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No Breach January

By Lauren C. Ostberg

 

Along with the widely reported cyberattacks on behemoths like LinkedIn and Facebook, 2021 also saw cyberattacks on local governments, small businesses, school systems, nonprofit organizations, and other smaller, more vulnerable targets. For more than a decade, Massachusetts has enumerated a set of administrative, physical, and technological safeguards designed to protect consumer’s personal information.

“This personal information is what you are obliged to safeguard; access, use, or compromise of this personal information by an unauthorized person constitutes a reportable breach.”

For more than a decade, you — a natural person, corporation, association, partnership, or other legal entity who uses, stores, or otherwise accesses personal information in connection with the provision of goods and services or with employment — have been required by law to put such safeguards in place.

Whether a genuine desire to comply with 201 CMR 17 or the breaches of 2021 motivates you, the new year is the perfect time to strengthen your cybersecurity position with three simple steps.

 

Inventory the Personal Information You Possess

Under applicable Massachusetts law, ‘personal information’ is a Massachusetts resident’s first and last name or first initial and last name combined with a Social Security number, driver’s license or state ID number, financial-account number, or credit- or debit-card number. This personal information is what you are obliged to safeguard; access, use, or compromise of this personal information by an unauthorized person constitutes a reportable breach. A useful first step in developing, or improving, your cybersecurity position, then, is compiling a list of every location where you keep this personal information.

Creating this list should make some security risks apparent — do you have Social Security numbers in your e-mail inbox, in an unlocked filing cabinet, or stored on the desktops of employees’ unencrypted laptops? In the event you experience a ransomware attack or another cybersecurity incident, knowing where personal information was stored can help you quickly determine whether the potentially compromised data contained ‘personal information’ and, thus, whether you have experienced a ‘breach’ reportable to regulators.

If you already have a well-developed written information security program (WISP) and feel confident in your cybersecurity posture, this step still applies to you. Reviewing and updating this inventory can (and should) be part of your annual review of that WISP’s scope and effectiveness.

 

Learn to Encrypt Personal Information

Massachusetts regulators require that personal information (when held by a person other than the consumer) be encrypted ‘in transit’ and ‘at rest.’ In transit refers to information when it is transmitted across networks — say, from one e-mail account to another. At rest refers to storage, on a flash drive, laptop, etc., or on an e-mail server.

If you comply with this regulation, an employee’s lost laptop or a compromised e-mail account will not impact consumers or raise the risk of identity theft because that sensitive information should be inaccessible to unauthorized parties. Encryption can be a simple process — in some cases, it’s a matter of a few well-placed clicks. Let this year be the one you figure it out.

If you have already enabled encryption on relevant devices and accounts, and have policies requiring the encryption of personal information, congratulations. After you pat yourself on the back, make sure your employees are aware of these policies and that they knew how and when to make use of these safeguards.

 

Train on Phishing

Massachusetts’s data-security regulations require employee training as both an enumerated administrative and technical safeguard. This is because internal policies regarding access to use of, and the transportation of, personal information required by 201 CMR 17 are of limited use if they are not consistently followed company-wide.

Similarly, the best malware protection and server encryption will not protect a business whose employees hand over the proverbial keys to the kingdom by providing their credentials or downloading malware by clicking a link in a phishing e-mail.

Because individuals responding to phishing e-mails is a known vulnerability, it is a useful place to start training. Phishing, which can take the form of e-mails or phone calls, is the fraudulent practice of attempting to obtain personal information or other valuable data from a person by pretending to be a reputable, and trusted, third party. Training employees to recognize, avoid, and report these scams is an initial step (and one endorsed by the FTC) to improving your cybersecurity hygiene.

While other safeguards in 201 CMR 17 and the Attorney General’s Compliance Checklist (like two-factor authentication) are important considerations, if you inventory your personal information, enable and use encryption, and train yourself and your employees to avoid phishing scams, you will be well on your way to a breach-free January and a compliant 2022.

 

Lauren Ostberg is an attorney in Bulkley Richardson’s cybersecurity group; (413) 272-6282.

Law

A Development of Note

By Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq.

 

As COVID-19 continues to grow, mutate, and spread like a California wildfire, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released guidance which outlines, in detail, just how COVID-19 may qualify as a ‘disability’ under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Alexander J. Cerbo

Alexander J. Cerbo

In its recent report, the EEOC clarifies that employees who are either asymptomatic or have mild COVID symptoms that resolve in a matter of weeks are not considered disabled under the ADA. These cases are not found to substantially limit a major life activity as they do not restrict an employee’s bodily functions for a prolonged period.

However, ‘long COVID,’ or cases that persist for several weeks or even months after the initial infection, may qualify as an ADA-recognized disability. Symptoms include ongoing fatigue, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath. In addition, other health conditions caused by COVID, or pre-existing health conditions exacerbated by COVID (such as heart inflammation), are considered a disability if they limit a major life activity.

The EEOC cautions that a determination as to whether an employee’s COVID-19 case constitutes a disability should always be made on a case-by-case basis.

While employers should be mindful as to how they handle employees with COVID, the ADA does provide employers with a ‘direct-threat’ defense by which an employer may require an employee with COVID, or its symptoms, to refrain from physically entering the workplace during the CDC-recommended period of isolation. An employer will risk violating the ADA if they exclude an employee from the workplace based upon “myths, fears, or stereotypes,” particularly if the individual is no longer infectious.

EEOC guidance is clear that an employer does not automatically violate the ADA in taking adverse action against an employee if they have COVID-19. Employees must meet the criteria of an ‘actual’ or ‘record of’ disability to be eligible for a reasonable accommodation. An actual disability is a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity.” Record of a disability is when the person has a history of that disability.

Eligible employees are not automatically granted a reasonable accommodation — their disability must require it, and the accommodation requested must not pose an undue hardship on the employer. Employers may also request supporting medical documentation in determining whether to grant an employee’s accommodation request.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise once again, and the inception of the new, highly contagious Omicron variant, employers should continue to remain alert for future guidance from the federal government in this ever-evolving pandemic.

 

Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq. 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; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

 

Law

Sobering Advice

By Ryan O’Hara

 

Hosted any parties recently? Hosting any in the weeks ahead? Whether you’re running a business and throwing a holiday shindig for your employees, having some folks over for a festive dinner party, or watching with friends as our new-look New England Patriots win the Super Bowl (why not this year?), it’s worth pausing to consider how you might avoid the risk of liability for any guests who might have a little too much fun.

I know, I know — maybe not the most pleasant thought, but what should you expect when you invite a litigator to the function? Like it or not, when hosting any get-together where guests may imbibe, a responsible host must take a moment to consider their legal obligations.

“You don’t want to be an innovator, so erring on the side of doing what you can to make sure your guests consume alcohol responsibly, and trying to make sure everyone has safe transport home, is the best practice.”

You’re likely familiar with the concept that, under Massachusetts law, bars, restaurants, and the like can be held civilly liable for damages caused by service of alcohol to an individual whom the establishment knew (or should have known) to be intoxicated. In practical terms, when an establishment serves someone showing recognizable signs of intoxication, and that person subsequently drives drunk, gets into an accident, and hurts someone, the establishment is held responsible for those damages.

“Good, sound policy,” you note as you sagely nod along. Agreed! But what you may not be aware of is that you — yes, you — are subject to the same obligations if you host an event and choose to serve your guests alcohol. This legal concept is known as ‘social host liability,’ and has been the law of the Commonwealth since 1986, via the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in McGuiggan v. New Eng. Tel. & Tel. Co., 398 Mass. 152 (1986).

Social host liability provides that, where a private individual serves alcohol, or makes alcohol available while effectively controlling the supply, and that alcohol is served to a person the host knew (or should have reasonably known) to be intoxicated, the host is liable for any harm caused by that guest’s ensuing drunkenness. In essence, if you choose to provide guests with alcohol, you take on the duties (and potential liability) of a bartender. So, just as in the commercial context, if you serve a drink to somebody you already know is half in the bag, and that person then drives drunk and causes harm to people or property, you may be held responsible.

So, how can you be sure to avoid this kind of harm as a host? Since McGuiggan, Massachusetts courts have examined the scope of this liability, and some guiding principles have emerged. First, you should keep a close eye on your guests’ behavior if serving alcohol. Case law has largely limited liability to service of guests showing tangible signs of intoxication — slurred or loud speech, imbalance, inappropriate behavior, and the like. As a simple rule, if you notice a guest appears drunk, you shouldn’t provide them any more alcohol and should make sure they don’t drive. This will protect the public at large, protect you, and maybe even leave a happier guest the next morning.

Second, you can make sure your party is BYOB. Case law to date strongly suggests that you cannot incur any liability for guests who consume their own alcohol, even if it’s at your house or other premises, and even if you provide the atmosphere for a wild party. As long as you’re not providing the intoxicant, you’re probably not on the hook if something bad happens. If you are going to serve your own alcohol, try to stick to single-service amounts and control the supply, so that you can gauge a guest when they take it. Providing guests with carte blanche access to an open bar or leaving out a boozy self-serve punch bowl may make for a raucous time, but it’s also the riskiest approach.

This area of the law remains relatively new and undeveloped. You don’t want to be an innovator, so erring on the side of doing what you can to make sure your guests consume alcohol responsibly, and trying to make sure everyone has safe transport home, is the best practice.

If you plan on offering cannabis to your guests, you should know that no case law exists on service of cannabis products. However, you can reasonably anticipate that cannabis will be treated under a similar analysis. The issue could be complicated by varying tolerances and delayed onset of intoxicating effects, as well as differing impact if combined with alcohol. So, be extremely cautious if providing cannabis products (particularly edibles), especially to guests who have been drinking, or in any way appear intoxicated.

In short, a mindful, practical approach to alcohol service at private functions is good practice, period. No one wants to be a buzzkill; however, a little restraint and consideration makes for a great host — and a great guest, too. Most importantly, it will avert avoidable harm to your guests and the public, and any liability for yourself.

Note: this article is not intended to convey specific legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship, and is provided for informational purposes only.

And, with that, cheers to a new year!

 

Ryan O’Hara is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. and a member of the firm’s litigation team. His legal practice encompasses virtually all aspects of litigation, including contract and business matters, landlord-tenant issues, land-use and real-estate litigation, and accidents and injuries; (413) 781-0560;
[email protected]

 

Health Care

Speaking from Experience

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Dallas Clark

Dallas Clark says lived experience and empathy are key to what makes recovery coaches so effective.

Dallas Clark is in the business of spreading empathy and sharing hope. 

He is a recovery coach in the Recovery Coaching program at MHA’s BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center in Springfield. Inspired by the positive influence his own recovery coach had on him, Clark helps individuals who are facing the challenges of addiction to meet their goals and connect back into the community. 

A recovery coach is someone who has gone through the recovery process themselves and has completed the certifications required to become a coach. They act as a bridge to recovery, a ‘concierge’ of sorts, helping clients take control and regain power in their lives by providing them with wellness plans, encouragement, and other forms of assistance.

This model of treatment works because of the trust that is built between coaches and clients. Due to walking a similar path, recovery coaches are able to understand the experiences and emotions of their clients in a way others without such life experience cannot. They know what it is like to have an addiction and can connect on a personal level with someone looking to begin their own recovery. 

“The peer-to-peer counseling that recovery coaches provide is a very vital part of the process.”

“One thing that’s important about being a recovery coach is that we have lived experience. When we talk about empathy, we’ve been in those shoes,” Clark said. “I know it’s very important that you be supported by somebody that really does understand what you’re saying.”

Tommy Smyth, another recovery coach in the program, echoed this sentiment.

“The peer-to-peer counseling that recovery coaches provide is a very vital part of the process in terms of offering the comfort level of a shared experience,” he noted. “We are among the first supports someone beginning recovery encounters and often where they begin to trust the process. I continue to meet with them in addition to whoever and whatever else becomes part of their recovery.”

Recovery coaches help to motivate, support, and empower clients in a way that meets their specific needs. This help sometimes involves providing referrals. Clark recalled recently helping one of his clients find a primary-care physician and helping others with goals like finding a dentist or changing medications. 

Tommy Smyth

Tommy Smyth says no one should feel stigma or shame about seeking treatment for addiction.

Other times, recovery coaches help individuals communicate with their family, assist in building a broad support team, and provide resources for family members who may feel helpless. Whatever the case, clients are met exactly where they are in their recovery process, whether in the very early stages or further along. 

“We collaborate on a wellness plan, prioritizing goals and building on individual strengths to empower their recovery. It is their recovery,” Smyth said. “I can use my recovery as an example and in understanding what they are dealing with or feeling, but recovery is about giving power back to the individual to take charge of their healing and eventually their lives.”

 

Meeting a Growing Need

MHA’s Recovery Coaching program launched on Feb. 17, 2020 — less than a month before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The inability to meet clients in person proved to be a noteworthy obstacle for coaches to try to overcome, as well as trying to bring clients back into a community that was shut down.

“The major issue was not having the one-on-one connection because recovery coaching is really based on relationship building. Not being in-person and getting to meet the individual, it was hard to build a strong relationship over the phone,” Clark said. “It was a lot of meetings being on Zoom. A lot of people didn’t know how to use Zoom, so that was a difficult part, and just connecting people back into the community.”

However, the pandemic’s impact did not mean a slow start for the program. There was only one coach at the time of its initial launch, but an immediately full caseload emphasized a need to add more staff. Since then, MHA has added four certified recovery coaches for a total of five coaches in the program. They are continuing to expand, planning to take on more coaches as needed.

“We’re starting to build collaborations with other agencies, which are providing more referrals for us, so that’s one reason we’re expanding the Recovery Coaching program,” Clark said.

The program has now shifted to a hybrid format, offering a combination of in-person and remote coaching. Also, the impact of certain resources reopening after previously closing during the pandemic has been felt greatly by members of the program. 

“We’re getting back to that place now where recovery centers are back open. Drop-off centers are back open, and that’s a big plus because, when the pandemic hit, a lot of places had shut down that are recovery-oriented,” Clark said. “People didn’t have those safe places to turn to.”

Smyth spoke on the recent death of Jimmy Hayes, an NHL hockey player from Massachusetts who died from a combination of fentanyl and cocaine. Hayes’s father expressed fear of the media portraying his son as a “junkie.” In response to this, Smyth emphasized the importance of treating individuals who experience addiction with empathy and dignity, as well as providing them with the help they need. 

“If you want to get help, there are people out there, including recovery coaches who have been where you are, willing to walk and fight with you. You don’t have to keep going through what you are going through alone — you can take control, and you will get your life back.”

Addiction is a disease with a gripping nature that cannot be overstated, and with the especially risky nature of drugs being laced with cheaper and more lethal substances and sold to unsuspecting buyers, resources like MHA’s Recovery Coaching program are essential for members of the community experiencing addiction, Smyth noted.

“Recovery coaches can and do make a difference. The more we can educate the public about addiction and the role recovery coaches can play, the better,” he said. “No one should be stigmatized or judged for having an addiction to a substance. No one should be made to feel shame, rejection, or failure in seeking treatment to start and sustain recovery.”

 

From Despair to Hope

The feelings of empathy and hope that Clark and Smyth exude can be felt in a single conversation with them. Smyth concluded with a word of encouragement for anyone seeking to regain control of their lives from an addiction. 

“If you want to get help, there are people out there, including recovery coaches who have been where you are, willing to walk and fight with you. You don’t have to keep going through what you are going through alone — you can take control, and you will get your life back.”

When asked what message he would like to leave with BusinessWest’s readers, Clark spoke, without a single hesitation, of hope.

“I think the most important part is providing that hope for others. I always tell people that I didn’t know what that looked like. I didn’t even believe in myself, but somebody believed in me. I didn’t have hope — somebody gave hope to me.”

Law Special Coverage

What Can Business Owners and Managers Expect in 2022?

This past year was a busy one on the employment-law front, with a number of new measures and mandates for employers to follow and some emerging trends, such as unionizing activities, to watch. As the new year dawns, these matters will continue to be at the forefront, and obviously bear watching.

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq.

Last year, we saw legislators and employers trying to pivot from COVID-19 safety measures to more traditional labor and employment-law issues. However, with the Delta and Omicron variants wreaking havoc across the globe, businesses and lawmakers are once again looking for ways to stop the spread of the pandemic. Here are some labor and employment highlights from 2021 that are sure to impact employers in 2022.

John Gannon

John Gannon

Meaghan Murphy

Meaghan Murphy

Employer Vaccination Mandates

In September 2021, President Biden signed several orders requiring federal employees, federal contractors, and most healthcare workers across the country to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He also instructed OSHA to develop an emergency temporary standard directing private employers with 100 or more employees to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates or require weekly testing for their unvaccinated employees. These mandates have been challenged in courts around the county, with varying results. For example, in early December, a federal court in Georgia issued a countrywide stay of the federal-contractor vaccine mandate.

The OSHA ‘shot-or-test’ rule was similarly blocked by one court late last year, but a few weeks later, a different court ruled in favor of the Biden administration and reinstated the emergency standard. It appears the U.S. Supreme Court will have to sort all of this out, and we expect they will rule on these issues early in 2022.

“Unionization campaigns at some of the country’s largest companies have been heating up.”

Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, state mandates are in place for employees working in long-term care and assisted living, certain home-care workers, and executive-level state workers (including law enforcement). Legal challenges to the vaccine mandates were filed in Massachusetts courts, but to date all of them have failed.

 

Accommodations to Vaccination

In October, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance making it clear that all employers, regardless of size or industry, can require that employees receive the COVID vaccine. There is one big caveat: federal and most state laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, disabilities, or pregnancy-related reasons. These are commonly referred to as medical and religious exemptions. Employers that are considering a mandatory vaccination program should have policies explaining how these exemptions work, as well as exemption forms ready for employees to fill out.

 

Biden Administration’s Support for Unions

In June, President Biden appointed Jennifer Abruzzo as the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) new general counsel. She quickly made clear her (and the new Democratic administration’s) pro-labor stance on various issues through a series of memoranda issued by her office. Not surprisingly, Abruzzo has vowed to undo much of the NLRB’s activity under former President Trump, which tended to be pro-business.

Unionization campaigns at some of the country’s largest companies have been heating up. Employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y. voted to unionize. Starbucks has agreed to sit down at the table and bargain with the union. This is the first time organized labor has gained a foothold in one of Starbucks’ U.S. locations, but it certainly does not seem like it will be the last. Employees at Starbucks in several other states, including Massachusetts, Washington, and Arizona, are also seeking to unionize.

In addition, employees at an Alabama Amazon warehouse recently voted not to unionize, but the union trying to organize those employees alleged that Amazon intentionally interfered with its union-organizing efforts. In one of its biggest actions under President Biden, the NLRB announced that Amazon had committed to allow more room for employees to conduct union activity and to send an e-mail directly to current and former employees to inform them of their labor rights. It is the clearest example to date of how Democratic officials in this administration will seek to use federal power to help employees organize.

 

Paid Family and Medical Leave

Starting Jan. 1, 2022, most Connecticut employees will be able to take paid time off to attend to personal and family health needs. Under the program, employees are entitled to 12 weeks of paid-leave benefits, and up to 14 weeks if an employee experiences a serious health condition that occurs during a pregnancy.

This program is similar to the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which went live at the beginning of last year. The Department of Family and Medical Leave published data stating that the department approved 43,440 applications between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2021. Benefits totaling $167,915,781 were paid out during this time. This was before employees could take PFML to care for family members, which became available on July 1.

 

Employee Mobility: Tackling the Labor Shortage

A record 4.4. million Americans quit their jobs in September 2021. The high quit rates were commonly dubbed the ‘Great Resignation,’ and made it clear that Americans are switching jobs for better pay, starting their own businesses, or continuing to struggle with child care and school schedules.

As the pandemic lingers, it’s likely that the quit rates will remain high for the next several months. As a result, employers will need to raise wages and/or offer more lucrative benefit packages to attract and retain talent. Businesses should also consider offering employees who do not physically need to be in the office every day some sort of a hybrid work-from-home schedule, a model that has dramatically increased in popularity over the last year.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says public safety and public health have been priorities of his first term.

 

Fresh off his re-election, Chicopee Mayor John Vieau said the main goal for his second term is the same when he first campaigned for the office two years ago: a focus on public safety.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important,” Vieau said.

In the mid-1980s, Chicopee bolstered its police force by hiring a large number of officers. Nearly 40 years later, the city has seen many of those officers retire from the force, while others have left due to COVID-19 concerns to pursue other careers. For Vieau, this created multiple challenges.

“Based on civil-service exams, we hired 10 replacements for our retiring officers,” he said. “Then we ran into a quagmire because at first we couldn’t send them to the police academy because it was closed during the worst of the pandemic.”

As the academy eased its mandates, those officers completed training, and Vieau has hired an additional 15 officers with the intent of bringing the police force back to full strength.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important.”

In addition to new officers, Chicopee is encouraging a new style of policing by introducing community policing at a substation on Center Street. With officers on walking beats, they are better able to make connections with people.

“This has been very successful because people are seeing the same officers who are building relationships and rapport with folks in the neighborhood,” the mayor said, adding that he’s looking to eventually bring a substation to Willimansett as well as other parts of the city.

The concern for public safety also extends to the Fire Department, which staffs two ambulances 24/7. Recently the fire chief suggested a pilot program to add a third ambulance for overnight coverage. The suggestion came about due to demand for more coverage during those hours as well as the closing of the private ambulance company that lent assistance when Chicopee ambulances were busy. The success of the pilot program will result in Chicopee adding a new ambulance along with the new fire pumper trucks that had been ordered.

“Just like with the police, we want to make sure our Fire Department has the tools they need to keep themselves and our city safe,” Vieau said.

Part of public safety includes fighting the spread of COVID-19. Chicopee received 15,000 rapid test kits from the state and has been distributing them to residents in low-income areas and at the senior center.

“Our message remains the same — we believe everyone should get vaccinated,” Vieau said.

 

Supporting Businesses

Keeping Chicopee businesses healthy also remains a priority. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than 70 businesses received support. Julie Copoulos, executive director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, said her organization helped small-business owners receive more than a half-million dollars in grant money during the pandemic.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate,” Copoulos said. “Many of the small-business grants went to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Julie Copoulos is enthusiastic about progress on development at the former Uniroyal and Facemate sites, among others.

The city will also receive $38 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Vieau has formed a committee to determine how to use that money in a way that will have a long-term impact for taxpayers in Chicopee.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate.”

“I have a smart group of people who are looking into the best way to use the ARPA funds,” he said. “We’ve also surveyed residents for their ideas on how to spend the money.”

Vieau wants to proceed with caution on how to use these one-time funds because it would be easy to spend it all in one place.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.39
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available

“I could target one infrastructure project and use all that money and more,” he said. “For example, the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades to keep up with current pollution standards, and that project alone will cost around $50 million.”

For bigger projects like this, Vieau is hopeful about Chicopee’s prospects for funding through the recently passed federal infrastructure deal. “I’m going to fight for as much of that infrastructure money as we can get,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor shared with BusinessWest an important development regarding the former Uniroyal site. After more than a decade of investing millions of dollars in hazardous-waste cleanup at the site, by this spring, the city will begin looking for potential new owners of both the headquarters and an adjacent building on the site.

“We are all looking forward to getting the Uniroyal property back on the tax rolls,” Vieau said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we are super excited about it.”

Right now Michelin, which owns the Uniroyal brand, is completing $1.5 million in cleanup efforts at the site. Once that’s done, the mayor explained, the city will launch a request for proposals in search of prospective buyers of the property.

Because Chicopee represents a good number of manufacturers, Copoulos believes this gives the city an advantage in the years ahead. She noted that economists have pointed out that manufacturing industries have come back to pre-COVID levels while more customer-facing industries continue to have challenges.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time.”

“As a community with so many manufacturers, this can potentially give us a leg up,” she said. “Supply-chain issues will make domestic manufacturing more of a priority, and that makes me hopeful about prospects for Chicopee.”

