination and harassment based on protected class is prohibited, no matter the circumstance.”

Finally, the EEOC pleaded that the private school knew of the teacher’s daughter’s disability and allegedly specifically cited that reason for not renewing the teacher’s contract, making for the reasonable inference that the teacher’s daughter’s disability was a determining factor in its decision. As such, the EEOC met its burden for pleading its case of associational discrimination based on disability, which most likely prompted the private school to settle the claims.

 

Pitfalls of Associational Discrimination

As shown by the EEOC’s enforcement action, associational-discrimination claims are actionable claims that can cost employers a substantial amount of money. The pitfalls of these claims are that they are not the easiest to catch. For example, it is comparatively easier to catch when there is direct discrimination (e.g. a racial remark, comment against a disability) than to read into the subtext of a conversation that is deprecating to an associate of an employee who is part of a protected class.

However, there are ways to teach this kind of discrimination and harassment to frontline employees and make them aware enough of an associational-discrimination or harassment issue to report it.

First, employees should be aware that discrimination or harassment based on protected class (e.g. race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, etc.) is prohibited. Along these lines, it is equally prohibited to discriminate or harass another employee based on the protected characteristics of someone with whom the employee associates. For example, it is illegal to use the knowledge that an employee has Jewish friends to discriminate against that employee and subject him to adverse employment actions based on that knowledge.

Second, it is important to stress that it is the knowledge of the employee’s associates’ protected classes that makes associational discrimination actionable. An offhand comment by an employee that happens to relate to an employee’s associates’ or relatives’ protected class will not necessarily implicate associational discrimination, but making the same comment and directly referencing the associate or relative and their protected class will make for this implication. In this sense, if it is discriminatory or harassing to the associate or relative, it will most likely be discriminatory or harassing to the employee.

If cornerstones of associational discrimination like these are taught and enforced, it will be less likely that an employer will be subject to the same fate as the above-referenced private school.

 

Takeaways

Associational discrimination can raise its head in a variety of circumstances, including the contract-renewal scenario above; hiring, termination, and other employment decisions; as well as discriminatory and harassing behaviors from employees.

Though it is more difficult to catch than scenarios in which discrimination or harassment based on protected class is direct, the pivotal elements of associational discrimination are knowledge of the associates’ or relatives’ protected class and the reasonable inference that the knowledge was a determining factor in the adverse employment decision. Without both knowledge and a reasonable inference, associational discrimination will most likely be unactionable. Nevertheless, it is important to stress to employees that discrimination and harassment based on protected class is prohibited, no matter the circumstance.

Further, a related claim to associational discrimination is a retaliation claim for reporting discrimination or harassment perpetrated against another employee. In this scenario, an employee reports that another employee is being discriminated against because of their protected class, and then the reporting employee is subjected to an adverse employment action. This kind of ‘associational’ activity by employees is protected, and an employer can be subjected to legal action if the report is not handled properly.

As associational discrimination and related retaliation can be difficult to detect, it is prudent to contact legal counsel in order to avoid any potential liability and train staff to recognize and report associational-discrimination scenarios.

 

Trevor Brice 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.