The spring will also mark the beginning of construction for the new headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. After many years in Hatfield, the Food Bank purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park in order to expand its warehouse in a more environmentally friendly building. Selecting Chicopee was a strategic decision on a couple of fronts. The location on Carew and East Main streets gives the Food Bank easy access to major highways, and because the city is in Hampden County, where the issue of hunger and food insecurity are more severe, the organization is in a better position to address the problem.

“The Food Bank location in Chicopee will be at the hub of addressing food insecurity in Western Mass.,” Vieau said.

Dino Facente

Dino Facente says his bakery’s move from Springfield to Chicopee has been a positive one.

Anticipation is also growing for the former Facemate property in Chicopee Center. Final plans and permits are being approved for a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the former Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing will locate.

Both Vieau and Copoulos praised Singing Bridge LLC, a local developer, for leading the project because it shows a commitment to the success of Chicopee. For Copoulos, completion of the project can’t arrive soon enough.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time,” she said.

Vieau noted in particular the 102 units of housing that will be added to Chicopee Center.

“Many people want to stay in Chicopee but are looking for empty-nest housing,” he said. “Realtors have told me if more condominiums were on the market, they could immediately sell them.”

 

Stops and Starts

The city had a setback recently when the Silverbrook Group said it may not be able to develop 600 apartments in the former Cabotville Mill in the center of town, citing rising construction costs as the main culprit. Vieau remains optimistic that both the Cabotville and Lyman mills will eventually be developed for housing and other uses.

While the next step for the mills is uncertain, that hasn’t stopped Vieau from moving forward with what he called a renaissance of Chicopee’s downtown. The city received a grant to convert the old library building, adjacent to City Hall, into an incubator space for budding entrepreneurs. The first steps involve bringing the building up to compliance with current ADA regulations. Vieau would like to eventually see the cultural council or the chamber take office space there, too.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in.”

“Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, so why not start at our old library?” he wondered.

Next door to the old library, the former Rivoli Theatre has just gone up for sale. The mayor called this another space with great potential for the city.

In addition to new entrepreneurs, Chicopee still manages to attract established businesses to locate there. After decades at the Springfield Plaza, Dino Facente had been looking to move the Koffee Kup Bakery. In his words, he “stumbled on” Mickey’s Bike Shop, which had recently closed. The East Street location turned out to be the right spot to move the bakery.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in,” Facente said. He also credited Chicopee officials at all levels for making the move easy and successful.

“I’ve picked up a lot of business since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ll be staying here until I retire.”

Features Special Coverage

By Jodi K. Miller, Esq. and Ryan J. Barry, Esq.

Jodi K. Miller

Jodi K. Miller

Ryan J. Barry

Ryan J. Barry

A woman injures her ankle while jogging and goes to the local emergency department for treatment. Despite her injury, she makes sure to go to a hospital in her health plan’s network. Some weeks later, she receives a significant — and unexpected — bill from an emergency department physician. While the hospital was in her health plan’s network, it turns out the treating physician was not. Her health plan paid a portion of the physician’s charges, but she is responsible for the remainder.

This type of ‘balance’ or ‘surprise’ bill has been an ongoing issue when patients receive care from out-of-network providers, some of whom then bill patients the difference between their charges and the health plan’s benefit payment for out-of-network services. These bills are often a surprise because the patient either was not able to choose an in-network provider or was unaware that the provider was out of network until after the services were rendered.

Recently enacted legislation at the federal level and in Massachusetts attempt to address this issue.

A new federal law, the No Surprises Act, went into effect on Jan. 1. The No Surprises Act imposes requirements on healthcare facilities and providers, as well as on health plans, in three key areas: emergency services, non-emergency services provided by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities, and air ambulance services. When those services are rendered, health plans must make a payment to the out-of-network providers, and patients are responsible only for the cost-sharing obligations they would have incurred had the care been provided in network (e.g., co-payments and deductibles).

If the provider does not accept the health plan’s payment, the plan and the provider must attempt to negotiate a reimbursement rate. If negotiations fail, the plan or the provider can initiate a dispute-resolution process to resolve the issue. In these cases, providers may not bill the patient more than the cost-sharing amount, and they are potentially subject to civil monetary penalties of up to $10,000 per violation if they do so.

The No Surprises Act also provides that out-of-network providers of certain scheduled services may not balance-bill patients unless the provider has given advance notice and obtained written consent from the patient. The act sets out specific requirements for the content of the notice, including a good-faith estimate of the costs incurred and a list of in-network options for the patient. This notice and consent process, however, is not available for out-of-network providers of emergency services and other ancillary services (such as anesthesiology, pathology, radiology, and other diagnostic services), or in circumstances where there no in-network provider is available.

Other provisions of the No Surprises Act, including disclosure requirements for both providers and health plans, also aim to increase transparency and consumer protections. Providers are required to publicly disclose and provide to patients a one-page notice about the balance-billing requirements and prohibitions of the No Surprises Act, as well as state law. As discussed below, Massachusetts, too, has recently imposed new disclosure requirements for providers.

Notably, the protections of the No Surprises Act do not apply to emergency services by ground ambulance providers. In those circumstances, out-of-network ground ambulance providers may still bill patients for significant balances, which are invariably a surprise to patients who had no ability to choose an in-plan ambulance provider in an emergency.
Regulations implementing the No Surprises Act have not been without controversy. Medical associations have criticized the regulations implementing the dispute-resolution process as unfairly favoring health plans. Health plans, on the other hand, have lauded the regulations, maintaining that the process will make healthcare more affordable and avoid unnecessary increases in health-insurance premiums.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Massachusetts passed its own law to address balance billing for non-emergency services. That law, which also took effect on Jan. 1, requires healthcare providers to disclose to patients certain information regarding their participation in patients’ insurance plans and patients’ financial obligations for scheduled procedures and services.

Generally, providers are required to tell patients whether they participate in the patient’s insurance plan. If the provider does not participate in the patient’s plan, the provider must disclose the charges and any facility fees for the procedure or service. The provider must also inform the patient they will be responsible for the charges and any facility fees not covered through the patient’s health plan and that they may be able to obtain the procedure or service at a lower cost from an in-network provider.

The law also imposes new requirements on in-network providers to disclose information to patients regarding charges for procedures or services. Providers must also inform patients if their participation in the patient’s health plan changes during a continued course of treatment and make various disclosures when referring a patient to another provider.

There are two consequences if a provider violates the Massachusetts law. First, if an out-of-network provider fails to provide the required notifications and information, the provider cannot bill the patient at all, except for any co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible that would be payable had the patient received the service from an in-network provider. Second, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health is authorized to fine non-compliant providers up to $2,500 per violation.

The recently enacted federal and state laws seek to provide protections to consumers to avoid inadvertent balance bills from out-of-network providers. As these laws go into effect at the start of the new year, providers and health plans should be ready to implement the requirements, and consumers should see fewer surprises in their mailboxes.

Jodi Miller and Ryan Barry are partners in Bulkley Richardson’s healthcare practice.

Business of Aging Special Coverage

‘We’re Like a Cruise Ship’

By Mark Morris

Cheryl Moran supervises a balloon volleyball game

Cheryl Moran supervises a balloon volleyball game at the Atrium at Cardinal Drive.

Visit any senior-living community and it’s easy to notice all the activities residents take part in. But there’s more to all that activity than just fun and games.

Indeed, while providing entertainment, activities also contribute to the well-being of seniors in every setting, from independent living to assisted living and memory care, and even in skilled-nursing facilities.

It all begins with crafting an activities calendar. Sondra Jones, chief marketing officer for the Arbors Assisted Living communities in Amherst, Chicopee, Greenfield, and Westfield, said residents have a full schedule of activities from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. They can take part in anything from exercise sessions to religious services to food classes and lectures. On one sunny day in October, residents in Chicopee took part in an outdoor drumming circle. Calendar offerings change all the time based on the types of activities that interest residents the most.

“Because people live here, we’re in essence an apartment building,” Jones said. “And in some ways, we’re like a cruise ship, because residents have all their meals and activities here, too.”

Even with nearly a dozen scheduled activities available each day, some residents might want to take part in something that’s not on the calendar. That’s OK with Cheryl Moran, executive director at the Atrium at Cardinal Drive in Agawam, who noted that this is their home and the staff are visitors in the home.

“The activities our residents take part in are all geared to keeping these skills a part of their everyday life. When they begin to struggle with a skill, we step in and help them find a different way to succeed.”

“One woman likes to spend her time doing crossword puzzles, and another just likes to paint because it makes her feel like an artist,” Moran said.

Heidi Cornwell, director of Marketing & Sales for Kimball Farms Life Care in Lenox, said most facilities make sure they cover five key areas when planning an activities calendar: gross motor skills, socialization, self-care, sensory, and memory. Specific activities are usually modified to fit a particular setting to help everyone keep moving and engaging as part of their daily routine.

“The activities our residents take part in are all geared to keeping these skills a part of their everyday life,” Cornwell said. “When they begin to struggle with a skill, we step in and help them find a different way to succeed. We work very hard to be a failure-free environment.”

According to Lori Todd, executive director for Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing in Springfield, when a person needs medical attention in a skilled-nursing setting, activities remain an essential factor in the patient’s recovery.

“Activities definitely help patients by encouraging the kind of wellness behaviors that contribute to the healing process,” she said.

Meanwhile, in settings such as assisted living, the level of functioning varies from person to person. Moran said she likes to have everyone together because it creates a dynamic in which people of different levels of function help each other with activities or just daily life.

Residents at the Arbors in Chicopee

Residents at the Arbors in Chicopee participate in an outdoor drumming circle.

“Our high-functioning residents enjoy helping people in wheelchairs or those who need help in some other way,” she told BusinessWest. “For the person who functions on a higher level, it gives them a sense of purpose.”

 

Much More Than Bingo

In the past, senior-living activities usually concentrated on gathering for bingo. While bingo remains popular, Todd said many group activities now aim to incorporate exercise so they can combine something fun with meeting a patient’s rehab needs at the same time.

“When setting up the calendar, we make sure to include plenty of wellness activities, whether they are emotional, physical, social, reminiscing, basically anything that helps memory or keeps people physically active,” Todd said. They also insert fun social activities such as a happy hour with an entertainer. “We strive for feel-good activities as well as ones that promote healing.”

Physical and social activities are certainly not limited to schedules on a calendar. Cornwell discussed how the actions of a resident leaving their apartment, walking down the hall, perhaps taking an elevator, and then walking to the dining area all contribute to physical activity. Once they arrive, they sit with a friend or neighbor and then engage in conversation, which adds to their social experience.

“When setting up the calendar, we make sure to include plenty of wellness activities, whether they are emotional, physical, social, reminiscing, basically anything that helps memory or keeps people physically active.”

“This is where senior living provides much more physical movement than if the person was at home,” she added, “where a caregiver brings them a meal and they might not leave their chair all day.”

Activities involving music are popular in every senior-living setting. While singers are not yet allowed in most places due to COVID-19 concerns, Cornwell said it’s a form of therapy when violinists, pianists, and other musicians come to play.

“Studies show music touches a part of the brain and leaves a positive impact,” she noted. “Music goes a long way toward self-care and helps people feel better about themselves.”

Jones credits her activities staff for finding an innovative way to include singers into music performances while still following COVID mandates.

“We had singers outside in the courtyard area while the residents gathered in the library with the doors open so they could see and hear the entertainment from a safe distance,” she said.

As mandates continue to gradually ease, everyone who spoke with BusinessWest expressed gratitude for all the difficult work the staff at senior-living communities performed during the worst days of the pandemic.

At the height of COVID, residents were essentially quarantined in their apartments, so staff at each facility made an extra effort to stay engaged with them.

Residents at Kimball Farms engage in tai chi.

Residents at Kimball Farms engage in tai chi.

“Our resident-care attendants and activity teams all turned into nail technicians, hairdressers, and personal stylists,” Cornwell said. “They did everything to keep residents looking good, feeling good, and feeling like someone cared.”

At the peak of the pandemic, when frequent temperature taking was essential, staff would dress up as a lion or some other whimsical costume just to get a laugh out of the residents.

One common practice at several facilities involved opening apartment doors and encouraging residents to socialize from the entrance of their unit. Staff would also use the hallway as the focal point for a bingo game and, in one instance, as a socially distanced bowling alley. “All the staff found creative ways to keep things social,” Jones said.

Added Cornwell, “the pandemic has been difficult and extremely challenging. Our residents rallied, and I give our staff 100% props for their out-of-the-box thinking to keep people safe and engaged.”

Before vaccines were available and while COVID was rampant, Todd said patients at the skilled-nursing facility at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing could not have any visitors in their rooms. Fortunately, that unit is located on the first floor.

“Families were able to visit their loved ones through the window and could communicate by phone or iPad through the glass,” she explained. “We wanted to address social isolation while at the same time keeping everyone safe.”

Without that effort to engage with residents, the lack of socialization can quickly lead to depression, Jones noted. “Once they could leave their rooms again, I heard one woman say to another, ‘I haven’t held anyone’s hand in so long.’ Social interaction is a good distraction.”

For nearly four years, Gladys Fioravanti has lived at the Arbors in Chicopee. She believes activities are an important part of staying healthy.

“If you sit in your room day after day, you start thinking too much,” Fioravanti said. “You think of your loss, then you break down and cry and need some pills to calm you down, so I think it’s good to have something to do.”

She takes part in a number of activities because they keep her busy, but not too busy.

“I like the exercise class in the morning followed by the Mass right after,” she said. “After exercise, the Mass allows you to cool down.”

One afternoon, Fioravanti was sitting in the library area with several friends, including Claire Henault, whom Fioravanti met at the Arbors.

“We play cards together,” Fioravanti told BusinessWest. “We cheat together — I mean, Claire cheats.” At which point Henault chimed in, “I can’t be cheating because I never win.”

 

Moving Toward Normalcy

While residents are free to move around their facilities, families are not yet allowed in common areas but may visit loved ones in their apartments, where they can eat in the unit or take the resident out for dinner. Before COVID, families could join the loved ones during activity time.

“Recently, a family member called just to ask when they can attend the activities again because they enjoyed it too,” Moran said.

All the managers praised the patience families showed during the worst days of COVID. Since the beginning, Cornwell said, they have educated families on the latest protocols and good safety habits. “And we’re still educating them.”

The use of iPads and other tablets were a key to connecting families with their loved ones when no visitors were allowed. Cornwell said Kimball Farms parent Berkshire Healthcare Systems invested in tablets so residents could speak to family members on Skype or FaceTime. Even for residents who were aphasic and had trouble with verbal communication, that connection was still important for all involved.

“Even if the resident couldn’t verbally express their feelings, they could at least see the faces of their loved ones and hear their voices,” Cornwell explained. “Family members were able to see the resident’s smile and maybe even some blush on their face when our care attendants would put some makeup on them to help them look beautiful for the camera.”

As more people receive the COVID vaccine and booster shot, Moran hopes to eventually see families back inside the Atrium at Cardinal Drive.

“It’s enjoyable when we have lots of people here with the residents and the families are all talking with each other,” she said. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to invite everyone back in, but I hope we eventually can because I miss them.”

Like many industries, senior care is always looking to add more staff. Still, Jones noted, while the Arbors had some challenges, staffing is not a big issue.

“We have several staff members who have been with us for more than 20 years,” she said. “We will always have turnover, but we also have a core of stable employees, so that’s a real positive.”

During the height of COVID, Moran hired a number of Harbor Universal Associates (HUAs) to accommodate residents who may want coffee before 9 a.m. when breakfast is served. By having this extra staff person to help and engage with residents, Moran can offer what she called parallel programming.

“We may have one main activity going on in the center of the room, while several smaller groups are doing what they want around the perimeter,” she said. “The HUAs provide that added level of support for our residents who want to do their own thing.”

When a family comes to visit a new resident, Jones said, her goal is to be able to tell them, “your mom is busy right now.”

Ultimately, she added, all the activities available for seniors creates what she called a healthy distraction. “It beats having dinner with Pat and Vanna every night.”

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Breaking Through

By Mark Morris

Sina Holloman has grown HomeCare Hands

Sina Holloman has grown HomeCare Hands to more than 200 caregivers and employees.

Back in 2003, Sina Holloman discovered she loved working with seniors in a one-on-one setting. That passion eventually inspired her to start HomeCare Hands, one of the fastest-growing homecare agencies in Western Mass.

Initially trained as a nurse, Holloman was looking to make a career change and began to work privately for several families in an elder-care role.

“I managed all aspects of the senior’s care from mental, physical, financial, everything that had an impact on the individual,” Holloman said. “I did that for several years, then decided to try my hand at business.”

In 2013, she stayed up many nights with her laptop computer studying how to start a home-care agency, how to understand the needs of the community, and what it means to be a woman in business.

After several months, she took out a “tiny ad” in the Reminder offering in-home care for seniors, listing her cell phone as the contact.

“That first call had me jumping for joy,” she said. Her elation was quickly replaced with concern when she heard the specific demands of the assignment. Located in Southington, Conn., this family needed a live-in caregiver for three months for their loved one. The family specified they wanted a mature person, which they defined as 45 to 55 years old, and this person must speak Italian.

“That was our first call,” Holloman said. While uncertain she could find someone to meet all those criteria, she made it work, and the three-month assignment lasted a year.

“We know this is more than a business — these are lives we’re responsible for. We come to work to take care of folks and to make sure caregivers and clients alike are getting what they need.”

“This was our first client, first caregiver, first anything,” she said. “Since then, we’ve built on that success and haven’t stopped.”

These days, HomeCare Hands boasts more than 200 caregivers and employees. Headquartered in Springfield, the agency has offices in Northampton, Greenfield, Boston, and Hartford, with coverage extending to communities surrounding those locations.

While providing caregivers for the home remains its core business, HomeCare Hands has also branched out as a staffing agency for hospitals, assisted-living communities, and other medical facilities.

The arrival of the pandemic aggravated an already-challenging situation with healthcare staffing.

“We saw the needs during the worst of the pandemic and asked how we could help,” said Angie Thornton, marketing coordinator for HomeCare Hands. “The answer was to do something about the lack of staff in all these facilities.”

Achieving this level of growth, diversity, and reputation within a highly competitive market has not come easily. Overall, Holloman attributes the company’s success to going the extra mile when it comes to helping the caregivers they hire — quite literally, as we’ll see — and finding creating ways to meet client needs.

“We know this is more than a business — these are lives we’re responsible for,” she said. “We come to work to take care of folks and to make sure caregivers and clients alike are getting what they need.”

 

At Home with the Idea

It was not so long ago that Holloman developed a formal business plan for HomeCare Hands and faced constant rejection from banks and other avenues of funding.

“As a result, we have no government contracts, and we have no debt,” she said. “We have no back-up plan, and we run on grit.”

It was with this grit and that aforementioned passion for working with seniors that Holloman started her business from a small office on Main Street in Springfield in 2015. After a number of years, as the business grew, she moved to new quarters on State Street. In October, HomeCare Hands took over a larger space that she knows is already too small for their future plans.

The office staff at HomeCare Hands, which has branched out beyond home care and become a staffing agency for hospitals and other facilities as well.

The office staff at HomeCare Hands

The office staff at HomeCare Hands, which has branched out beyond home care and become a staffing agency for hospitals and other facilities as well.

“We’re now looking for our own building,” she said. “We need the extra space because we continue to grow and we are hoping to open a CNA training school in 2022.”

How HomeCare Hands has grown so quickly and profoundly is an intriguing business story, one about a company adapting to meet merging needs and diversifying to find new ways to not only generate revenue, but serve seniors and area healthcare providers.

And in many ways, the company has the right services at the right time.

Indeed, demand for in-home senior services has seen huge growth simply because of demographics. U.S. Census figures show nearly 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, a trend expected to continue until 2030.

On top of that growth, Holloman said more people are looking for home-care services since the pandemic. Meanwhile, concern for personal safety has reduced the number of available healthcare workers, as many will no longer work in medical facilities or in people’s homes.

All this has made the pandemic a time of both opportunity and challenge.

At the height of the pandemic, clients and families were cancelling in-home services, and caregivers were as hard to find as many of the supplies needed to keep them safe. Holloman worried about her agency’s survival.

“When we didn’t have enough coverage, our whole management team got into scrubs and went to see clients,” she said. “We also made our own hand sanitizer and other supplies when they were hard to get.”

As they worked through the many challenges of the pandemic, HomeCare Hands gradually placed caregivers, as well as certified nursing assistants and home health aides, for their clients. Recruitment is an ongoing process because the need for staffing never stops.

“We have become the go-to agency for those who are not able to find professionals to meet their needs,” Thornton said, adding that the phone keeps ringing because of solid word-of-mouth referrals.

One key to the company’s success is its willingness to work with caregivers to help them succeed in their jobs with matters such as transportation.

“When necessary, we will pick up our caregivers for their shift and bring them back home. If they are willing to work, we will make sure to support them.”

Agencies commonly require in-home workers to have a dependable vehicle as a job requirement. That’s not an unreasonable demand because clients live in many different areas, most of which are not on a bus line.

Nicole Grimes, chief operating officer for HomeCare Hands, heard about caregivers who were willing to work but had no means to get to people’s homes. This challenge led to the company creating what she called a transportation division.

“When necessary, we will pick up our caregivers for their shift and bring them back home. If they are willing to work, we will make sure to support them,” she explained, adding that, while she will drive caregivers herself in a pinch, this service is offered only until the caregiver can get back on their feet and afford their own car.

Meanwhile, in-home work often requires someone to cover limited hours for only a few days a week. That can be difficult for caregivers seeking a full-time paycheck. Grimes works with caregivers to schedule multiple shifts for those who want more hours. It’s all part of helping people succeed and become independent.

“Caregivers know they can come to us, even for personal matters such as finding an apartment or help with arranging childcare,” she said.

Making that extra effort is all part of the culture Holloman wants to build.

“We take time to get to know each caregiver who joins us,” she told BusinessWest. “When people come here, we want them to stay and be part of the team.”

To help clients and caregivers feel safe, Thornton said vaccinations are a must.

“Anyone new who joins us must be vaccinated,” she noted. “At this point, none of our clients wants someone in their home unless they are vaccinated.”

Because the need for services can often occur outside of business hours, Holloman and her team rotate who is on call to provide 24/7 coverage.

“It could be a Saturday afternoon and someone calls us because they just visited their mom or dad and realize they need services, but don’t know what to do,” she said. “We are there so they don’t have to wait until Monday to get answers to their questions.”

 

Bottom Line

On Jan. 1, HomeCare Hands will celebrate its seventh anniversary. Holloman reflected on the challenging, scary, and ultimately satisfying journey so far. “In 2015, I was asking, ‘how am I going to do this?’ and now, as we approach 2022, I’m asking, ‘OK, what are we doing next?’”

Needless to say, she will answer that question with creativity, enthusiasm, and, yes, a healthy amount of grit.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

While two major construction projects reached completion in 2021, it’s no time to slow down for Longmeadow officials, who are planning several more projects for 2022 and beyond.

In June, Department of Public Works staff moved into their new $24 million facility on Dwight Road. Town Manager Lyn Simmons said the new location provides a cleaner, safer work environment with amenities that save money for the town over time.

“The DPW now has vehicle wash bays to clean dirt and salt off their equipment as well as lifts that are appropriate for the vehicles we have,” Simmons said. “We also have covered storage for everything, which, in New England, is critical for maintaining all this expensive equipment.”

Marybeth Bergeron, who chairs the Permanent Town Building Committee, said the DPW facility has come a long way from its old location on Pondside Road. After operating out of a couple buildings constructed in the early 1930s that she described as “incredibly poor condition,” the new location improves efficiency and morale.

“Our new DPW director, Geoff McAlmond, is working to unify all the entities in Public Works, and it’s much easier to do that with all the staff and department heads in one place,” Bergeron said.

Simmons said the new facility will have a positive impact on town business beyond the DPW. “Police, fire, and other departments that have town vehicles now have a fueling facility they can use as well.”

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want.”

In early November, Simmons cut the ribbon for the new Longmeadow Adult Community Center on Maple Road. The $14 million building features plenty of space for seniors looking to take part in exercise, activities, or one of the many other programs available.

Bergeron pointed out that older residents use fewer town resources, such as the school system and even trash pickup, because their households are smaller. At the same time, their numbers are growing as more people retire every day, and they are looking to stay active and social. For all those reasons, she said many communities are investing in their elders.

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want,” she added.

Thanks to a $250,000 donation from S. Prestley Blake toward the end of his life, the center has something few such facilities have: a dedicated gymnasium at one end of the building, featuring a full court that can be used for basketball or volleyball and an elevated walking track around the perimeter. On the day BusinessWest toured, three pickleball courts were set up, with games in progress.

The new facility is located less than 100 yards away from the old adult center, which was a former elementary school at Greenwood Park. In the immediate short term, the commercial kitchen in the old center will be used by staff from Armata’s Market to prepare holiday meals for their customers after a fire in November destroyed the market, a longtime fixture in Longmeadow (see story on page 15).

Looking ahead, the former adult center may be the future home for the town municipal offices. Currently, municipal staff are located in Town Hall and the adjacent Community Hall. Town Hall offers limited space, and Simmons said bringing it into compliance with current standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be cost-prohibitive. A recent feasibility study looked at reusing the Greenwood site as combined office space for the town.

“We would move municipal employees from Town Hall and Community Hall to one location and consolidate under one roof,” Simmons said. If the plan is approved, Simmons said the town can pay for renovations to the Greenwood site out of the $4.6 million allocated to Longmeadow under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Before the town can consider re-using the former DPW site, Simmons said the first goal is to demolish the old buildings which are deemed unsafe.

“We’ve done a feasibility study to see if ground mounted solar panels would make sense for us financially,” she said. “It looks like that would be a good use, but we have a ton of work to do before it can go out to bid.” Right now, it looks like the town will tackle this project in the spring or summer of 2022.

 

Doing Their Homework

Though mask measures are still in place and students are still adjusting to daily in-person learning, Longmeadow Schools Superintendent Martin O’Shea said having students back in class full-time makes it feel more like a typical school year.

In addition to what he termed as “the ebbs and flows of the school day,” he also recognizes the town is at a crossroads when it comes to deciding the future of its two middle schools.

Glenbrook Middle School, built in 1967, and Williams Middle School, built in 1959, are two well-maintained buildings, neither of which has had any significant renovation work since they were completed. Despite all the care and maintenance, time has a way of catching up with many of core systems, and the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical infrastructure in both buildings have reached the end of their useful life. A study by Colliers Project Leaders identified more than $30 million of essential maintenance and repair issues at the two schools.

O’Shea said the Longmeadow School Committee has petitioned the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help answer the question: should Longmeadow repair the two schools or bring all the middle-school students into one new building?

“If we commit to the repairs Colliers identified, we would make critical improvements to the two schools, but we’re left with the old footprint and the old design,” he explained. “We still wouldn’t have the types of learning spaces we think would be best for students for the next 50 years.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.74
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.74
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

Working with the MSBA can be a six- or seven-year process. That’s why O’Shea believes Longmeadow is at a crossroads right now. He and others in town support building new rather than investing in the old.

“Our sense is that it would be more cost-effective and more educationally effective to build a new school,” he said, adding that modern schools are built to be fully accessible, with rich digital-learning spaces, as well as spaces for small-group support and intervention.

O’Shea recognizes many residents value having two neighborhood-based middle schools in town, but both need extensive repairs and modernization to continue to serve today’s students. One new middle school can easily accommodate the 648 students currently attending Glenbrook and Williams.

“If we combined our two middle schools under one roof, we could potentially create educational economies of scale, and the new building would reflect a more typically sized middle school,” he said. “The average middle school in Massachusetts accommodates right around 600 students.”

Unlike many communities, Longmeadow does not experience significant school-enrollment swings, but instead stays fairly steady over many years. O’Shea said that’s an important consideration when going through the MSBA process.

“The whole building project begins when MSBA engages the community in demographic studies to better understand enrollment and population trends,” he noted. “That way, they can make sure the school that is eventually built is positioned for future enrollment.”

The middle-school project represents another chapter in Longmeadow’s continued commitment to academic excellence. O’Shea said education is an important part of the town’s economic engine.

“Longmeadow places a premium on education,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s the reason people move here and why it’s a great place to raise a family.”

 

Great Outdoors

Longmeadow also prides itself on its many recreation areas. Simmons is looking to bring in a consultant to assess all swimming pools, basketball courts, playgrounds, and other sites to assess their condition. Once the town has a baseline on the needs for each area, Simmons’ goal is to have a community conversation with town departments and committees as well as with residents to identify the most pressing projects.

“We want a roadmap so we can get strategic on how we eventually fund that work and complete those projects,” she said.

With these projects and others on the horizon for Longmeadow, Bergeron acknowledged she and the Building Committee will have plenty of work ahead. “I’m looking forward to the next five to 10 years as we get some of these projects off the ground and up and running.”

Features

Thinking About Better.com

By John Gannon

 

A few weeks ago, about 900 employees working at Better.com were asked to simultaneously attend a virtual Zoom meeting. They were probably expecting information about updated company policies or perhaps some sort of holiday bonus. Instead, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg notified all attendees during the three-minute video call that their employment was terminated “effective immediately.”

Apparently, Better.com, which is a popular online mortgage-lending service, claimed that hundreds of the employees who were let go had been “stealing” from the company by working remotely only a few hours a day. After videos of the termination meeting surfaced on social media, Garg faced significant criticism for his seemingly crass and heartless actions during the holiday season. He subsequently apologized, saying he “failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected and for their contributions to Better.” He then took a leave of absence from work.

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“The bigger issue here seems to be that Better.com was not doing an effective job monitoring and motivating their remote workforce. This can certainly be a challenge when employees are home in their pajamas instead of in the office.”

There is a lot to unpack here from an employment-law perspective. For starters, was there anything unlawful about Better.com’s actions? Coldness aside, the answer is no, assuming none of the more than 900 employees were let go for discriminatory reasons, such as age, race, or taking medical leave (just to name a few). However, given the media spotlight on Better.com right now, I would not be surprised if at least a few of those fired employees brought lawsuits contending they were let go for unlawful reasons.

Let’s move on to the suspected stealing — can you fire employees who steal from you? That’s an easy one. Of course you can. But were these folks stealing by working less than an expected eight-hour day while at home? I don’t think they were. Employees often fail to work their expected hours in a day, week, or month, while being paid their full salaries at the same time. This is not stealing. Instead, it sounds more like a performance and time-management problem that should be addressed by managers and supervisors. If there is a significant gap between expected and actual hours worked, this could be a problem that warrants discipline or even termination from employment if particularly severe. But it should not be labeled or viewed as company theft.

The bigger issue here seems to be that Better.com was not doing an effective job monitoring and motivating their remote workforce. This can certainly be a challenge when employees are home in their pajamas instead of in the office. I have talked to executives who feel strongly that people simply are not going to get as much done at home because the temptation to slack off is too great. That may be so, but there are tools that businesses can implement to track and monitor employee work habits and productivity while at home.

For starters, daily Zoom meetings, or at least a few video calls per week, put people in the mindset of being at work while giving colleagues a chance to see and interact with their peers, even if it is through a video screen. Second, if a business has real concerns about employees slacking off at home, there are all sorts of employee-monitoring software products out there that do everything from tracking keystrokes to measuring time away from the computer. Just be sure these tracking tools do not run afoul of workplace privacy laws.

In order to satisfy these laws, you generally have to disclose to the employee that they are being tracked and/or monitored, which undoubtedly will cause concern to some of your workforce who feel ‘Big Brother’ is looking over their shoulder.

“The final and most important lesson brought to us courtesy of Better.com was how not to communicate a 900-person layoff to your workforce.”

The final and most important lesson brought to us courtesy of Better.com was how not to communicate a 900-person layoff to your workforce. Losing your job over a three-minute video chat alongside 900 peers is just awful. Many of those employees undoubtedly provided numerous years of service to Better.com. They were rewarded with no chance to ask questions about the layoff decision, no chance to talk about other opportunities within the organization, and apparently no offer of severance to get them through the holidays. Garg faced severe criticism in the media for his callous approach to firing 900 people at once — and deservedly so.

But is there an easy way to tell people they are getting laid off? No, there is not. But there is a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way was illustrated by Garg — cold and impersonal, and showing no signs that you care in any way about the employees’ future endeavors.

Based on my experience, the right way to conduct a layoff involves three things. First, employers need a polished communication strategy that involves one-on-one meetings with affected employees that gives them an opportunity to have some real dialogue about the decision-making process and suggestions for future success with another company.

Second, consider offering outplacement services to all employees who are part of a reduction in force. Outplacement services are coaching and mentoring programs that help separated employees find a new position. These services are typically affordable and demonstrate that the business cares about its workforce.

Finally, providing some severance to affected employees is always recommended. This may not be an option if the reason for the layoff is driven by financial considerations, which is often the case. Even so, severance should absolutely be part of the conversation when thinking through a layoff, and, in my opinion, should be offered as a gesture of goodwill unless the bottom line just will not allow for it.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services

‘A True Win-Win’

By Mark Morris

Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly says PNCU and Premier Source offer services and expertise that benefit each other.

Polish National Credit Union started in 1921 with an investment of $325 and has grown to more than $700 million in assets today. But there are always ways to improve and expand its services, said President and CEO Jim Kelly, who describes PNCU’s recently announced merger agreement with Premier Source Credit Union as a joining of two forces.

“No one at Premier Source will be losing their job,” he said. “In fact we are counting on their expertise on offering credits cards to members which is a business we’re not in right now.”

Meanwhile, confronted with rising costs to keep up with technology, compliance, and talent retention, Premier Source had begun looking into a merger as its best way forward. CEO Bonnie Raymond said that, after considering a number of factors, Polish National emerged as the best fit.

“As a larger organization, Polish National offers in-house mortgages and commercial lending, while we bring our credit-card portfolio to expand to their membership,” Raymond said. “Along with the credit-card business, they will benefit from the expertise of our staff, so it’s a true win-win.”

Kelly added that organic growth in Western Mass. is not easy. That’s why he called the merger with Premier Source a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The current Premier Source headquarters on North Main Street in East Longmeadow will become the ninth branch for Polish National, which is headquartered in Chicopee. That location also addresses one of Kelly’s strategic goals in finding additional space.

“We’re a growing credit union, and there’s not much room left at our headquarters in Chicopee or at our operations center in Wilbraham,” he said. “The Premier Source building is large and beautiful, so it helps us in a huge way.”

What has become known across the U.S. as the Great Resignation has also affected the two credit unions. Between retirements and just leaving the job due to COVID-19 concerns, both organizations felt the impact of people leaving. Raymond noted that the merger will help address staffing issues for both.

“This was another win-win because our staff will stay employed while Polish National will be able to bring on experienced help to fill any openings they might have.”

“This was another win-win because our staff will stay employed while Polish National will be able to bring on experienced help to fill any openings they might have,” she explained.

In recent years, both organizations have grown through mergers with smaller credit unions. On a national level, Kelly told BusinessWest, approximately one credit union per day is involved in a merger.

 

Strategic Partnership

Premier Source began in 1941 as Kelko Credit Union, founded by employees of the Kellogg Envelope Company. Over the years, Premier Source acquired employee credit unions from companies such as Spalding, Hasbro Games, and Western Mass Electric. While membership now exceeds 4,500, Raymond said its growth still doesn’t provide the economies of scale of larger institutions.

“For example, interactive teller machines have become popular, but they are extremely pricey, and just buying one doesn’t recoup the investment,” she said. At $80,000 each, an institution needs to own several ITMs to find any economies of scale.

By agreeing to the merger, Premier Source will not be investing in ITMs, but its members will see a direct benefit. A common practice when a credit union merges involves paying a dividend to its members. Raymond explained that members are the reason Premier Source has a strong capital foundation, so the board will soon vote for a special dividend to compensate members for staying with the credit union.

“It’s a way to reward members for their longevity. Members who have been with us for more than 10 years will receive the largest dividend,” she said, adding that most members have belonged to Premier Source for more than 10 years.

Far from a cold and calculated business deal, Kelly said a credit-union merger is typically a more personal type of transaction, done only with people who have earned one’s trust.

“You don’t merge with someone you’ve only met a few months ago,” he noted. “It usually involves people you’ve known for at least several years because you want to make sure your members and employees are taken care of as a result of the merger.”

Kelly said he and Raymond go way back, having crossed paths many times because they work in the same industry. “I’ve known Bonnie for a long time. She is a high-quality and talented person.”

The next step in the merger process involves regulatory approval from the Massachusetts Division of Banks, the National Credit Union Administration, and the Massachusetts Credit Union Share Insurance Corp., as well as approval from the memberships of both credit unions.

A recent news release suggested the merger could be completed by the spring of 2022. Kelly, a former regulator, said he would not offer a timetable because it’s completely in the hands of the regulators as to when they complete their work on the merger.

 

Healthy Outlook

Polish National ranks 174th among the top 200 healthiest credit unions in the country, according to the Cooperative Credit Union Assoc. Kelly is proud of this accomplishment and noted that it’s positive news considering there are 5,164 credit unions in the U.S.

For now, the numbers Kelly looks forward to involve the 4,500 Premier Source members joining the 25,000-plus members of Polish National. It’s a fitting way to start the next 100 years of the credit union,” he said.

“While our founders were Polish, we have always been a community credit union and will continue that tradition,” he added, noting that the quote credited to the revered TV22 meteorologist John Quill still rings true: “you don’t have to be Polish to be a member.”

Banking and Financial Services

Contractor or Employee?

By Sarah Rose Stack

 

Even prior to the pandemic, the ‘gig economy’ was growing at unprecedented rates. That growth has only been accelerated with more traditional companies relying on remote workers and hiring more contractor workers. Freelancing is big business, with nearly $1 trillion of income generated. However, although that total number is impressive, independent contractors earn 58% less than full-time employees (FTEs), and more than half don’t have any employer-provided benefits.

From a business perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages to how a company classifies its workers. With employees, you’ll have more control, but that comes with more compliance obligations. With contractors, you’ll have fewer compliance obligations, but you will also have less control.

“From a business perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages to how a company classifies its workers.”

Some tax advantages to hiring independent contractors include the ability to avoid several tax obligations that apply to employees. For example, a company generally isn’t required to withhold federal or state income taxes, pay the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes, withhold the workers’ share of FICA taxes, or pay federal or state unemployment taxes.

In addition, companies that use contractors may avoid other obligations, such as the requirement to pay minimum wages and overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and similar state laws, furnish workers’-compensation insurance (in many states), make state disability-insurance contributions, or provide employee benefits.

Keep in mind that simply having a written agreement or labeling a worker as an independent contractor doesn’t make them so. The IRS and other government agencies look at all the facts and circumstances to determine whether workers are misclassified.

When someone is hired, they must be classified as either an employee or an independent contractor. Here’s how the IRS determines worker status.

 

Behavioral Control

If the company has a great deal of control over the behavior of the worker — for example, where they work, when they work, or how they perform their jobs — the worker should be classified as an employee. If the company is giving the worker evaluations, conducting extensive or ongoing training about procedures and methods, or demanding that the worker attend daily meetings or set hours, then the worker is more likely an employee. Independent contractors will customarily set their own hours, decide on how to implement a project, and dictate where they work.

 

Financial Control

If a company provides equipment for the worker (tools, software, computers, phone, etc.), often reimburses expenses, and/or pays on regular and ongoing basis, then the worker is more likely to be an employee. The IRS clarifies by considering the following:

• Significant investment in the equipment the worker uses in working for someone else;

• Unreimbursed expenses, which independent contractors are more likely to incur than employees;

• Opportunity for profit or loss, which is often an indicator of an independent contractor;

• Services available to the market, as independent contractors are generally free to seek out business opportunities; and

• Method of payment. An employee is generally guaranteed a regular wage amount for an hourly, weekly, or other period of time even when supplemented by a commission, while independent contractors are most often paid for the job by a flat fee.

 

Relationship

Perception of the relationship is considered, but the interactions between workers and employees is what ultimately defines the relationship. Written contracts are considered; however, an employer cannot classify their workers as independent contractors when they, in fact, treat them like employees. If the company is providing employee benefits, insurance, paid time off, sick days, or pension plans, then the worker is most likely an employee.

Another area to consider is the permanency of the relationship. Employees are more likely to be hired indefinitely, and either party can terminate the relationship at any time, for any legal reason. Independent contractors’ rights are subject to a contract.

 

Penalties for Misclassifying Workers

The consequences for misclassifying employees as independent contractors can include IRS penalties and other non-tax implications. The IRS may assess back taxes against the company and demand that the company pay the employees’ share of unpaid payroll and income taxes, regardless of whether or not the independent contractors met those tax obligations. Companies can also expect to pay IRS penalties and interest. Further, workers can file a lawsuit against employers to demand back pay, overtime, and benefits.

 

Review Your Current Workers’ Status and Hiring Policies

The potential tax and non-tax savings do not outweigh the significant cost of misclassifying workers. It’s important to review your hiring policies, even if you are comfortable with your classification of current workers, to ensure that you are meeting all applicable standards for classification. Talk with your advisors if you believe you may have misclassified an employee or have questions about the standards.

 

Sarah Rose Stack is the Marketing manager for Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Banking and Financial Services

And Why Investors Should Consider Re-evaluating This Strategy

By Jeff Liguori

 

Humans are historically bad at long-term thinking. In the world of finance, that behavior has dramatically worsened over the past 50 years.

Today, the average investor holds an individual stock for less than six months; in the late 1990s, that period was approximately two years. Go back to the 1950s, and investors were holding individual stock for nearly eight years on average.

What has caused such a drastic shift in investor behavior? First, access to markets has never been greater, which creates ample amounts of liquidity for trading. Second, ever-growing reams of information are disseminated at lightning speed, preying on our psyches. Finally, the cost to trade shares of a stock is negligible — in many cases, zero. Each of these trends is quite beneficial to the average investor. However, the combination of these factors promotes behavior that does not support a long-term view of investing.

For the sake of analysis, let’s look at the performance of Target Corp. (symbol: TGT). From July 1, 2013 through Nov. 30, 2021, the total return of Target’s stock (price appreciation and dividends) was 350%. During that same timeframe, the S&P 500 had a total return of 230%. However, shares of Target largely underperformed the broader market in the five years following July 1, 2013, returning 29% vs. 86% for the S&P 500.

Jeff Liguori

Jeff Liguori

“Ever-growing reams of information are disseminated at lightning speed, preying on our psyches.”

There was no lack of bad news in that five-year period, including a change in leadership with a new CEO and a failed plan to expand into Canada that cost the company more than $5 billion. But a patient investor with a long-term view, who believes in owning solid businesses, has been handsomely rewarded by staying with Target.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a little-known mutual fund manager, Wilmot Kidd, who has had exceptional investment performance.

“Over the past 20 years,” it notes, “Mr. Kidd’s Central Securities Corp. … has outperformed Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Over the past 25, 30, 40, and even nearly 50 years under Mr. Kidd, Central Securities has resoundingly beaten the S&P 500. The keys to his success? Patience, concentration, and courage.

“If you had invested $10,000 in Central Securities at the end of March 1974, when Mr. Kidd officially took over,” the article continues, “you would have had nearly $6.4 million by the end of this October, according to the Center for Research in Security Prices. The same amount put into the stocks in the S&P 500 would have grown to $1.9 million.”

Analysis on Kidd’s fund suggests an average holding period north of 10 years. But some of the companies in which Central Securities is invested have been part of the fund for more than 30 years. And during Kidd’s tenure, the fund has underperformed the S&P 500 several times. But having the courage of his convictions, and staying invested through market cycles, has served his clients very well, despite periods of underperformance.

Investing today is about constant measurement. Companies produce quarterly earnings reports, compelling Wall Street analysts to change projections and adjust ratings, which forces investors to rethink their investment ideas. Add in exogenous events to amplify anxieties, and it is no surprise that the investing public has become so shortsighted. No, I don’t worry about the potential ramifications of Russia invading Ukraine on my stock portfolio (an actual assertion from a client!).

As a kid, I remember my grandfather diligently keeping track of the few stocks he owned, writing the end-of-month prices in a journal. He didn’t have the luxury of technology; his analysis was straightforward and pragmatic. He invested in companies with which he was familiar. He had no formal degree, having to forgo college to support his family during the Depression. The son of immigrants, he owned and operated a small grocery store whose customers were almost entirely working-class or even working poor.

One of his suppliers was a company called Corn Products Inc. The company still exists, now called Ingredion (symbol: INGR). For him, investing was about owning a piece of this company that he had a personal connection to, in the hopes of growing a nest egg. Whenever there was ‘extra’ money from his earnings, he would add to his positions. My grandfather retired in 1982 having never earned more than $30,000 in any given year. The value of his portfolio exceeded $600,000 prior to his death in 2011.

He didn’t know he would live for nearly a century, passing at age 97, but he sure invested like it. u

 

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.

Opinion

Opinion

By Alane Burgess

 

The holidays are a stressful time in some way, shape, or form for everyone. However, for those folks in recovery, this stress can become intensified around festivities and traditions tied to the season and undermine their sobriety.

An individual in recovery invited to a work gathering may ask themselves, “what am I going to do if someone offers me a drink or they offer me a substance? I may feel uncomfortable disclosing to my colleagues and my co-workers or other people that I am in recovery.”

Holiday gatherings with family members can be an emotional minefield of negative memories, bringing up feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. There is also the potential for an individual in recovery to know they will be with a close family member with an addiction that is untreated. The person in recovery wants to avoid being offered an alcoholic beverage or other type of substance, and this type of encounter could present an especially stressful situation for them.

The question for the pern in recovery becomes, “am I going to be able to say no or be able to help myself prepare for a situation that I know that I may not feel comfortable in from an emotional standpoint?”

I address these situations around holiday sobriety with the individuals I work with in recovery by telling them to continue to focus on their physical and mental health.

Rest, relax, and rejuvenate are three key words to remember about self-care during the frustrations, busyness, and exhaustion of the holidays. I ask people to ask themselves, “am I getting good sleep at night? Am I eating healthy? Am I engaging in exercise?”

I work, too, with people on the ability to say no or to pass on going to a certain celebration or relative’s house. If someone does go to an event, they should have an exit plan so they can leave if things start to get really uncomfortable or they feel their sobriety might be at risk.

Most importantly, holiday sobriety is about staying connected to one’s support system. This may be a close friend or a fellow member in a self-help meeting. It could be a sponsor or a pastor.

Sometimes people get so caught up in the holidays that they skip a support meeting or call to their sponsor. This could be a real trigger for someone to worry about — that they get out of their routine and their pattern of supports that they have for their security relapse planning.

What would I advise someone hosting a celebration or family gathering and inviting someone they know is in recovery?

Make sure there are a lot of choices available in terms of non-alcoholic beverages — many drinks advertised as “non-alcohol” contain some alcohol.

Also, have an open dialogue with the individual who is in recovery and ask them, “what can be done to help you feel safer and more comfortable with your recovery while you are here?”

I really believe in people having as much open dialogue as possible. The person in recovery is the best person to say what is going to be most helpful to them. Sometimes people’s actions are really well-intended, but they may not realize their actions could trigger a relapse.

And I always tell the person in recovery that their recovery and sobriety come first and to be honest with themselves in that approach. I remind them again: if you don’t feel going to any particular celebration or event is safe for you in your recovery this holiday season, it is OK to say no, and it is important as well to remain engaged with your supports — all those things that have helped you stay in your routines.

 

Alane Burgess is a licensed mental-health clinician and director of the Mental Health Association’s BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Bob Cressotti

Mayor Bob Cressotti says soaring real-estate activity may lead to the tough decision to re-evaluate Enfield homes and businesses.

There is no shortage of activity in development projects for Enfield.

The most significant project involves the town, with the support of state and federal officials, constructing a train-station platform in the Thompsonville section of town. The planned station will be a stop for Amtrak trains coming from Hartford and Springfield. Mayor Bob Cressotti called it a key to Enfield’s future growth.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield,” Cressotti said, noting that funding for the station will come from the infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden. In the final legislation, Connecticut is scheduled to receive $1.2 billion for roads and transit over the next five years.

When built, the station will be located just beyond Bigelow Commons, a 700-unit apartment complex that was once the Bigelow Carpet Mill. Nelson Tereso, the town’s deputy director of Economic & Community Development, said plans by the Connecticut Department of Transportation call for a covered 220-foot platform that would accommodate entrances to four train cars. As a high-level platform, passengers would be able to walk directly into the cars.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield.”

Tereso is working on a number of details for the project, among them securing a right-of-way agreement with Bigelow Commons for parking at the station. Northland, the company that owns the Commons, has indicated it supports the train-station project in Enfield.

“They’ve been very good to work with,” he noted. “In fact, many of their apartment complexes around the country are located near transportation hubs.” 

In anticipation of the train station, Tereso said the town has identified several properties within walking distance that would be ideal candidates for redevelopment. With the success of Bigelow Commons, he sees more potential for housing in that area.

On North Main Street, the Strand Theater has been closed for nearly 30 years and is slated for demolition by next summer. Next door sits the Angelo Lamanga Community Center. Tereso said the town has appropriated money for its demolition, too, but he is talking with developers to see if it’s possible to find a new use for the 27,000-square-foot building.

“We want to sell the Lamanga Center to a developer who is forward-thinking and looking ahead at the train station our town will have in a few years,” he explained. “While not as large as Bigelow, these parcels represent an opportunity to build additional market-rate apartments, especially for young professionals who are working in Hartford and Springfield.”

 

On the Home Front

According to Cressotti, demand for housing is certainly up Enfield. Since the pandemic began, nearly 2,200 property transfers have been recorded in Enfield. The rising real-estate market is leading to what he called the tough decision of re-evaluating houses and businesses in town.

“Residential property values have increased by 25% to 30% on average,” he said. “We’re going to adjust the mill rate to prevent a huge spike in the tax bills.”

With such large increases in home prices, getting families to locate to Enfield can be a challenge. Tereso talked about a first-time homebuyer program the town offers to increase purchasing power for eligible buyers. The program provides a deferred loan up to $10,000 at a 0% interest rate for first-time buyers who purchase a home in Enfield. For those who choose a home in the Thompsonville or North Thompsonville section of town, the loan is forgivable.

“This program provides the gap funding that many folks need in order to afford a mortgage,” he said, noting that starter homes in Enfield typically cost between $150,000 and $250,000. “It has especially helped younger families to buy their first home.”

With families in mind, the town is currently transforming Higgins Park from a softball field into a multi-faceted park. Plans call for expanding Higgins, as the town plans to purchase the gymnasium building that belonged to the former St. Adalbert parish that abuts the park. Cressotti said the final layout will feature walking trails, a new basketball court, a swimming pool, a splash pad, and a band shell for outdoor concerts.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now. Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

“When it’s complete, the park will have appeal to all ages, and we will be able to hold sponsored events there on a consistent basis,” he noted.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, officials tried to figure out how to keep town business operating. It so happened that a Santander Bank branch two doors down from Town Hall had recently closed and was on the market. The idea was floated to lease the former bank and use its drive-up window as a convenient and contact-free way to conduct town business during the pandemic.

“The drive-up window worked great for residents looking to apply for building permits, pick up a dog license, or pay their taxes,” Tereso said.

The town moved the entire Tax Department into the former bank and renamed it Enfield Express. The site also had enough room to locate a police substation in the rear of the building. Tereso said the town just finalized the purchase of the building, making it official that Enfield Express is here to stay.

“People love it,” he added. “We will absolutely continue the drive-up service after the pandemic is over.”

Purchasing the former bank branch also expands the amount of municipal parking and provides another entry point for the newly configured Higgins Park.

“When the Tax Department moved out of Town Hall, we turned their old space into a new conference room,” Tereso said, noting yet another benefit of creating Enfield Express.

Finding new uses for existing structures is all part of the plan in Enfield. For example, the Social Services Department recently moved from 110 High St. to the former Alcorn School, where the town’s IT Department is located, while 110 High St. is one of seven town properties Enfield has sold while it strives to efficiently use municipal space.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,626
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

As Tereso explained, “110 High Street was once a day-care center. We sold it to a day-care provider who will now be able to expand their presence in Enfield.”

Enfield Square, purchased by Namdar Realty in 2018, could be another candidate for redevelopment. The new owners were granted a zone change to reconfigure the mall and subdivide the parcels.

While malls all over the country are being redeveloped, Tereso believes Enfield Square’s close proximity to two I-91 exits is a big selling point for future use. He plans to survey residents on possible redevelopment options to get a read on what people would like to see at the mall.

“Whether it’s entertainment, market-rate housing, or outlet shops, all those things could be a successful way to develop the mall for new use,” he said.

 

Life in the Fast Lane

For Cressotti, life these past months has been moving fast.

In October, he won the election to be Enfield’s new mayor. On Nov. 6, he took over the position, and on Nov. 15, longtime Town Manager Christopher Bromson abruptly resigned after a heated exchange with several Town Council members.

After serving in different positions with the town since 1989, Bromson decided to retire and was recently quoted saying he is grateful to see many of the projects started during his time are now going forward. Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox has added interim Town Manager to his job title until a new manager is hired.

Even with all that happening, Cressotti likes the direction Enfield is headed.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now,” he said. “Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

Construction

Continued Momentum

 

The engineering and construction industry has made a significant recovery from the 2020 recession, but it has also experienced multiple headwinds that are expected to persist. According to a report by Deloitte, 2022 should be another rewarding — but challenging — year, and the industry looks to be poised to capture growth opportunities.

The 2020 recession was among the shortest ever, but its impact continues to be observed across both the larger U.S. economy and the engineering and construction (E&C) industry.

In 2022, as we move into the second year of recovery, the industry has a big role in supporting the nation’s growth plan. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), with investments across healthcare, public safety, and other public infrastructure, is expected to bode well for E&C firms and is likely to accelerate recovery across the non-residential segment. The residential segment is expected to stay strong and exhibit similar activity as it did in 2021.

“The 2020 recession was among the shortest ever, but its impact continues to be observed across both the larger U.S. economy and the engineering and construction industry.”

The industry has increased its investments in digital, including through mergers and acquisitions (M&A), as it prepares to shift toward connected construction capabilities. These technologies can help E&C firms support initiatives such as smart cities, urban air mobility, and climate-change programs, while helping to enhance internal operational efficiencies, reduce costs, and improve margins. Thus, 2022 is likely to be an exciting year for the engineering and construction industry, and Deloitte’s annual outlook explores five key themes to watch closely.

 

1. Several factors position the industry for strong growth amid the headwinds. The industry responded very well during the pandemic and has come out strong in the recovery period. Total construction spending recovered and peaked at $1.57 trillion in July 2021, 12% higher than 2019 average levels. In a recent survey, 91% of E&C respondents characterize the business outlook for their industry as somewhat or very positive, 23% higher than last year. Driving this business confidence is the expected strong performance of the residential segment and growth from the non-residential segment due to the $1 trillion IIJA.

Looking into the two segments in more detail, residential activities continued to stay strong despite rising material prices and the spread of the coronavirus Delta variant. In contrast, non-residential segment spending growth remained weak for much of 2021. Spending across educational, office, transportation, healthcare, and commercial facilities observed the largest year-over-year decline in July 2021.

 

2. Supply-chain disruption and sourcing challenges will likely affect project delivery and margins. During the second half of 2020, the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of global supply chains. Supply issues were expected to stabilize moving into 2021 as both global production resumed and supplies normalized. However, pandemic-induced supply shortages persist, affecting key materials such as lumber, paint and coatings, aluminum, steel, and cement, among others.

The impact of this crisis is twofold. The first challenge is the lack of materials; per an Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) survey, 75% of E&C firms indicated project delays due to longer lead times or shortage of materials. Furthermore, 57% reported delivery delays, indicating that the industry has difficulty predicting when materials would arrive.

The second impact is sharply increased costs; during the first seven months of 2021, the prices of critical construction materials observed double-digit increases every month. Overall, supply-chain disruptions and volatility are expected to be among the biggest challenges in 2022, and the firms that can navigate through them will likely emerge as winners.

 

3. Connected construction will help the industry unlock new value streams. The industry landscape is rapidly evolving as engineering firms, contractors, and participants across the value chain realize the benefits of, and increasingly deploy, connected construction technologies. These technologies can help bring assets, people, processes, and job sites onto one platform, making everyone work smarter, reduce downtime, optimize asset utilization and efficiency, and gain greater visibility into operations.

At the core of connected construction are emerging technologies and the data and advanced analytics that these new capabilities can enable. As the industry moves toward connected construction, developing data, analytics, and user-based insights capabilities could be critical. In 2022, connected construction will likely be a catch-all for major digital investments to connect, integrate, and automate operations and bring the entire value chain onto a secure, intelligent infrastructure.

 

4. M&A will help build broad-based capabilities. In 2020, most E&C firms were focused on being risk-averse and conserving cash to maintain liquidity. However, 2021 provides a stark contrast, as transaction levels for the first nine months were already 152% higher than the full year 2020 and 10% higher than all activity in 2019. The U.S. E&C industry ramped up M&A activity, registering $16 billion in deal value, during the first eight months of 2021. At this pace, the industry is likely to exceed the $20 billion deal value mark by the end of the year.

E&C companies have also shown renewed interest in technology and telecom targets to gain faster access to new digital capabilities and solutions. Between August 2020 and August 2021, U.S. E&C firms acquired as many as 27 targets across the software, electronics, technology consulting and services, and motion-picture fields. A move in the right direction, this is further anticipated to pick up pace in 2022 as E&C firms work toward acquiring technologies to help develop a connected, integrated, and automated operations foundation.

 

5. Firms will continue to grapple with labor shortages as the workforce landscape evolves. Emerging from the pandemic, the biggest question on the minds of most E&C firms was how to restart work at job sites safely. Surprisingly, while the industry quickly implemented the required safety standards, it is still trying to overcome the challenge of attracting workers. The impact of not filling job openings can negatively affect E&C firms in more ways than one, including project delays and cancellations, projects being scaled back, inability to respond to market needs, losing project bids, and failing to innovate, among others.

Another factor compounding labor shortages is a lack of qualified candidates. This skills gap is partly driven by industry advances into integrating digital technologies with key workstreams to further enhance productivity, efficiency, and worker safety. As we move into 2022, adapting existing talent strategies and forming new talent-management and workforce-experience strategies could be critical to navigating workforce challenges.

Construction

Glass Half Full

The latest issue of the Civil Quarterly (CQ) from Dodge Data & Analytics reveals a dramatic increase in supply-chain challenges faced by civil contractors. However, contractors remain optimistic about the state of their industry in the near future despite adversity.

The report, based on a quarterly survey of civil contractors, engineers, and owners, shows that the vast majority of civil contractors (92%) have had projects impacted by fluctuations in the cost of construction materials in 2021. The latest report also found that 89% expressed concerns about cost increases for materials over the next six months, including prices for steel, piping, paving materials, lumber, and aggregates.

Despite these concerns, more than half (53%) expect to see increases in revenue, and nearly two-thirds (63%) expect to see their profit margins hold steady or grow in the next year. This is likely due to the fact that nearly three-quarters (71%) are highly optimistic about the volume of work they expect in the next year.

The report also features new data from the survey about cybersecurity and reality capture.

The current TCQ finds that civil construction project owners are more likely to consider a cyberattack possible or likely than civil contractors or engineers. Among civil contractors, only large firms frequently consider the risk of cyberattacks a likely possibility. In fact, nearly half (43%) of small contractors with revenues under $10 million believe such an attack is unlikely to hit their firms.

Not surprisingly, there is also a direct correlation between those who consider an attack more likely and the degree to which they are prepared for such an attack. For example, owners and large companies are far more likely to have documented cybersecurity policies, engage in cybersecurity training, and employ numerous other means of protecting themselves against cyberattacks, including having a mobile device plan, protecting IoT devices, or creating an incident-response playbook.

With the overall increase in cybersecurity attacks, the leading obstacle among contractors to widen investment in cybersecurity is that they do not think the level of risk for their companies warrants further investment.

On the topic of reality capture, the findings reveal there are a wide range of reality-capture tools employed on civil job sites. Use of drones, aerial mapping, and digital cameras are widespread, but a range of other tools are also emerging in use, including project-site webcams, laser scanners, and GPS rovers, among others.

Civil contractors who use these reality-capture tools are finding wide applications for the data they gather from them, with earthwork calculations, quality-control verification, and progress documentation being the most common. Not surprisingly, these numerous applications lead to some critical project benefits, with more than half of those who use these reality-capture tools reporting improved ability to track work progress, improved ability to manage schedules and budget, and improved quality on their projects.

Women in Businesss

Hidden Costs

A recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the TIME’S UP Foundation shows that workplace sexual harassment has large financial costs and economic consequences.

The report, “Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment, is the first-ever attempt to monetize the lifetime financial costs of sexual harassment to individual women. Among those interviewed, workplace sexual harassment cost individuals anywhere from $600 to $1.3 million or more over a lifetime, depending on the wages of the worker.

The report shows how sexual harassment contributes to the gender wage gap and limits women’s earning potential. These costs can be seen through job loss and unemployment, lower earnings, missed opportunities for advancement, forced job changes, and loss of critical employer-sponsored benefits like health insurance and pension contributions. The financial impact of workplace sexual harassment can be detrimental and long-lasting to those who experience it.

“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable.”

The short-term and long-term impact on the economic security of those working in low-wage jobs can be particularly severe. Workers in lower-income occupations and those impacted by historical racial and ethnic discrimination were more likely to be in economically precarious situations without significant savings. A $600 wage loss can quickly translate into increased debts and credit card fees, eviction, homelessness, and food insecurity.

“As employers rethink their post-COVID workplaces, we need to ensure that work — whether it’s remote or in the office — is safe, dignified, and equitable,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of IWPR. “This report shows the different ways sexual harassment imposes financial and economic costs to women workers.”

Added Jessica Forden of the TIME’S UP Foundation, “no person should ever choose between reporting sexual harassment or speaking up for themselves while considering whether they might lose their ability to feed their families or take their children to the doctor. When we think about the true cost of sexual harassment, we have to think about what’s at stake when women come forward and how this impacts not just them, but everyone around them: their families, communities, and more.”

For every individual interviewed, the experiences of harassment were compounded, and the costs magnified, because those who could have addressed the harassment (including supervisors, human resources staff, and colleagues) failed to act, and, even worse, often retaliated against the employees who were harassed. Few were able to seek legal advice, being kept away by uncertain immigration status, lack of funds, or lack of information on their rights.

Based on in-depth interviews with survivors of workplace sexual harassment, as well as with experts, the report charts the detailed pathways that lead to financial costs to individual workers as a result of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation. Key findings from the report include:

• The costs to economic security are particularly profound for workers in low-paid jobs. While lower earnings and lower job quality in many women-dominated service-sector jobs mean that the monetary costs of harassment are lower for those in these positions, for one fast-food worker forced out of her job, lifetime costs still totaled more than $125,600.

• The lifetime costs of workplace sexual harassment and retaliation were particularly high for those pushed out of well-paid, male-dominated occupations, reaching $1.3 million for an apprentice in the construction trades. The cost of a single year out of work for another apprentice in a construction occupation translates into a lifetime loss of $230,864 due to lost wage progression and foregone benefits.

• Forced career change may necessitate paying for new degrees or credentials. These costs came to almost $70,000 for one woman, reflecting direct tuition costs for a two-year community-college degree plus lost earnings over two years as she pursued her new degree.

The report suggests that culture change, company change, and governmental change are all needed for prevention and accountability.

“It’s clear from our interviews that a lack of enforcement is a part of what’s missing,” said report co-author Ariane Hegewisch of IWPR. “Sexual-harassment policies alone will not work unless there are consequences when they are broken.”

Opinion

Opinion

By Olivia Bernstein

More than 4 million youth and young adults experience homelessness annually in this country. It is estimated that at least 700,000 are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. Risk factors include family conflict, a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, substance use, and school problems.

MHA is among the organizations that recently launched initiatives to address this issue in Massachusetts, where it is said that, on any given day, nearly 500 unaccompanied young people, ages 18 to 24, experience homelessness.

Federal grant money received through our work with the Continuums of Care in Hampden County and the Three County Continuum of Care administered by Community Action of Pioneer Valley (CAPV), which serves Hampshire, Berkshire, and Franklin counties, is funding two MHA projects over a 24-month period that support the needs of homeless youth.

One provides permanent supportive housing for eight beds annually in Springfield, as well as eight in Greenfield, and includes subsidies so participants pay only one-third of their income for rent.

The other, referred to as a Housing Navigation and Rapid Re-housing program, helps youth and young adults navigate services to obtain housing. The program covers rental and related expenses for up to two years for six beds annually.

These projects represent a more comprehensive approach to youth homelessness that provides ongoing rental and individualized case-management support.

In its pioneering report, “More Than Housing, Give Us Homes,” CAPV called youth homelessness a “crisis in our region,” and through $1.96 million in federal funds, it and its partners received a jump start toward ending the crisis. Guiding principles include prioritizing “evidence-based, low-barrier practices, such as housing first, trauma-informed care, and positive youth development.”

As one of CAPV’s partners, MHA couldn’t agree more. This is a population just starting out in life and in need of support, including subsidized housing that is in short supply in the area; services tailored to individualized needs, which may include access to behavioral-health resources; learning life skills such as budgeting; and pursuing employment or educational opportunities.

These youth and young adults, 18 to 24, have experienced more than anyone should have to in their young lives. Some of them have been out on the street or in shelters or exited foster care at 18 with no place to go. Some of them are in unsafe situations and at risk of harm. They may be living with a family member or couch surfing in an unsafe place, and many we serve identify as LGBTQ+. They may not feel accepted by their family or have family relationships that they don’t feel are safe.

MHA is seeing early success in its work with youth involved in both projects. It is, for some, their first time involved with social services, but all are eager to move into the next stage of their lives, which includes more independence and access to housing. Some are continuing a college education, others are seeking employment in their chosen field, and some are in recovery programs.

These young people have shown they are resilient and, like all of us, deserving of a place to call home. We see homelessness all over this country, but it is a huge systemic injustice that anyone should have to live out on the street.

 

Olivia Bernstein is clinical director of Homeless Services at MHA.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Year-end Tax Planning

As the calendar turns to December, business owners and managers — and individuals as well — have a lot to think about. At or near the top of that that list should be an assessment of their tax outlook for 2021. By developing a comprehensive year-end plan, they can maximize the tax breaks currently on the books and avoid potential pitfalls.

By Kristina Drzal Houghton

 

What a year it’s been. So far, we have had to cope with a global pandemic, extreme political division, and a series of natural disasters — just to mention a few noteworthy occurrences. These events have complicated tax planning for individuals and small-business owners.

What’s more, new legislation enacted over the last couple of years has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact. First, the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act addressed numerous issues affected by the pandemic. Following soon after, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) extended certain provisions and modified others. Finally, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) opens up even more tax-saving opportunities in 2021.

And we still might not be done. New proposed legislation is currently being debated in Congress. If another new law is enacted before 2022, it may require you to revise your year-end tax-planning strategies. This article focuses primarily on techniques to reduce your 2021 taxes. However, if tax rates increase for 2022, as has been proposed, your strategy might be to accelerate income and defer deductions.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

“Make sure qualified property is placed in service before the end of the year. If your business does not start using the property, it does not qualify for these tax breaks.”

This is the time to assess your tax outlook for 2021. By developing a comprehensive year-end plan, you can maximize the tax breaks currently on the books and avoid potential pitfalls.

Be aware that the concepts discussed in this article are intended to provide only a general overview of year-end tax planning. It is recommended that you review your personal situation with a tax professional.

 

BUSINESS TAX PLANNING

Depreciation-related Deductions

At year-end, a business may secure one or more of three depreciation-related tax breaks: (1) the Section 179 deduction, (2) first-year ‘bonus’ depreciation, and (3) regular depreciation.

ACTION: Make sure qualified property is placed in service before the end of the year. If your business does not start using the property, it does not qualify for these tax breaks.

• Section 179 deductions: Under this section of the tax code, a business may ‘expense’ (i.e., currently deduct) the cost of qualified property placed in service anytime during the year. The maximum annual deduction is phased out on a dollar-for-dollar basis above a specified threshold.

The maximum Section 179 allowance has increased gradually since 2018, for 2021 the limit is $1.05 million, and the phaseout begins when acquisitions exceed $2.62 million. However, be aware that the Section 179 deduction cannot exceed the taxable income from all your business activities this year. This could limit your deduction for 2021.

• First-year bonus depreciation: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) doubled the 50% first-year bonus depreciation deduction to 100% for property placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017 and expanded the definition of qualified property to include used, not just new, property. However, the TCJA gradually phases out bonus depreciation after 2022.

• Regular depreciation: If any remaining acquisition cost remains, the balance may be deducted over time under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS).

TIP: The CARES Act fixed a glitch in the TCJA relating to ‘qualified improvement property’ (QIP). Thanks to the change, QIP is eligible for bonus depreciation, retroactive to 2018. Therefore, your business may choose to file an amended return for a prior year.

 

Employee Retention Credit

Many business operations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. At least recent legislation provides tax incentives for keeping workers on the books during these uncertain times.

Under the CARES Act, the ERC was equal to 50% of the first $10,000 of qualified wages per quarter, for a maximum credit of $5,000 per worker. The CAA extended availability of the credit into 2021 with certain modifications, including a maximum ERC of $14,000 per worker per year. Now ARPA authorizes a maximum credit of $28,000 per worker for 2021.

In addition, ARPA allows businesses that started up after Feb. 15, 2020 and have an average of $1 million or less in gross receipts to claim a credit of up to $50,000 per quarter.

 

 

Business Meals

Previously, a business could deduct 50% of the cost of its qualified business entertainment expenses. ARPA doubles the usual 50% deduction to 100% of the cost of food and beverages provided by restaurants in 2021 and 2022. Thus, your business may write off the entire cost of some meals this year.

 

Work Opportunity Tax Credit

If your business becomes busier than usual during the holiday season, it may add to the existing staff. Consider all the relevant factors, including tax incentives, in your hiring decisions.

ACTION: All other things being equal, you may hire workers eligible for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). The credit is available if a worker falls into a ‘target’ group.

“Step up your charitable giving at the end of the year. Then you can reap the tax rewards on your 2021 return.”

Generally, the WOTC equals 40% of the first-year wages of up to $6,000 per employee, for a maximum of $2,400. For certain qualified veterans, the credit may be claimed for up to $24,000 of wages, for a $9,600 maximum. There is no limit on the number of credits per business.

TIP: The WOTC has expired — and then been reinstated — multiple times in the past, but the CAA extended it for five years through 2025.

 

Miscellaneous

• Stock up on routine supplies (especially if they are in high demand). If you buy the supplies in 2021, they are deductible in 2021, even if you do not use them until 2022.

• Under the CARES Act, a business could defer 50% of certain payroll taxes due in 2020. Half of the deferred amount is due at the end of 2021, so meet this obligation if it applies.

• If you pay year-end bonuses to employees in 2021, the bonuses are generally deductible by your company and taxable to the employees in 2021. A calendar-year company operating on the accrual basis may be able to deduct bonuses paid as late as March 15, 2022 on its 2021 return.

• Generally, repairs are currently deductible, while capital improvements must be depreciated over time. Therefore, make minor repairs before 2022 to increase your 2021 deduction.

• Have your C-corporation make monetary donations to charity. ARPA extends a 2020 increase in the annual deduction limit from 10% of taxable income to 25% for 2021.

 

INDIVIDUAL TAX PLANNING

Charitable Donations

There were plenty of worthy causes for individuals to donate to in 2021, including disaster aid relief. Besides helping out victims, itemizers are eligible for generous tax breaks.

ACTION: Step up your charitable giving at the end of the year. Then you can reap the tax rewards on your 2021 return. This includes amounts charged to your credit card in 2021 that you do not actually pay until 2022.

Under the CARES Act, and then extended through 2021 by the CAA, the annual deduction limit for monetary donations is equal to 100% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Theoretically, you can eliminate your entire tax liability through charitable donations.

Conversely, if you donate appreciated property held longer than one year (i.e., long-term capital gain property), you can generally deduct an amount equal to the property’s fair market value. But the deduction for short-term capital-gain property is limited to your initial cost. In addition, your annual deduction for property donations generally cannot exceed 30% of your AGI.

TIP: If you do not itemize deductions, you can still write off up to $300 of your monetary charitable donations. The maximum has been doubled to $600 for joint filers in 2021.

 

Medical Deduction

The tax law allows you to deduct qualified medical and dental expenses above 7.5% of AGI. This threshold was recently lowered from 10% of AGI. What’s more, the latest change is permanent.

To qualify for a deduction, the expense must be for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease or payments for treatments affecting any structure or function of the body. However, any costs that are incurred to improve your general health or well-being, or expenses for cosmetic purposes, are non-deductible.

ACTION: If you expect to itemize deductions and are near or above the AGI limit for 2021, accelerate non-emergency expenses into this year, when possible. For instance, you might move a physical exam or dental cleaning scheduled for January to December. The extra expenses are deductible on your 2021 return.

Note that you can include expenses you pay on behalf of a family member — such as a child or elderly parent — if you provide more than half of that person’s support.

TIP: The medical deduction is not available for expenses covered by health insurance or other reimbursements.

 

Miscellaneous

• Pay a child’s college tuition for the upcoming semester. The amount paid in 2021 may qualify for one of two higher-education credits, subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). Note that the alternative tuition-and-fees deduction expired after 2020.

• Avoid an estimated tax penalty by qualifying for a safe-harbor exception. Generally, a penalty will not be imposed if you pay during the year 90% of your current tax liability or 100% of the prior year’s tax liability (110% if your AGI exceeded $150,000).

• If you are in the market for a new car, consider the tax benefits of the electric-vehicle credit. The maximum credit for a qualified vehicle is $7,500. Be aware, however, that credits are no longer available for vehicles produced by certain manufacturers.

• Empty out your flexible spending accounts (FSAs) for healthcare or dependent-care expenses if you will have to forfeit unused funds under the ‘use it or lose it’ rule. However, due to recent changes, your employer’s plan may provide a carryover to next year of up to $550 of funds or a two-and-a-half-month grace period or both.

 

FINANCIAL TAX PLANNING

Securities Sales

Traditionally, investors time sales of assets like securities at year-end for optimal tax results. For starters, capital gains and losses offset each other. If you show an excess loss for the year, you can then offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income before any remainder is carried over to the next year.

Long-term capital gains from sales of securities owned longer than one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 15% or 20% for certain high-income investors. Conversely, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates reaching as high as 37% in 2021.

ACTION: Review your portfolio. Depending on your situation, you may want to harvest capital losses to offset gains or realize capital gains that will be partially or wholly absorbed by losses. For instance, you might sell securities at a loss to offset a high-taxed short-term gain.

Be aware of even more favorable tax treatment for certain long-term capital gains. Notably, a 0% rate applies to taxpayers below certain income levels, such as young children. Furthermore, some taxpayers who ultimately pay ordinary income tax at higher rates due to their investments may qualify for the 0% tax rate on a portion of their long-term capital gains.

However, watch out for the ‘wash sale rule.’ If you sell securities at a loss and reacquire substantially identical securities within 30 days of the sale, the tax loss is disallowed. A simple way to avoid this harsh result is to wait at least 31 days to reacquire substantially identical securities.

TIP: The preferential tax rates for long-term capital gains also apply to qualified dividends received in 2021. These are most dividends paid by U.S. companies or qualified foreign companies.

 

Required Minimum Distributions

Normally, you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from qualified retirement plans and traditional IRAs after reaching age 72 (70½ for taxpayers affected prior to 2020). The amount of the RMD is based on IRS life-expectancy tables and your account balance at the end of last year. If you do not meet this obligation, you owe a tax penalty equal to 50% of the required amount (less any amount you have received) on top of your regular tax liability.

The CARES Act suspended the RMD rules for 2020 — but for 2020 only. The RMD rules are reinstated for this year.

As a general rule, you may arrange to receive the minimum amount required, so you can continue to maximize tax-deferred growth within your accounts. However, you may decide to take larger distributions — or even the full balance of the account — if that suits your needs.

TIP: The IRS has revised the tables for 2022 to reflect longer life expectancies. This will result in smaller RMDs in the future.

 

Net Investment Income Tax

Moderate- to high-income investors should be aware of an add-on 3.8% tax that applies to the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the amount by which MAGI for the year exceeds $200,000 for single filers or $250,000 for joint filers. (These thresholds are not indexed for inflation.) The definition of NII includes interest, dividends, capital gains, and income from passive activities, but not Social Security benefits, tax-exempt interest, and distributions from qualified retirement plans and IRAs.

ACTION: After a careful analysis, estimate both your NII and MAGI for 2021. Depending on the results, you may be able to reduce your NII tax liability or avoid it altogether.

For example, you might invest in municipal bonds (‘munis’). The interest income generated by munis does not count as NII, nor is it included in the calculation of MAGI. Similarly, if you turn a passive activity into an active business, the resulting income may be exempt from the NII tax. Caution: these rules are complex, so obtain professional assistance.

TIP: When you add the NII tax to your regular tax plus any applicable state income tax, the overall tax rate may approach or even exceed 50%. Factor this into your investment decisions.

 

Section 1031 Exchanges

Beginning in 2018, the TCJA generally eliminated the tax-deferral break for most Section 1031 exchanges of like-kind properties. However, it preserved this tax-saving technique for swaps involving investment or business real estate. Therefore, you can still exchange qualified real-estate properties in 2021 without paying current tax, except to the extent you receive ‘boot’ (e.g., cash or a reduction in mortgage liability).

ACTION: Make sure you meet the following two timing requirements to qualify for a tax-deferred Section 1031 exchange:

• Identify or actually receive the replacement property within 45 days of transferring legal ownership of the relinquished property; and

• Have the title to the replacement property transferred to you within the earlier of 180 days or your 2021 tax-return due date, plus extensions.

TIP: Proposed legislation would eliminate the tax break for real estate. If this technique appeals to you, start negotiations that can be completed before the end of the year.

 

Estate and Gift Taxes

Going back to the turn of the century, Congress has gradually increased the federal estate-tax exemption, while establishing a top estate-tax rate of 40%. At one point, the estate tax was repealed — but for 2010 only — while the unified estate- and gift-tax exemption was severed and then subsequently reunified.

Finally, the TCJA doubled the exemption from $5 million to $10 million for 2018 through 2025, with inflation indexing. The exemption is $11.7 million in 2021.

ACTION: Develop a comprehensive estate plan. Generally, this will involve various techniques, including trusts, that maximize the benefits of the estate- and gift-tax exemption.

Furthermore, you can give gifts to family members that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion. For 2021, there is no gift-tax liability on gifts of up to $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 for a joint gift by a married couple). This reduces the size of your taxable estate.

TIP: You may ‘double up’ by giving gifts in both December and January that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion for 2021 and 2022, respectively.

 

Miscellaneous

• Contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) in 2021 ($26,000 if you are age 50 or older). If you clear the 2021 Social Security wage base of $142,800 and promptly allocate the payroll-tax savings to a 401(k), you can increase your deferral without any further reduction in your take-home pay.

• Sell real estate on an installment basis. For payments over two years or more, you can defer tax on a portion of the sales price. Also, this may effectively reduce your overall tax liability.

• Weigh the benefits of a Roth IRA conversion, especially if this will be a low-tax year. Although the conversion is subject to current tax, you generally can receive tax-free distributions in retirement, unlike taxable distributions from a traditional IRA.

• Consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). If you are age 70½ or older, you can transfer up to $100,000 of IRA funds directly to a charity. Although the contribution is not deductible, the QCD is exempt from tax. This may improve your overall tax picture.

 

Conclusion

This year-end tax-planning article is based on the prevailing federal tax laws, rules, and regulations. Of course, it is subject to change, especially if additional tax legislation is enacted by Congress before the end of the year.

Finally, remember that this article is intended to serve only as a general guideline. Your personal circumstances will likely require careful examination.

 

Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST is a partner at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

William Rosenblum

William Rosenblum says Ludlow needs to use available funds to benefit the most people and invest in the future, not just immediate needs.

This fall, two long-anticipated projects in Ludlow opened to the public, and officials say there’s more to come.

In September, the Harris Brook Elementary School on Fuller Street opened for full classes for students in grades 2-5. And in early November, the new Ludlow Senior Center officially opened on State Street. Board of Selectmen Chairman William Rosenblum said that, while Ludlow is already a desirable community, the new school and senior center make it even more so.

“We’ve addressed the bookends of our lives by investing in our children and our seniors,” Rosenblum told BusinessWest, adding that next up for this community is determining the best ways to spend $6.3 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Rosenblum said the Board of Selectmen is asking for input from town department heads and Ludlow citizens on how to spend the funds in a way that will benefit the most people in the community and act as investments for the future.

“It’s like the quote from Star Trek — ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’” he said, citing a line credited to Mr. Spock.

Rosenblum added that using the funds to make improvements and updates to existing facilities will take priority over embarking on new projects.

“For example, we’ll be upgrading the HVAC system at the safety complex,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done, and we will most likely use ARPA funds for it.”

Ludlow Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the guidelines in spending ARPA money focus on helping public health departments and businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. They also allow towns to address recreational areas such as community centers and parks.

“This might be an opportunity to upgrade some of the existing facilities in our parks,” he added.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town. It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Another type of project allowed by ARPA involves investments in broadband. Rosenblum said he’d like the town to explore a fiber-optic installation in Ludlow, an idea that was inspired by his work-from-home experience. During the pandemic, while he stayed connected to work through the internet, his two children also attended school online, which severely taxed his home internet capabilities.

“I learned the 19 IP addresses that were in my house, so I could shut down different devices in order to get better internet reception,” he said.

Rosenblum acknowledges that, while fiber optics certainly fits the Star Trek criteria in benefiting many people, such a move requires considerable research to see if it’s even remotely affordable for the town.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at ARPA options and other pressing matters in Ludlow, a community that has seen considerable residential growth in recent years and is now seeing business growth as well.

 

At a Crossroads

According to Rosenblum, home sales remain brisk, largely because interest rates have stayed low. Meanwhile, over the past two years, home prices in Ludlow have increased 30%, with the average list price topping out at $376,000.

While some residents are concerned about the tax rate, he pointed out that increasing home values are what leads to higher tax bills.

“When you look at tax rates in communities across Massachusetts, Ludlow is right in the middle,” he noted.

Stefancik added that some of the larger McMansion-type homes in town bring in more than $10,000 a year in taxes.

“While that may seem high, taxpayers are getting a new school and a new senior center, which are both good things for the community,” he said. “The new school might even convince a family to move here.”

As Stefancik reviewed the many activities happening through his department with BusinessWest, one interesting trend stood out. Last year, 17 homeowners applied for special permits for home-based businesses, a high-water mark for the community.

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard. The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

While it would be easy to assume the pandemic sparked this increase in home-based business permits, Stefancik said it’s a trend that actually started before COVID arrived.

“The permits range from electricians and carpenters to artists and consultants,” he noted. “Back when I started in the job, these requests might occasionally trickle in, but now it’s our most common special permit.”

This trend was certainly in evidence back in October when the Ludlow Cultural Commission held a Community Market event at Memorial Park. Grace Barone, executive director for the East of the River Chamber, an event sponsor, was impressed with the community support and the number of home-based businesses represented at the market.

Doug Stefancik

Doug Stefancik says home values have soared in Ludlow, and so has the prevalence of home-based businesses.

“I saw some wonderful business ideas, and the community market provided a great showcase for them,” Barone said. “It would not be a surprise to see some of these vendors become future storefronts in town.”

The original idea for a community market was to bring together small businesses, artists, and community organizations, according to Michelle Goncalves, chair of the Ludlow Cultural Commission. Because the pandemic’s impact hurt many small businesses, especially those in arts and culture, the event’s focus shifted to become an occasion to support these entities.

For a first-year event, Goncalves was surprised to see nearly 40 vendors reserve space. She speculated that most of the smaller vendors were home-based businesses.

“In addition to businesses that have storefronts, I would guess that many of our vendors were based at home,” she said. “For example, we had a person who makes wreaths, a photographer who uses his home for a studio, one person who sells essential oils, and another who makes charcuterie boards.”

Planning has begun to bring the community market back next fall. “We definitely want to do this again,” Goncalves said.

While the population of Ludlow has remained fairly steady over the last several years, Rosenblum noted the town is seemingly growing based on the increased activity that happens there.

“Folks in Chicopee like to say they are the crossroads of New England,” Rosenblum said. “Well, Ludlow is the crossroads of about four or five towns, too.” Indeed, from the Ludlow exit on the Mass Pike, travelers head to Granby, South Hadley, Belchertown, Palmer, Indian Orchard, Wilbraham, and other communities.

The busy Ludlow exit from the turnpike feeds into Center Street, which is part of Route 21. Even after the state completed a comprehensive upgrade of the roadway last year, traffic has never been busier.

“I think we got used to traffic during the pandemic, which was very light because people weren’t commuting to work,” Stefancik said. “Now there’s traffic all week, and it’s still busy on the weekends.”

Don’t expect traffic to lessen anytime soon because Ludlow continues to invest in its future. In 2017, town officials working with Westmass Area Development Corp. and Winn Development transformed one of the old mill buildings in the sprawling Ludlow Mills complex into Residences at Mill 10, providing 75 units of age-55-plus, mixed-income housing. In 2022, construction begins on Mill 8, the mill building with its iconic clock tower. Once complete, that project will bring an additional 95 units of senior housing to Ludlow. Town officials offered high praise both for what’s been done so far and the potential for the entire area.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town,” Stefancik said. “It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Rosenblum concurred, adding that “the mills are a long-term investment for Ludlow, and we enjoy a great partnership with the developers.”

Like Mill 10, Mill 8 will also offer mixed-income housing. Considering the mills, the new single-family houses being built, and the condominiums that exist and are under construction, Stefancik said, Ludlow gives potential residents many options on where to live.

“Looking forward,” he added, “we’re a community that can offer a wide range of housing and provide a great place to live and do business.”

 

 

Right Place, Right Time

As a selectman, Rosenblum enjoys his involvement in projects that make a positive impact on Ludlow, and he believes local politics is “where it’s at.”

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard,” he said. “The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

Mr. Spock couldn’t have said it better.

Accounting and Tax Planning

Dollars and Sense

By Jim Moran, CPA

 

With 2021 drawing to a close, it is time for business owners to start thinking about year-end tax-planning opportunities to minimize 2021 taxable income and mitigate the impact of taxes prior to the start of the new year.

Planners are once again faced with the fact that tax reform is still unclear. Congress continues to debate President Biden’s Building Back Better legislation, and revenue raisers are still thinking carefully about how to fund this legislation.

This bill contains numerous tax provisions, but with a divided Congress, it is not known which provisions will end up in the final version. A prudent strategy would be to do year-end tax planning based on the status quo but be flexible based on any last-minute year-end legislation.

Jim Moran

Jim Moran

“A prudent strategy would be to do year-end tax planning based on the status quo but be flexible based on any last-minute year-end legislation.”

Here are items to consider as you proceed, taking into consideration current tax law, including provisions of the recent CARES Acts passed as a result of the pandemic:

 

Standard Mileage Rate

The standard mileage rate, for those taxpayers who can use it, is $0.56 for 2021. The IRS mileage rate for 2022 will be released sometime next month.

 

Meals and Entertainment

The CARES Act allows a 100% deduction in 2021 and 2022 for meals purchased from a restaurant. These meals must continue to meet the “ordinary and necessary” business requirements. Entertainment, amusement, and recreation-type events continue to remain 100% non-deductible.

 

Code Section 179 Expensing and Depreciation

The Code Section 179 expense deduction is $1,050,000 for 2021 with a total investment limitation of $2,620,000. Also, 100% bonus depreciation remains in effect in 2021 and 2022. After 2022, the bonus depreciation amount decreases by 20% each year until bonus depreciation is no longer allowed (beginning in 2027).

 

Corporate Limit Increased to 25% of Taxable Income

The COVID relief bills raised the limit to 25% of taxable income through 2021 for cash contributions to eligible charities. The increased deduction does not automatically apply. C-corporations must elect the increased limit on a contribution-by-contribution basis.

 

Increased Limits for Donated Food Inventory

Businesses that contribute food inventory for the care of the “ill, needy, or infants” get an enhanced deduction in 2021. The previous deduction limit was 15% of the taxpayer’s aggregate net income or taxable income. For 2021, business taxpayers may deduct contributions of up to 25% of their aggregate net income or taxable income.

For C-corporations, the 25% limit is based on their taxable income. For other businesses, including sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations, the limit is based on their aggregate net income for the year from the businesses from which the contributions are made.

 

Paycheck Protection Program

If your business had a PPP loan forgiven during 2021, the amount forgiven should be reported as debt-forgiveness income on your income statement. As a reminder, PPP loan forgiveness income is non-taxable federally.

Principal and interest payments on loan payments made by the SBA established by the CARES Act and revised by the Economic Aid Act are not taxable for federal income-tax purposes. The SBA is authorized to automatically pay up to six months of principal and interest.

 

Net Operating Losses

Generally, net operating losses (NOL) arising in 2021 or later cannot be carried back and must be carried forward indefinitely.

Net operating losses arising in tax years 2018 through 2020 can be caried back five years and then carried forward indefinitely. The NOL carryforwards beginning in 2018 can offset only 80% of taxable income for taxable years beginning in 2021.

NOL carryforwards arising in taxable years prior to 2018 can first offset 100% of 2021 taxable income. If all pre-2018 NOLs are used in 2021 and taxable income remains, any NOL carryovers from 2018-20 can offset only 80% of any remaining taxable income.

 

Bonuses

With the current improvement in the economy, and employees being harder to find and retain, a net-income-reduction measure (in turn tax reduction), businesses should consider bonuses for employees, whether through incentives or through setting work goals. Bonuses should also be contingent on cash flows and the current net income of the company.

For bonuses paid to a controlling shareholder (an individual who owns directly or indirectly greater than 50% of the value of a corporation’s stock), the bonus is considered paid in the year the controlling shareholder reports the income. Thus, in order to deduct the controlling shareholder’s 2021 bonus, it must be paid to the shareholder prior to the end of 2021.

Bonuses subject to a contingency cannot be accrued in 2021 and paid in 2022 even if paid within two and a half months of year-end. Therefore, if employees cannot receive their deferred bonuses for performance in 2021 unless they are still employed in the year 2022 bonus payment date, the company’s liability for the bonus is subject to a contingency and cannot be deducted for tax purposes in 2021, even if paid within two and a half months of year-end.

Similarly, the IRS has held that bonuses are not fixed in the year of service when the amount of individual awards are finalized but revert back to the company if an employee left before receiving the bonus, even though the forfeited amounts could be considered insignificant.

IRS rulings provide that an employer can establish the liability under the first prong of the all-events test for bonuses payable to a group of employees even though the employer does not know the identity of any particular bonus recipient, or the amount payable to that recipient, until after the end of the tax year if the amount of bonuses payable under the program is determinable through a formula that was fixed prior to the end of the year, or through other corporate action that fixed the amount payable to the employees as a group.

Any bonus amount allocable to an employee who was not employed on the date on which bonuses were paid and was reallocated among the other eligible employees and did not revert back to the company is deductible up to the amounts paid within two and a half months of year-end.

 

Bottom Line

Having a well-thought-out tax-planning strategy for year-end is an important part of business decision-making processes. Contact your CPA to help you develop a plan specific to your goals and needs.

 

Jim Moran, CPA is an accountant in the Greenfield office of Melanson; (413) 773-5405.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

It’s a classic small-town balancing act. As Monson leaders look forward to new infrastructure and energy projects, many residents also want to maintain a small-town feel.

But progress is important, Town Administrator Jennifer Wolowicz says. With the town about to receive $1.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and a team at Town Hall looking at ways to use those funds, she favors infrastructure projects because she believes they offer the best return on investment.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers,” Wolowicz said, adding that she is grateful the town has until 2026 to spend the ARPA funds. “That timetable allows us to be thoughtful in how we use the money.”

In April, Wolowicz was appointed full-time Town Administrator after working in the position since February in an interim capacity. When she first came on board, Town Hall was closed to the public due to COVID-19 mandates while the staff inside were busy trying to figure out how to provide the services residents needed. Some town business moved online, but many residents prefer to pay their bills in person, so Wolowicz and her staff installed drop boxes and even offered some outdoor service.

“With a little education and reassurance, we helped people figure out different ways to get business done,” she said.

These days, Town Hall is fully open. The Monson Select Board has relaxed mask mandates in general, but they are still required in schools. Wolowicz pointed out that COVID numbers have been trending lower than in the past, and currently, 56% of residents have been vaccinated.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers.”

Meanwhile, back in January, Andrew Surprise became the new CEO of the Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, which covers 15 towns in the region, including Monson. Surprise admits that, in the past, the chamber had been losing touch with local communities. To address that, he has begun reaching out to Monson businesses to establish a business civic association (BCA).

“The idea is to form a business community in Monson,” Surprise said. “With local people concentrating on the issues that are important to their business and community, it helps the chamber to better focus on ways they can help.”

Upon joining Quabaog Hills, Surprise noticed the chamber did not have strong contacts with local officials at the town or state level.

“As a former city councilor [in Westfield], I’ve seen how important it is for the chamber to have these relationships,” he said. “By connecting businesses and local officials, we can offer better value to everyone involved.”

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, is on a mission to introduce himself to businesses in Monson.

Coordinating efforts is already paying off. Surprise began working with Wolowicz on the idea of a BCA while the town was in the process of seeking a Rapid Recovery grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Knowing that Monson was looking to have a business organization focused on its needs, the PVPC advised Surprise and Wolowicz to make it a joint request. Surprise said the BCA will be formed no matter what, but a grant makes a more robust effort possible.

“The grant would allow a much more expansive implementation and enable us to speed up the building of the BCA,” Surprise said. “Also, the grant makes it possible for the chamber to hire a person dedicated to establishing and recruiting for BCAs in both Monson and Belchertown.”

 

Main Concerns

Much of Monson’s business community can be found right in the heart of town, so BusinessWest asked three Main Street business owners about the idea of a business civic association.

Nissa Lempart, owner of Monson Optical, said the BCA is a good idea if the goal is to reach more people outside of town. “My customers already know where we are, and they tend to keep their business in Monson.”

Richard Green, who owns Richard R. Green Insurance Agency, said that, in his experience, many people tend not to do business in town, so he believes a BCA would be a big plus for Monson.

“It would be a way for local businesses to interact more with the community while benefiting each business and the community at large,” he noted. “I think it would be fantastic.”

Bill Belanger, who has owned Belanger Jewelers for more than 30 years, called Monson a wonderful community, and he’s open to the town taking a different approach to business.

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking.”

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking,” he explained.

Part of that new thinking would allow larger franchises to do business in Monson. In 2020, residents staged a vocal rejection when Dollar General proposed a location in town.

“Dollar General might not have been the right fit for our town,” Belanger said. “But there are many other types of national businesses that would work well here.”

One example of Monson welcoming new thinking involves a 26,000-square-foot building on Route 32 where Holistic Industries runs a cannabis growing facility.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,560
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.12
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.12
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Wolowicz noted that Holistic represents a large tax base for Monson, as the town received $500,000 in tax revenues from the company in June. Holistic-grown products are sold by Liberty Cannabis retail stores in Springfield, Somerville, and Easthampton. “COVID was good for cannabis sales,” she noted.

In terms of seeking other growth for the town, Wolowicz said discussions are taking place with developers about reusing some of the older mills in town. There is also activity at the former site of the state-owned Monson Developmental Center, where several buildings are being taken down. She said some residents have questioned why the town isn’t involved in redevelopment of this parcel.

“These folks don’t understand this is state property and the cleanup is their project,” she noted. “Their plan is to bring it back to green space and hopefully give the land back to the town at some point.”

For the last year and a half Monson, has been making energy-saving improvements to schools and municipal buildings. Part of the project involves converting the current street lights to LED fixtures.

“Even Town Hall, which was built in 2014, will be getting new lighting because that’s how fast technology has changed,” Wolowicz said.

The town also works with neighboring communities on wider-ranging projects. For example, Monson has signed an agreement with Palmer and Ware to convert the town dog pound into a regional animal-control facility for use by the three communities. That project is expected to take place next year.

 

Steady On

That’s a fair amount of activity for a town whose Main Street has no traffic signals.

“There are many folks in town who are passionate about keeping it that way,” Wolowicz said, adding that she favors controlled development to keep Monson a vital community.

Belanger expressed a similar sentiment. “Encouraging more business is a way for the community to advance without losing what makes it special.”

While Monson keeps its small-town feel, there is no shortage of new business proposals landing on Wolowicz’s desk.

“We many not be a booming metropolis,” she said, “but we still have opportunities to pursue controlled development.”

Health Care

Shot in the Arm

Following updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Baker-Polito administration has outlined how families in Massachusetts can access Pfizer COVID-19 pediatric vaccines for children ages 5 to 11.

Children will be able to receive the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine from more than 500 locations, including retail pharmacies, primary-care practices, regional collaboratives, local boards of health, community health centers, hospital systems, state-supported vaccination sites, and mobile clinics. Some appointments are available now for booking, with additional locations and appointments expected to come online in the coming days.

“Pediatricians and parents should be very excited about the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11,” said Dr. John O’Reilly, chief of General Pediatrics at Baystate Children’s Hospital. “Some parents may be reluctant to have their children in this age group vaccinated, but if a day of soreness can get your child safely back to playing with friends and visiting relatives, then the benefits clearly outweigh the discomfort.”

As a pediatrician, O’Reilly said he had been hoping for this approval for months.

“Some parents may be reluctant to have their children in this age group vaccinated, but if a day of soreness can get your child safely back to playing with friends and visiting relatives, then the benefits clearly outweigh the discomfort.”

“I was very glad that the FDA took the time to be sure that the vaccine was safe and effective for children in this age group before it was approved,” he added. “Clinical trials of over 3,000 children who received the vaccine found it produced protective levels of antibodies with only mild reactions to the shot, such as pain at the injection site, fatigue, and headache.”

He understands that some parents might have safety concerns, but noted that much misinformation has been spread about the development of the mRNA vaccines, especially considering how fast the COVID vaccines were rolled out. The truth, he noted, is that scientists have been working on the development of mRNA vaccines for decades. The basic scientific advances in gene sequencing and gene modeling allowed companies to quickly adapt mRNA technology to the COVID-19 virus.

“Vaccine development is very expensive, and companies developing other vaccines would be slower in developing them because of the cost,” he explained. “Operation Warp Speed gave companies billions of dollars in support and guaranteed purchases, allowing companies to use those funds to quickly ramp up clinical trials and manufacturing. The trials themselves followed the highest standards of research, and the FDA has reviewed all of the trial data to be sure that the COVID- 19 vaccines are safe and effective.”

O’Reilly noted that children infected with COVID-19 tend to experience mild symptoms, but for some, it can be more serious. Since the pandemic began, about 1.9 million children ages 5 to 11 have been infected, about 9% of all U.S. cases. More than 8,300 in this age group have been hospitalized, with about one-third requiring ICU care, and 94 have died, according to federal data. Children ages 5 to 11 who are black, Native American, or Hispanic are three times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than white children.

Also, several thousand children infected with the virus have developed severe cases of inflammation throughout their bodies known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome, while others are reporting long COVID symptoms similar to adults, such as headache, cough, fatigue, and more.

“Parents who vaccinate their children not only protect them, but they also protect everyone their children come in contact with,” O’Reilly said. “In school, it protects vulnerable classmates and adult staff whose medical conditions put them at risk for severe COVID-19. It also protects family members and makes visiting at-risk family members at the holidays safer for everyone. Vaccinating our kids also helps to protect our communities. The higher our community immunization rates, the lower the risk of COVID-19 rapidly spreading through our at-risk community members.”

Parents who prefer to have their child vaccinated by their primary-care provider should call their provider’s office directly. Others may visit the VaxFinder tool at vaxfinder.mass.gov for a full list of hundreds of available locations. Residents will be able to narrow results to search for locations that are offering the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, with some appointments available now for booking. Additional appointments will be available online in the coming days. Many locations will be booking appointments out weeks in advance.

“Parents who vaccinate their children not only protect them, but they also protect everyone their children come in contact with.”

For individuals who are unable to use VaxFinder, or have difficulty accessing the internet, the COVID-19 Vaccine Resource Line (Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is available by calling 211. The COVID-19 Vaccine Resource Line is available in English and Spanish and has translators available in approximately 100 additional languages.

All state-supported vaccination clinics will offer low-sensory vaccinations for children with disabilities.

Additionally, the administration has partnered with several non-traditional, youth-friendly locations for pediatric vaccination clinics, including the Discovery Museum in Acton, the Museum of Science in Boston, the Springfield Museums, and the EcoTarium in Worcester. Appointments for these clinics are available now on the VaxFinder tool. Visit www.mass.gov/covidvaccinekids for more information.

While infection rates have been trending down from an early-fall spike, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 1,586 new, confirmed COVID cases in the state on Nov. 4, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to more than 800,000. Health officials said the total number of confirmed cases in the state, as of that date, was 801,567.

The DPH also reported 23 additional COVID deaths in the state, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths since the start of the pandemic to 18,671. As of Nov. 4, there were 509 people hospitalized for a coronavirus-related illness, including 147 in intensive care.

State health officials say getting vaccinated remains the most important thing individuals can do to protect themselves, their families, and their community. Individuals do not need an ID or health insurance to access a vaccine and do not need to show a vaccine card when getting a vaccine.

Massachusetts leads the nation in vaccine administration, including adolescent vaccination, with more than 80% of youth ages 12-17 having received at least one dose. More than 4.7 million individuals in the Bay State are fully vaccinated, with more than 92% of all adults having at least one dose.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for parents to make the right decision to vaccinate their children,” O’Reilly said. “It can be life-saving for your child and further protect those in your household as well as the community from this terrible disease that spares no one. I am looking forward to a holiday season when kids are fully vaccinated and we can all gather with friends and family to celebrate being together without fear of COVID.” u

Law

The Answer Is No — But That Might Be Changing

By Mary Bonzagni

 

The term artificial intelligence (AI) is used to describe a machine’s ability to ‘think’ or carry out tasks that were once said to require human intelligence. Tasks such as learning, logic, reasoning, perception, and, yes, creativity are now being performed by machines used in every industry.

In fact, AI now forms a part of our everyday lives, from AI-powered search engines, spell checkers, and spam filters to self-driving cars to music-streaming services that use AI to assess your listening habits — with each advance making our lives easier for years to come.

In fact, AI looks like a revolutionary force that drives innovation — but can AI invent?

At least for now, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has provided us with an answer to this question — a categorical ‘no.’ The USPTO has held that the statutory language of the U.S. Code clearly defines ‘inventor’ and ‘joint inventor’ as natural persons. Further, the USPTO points out that the purpose of U.S. patent laws is to encourage invention by providing inventors with a limited term of exclusionary rights. The prospect of holding a patent would not motivate an AI — at least not yet.

Mary Bonzagni

Mary Bonzagni

“We are now at a crossroads, and staying the course is not the answer. Patents motivate people who develop, own, and use AI — uncertainty does not.”

In a similar vein, the relevant patent laws of the European Union and the United Kingdom are also said to require a human inventor.

But has the tide begun to turn? Perhaps.

The South African Patent Office and an Australian federal judge recently moved to clear the path for such inventions. The South African Patent Office now holds the noteworthy distinction of being the first patent office in the world to grant a patent listing to an inventor that is not a human being. The patent relates to a “food container based on fractal geometry,” and the sole inventor is an AI system called DABUS.

Within two days of this patent grant, Judge Jonathan Beach of Melbourne ruled that there was no reason why Stephen Thaler, the researcher who developed DABUS, could not protect inventions that list the machine as their sole inventor.

But will the U.S. and other countries around the world follow suit, or will they again turn down the idea of non-human inventors? For now, the answer to this question is unclear.

During this period of uncertainty, how does one go about protecting AI-generated inventions in the U.S. using patents, who should be listed as an inventor on U.S. patent applications for such inventions, and who owns these inventions and related patents? For now, the answer to these questions is also unclear.

The most likely inventor candidate(s) appears to be the person or people who developed the machine that simulates human-intelligence processes (i.e., the developers who made the machine that supplies analysis, triggers events based on findings, parses data contextually to provide the requested information, etc.). That same person(s) or their employer(s) would own the invention and related patent.

But are U.S. patents for AI inventions that list the wrong inventors valid and enforceable? The claim of patent inventorship is of fundamental importance to the validity of a U.S. patent. In fact, failure to name an inventor or naming an incorrect inventor can invalidate a patent.

So, as AI becomes more and more a significant part of U.S. companies’ research and development efforts, these are questions that need to be asked and answered. These companies, as well as individuals, need clarification, which likely will first require a reform of the U.S. patent laws. It appears to be up to the judicial system or, more likely, legislators to provide us with the necessary clarification and/or reform.

We are now at a crossroads, and staying the course is not the answer. Patents motivate people who develop, own, and use AI — uncertainty does not. Allowing patents on AI-generated inventions will promote the development of inventive AI, which will ultimately benefit society with more innovation.

 

Mary Bonzagni is a patent attorney and co-chair of Bulkley Richardson’s Intellectual Property and Technology practice group; (413) 272-6200.

Opinion

Opinion

By Allison Ebner

 

I read an article recently about Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, who started the business with about $5,000. The recent acquisition of Spanx by Blackstone now positions the company’s value at about $1.2 billion — a staggering transformation. To reward her employees for helping her create this amazing company, Blakely gave each of her 500 employees two first-class airline tickets to a destination of their choice and $10,000 in spending money for their trip.

So how did a woman with barely any means accomplish this phenomenal business venture? There are quite a few strategies and decisions that contributed to her success, but one of the biggest things that stood out to me was the message I saw on the careers page on its website. Here it is, in part:

“We are a high-growth, digital company with an iconic brand that earned its reputation for over 20 years by delivering amazing products and staying true to our greater mission of supporting and elevating women. We don’t believe ‘pain is beauty,’ and we don’t believe ‘business is war.’ We run our business with kindness, empathy, intuition, creativity, integrity … and fun. We don’t believe you have to act serious to be taken seriously. We dream big, think forward, and give back. We challenge the status quo, aim high, and celebrate our ‘oops’ moments. We test and learn and we aren’t afraid of failure. We think like entrepreneurs in everything we do, and we look for people who are self-starters, kind, creative, and out-of-the box-thinkers. If this sounds like you, join us! And help us make the world a better place … one butt at a time.”

Spanx has an excellent track record of being an employer of choice with great retention numbers and pathways for advancement across the organization. So, what helps them drive a robust and engaging company culture? They follow some of the same principles that many other successful organizations employ to create a great employee experience:

• Build trust. In fact, start with trust and go from there. Don’t make new employees earn trust. Start from a place where they have your trust, and manage the relationship from there.

• Empower your employees to make decisions. Don’t create a culture of micromanaging. Allow team members to make decisions, collaborate, and generate new ideas.

• Set clear, transparent goals. Your employees need to know the big picture and their role in that path to success. Work with them to set clear goals and expectations. Train your managers to have coaching conversations regularly, not just once a year at their annual performance review. Set goals, coach, redirect, and repeat.

• Show appreciation — especially now. If your company has successfully navigated this pandemic, at least some of that success is due to the work and dedication of your staff. Be sure to say ‘thank you’ and celebrate the wins with your entire team.

• Invest in their well-being. A paycheck is great, but you have to do more. Take a genuine interest in your people. Offer wellness resources and train managers and leaders to show empathy with accountability.

• Allow freedom to make mistakes. Don’t punish the team for failures. Bold moves lead to big successes. If your team is afraid of making mistakes, you’ll miss the big moments of greatness.

Not sure where your company stands on the journey to create a thriving company culture? That’s OK. Grab your leadership team and review the key elements of a successful strategy listed above. You may also want to consider asking your employees for their feedback through an employee-engagement survey. Whether your company is trying to improve communication between individuals and teams, gauge morale after a merger or downsizing, or obtain feedback on programs and policies, a customized employee-engagement survey gathers employee feedback via a core set of questions, options for narrative responses, and special areas of focus. Results typically come with a detailed analysis of results, management debriefs, and a clear action plan that will help you address some of your biggest areas for improvement.

 

Allison Ebner is director of member services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast; [email protected] This article first appeared on EANE’s blog.

Employment Special Coverage

Coping with the ‘Great Resignation’

By Sarah Rose Stack

 

You’ve just woken up. As you sip your morning coffee, you open your e-mail and give it a quick glance. Wedged in between your work and personal mail, you have several e-mails with the subject line ‘We’re Hiring’ or ‘Join Our Team.’ You switch over to social media and see that your neighbor just announced she’s left her place of employment for a new opportunity. There are few more posts from friends who are frustrated with their employers’ lack of communication or insistence on returning to the office.

How many ‘We’re Hiring’ signs have you seen or talked about today?

There has been much discussion about the current hiring crisis, and while many thought that this would be resolved once Pandemic Unemployment Assistance ended, that has not been the case. In fact, the Bureau of Labor (BOL) recorded the highest number of people who quit their jobs in August 2021, with 2.9% of people quitting (4.3 million people). This is the highest number of quits since the BOL started recording this data in 2000. Probably even more concerning is that August was the sixth consecutive month of massive quitting numbers.

Coined the ‘Great Resignation’ by Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M, people are leaving their jobs at record-breaking rates as the pandemic is waning. This is only expected to be amplified as 2021 comes to an end and people reflect on what they want in life. Employees are demanding more from their current and potential employers. Companies should be very careful to pay attention to the change in dynamics if they want to retain or attract new talent to their workforces.

“Employees are demanding more from their current and potential employers. Companies should be very careful to pay attention to the change in dynamics if they want to retain or attract new talent to their workforces.”

As part of my position at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, I assist clients with finding new talent, such as controllers, accountants, HR, marketing, and other administrative professionals, for their organizations. Prior to the pandemic, I would see 50 to 100 applications from people in Western Mass. applying for every posted job opportunity. That number has drastically declined, the geographical representation has widened, and the questions and concerns from potential employees have also significantly changed.

So, what are employees expressing that they want? Here’s a hint: it’s not just about salary. People had a lot of time to reflect during the pandemic about what work means to them and what role they want their careers to play in their overall lives.

 

Work-life Balance

Prior to the pandemic, Americans were obsessed with ‘hustle culture.’ People were happy to rise and grind and wear their burnout like a badge of honor. Perhaps people were too distracted working around the clock to ever consider what they truly wanted. You’ve probably noticed the shift in sentiment in social media from #hustle to the idea that inner peace is the new success.

Working through the pandemic came with its own unique set of stresses. Some workers had to compensate for poorly staffed jobs, while others lost a feeling of security at their jobs, causing them to work even harder to show their value. Indeed recently posted a study that surveyed 1,500 employees about burnout, and a shocking 80% of people said the pandemic made the burnout worse.

As a result, potential employees have been asking:

• What is your company’s view on work/life balance?

• Does management regularly e-mail or call after hours or on weekends?

• Is the schedule flexible if I have a family event or event for my child?

• Do people actually take their paid time off?

According to PR Newswire, “poor work-life balance tops the list of job-seeker deal breakers, ranking above other immediate turnoffs, including lower salary (50%) and a company’s decreasing profits and lack of stability (48%)”.

 

Flexibility and Remote Work

Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work. Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change.

Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.

It isn’t all hypothetical, either. Stanford conducted a study of 16,000 remote workers over a period of nine months and showed that productivity increased by 13%. Further, with more workers reporting they were happier working from home, attrition rates were cut by 50%.

Time is the only non-renewable commodity, so when employers are demanding that their people return to in-person work, employees are asking themselves, “at what cost?” The most-asked question I have received from potential employees over the last year is: “can this position be done fully or partially remote?” If the answer was no, most candidates politely declined to continue in the application process, presumably in favor of remote opportunities.

I would also attribute the increase of applicants from other regions to the normalization of remote work. I’ve seen applications from all over the country because most people in professional positions are now of the mindset that they can work for anyone, from anywhere.

 

Company Culture and Shared Values

At its core, company culture is its identity. It’s how the company’s values, attitude, approach, and ideals dictate the inner workings of the organization. Generally, this is set and modeled by the leadership and then mirrored by the people within the organization, driving the way the company does everything.

Companies with attractive corporate culture actively value their people in ways that are both tangible and intangible. They may have perks such as food, drink, cocktail hours, paid time off, tuition reimbursement, and professional-development opportunities. More than that, they will also have a solid mentorship program, encourage open communication, speak to each other with respect, and show clear indicators that the work and growth of their people are valued.

As part of corporate culture, shared values are another important consideration for many job seekers today. Whether they are directly impacted by certain causes or not, they are looking to work for companies who have values that align with their own. Employers need to understand that potential employees are doing as much vetting and interviewing of the organization as the organization is doing of them.

Employees want to know what your company culture is like and what your values are. They are asking direct questions such as:

• What is the company’s leadership like?

• Describe the company’s culture.

• Does your company have a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program?

• How does your company implement its DEI statement?

• How involved is your company in the community?

• How does your company handle discourse among employees?

 

Pandemic Protocols in General

While we all have pandemic fatigue and want the pandemic to be over, there are still so many open issues that need to be faced head-on. Potential employees are very concerned with how companies handle current guidelines regarding masking, social distancing, quarantine, and vaccination.

This would be simple if everyone had the same passionate stance on the subject, but they don’t. Employees tend to be divided into three camps: Those who wants the strictest protocols in place, those who prefer more lax protocols, and those who are indifferent and will simply follow whatever protocols are set. Regardless of which camp your organization falls into, companies should be aware that their response to these questions will either encourage or deter certain prospects from continuing with the interview process.

I’ve found that most candidates were generally satisfied to hear that the organization is simply following the current federal, state, and municipal guidelines. In addition to the actual protocols, candidates have been very concerned with how those protocols are communicated. They routinely ask:

• Does the leadership communicate changes to protocols in a timely manner?

• Have they listened to employees’ questions and concerns?

• Are protocols safe, fair, and reasonable?

 

In Conclusion

We are in an employee market, and employees want the best of it all. They want work-life balance and more remote-work opportunities, but also want to feel connected with their company’s mission and their colleagues.

This may feel like an impossible balance to achieve, but I believe it can be done. People want to work, they want to feel connected, and they want their work to mean something. That’s the good news. Companies who understand these needs can take action and translate them into powerful employment opportunities that almost certainly will yield happier and more productive workers, better products and services, and stronger businesses.

 

Sarah Rose Stack is the Marketing and Recruiting manager for the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

 

Community Spotlight

Stockbridge Looks Forward, Honors Its Heritage

By Mark Morris

Town Administrator Michael Canales

Town Administrator Michael Canales says a number of municipal projects speak to Stockbridge’s progress during the pandemic.

One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a snow-covered Main Street in Stockbridge. The painting “Home for Christmas” was intended to celebrate small towns all over America, but these days, it’s nearly impossible for modern-day photographers to recreate the artist’s vision without including a constant stream of traffic.

While that might frustrate photographers, Margaret Kerswill is encouraged by all the activity she has seen this summer and into the fall.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge,” the board president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce told BusinessWest. “It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Kerswill said the pandemic encouraged business owners to find creative ways to keep people safe while maintaining their operations — and revenues. Despite the many challenges last year, they’ve largely come back strong.

“As rules and mandates kept changing, our business owners rolled with it,” she said. “It was wonderful to see everyone rise to the top of their game.”

Tri Town Health acts as a regional health department for the towns of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading, Tri Town Health imposed mask mandates for indoor common spaces.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge. It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales appreciates the agency’s work to keep the community as safe as possible. As of Oct. 15, 68% of Berkshire residents are fully vaccinated, while 78% have received at least one dose.

On the job for just over a year, Canales has not yet had the chance to lead the community in the absence of a pandemic. “It will be a little difficult for me to compare what normally happens in town because I have yet to see what normal looks like,” he noted.

Children’s Chime Tower

Repair work will begin next year on the Children’s Chime Tower, a fixture since 1878.

For now, he believes longtime residents who tell him Stockbridge is starting to look normal again. Canales himself has certainly noticed the busy summer and fall seasons, and credits that in part to the return of Tanglewood, which offered a limited schedule for audiences half the size of a normal show.

“Tanglewood is an example of one of the big events that happened as a smaller event for this year,” he said.

Despite the limited schedule, Kerswill said it was important that Tanglewood held events this year. “Tanglewood is integral to the local economy. It provides so many jobs in the area and definitely brings visitors to town for dining and shopping.”

Kerswill also wanted to set the record straight for BusinessWest about “a broad misconception” that Tanglewood is located in Lenox. “The entrance is in Lenox, but nearly 85% of Tanglewood’s land is actually in Stockbridge.”

 

Change and Progress

For several years, Kerswill co-owned Mutability in Motion, a gift shop she ran with her wife, Laureen Vizza. When COVID hit, they made the decision to close the shop.

“We’re working on new endeavors, still keeping our efforts local, but in new areas,” she explained. In addition to starting a personal blog called artmeditationlife.com, Kerswill has become a licensed realtor.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy,” she said, adding that home-improvement services are also coming back strong, as evidenced by long wait times for many home projects.

In terms of municipal projects, Stockbridge added a new highway garage this past spring, though supply-chain issues caused delays in finishing it even sooner.

A current project nearing completion is the Larrywaug Bridge on Route 183. Canales expects this busy connector road will be open by the winter, with finishing touches to be completed in the spring.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy.”

Next year, repair work will begin on the Children’s Chimes Tower, a fixture in Stockbridge built in 1878. Canales said the town has approved funding to refurbish all the internal mechanisms.

“It’s a neat structure, but it needs some tender loving care,” he added. “We’re hoping to make repairs that will keep it playing for the next 50 years.”

Still relatively new in the job, Canales said it’s been exciting to learn about the rich history of Stockbridge. While people all over the world are familiar with Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the town’s mention in James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James,” there are even deeper historical references to be found which Canales said “makes it a fascinating community.”

For example, the town is working on a project to protect old-growth forests, specifically Ice Glen, a ravine in the southeast area of Stockbridge. Its name comes from the many moss-covered rocks with deep crevices that can sustain ice into the summer.

During the time he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville lived in Pittsfield and is said to have visited Ice Glen at least once. The Stockbridge ravine is referenced in the novel when narrator Ishmael describes Pupella, a seaside glen, as “a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen.”

These days, the town is exploring several options to protect the old-growth trees from insects that are causing damage in Ice Glen.

The Chamber of Commerce has joined the effort to help tourists find both famous and lesser-known sites in Stockbridge. As an ongoing project, it has developed and begun installing new signs to help direct people to the many attractions in town. Right now, they’ve been installed downtown, but the plan is to expand the green-and-white signs to more areas of the community.

“We want to help people get around outside the downtown area because there is a lot to see,” Kerswill said. “If someone is here only for a weekend, we want to make sure they can find all the attractions that interest them.”

 

Better Days

While the town navigates the various stages of the pandemic, Canales said he and many others are looking ahead.

“We are staying on top of things and keeping an eye on trends so that when we come out of this, Stockbridge will be in the best possible shape to return to normal, or as close as we can get to normal,” he noted.

Kerswill added that Stockbridge is a place that continues to amaze her.

“Whether we’re going through good times or difficult times, it’s a community that comes together to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

Employment

Facing Whistleblower Concerns

By Jeremy Saint Laurent, Esq.

 

Facebook is currently in very murky waters with both the federal government and with its users. Employers should pay attention to the multitude of issues surrounding this matter to better understand potential exposure and develop a response plan.

On Oct. 5, after leaking sensitive Facebook documents to the media and the Securities Exchange Commission, whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress. Haugen’s testimony provided the Senate subcommittee with a glimpse into how Facebook’s policies negatively impact the mental health of its users, particularly children; creates political and social discord; and undercuts democratic ideologies.

Although dealing with public and agency scrutiny is not uncharted territory for Facebook after facing similar allegations during the last two presidential elections, these newly raised allegations of misconduct appear to be especially worrisome because Haugen was a Facebook insider. Haugen was employed in a department within Facebook tasked with investigating how the platform’s algorithm spreads misinformation and how the network was being used by our nation’s foreign rivals. In short, Haugen is believable, credible, and convincing because her allegations amount to Facebook disbanding and ignoring the work of herself and her colleagues in the pursuit of financial growth.

Jeremy Saint Laurent

Jeremy Saint Laurent

“Employees who come forward to the SEC and/or government regarding perceived misconduct are often covered by federal whistleblower protections and other laws, like wrongful termination in violation of public policy.”

In a recent NPR interview, attorney Andrew Bakaj, who represents Haugen, stated that “we have made lawful, protected disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to Congress. Such disclosures are protected both by law and Facebook’s own internal policies.”

Bakaj correctly states that federal whistleblower protections afford employees and ex-employees a broad range of legal protections for alerting law enforcement, the SEC, and Congress of potential malfeasance. Typically, employers have no legal recourse if that’s the only thing a whistleblower does to report potentially incriminating information. In fact, a Facebook representative told the Senate subcommittee that the company won’t retaliate against the whistleblower for speaking to Congress.

 

Lessons Employers Should Learn from the Facebook Whistleblower Fiasco

Employees who come forward to the SEC and/or government regarding perceived misconduct are often covered by federal whistleblower protections and other laws, like wrongful termination in violation of public policy. In a 2014 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that privately owned companies, in addition to publicly traded companies, may be subject to whistleblower liability if they retaliate against an employee or former employee who reports malfeasance to the appropriate agencies.

Massachusetts, like most states, adheres to the at-will employment model. The at-will employment doctrine allows an employer or an employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, with or without cause or notice. However, in addition to federal whistleblower protections, employees are afforded additional protections under state law.

Commonly referred to as ‘wrongful discharge,’ wrongful termination in violation of public policy is a sort of catch-all, judge-made rule that prohibits employers in many states from firing an employee who opposes or refuses to participate in certain unlawful or unethical activities. In Massachusetts, an employee has a viable claim for wrongful discharge if they have a reasonable belief that they are preventing a violation of law. An employee who complains internally that his employer allegedly violated a criminal statute will, more often than not, have a claim for wrongful violation of public policy.

Employers must be conscious of when employees make complaints about possible violations of the law, and be cautious of terminating employees who refuse to conform to a company policy or engage in some action because they believe they are preventing a violation of law.

However, the tide turns when an employee takes things a step further and disseminates confidential information to the media or a competing organization. In the situation of Facebook, before Haugen resigned from Facebook, she copied thousands of pages of confidential documents and shared them with the SEC and Congress, but also with the Wall Street Journal, which in turn, authored a series of articles containing the classified information. Although sharing the information with the Journal does not make Haugen’s actions any less heroic, it may muddy the waters when it comes to what protections she is afforded under whistleblower protection and applicable state law.

Releasing information to media outlets or competing organizations can be in violation of many non-disclosure agreements entered into between the employee and employer during the onboarding process. Because most non-disclosure agreements exclude disclosure only to agencies like the SEC and Congress, employers can explore legal recourse through vehicles like breach-of-contract claims. Typically, non-disclosure agreements require employees to return or destroy confidential documents prior to or immediately after either party terminates the employment relationship. Essentially, non-compete agreements are structured to allow employees to utilize their legal right to report potentially illegal activity or policies within their company while protecting the employers’ legal rights and interest by limiting the types of disclosures allowed.

Should an employer choose to pursue a claim against an employee or former employee for exceeding the bounds of protected activities as outlined by whistleblower regulations and state laws, the employer may seek as damages any severance paid at the time of departure, private pension accrued by the former employee, stock options paid in connection to employment, and general monetary damages.

If you find yourself as an employer in a similar situation, be sure to consult with your labor employment counsel before moving forward with any employment action.

 

Jeremy Saint Laurent, Esq. is a litigation 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; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Thornton

 

Organizational leaders are ready to pull their hair out over the challenges they are fighting to recruit and retain talent today. The best recruitment strategy always includes having a strong retention plan. We know what can happen when we take our eye off the ball … ouch!

By the end of 2022, we expect more than half of all employees in the U.S. to be looking for a new job. Employers are really going to need to assess the value they bring to the reasons why their employees stay.

Gallup has provided us with the 12 most important factors that employees evaluate as they consider staying put or testing out opportunities with a new employer. They are:

• I know what is expected of me at work;

• I have the equipment I need to do my work right;

• I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day at work;

• I’ve received recognition or praise for doing good work in the last week;

• My supervisor seems to care about me as a person;

• There is someone at work that encourages my development;

• At work, my opinions seem to count;

• The mission of my organization makes me feel my job is important;

• My co-workers are committed to doing quality work;

• I have a best friend at work;

• In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress; and

• In the last year, I’ve had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

All of this comes down to our culture and level of engagement. Do you know how your employees would respond to these statements? If you aren’t sure, now is the time to find out. Here are a few ways to increase engagement with our employees:

• Encourage managers to define and discuss the expectations with each employee they supervise on a regular basis.

• Remember that employees use tangible and intangible resources to do their work well. Ask employees what would make it easier to perform their tasks. You might find out you don’t really need the fancy new software, but you do need the entire team to be trained on how to use what is already in place with consistency and efficiency.

• Encourage managers to ‘connect the dots’ with the talents and interests their employees demonstrate and even share in social conversations. Those elements of interest and excitement might be just what is missing from their job description today. Giving employees tasks that are a natural fit will increase productivity all the way around.

• Learn which employees like which types of recognition — and give it! Workplace recognition provides a sense of value and accomplishment. It also shows other employees what success in your organization looks like.

• Challenge employees, but give them the tools for success. Create learning opportunities and ask employees what they are learning as they go, and give them the opportunity to demonstrate it. Talk with them about their short-term and long-term growth goals with an open mind about where those goals align with today’s and tomorrow’s needs within your organization.

We all know that compensation and benefits are the lure that can attract someone to your organization, but it’s your culture that can keep the top talent you’ve already won. Keep the lines of communication open, and you might just find that some of the talent you have been trying to recruit is already on your payroll.

 

Pam Thornton is director of Strategic HR Services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog.

Women of Impact 2021

Owner, Indian Line Farm

She’s Continuing an Agricultural Legacy — and Cultivating Her Own

 

By Mark Morris

Elizabeth Keen’s journey to becoming a successful farmer in Western Mass. began in Mexico and Guatemala.

Shortly after graduating from Colorado College, Keen joined an effort by Witness for Peace to work with Guatemalan refugees living in the south of Mexico who were looking to return home. In the three years she spent with the Guatemalans, Keen saw how their entire subsistence was based on working and growing food. It left a lasting impression.

“I thought I would return to the states and work for a nonprofit,” she said. “But I also wanted to learn about and understand sustainable agriculture so I could someday return to Guatemala and offer a technical skill to the people looking to go back to their homeland.”

Upon her return to the U.S., friends who had accompanied Keen on the Central American trip invited her to take part in a 1,000-mile bike tour of New England as a fundraiser for an organization called the Guatemala Accompaniment Project.

During the bike tour, she reconnected with a friend who lived in Great Barrington who knew a farmer in need of apprentices. Keen committed to a year-long apprenticeship at what is known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.

Through a CSA farm, the public can support local agriculture by purchasing farm memberships. In return, members are offered a weekly bounty of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, CSAs are a way for the food-buying public to create a relationship with a farm and bring home plenty of healthy produce to boot.

“It was amazing to work with your hands and see the results of your work. The physical strain also made me feel that what I was doing was valuable.”

While she did not have previous experience with this type of work, Keen said she fell in love with the physical-labor part of farming.

“It was amazing to work with your hands and see the results of your work,” she said. “The physical strain also made me feel that what I was doing was valuable.”

During the apprenticeship, she met Al Thorp, and they began a relationship that would eventually lead to their marriage — and to an intriguing agricultural success story.

In January 1997, Robyn Van En, owner of Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, died suddenly of an asthma attack at age 49. Members of the community were stunned and worried about what would happen to this historic land, site of the first CSA farm in the U.S. Meanwhile, Keen and her husband had just completed their apprenticeship and were considering their next move. Keen had worked briefly with Van En before she died and appreciated the beauty and viability of Indian Line.

People in the community feared the land was vulnerable to developers and wanted to make sure it would stay a working farm, so they encouraged the young couple to take over the operation of Indian Line.

“With six months experience for me and a year and a half for Al, we started a farm,” Keen said. “We started from scratch and did not know what we were doing.”

Along with Keen and Thorp, the Nature Conservancy and the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires worked together to keep Indian Line a working farm. The couple purchased the buildings on the property, and the other entities secured the land with a lease to ensure its exclusive use as a farm for the next 99 years.

Now with a mortgage to pay, Keen took on running the farm while Thorp, an engineer by training, began working three days a week in a surveyor’s office. Keen explained her husband’s role at the farm as “the person who fixes everything that breaks.” Now a licensed surveyor and engineer, Thorp continues his roles on and off the farm. It’s a division of labor that has worked well for both of them.

Elizabeth Keen’s impact extends beyond her own farm to broader efforts like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training.

Elizabeth Keen’s impact extends beyond her own farm to broader efforts like the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training.

“I do all the member interaction, employee management, and the daily work of the farm,” Keen said. “But when I need a new greenhouse, Al will take that on and get it done.”

 

Growing Community

Currently, 200 members belong to the Indian Line Farm CSA. Keen pointed out that each membership represents a household, so her farm is providing food for well over 400 people in the Berkshires through this one program.

From arugula and kale to carrots and a variety of radishes, the farm offerings vary by season. Keen provides members with familiar as well as not-so-familiar vegetable offerings.

“Our climate doesn’t allow us to just grow the most popular vegetables,” she said. “I have to grow what the seasons will allow.” That means daikon radishes and Japanese turnips become part of the vegetable selection. “I introduce my members to lots of new things and try to provide recipes for vegetables that might not be as familiar to people.”

Vegetables are only part of what grows and develops at Indian Line Farm. Keen and Thorp are longtime participants in the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), a program that enhances educational opportunities for apprentices through visits to a number of farms and networking with fellow apprentices and farmers. The couple were part of this program during their apprentice days and wanted to pay forward their experience as a CRAFT farm.

“I’m able to share some knowledge with our apprentices, but CRAFT visits give them a much wider perspective of what’s going on in agriculture,” Keen said. For the last 20 years, three or four workers each year complete an apprenticeship at Indian Line, with nearly half of them pursuing a career in agriculture.

More than half of Keen’s apprentices over the years have been women, many of whom have told her the example she sets as a female farmer is meaningful to them.

“I came to farming at age 26 with no experience in how to mow, use sharp tools, or drive a tractor,” she said. “I benefited from wonderful mentors, and now I have the opportunity to share these experiences with other women. It’s empowering for them and for me.”

“Getting to know other farmers reinforces that we are all in this together; we recognize all the challenges and complications that come with this life, and we’re not facing it alone.”

While she has also taught plenty of men how to drive a tractor, women are often less likely to have had the opportunity to learn these types of skills.

While the demands of the farm can easily keep Keen busy from dawn to dusk, she and Thorp felt it important to develop a community among others who were farming in the area. They began by informally reaching out to other farmers to get together and socialize. Keen wanted something more intentional, so she started a group called Farmers Gather.

“A meeting consists of a tour at an area farm with a potluck dinner to follow,” she explained. Before COVID-19 put a damper on regular meetings, the gatherings often brought together farmers who had lived in the area for many years, but didn’t really know each other.

“In a social sense it’s been terrific, but it’s even more than that,” she said. “Getting to know other farmers reinforces that we are all in this together; we recognize all the challenges and complications that come with this life, and we’re not facing it alone.”

Margaret Moulton, executive director of Berkshire Grown, noted that, on top of Keen’s contributions to the farming community, her work to eradicate food insecurity ranks among her most impressive efforts.

“Through Berkshire Grown’s Share the Bounty program in partnership with the People’s Pantry, Elizabeth provides tons of fresh food to low-income residents in the county,” Moulton said.

Keen estimated that 10 shares of food reach the People’s Pantry through her personal contributions, and other members spend a little extra for their shares to help out. The arrival of COVID last year greatly increased the need — and the generosity of even more members who donated extra money to make more food available to their neighbors who needed it.

“It’s easy for me to be generous because, over the years, people have been so generous to us,” she said. “There are also many people helping in important ways, such as transporting the food from the farm to those who need it; that’s a huge part of the effort.”

 

The Next Generation

During her time in Guatemala, Keen learned to speak Spanish. When snowfall covers the farm, one of her winter passions is practicing her Spanish as an interpreter for Volunteers in Medicine, a clinic located in Great Barrington with a mission to improve access to healthcare for Berkshire residents.

And, yes, she did return to Guatemala. In 2016, she and her children, Colin and Helen (ages 18 and 15, respectively), spent six months in one of the small indigenous communities where Keen had worked many years before. After a humbling moment when she realized Guatemalans have survived for centuries without her farm knowledge, Keen instead taught English in the middle school.

“This was a chance to give back in a way that felt concrete,” she said. As a bonus, Colin and Helen learned Spanish while there.

“I’m really proud that Al and I have been able to parent two children who can say they grew up on a farm,” she said. “I don’t think they are going to be farmers, but they know how to work, use tools, and they are both strong.”

Keen feels her greatest professional achievement has been to keep the farm where the CSA movement started a success today and into the future. “It’s an honor to keep Robyn Van En’s vision alive here at the birthplace of CSA.”

With everything she does for the farming community and neighbors in need, many would say Keen is forging her own legacy — as a true Woman of Impact.

Women of Impact 2021

President and CEO, Clinical & Support Options

She’s Growing Her Agency and Cultivating the Next Crop of Behavioral-Health Leaders

By Mark Morris

Karin Jeffers knew she was taking a big risk.

It was 2005, and she had the opportunity to take the reins at Clinical & Support Options (CSO) — a nonprofit community behavioral-health agency that had lost several large contracts and had just parted ways with its third CEO in five years, the last one under investigation for Medicaid fraud in Vermont.

At the time, Jeffers was the regional director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC), a job she greatly enjoyed. However, though secure in that role, she decided to take the risk and accept the top job at CSO. Reactions from her colleagues ranged from the polite — “we’re surprised to see you do that” — to the blunt: “what are you thinking?”

But during the interview process, Jeffers met the CSO staff and found people who were passionate and capable, and who cared about providing quality service.

“At that moment, it became clear the problem was leadership and not the staff or the agency mission,” she said. So she accepted the position with a realistic attitude. “We’re either going to fall on our face, or we’re going to make something of this.”

Fortunately for people all over Western Mass., she did make something of it. When Jeffers first joined CSO, it was a $4 million agency with 90 employees. Today, she manages a $45 million budget with more than 600 employees who provide services to 19,000 families and individuals.

This impressive growth resulted in large part from Jeffers adopting the philosophy that a nonprofit organization is a business and should be run like one.

“Nonprofit is a tax status, not a business model,” she said. “As important as our employees and clients are to us, profit and loss statements matter, too.”

To achieve the right balance, she believes in open communication. “Our manager meetings include behavioral-health people as well as fiscal staff,” she explained. “When there is something we would like to do but can’t, we are transparent about it so everyone understands how we reached our decision.”

Paying close attention to both the service and fiscal parts of the organization was key to CSO surviving and now thriving.

“When I joined CSO, we were days away from closing down, and there were weeks when we struggled to make payroll,” she recalled. “Now that we have enough capital to invest in the company, we are able to look at providing services five, 10, even 15 years out.”

 

Ladders to Success

That willingness to take risks goes back to her days as a sports physical therapy student at Springfield College. Physical therapy seemed like a logical major for Jeffers, who was a runner on the SC track team. Three years into her studies when the clinical practicum began, Jeffers discovered that working in physical therapy no longer appealed to her as a career.

“At that same time, I was taking an abnormal psychology class that was fascinating to me,” she recalled. She switched her major to psychology, then remained at SC, earning a master’s degree and later became a licensed mental-health counselor.

“We’re either going to fall on our face, or we’re going to make something of this.”

“I was the typical soon-to-graduate student,” she said. “I sent out 50 résumés and landed only one interview.” That interview was with MSPCC, which hired her as a therapist.

“I could not have asked for a better place to learn so much about the industry,” Jeffers noted. “Thanks to some fabulous mentors who were willing to teach and guide me, I kind of grew up professionally at MSPCC.”

Karin Jeffers says trauma-informed care informs not just clinical operations at CSO, but all departments, from IT to maintenance.

Karin Jeffers says trauma-informed care informs not just clinical operations at CSO, but all departments, from IT to maintenance.

In nearly 14 years, she rose through the ranks, holding several management positions, until she became regional director, overseeing operations across all of Western Mass.

As a leader, she appreciates that her success was due in large part to the internal promotions she received at MSPCC and the mentors who were willing to take a chance on her. “I wasn’t always the most experienced person, and I didn’t have all the answers, but there were people willing to invest in me and provide the opportunity.”

Because of that experience, internal promotions are strongly supported at CSO. Among 135 managers, she noted, 67% were promoted from within.

“Whether I’m mentoring women or men, I believe in giving someone an opportunity to take a risk and let them learn instead of looking for what they are doing wrong,” she said, adding that the result is a team of people who are invested and who can shine in their work.

“Promoting from within has helped define who we are as an agency,” she added. “It’s helped us grow, become more innovative, and provided stability in our management.”

While women outnumber men in direct human-services positions, the ratio reverses at top leadership levels, where women are less likely to be found. Jeffers became president and CEO at age 35, and, while she felt up to the task, there were some who questioned her abilities based on her age and gender.

“There is some truth to the idea that a woman has to work a little harder to get a seat at the table,” she told BusinessWest. “Once at the table, though, I’ve had wonderful experiences feeling very much on a level playing field among colleagues who are respectful to me.”

Behavioral-health workers often hear they are doing “God’s work.” While Jeffers agrees with that sentiment, she believes it’s also important to recognize these are medical professionals and should be compensated as such.

To that end, she serves on several influential boards, most notably the Assoc. of Behavioral Health and the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, where she advocates for parity in the way behavioral-health professionals are paid compared to those in physical care. Jeffers has testified to the state Legislature about where the disparities are and how to address them.

“Whether I’m mentoring women or men, I believe in giving someone an opportunity to take a risk and let them learn instead of looking for what they are doing wrong.”

“Investments in the workforce will make or break the future of community-based behavioral healthcare,” she said. While pandemic-relief money has been helpful in providing some immediate support, the goal is long-term salary increases.

“We have a seat at the table, and people are listening,” she added. “Now we need to see this turn into action.”

Currently, the state is looking at a redesign of its behavioral-health services, which gives Jeffers hope for lasting change. “It could really turn the tide for behavioral health in Massachusetts.”

 

Stepping Out

CSO is one of the first agencies in Western Mass. to adopt a training technique known as trauma-informed care (TIC). Because trauma can impact every aspect of health, TIC encourages a more compassionate approach in client interactions.

According to one TIC training website, asking someone “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?” is a simple example of the attitude shift when using this method. More than a treatment plan for clients, Jeffers sees TIC training as a model for how to do business at CSO.

“Our maintenance staff, IT, front desk, everyone is included in this training,” she said. “The goal is to shift the way we interact with clients and each other toward a culture of care.”

 

For Jeffers, risk taking is not limited to work. Her husband, Scott, lost his sales job after his company was acquired by a larger entity. As his next act, Scott considered purchasing the Daily Pint, a small pub that was for sale in Wilbraham, where he had grown up.

“Using all the risk taking we had applied at CSO, we took a leap of faith and said, ‘why not?’” Jeffers explained. So they acquired the Daily Pint, two years before the pandemic threw a wrench into plenty of business plans. After the initial impact of having to close and endure layoffs, the hometown pub has been making a comeback with the same staff returning to work.

“It’s really Scott’s day job, but since I’m a co-owner, I have to pull my weight there, too,” she said with a laugh.

When she can take time to reflect, Jeffers appreciates all the challenges CSO has overcome since she joined the agency in 2005.

“We serve about 19,000 people each year, and over the last 15 years, that’s a lot of people,” she said. “I feel privileged that the great team here at CSO allows me to be their leader.”

She also expressed gratitude that her team is willing to follow her and take risks as well.

“There were times when I’ve asked people to just trust me,” she said. “I’m so lucky to have people who do trust me and then get things done. It’s a real can-do attitude we have here.”

Smart risks and a can-do spirit — they’re just part of what makes Karin Jeffers a Woman of Impact.

Law Special Coverage

President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan

President Biden has issued a comprehensive plan that orders employers with 100 or more employees to mandate vaccination for their workers and requires other groups of employers to do the same. The clock is ticking on these orders, and there are many unanswered questions as well as lawsuits filed. Here’s what business owners and managers need to know.

By Marylou Fabbo, Esq. and John S. Gannon, Esq.

 

Last month, President Biden issued a bold new action plan aimed at attacking COVID-19 and fighting the dangerous Delta variant. The plan orders employers with 100 or more employees to mandate that their workers get vaccinated. Similarly, the president’s plan requires the following groups of employees to be vaccinated: those working on federal government contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Not surprisingly, many businesses and politicians are unhappy with these mandates, and one state has already filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration challenging the plan and asking the court to declare it unconstitutional. Here are some takeaways for businesses as they prepare for the novel vaccine mandate.

 

Biden Administration Mandates Vaccinations

On Sept. 9, the president announced steps that his administration is taking to boost the economy by reducing the spread of COVID-19. One step is called “Path Out of the Pandemic: President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan” (more information can be found at www.whitehouse.gov/covidplan).

Marylou Fabbo

Marylou Fabbo

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

The action plan directs the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19. Employers will also be required to provide paid time off to employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the vaccine.

The Biden administration estimates this will impact more than 80 million workers in private-sector businesses. Employers that fail to comply with the ETS will face enforcement actions from OSHA, which may include fines up to $13,653 per violation. So, if a workforce with 100 or more employees has 10 unvaccinated workers who are not testing weekly for COVID-19, the business could be looking at a fine of well over $100,000. This is no slap on the wrist.

Additionally, the president signed two executive orders requiring federal employees and federal contractors (and subcontractors) to get vaccinated, regardless of employee size. There is no weekly testing exception for these employees. Employees working on or in connection with a federal contract, including subcontractors, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

Employees who cannot get vaccinated due to a sincerely held religious belief or disability may be entitled to an accommodation from these requirements. However, it is up to the employer to determine whether medical and/or religious exceptions are legally permissible.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of unanswered questions out there. For instance, who will pay for the testing and vaccinations — the employer or the employee? And if an employee decides to opt for the weekly testing option, is the time spent traveling to and from the vaccination site considered hours worked for payroll purposes? What about the time taking the test? Under Massachusetts law, there appears to be an argument that this is, indeed, time worked for wage-and-hour purposes. Also, will employers who pay for testing be eligible for some sort of tax break if this needs to be paid time? Stay tuned, as we expect more guidance on these topics.

 

When Can Employers Expect the OSHA Standard to Be Issued?

Right now, this is anyone’s best guess. It has been about a month since President Biden announced his action plan. Assuming OSHA has been working on the ETS for a few weeks now, we anticipate it will be released sometime next month, and almost certainly before the end of 2021. Once the ETS is released, employers will likely have a short window (maybe 30 or 45 days) to get into compliance.

 

What Should Employers Do Now?

Business with employees working on federal contracts or subcontracts need to act right away if they have not started taking steps to ensure compliance. The Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors is not that far away, and anyone who takes a vaccine that requires two shots (i.e., a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine) needs to await several weeks after the first shot to get the second. And full vaccination, regardless of whether it’s a one-dose or two-dose vaccine, is not achieved until two weeks after the final dose.

We suggest that businesses with 100 or more employees put their workforce on notice soon that the OSHA emergency standard will require everyone to get vaccinated. Businesses need to gauge how challenging compliance might be if and when the mandate goes into effect.

If your workforce population is around 80% or 90% (or higher) fully vaccinated, compliance might not be daunting. If your rates are closer to 50% or 60% (or lower), you need to start thinking about implementing the mandate soon, and planning for weekly testing options now. You also want to give employees a head start if they need to raise medical or religious objections to vaccination. Employers should have medical and religious exemption forms on file to provide to provide to employees who raise objections.

 

Legal Challenges

As mentioned above, one state has already challenged the Biden vaccination plan in a legal forum. The state of Arizona filed a lawsuit last month asking a federal court in Arizona to declare the vaccine mandates unconstitutional. The lawsuit contends that the Biden administration does not have authority under the U.S. Constitution to require vaccines.

Similar challenges to past emergency OSHA standards have had mixed results. The legal standard is high: OSHA must demonstrate that workers are in “grave danger” to justify issuing emergency temporary standards. With global COVID-19 deaths recently hitting 5 million, it seems to these authors that OSHA will be able to satisfy the ‘grave danger’ standard.

 

Marylou Fabbo and John Gannon are attorneys at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, who both specialize in employment law and regularly counsel employers on compliance with state and federal law; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Thomas Bernard

Mayor Thomas Bernard is gratified to see events like the FreshGrass Festival and the Fall Foliage Parade return to North Adams.

While North Adams tries to return to familiar norms, many are prepared to adjust if new pandemic concerns arise.

That’s the perspective of Mayor Thomas Bernard, anyway, who said his community has slowly and cautiously taken steps to bring back the positive routines of daily life.

“The moment that stands out for me is our first concert at Windsor Lake in early to mid-June,” Bernard said. “There were people who hadn’t seen neighbors and friends for more than a year. The sound of kids laughing and playing, great music, the spirit was unbelievable.”

More recently, he pointed to MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival in September as an example of holding a popular event and exercising caution, as attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering.

“Returning to these events is the fulfillment of the promise we made to each other when things were shutting down — that we would be back,” Bernard said.

Though no one can predict what the future holds, Nico Dery said North Adams businesses are prepared to make a quick pivot if necessary.

“Businesses now have COVID plans in place that were developed from an entire season of figuring out what worked and what didn’t,” said Dery, business development coordinator for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce.

The city was the site for a robust vaccination effort that began in January and ran through June, during which time volunteers at the Northern Berkshire regional vaccination center held 40 clinics and administered nearly 25,000 vaccines to residents.

Right now, the vaccination rate in North Adams is around 65%, but that percentage does not reflect a fair number of residents who received their vaccine in Vermont or New York, the mayor pointed out. With North Adams located in the northwest corner of the state, the borders to both adjacent states are easily accessible.

“However you figure it, I’m not going to be happy until the numbers get above 80%,” he added.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season. Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

Members of the regional emergency-planning committee who ran the COVID-19 operations center were honored at the 65th annual Fall Foliage Parade on Oct. 3.

“Everyone who was involved in the public-health response and the vaccination efforts are the folks who will be celebrated and honored as a sign of how far we have come,” Bernard said the week before the event — and a year after the parade was cancelled due to the coronavirus.

“The theme of this year’s parade was “Games, Movies, Takeout” — “everything that kept many of us going during the darkest times of the pandemic,” the mayor added.

 

No Summertime Blues

Businesses in North Adams experienced what Dery called a “great summer,” with lots of visitors exploring the Berkshires.

“In the past, we had seen many people come here from New York City, but because of COVID, we’ve seen a big increase of people from the Boston metro area,” she noted, crediting the increased visitor traffic to people choosing to forgo a European or cross-country vacation and instead stay closer to home.

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector, recently shared this photo on social media depicting their opening day last fall.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season,” she added. “Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

North Adams has also seen a number of businesses open during the pandemic. Bernard pointed to the Clear Sky Cannabis dispensary, which opened in March, and the Bear and Bee Bookshop in June.

The Plant Connector opened in September 2020 before vaccines were available. Emilee Yawn, a co-owner of the shop, heard from naysayers who said North Adams was a tourist destination and, since there were no tourists during the pandemic, no one would come in.

However, “from the moment we opened, we’ve been bustling,” she said. “I had been growing plants in my one-bedroom apartment, and in no time, we had sold 120 plants. We had to quickly find a wholesaler and become a real business.”

Yawn and co-owner Bonnie Marks met at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where Yawn was office manager and Marks was a bookkeeper. When Yawn was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of a store to promote their mutual passion for plants became more real.

Recently celebrating the first anniversary of the Plant Connector, Yawn noted that, since the opening, more than 6,700 people have walked through the door, and they’ve been averaging around 800 people a month — not bad for a 400-square-foot space.

While they have a website and have recently sold plants to customers in New Jersey, nearly 90% of their sales are from local people in the Berkshires.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

“We feel very supported by the community,” Yawn said. “North Adams is a special place; I’ve never felt connected to so many awesome people.”

As the weather starts getting cooler, business is picking up, and Yawn is looking forward to leaf peepers drawn to the Mohawk Trail and surrounding areas. “We’re excited for them to come peep around our shop,” she added.

Businesses in North Adams are also gearing up for the holiday season and what’s known as Plaid Friday. The North Adams Chamber promotes this annual effort with posters and through social media to businesses throughout the Northern Berkshires.

“We started this initiative to encourage people to spend money in their communities on the day after Thanksgiving instead of going to the big-box stores,” Dery said. “Many retailers will run Plaid Friday all that weekend.”

Similar to most communities, hiring in North Adams, particularly in restaurants, remains a challenge. So far, many restaurants are operating at reduced hours to retain staff and prevent burnout.

“This upcoming winter will be interesting because many people are thinking outside the box on how to best manage this,” Dery said.

 

The Next Phase

Bernard will also have an interesting winter after deciding not to run again for mayor. On the job since 2018, he called his time in office a “privilege of a lifetime, to serve North Adams, the community where I grew up.”

He looks forward to an historic election as voters will choose the first woman mayor in the city’s history. The two candidates who emerged from the runoff election, Jennifer Macksey and Lynette Bond, will face each other in the mayor’s race in November.

Bernard said he is still exploring the next move in his career. “I’m asked so often about my future plans, I feel like a senior in college,” he said with a laugh.

As she reflected on the success of the Plant Connector, Yawn admitted she thought the store would flop and she would have to sell plants on eBay and Etsy to survive. Shortly after opening, however, she saw they had something special there.

“I always say this about North Adams,” Yawn said. “This city chooses its people, and people don’t choose it. That’s why there’s a high concentration of awesome people here.”

Law

Discipline for Social-media Speech

By Kevin Maynard

 

In any given week, a news outlet or website will spotlight an employee being suspended or fired by an employer for a social-media post. These posts range from expressions of political sentiments and individual beliefs to commentary on the employee’s workplace or even the employer itself.

With the prevalence of social media in the daily lives of most individuals, employers are increasingly disciplining their employees for off-duty social-media posting, and employees are pushing back with legal actions.

In the resulting legal disputes, employees often mistakenly believe that the First Amendment protects all in-person and online speech. In reality, the First Amendment’s free-speech protection is limited to protection against government action. While public employers have a First Amendment obligation to respect some of their employees’ speech, private individuals and employers generally have no such constitutional obligation.

 

Public Employee Speech

Generally, a public employee’s speech is protected when it relates to a matter of public concern or importance. However, this is not an absolute, and a court must balance an employee’s right to free speech against an employer’s interest in an efficient, disruption-free workplace.

For example, a public-school teacher brought a lawsuit against her school district after being fired for making negative blog posts regarding supervisors, union representatives, and fellow teachers. In upholding the termination of employment, the Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit ultimately held that the blog posts harmed the Washington State public-school district’s legitimate interest in the efficient operation of its workplace because other teachers refused to work with the former teacher, and the termination was, therefore, appropriate.

Kevin Maynard

Kevin Maynard

“In the resulting legal disputes, employees often mistakenly believe that the First Amendment protects all in-person and online speech. In reality, the First Amendment’s free-speech protection is limited to protection against government action.”

Earlier this year, a public-school teacher in Fall River was fired for posting allegedly political and racist comments on social media. The teacher filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court, claiming the city did not have “good cause” to terminate her employment and that her teachers’ union breached its duty of fair representation by not providing her any representation following the termination of her employment. An arbitrator to whom the matter was referred by agreement has reportedly found in the teacher’s favor, ordering reinstatement to her position and payment of all back wages. According to her attorney, the teacher intends to sue for retaliation and defamation.

 

Private Employee Speech

Unlike in the public sector, the First Amendment generally does not apply to the actions of private employers. However, private employers even in a non-union setting must be compliant with the National Labor Relations Act, which gives private employees the right to engage in “concerted activities” for the purposes of collective bargaining.

Examples of concerted activities include an employee talking with co-workers about working conditions, circulating a petition about improving working conditions, or joining with co-workers to talk directly to their employer. Regardless of whether the concerted activity occurs in person or over social media, an employer cannot interfere with such an activity taking place during or after work hours. Beyond this concerted-activity issue, the concepts of ‘at-will employment,’ ‘good cause’ for termination, or other common law or contractual issues may be relevant.

 

State-specific Protection for Lawful Off-duty Activity

Some states have laws that protect lawful off-duty activities of both public and private employees. In Colorado, an airport-operations supervisor was terminated for posts on her Facebook page regarding her support for preserving the ‘Rebels’ mascot of her high school, particularly one post that depicted the mascot with the Confederate flag.

A Colorado court vacated her termination of employment because it violated a Colorado statute making it unlawful to terminate an employee for engaging in a lawful activity outside of work. California, Louisiana, New York, and North Dakota have similar laws prohibiting employers from taking adverse employment actions based on lawful off-duty activities. Massachusetts has not enacted such a law.

 

Advice for Employers

Employers may choose to adopt social-media policies that address off-duty conduct. Anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies should also address off-duty social-media activity. Any social-media policies should be enforced reliably to ensure the consistent treatment of employees.

In enforcing a social-media policy, employers must assess the effects of an employee’s social-media post on a workplace, including its impact on the ability of employees to work with one another. Social-media policies can be a helpful way for employers to set clear expectations regarding the standard of online conduct they expect of employees. The absence of such a policy can make the results of an employee’s challenge to an employer’s disciplinary action for inappropriate social-media posts much more unpredictable.

 

Kevin Maynard is an employment law and litigation partner at Bulkley Richardson; (413) 272-6200.

Law

Remodeling Woes

Joshua L. Woods, Esq.

 

Many of us love watching home renovations on television. Whether the redos are taking place at a beach-house bungalow, a tiny apartment, or a Victorian mansion, it’s always entertaining to live vicariously through people remodeling a house or building their dream home.

But what happens when opportunity knocks in real life, and you have the chance to create a space of your own design? Perhaps you envision a beautiful, blue-tiled backsplash against white kitchen cabinets, heated bathroom floors, or a cozy living room with a gas fireplace. With a reliable and trustworthy contractor, all things are possible.

Unfortunately, not all contractors are reliable and trustworthy. Someone close to me recently experienced firsthand the horrors of hiring the wrong renovation company. My friends lived to tell the tale, but along the way, their family suffered through considerable delays, shoddy work resulting in added expenses and additional repairs, and the all-consuming worry of working with an uncommunicative contractor. Here is the story of a ‘craftsman’ remodeling company whose primary craft proved to be collecting payments for unperformed work.

It all began when my friends, first-time homebuyers, hired a local contracting company to perform a complete restoration and remodel of a charming 1930s colonial-style house. After interviewing five separate contractors, my friends decided to work with ‘Craftsmen’ (the company’s name has been changed to protect their anonymity). The contractor was extremely charismatic, proposed a comparable bid, and seemed to have just the right can-do attitude needed to complete the project. Craftsmen provided three references who, when contacted, sang the company’s praises. Craftsmen also had great online reviews. My friends decided to move forward and agreed to the terms of a proposal from Craftsmen, officially hiring the company for their project.

Joshua L. Woods

Joshua L. Woods

“They had to live through an enormous amount of stress, the upheaval of an unfinished living space, hideously long delays, and considerable additional expenses. You can learn from their mishaps.”

Craftsmen requested a down payment, and upon receiving the funds, the first step of the project — demolition — was scheduled. Pursuant to the payment schedule on the written proposal, the second payment would be due on demolition day, the third would be due when rough plumbing was installed, the fourth upon installation of rough electrical, the fifth upon installation of drywall, and the sixth and final payment would be due when the project was completed.

To their chagrin, my friends soon discovered the problem with this payment schedule: the majority of the fees would be paid prior to the rebuilding. That is, four hefty payments were required before the demolished spaces would be fully rebuilt.

At first, the contractor completed the demo work on schedule, but then they went silent. The house sat in disarray, unfinished, for months after the first payments were made. Nothing was accomplished properly. The plumbing was installed incorrectly, there was an old toilet left in the dining room for months, the trim was unfinished, the hardwood floors were ruined, exposed electrical wires dangled from the walls, and the list went on. My friends finally decided they could no longer tolerate the situation and made the decision to fire Craftsmen.

For anyone considering renovations, keep the following steps in mind, which can help protect you from a similar experience:

• Verify the contractor is in good standing. Ask for the contractor’s business-license number and research it on the state’s website to ensure there are no lawsuits against the company. You should also search the Better Business Bureau for complaints.

• Look into the contractor’s partners and vendors. Request a copy of the business license for all subcontractors who may work on your project.

• Contact references. Before hiring a contractor, always ask for multiple references and contact as many as you can. Listen closely to what they say. When speaking with references, you will certainly wish to inquire about the ‘big stuff,’ including satisfaction with the final project and pricing, but it may also be wise to inquire about smaller details including punctuality, cleanliness on the job site, responsiveness to calls and requests, etc. Looking back, my friend should perhaps have seen a red flag when Craftsmen provided only three references. A reputable company should be able to provide evidence of a great many satisfied customers.

• Have an attorney review the fine print. Another red flag should have been the lack of a formal contract at the outset and the lack of itemized billing during the project. Craftsmen provided only a written proposal, which is not sufficient for a project of this magnitude. When hiring a contractor, be sure to protect yourself by having a qualified attorney review all documents, proposals, and contracts before you sign. All contracts should include a clear payment schedule in which the final payment is typically 25% of the entire fee, provided only upon completion of the project and a satisfactory final walk-through with the contractor. Once hired, all communication should be in writing, and you should request regular written updates from the contractor, so there is a clear understanding of the status of work completed and work to be done.

• Document the process. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is certainly true where renovation projects are concerned. Be certain to take many photos of your project, including shots of the site before, during, and after the renovation is complete.

My friend and his family were ultimately able to pivot their renovation to another contractor, who repaired Craftsmen’s mistakes and finished the project. The family is now happily enjoying their beautiful, freshly remodeled home.

If my friends had only done more diligent research and consulted with an attorney before working with Craftsmen, they could have potentially avoided the entire awful experience. Instead, they had to live through an enormous amount of stress, the upheaval of an unfinished living space, hideously long delays, and considerable additional expenses. You can learn from their mishaps and use the steps above as important preventive measures. They may be your — and your house’s — saving grace. v

 

Attorney Joshua L. Woods is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. and a member of the firm’s business, corporate, and commercial law team. He has extensive experience in matters of business law, including all aspects of corporate formation, franchising, joint ventures, leasing, and business and commercial litigation. He is licensed to practice in both Massachusetts and Connecticut; 413-781-0560; [email protected]

Health Care

Danger Zone

By Mark Morris

MHA’s Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

MHA’s Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say social isolation during the pandemic has been problematic for young people.

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national suicide rate declined slightly in 2019, the last year for which full statistics are available.

Unfortunately, the latest government data does not take into account the arrival of COVID-19 early in 2020. But area mental-health professionals know what they’re seeing and hearing almost 20 months into the pandemic.

Amanda Hichborn, director of Outpatient Clinical Services for River Valley Counseling Center’s Westfield office, said the impact of COVID has in some ways been a double-edged sword when it comes to suicide risk.

“The risk factors for suicide have definitely increased,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve also seen protective factors that have come into play.”

On top of fears about our health, Hichborn explained, the pandemic also affected basic needs such as food — as evidenced by shortages in grocery stores — as well as the ability to sleep well, employment security, and freedom to move around wherever and whenever we want.

At the same time, she has seen people spend more time with their family, increase their fitness by taking walks to get outside, and improve their diets by eating more at home.

“Vulnerable groups like disenfranchised people were already struggling with basic needs. Throw the pandemic on top of it, and their needs are impacted tenfold.”

“These protective factors work to actually decrease the risk of suicide,” Hichborn said. “When we go through something as a community, we feel a kind of connectedness, which also helps decrease suicide risk.”

However, she was quick to point out that, while we may all be in this together, we’re not all in the same boat.

“Vulnerable groups like disenfranchised people were already struggling with basic needs,” she said. “Throw the pandemic on top of it, and their needs are impacted tenfold.”

Young people in particular have had a tough time with the pandemic. Alane Burgess, clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center at the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), noted that, while depression and anxiety have increased for all ages, it’s been particularly tough for adolescents, and suicidal thoughts and attempts are on the rise.

“With adolescence, there is a sense of permanency that things won’t change,” Burgess said. “When they experience social isolation, it feels like forever to them.”

Kristy Navarro, a clinical supervisor at MHA, said keeping young people safe in a pandemic can run counter to how parents raise their kids.

“Normally we want our kids to share, but now we’re saying, ‘don’t share, and don’t touch anything,’” she said. “When we discourage sharing things with friends, it can be a hindrance to the growth and development of young children and adolescents.”

 

Managing the Stress

Dan Millman agrees that the pandemic has affected young people in unique ways.

“It can be hard for young people who miss rites of passage like graduations and other celebrations and rituals,” he said. “Another part is the social stuff like having fun with friends and being independent. All of that has been much harder to do with the pandemic.”

Millman is the director of ServiceNet’s DBT program, or dialectical behavior therapy, an evidence-based approach to psychotherapy that can be effective with people who are exhibiting self-destructive behaviors.

Amanda Hichborn says staying home more has benefited people’s health

Amanda Hichborn says staying home more has benefited people’s health in some ways, but the pandemic has had plenty of negative effects, too.

DBT differs from conventional therapy in that it follows a more structured protocol. The six-month program is designed to give clients the skills to manage the urges to engage in self-harming behaviors. Millman described four main techniques of DBT:

• Mindfulness, a skill that helps the client focus on healthy coping skills to prevent negative thought patterns and impulsive behavior, and which is integrated throughout DBT techniques;

• Distress tolerance, which is most effective in improving a moment with soothing or distraction skills. “The point of this skill is to help survive the crisis without making things worse,” Millman said;

• Emotion regulation, a technique that allows clients to strengthen their emotional resiliency to more effectively navigate powerful feelings; and

• Interpersonal effectiveness, which Millman described as developing assertiveness skills so clients can ask for what they want, better address their needs, and set limits when necessary.

“The point of DBT is to help people feel like their life is worth living and has improved,” he explained. “It’s not a good outcome to have someone stay alive while still suffering the torment they have been feeling.”

Relieving the torment starts with allowing the client to accept they have suicidal thoughts. In this context, acceptance means acknowledgement, not approval.

“When someone has suicidal thoughts, it’s a sign to them that something is wrong in their lives that needs to change,” he said. “Acknowledging those thoughts can actually be protective for the person.”

Another area of DBT involves stepping into painful emotions. Millman explained how human instincts try to protect us and avoid things that make us feel anxious, so we tend to put them off. Avoiding a difficult conversation is a good example of something that needs to be done, but creates anxiety before we do it.

“I talk with people about what they can and cannot control. Though we can’t control events outside, we can control ourselves and our responses to those events.”

One way clients deal with emotional pain is to engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting themselves.

“We ask the client to just sit with the urge to cut themselves without acting on it,” he said. “In that way, we are asking them to step into the pain. It’s easier said than done, and it’s really challenging.”

The point is to show the client they confronted the moment and got through it. A distraction like a funny video or throwing themselves into an activity can also help, he added. “Once they are ready for the next step, they can use some of the other skills to influence the emotions that are underneath the urge and begin to think differently about it.”

 

Support Systems

The pandemic looked like it was going to subside this past spring as warm weather arrived and many people were getting vaccinated, but then the Delta variant reared its head, and vaccine levels plateaued. While that created frustration for everyone, it was particularly hard on people with pre-existing conditions related to anxiety and depression.

Dan Millman runs a program

Dan Millman runs a program that helps people take control of self-destructive tendencies.

Navarro said the confusion of starting to feel safe, and then, suddenly, not so safe, can lead to hopelessness, a huge risk factor in suicidal tendencies. A person who feels hopeless will often make vague statements such as “I can’t do this anymore,” “I don’t want to be here,” and “this is too hard,” she noted.

“I talk with people about what they can and cannot control. Though we can’t control events outside, we can control ourselves and our responses to those events.”

During the pandemic, social media can either help people feel more connected or lead to more hopelessness. Hichborn noted that, while it’s good to see friends and loved ones from across the country, social media also creates misleading impressions. The people smiling in the photo look happy, but they might be feeling lots of stress in their lives.

“The effect of social media is counterintuitive because it makes us feel more connected upfront, but in the long run makes us feel a lot more depressed and isolated,” she said.

Two other groups emotionally affected by the pandemic are very young children and seniors. Hichborn said she sees clients from ages 3 to 77. When a parent with young children dies, it can create a suicide risk.

“The child has a concept of mom or dad dying, and they want to see them again,” Hichborn said. “The child might feel like they have to die in order to see their mom or dad.”

Older people who are at risk of suicide tend to show warning signs such as saying goodbye to people, giving away their prized possessions, and cleaning out their house. When family members see this type of behavior, it’s important to talk with the person.

“If you see any suicidal ideations or any warning signs within a family member, don’t beat around the bush — ask them directly, ‘are you feeling suicidal? Are you having thoughts of harming yourself?’” she said.

If they’re not having those thoughts, Hichborn added, the question will not encourage people to start thinking about it. “It doesn’t work that way.”

In addition to asking direct questions, Burgess suggested active listening and being supportive.

“Sometimes the most important thing to do is listen and acknowledge the person’s experience,” she said. “They don’t need you to fix it, they just want to be heard.”

Hichborn recommends a safety plan displayed on the refrigerator to help a person who might struggle with suicidal thoughts.

“The plan can have support people to call and emergency numbers like the police, suicide hotline, or poison control,” she explained. “Everything is written out in a place that’s easily seen, so when someone isn’t thinking straight and their thoughts are all over the place, they don’t have to think about what to do — it’s right there.”

 

Stay Connected

Though we might feel alone in our thoughts, Burgess encouraged people to reach out to those they are comfortable with to talk about their feelings.

“What’s profound about the pandemic is that it’s a collective experience everyone is going through,” she said — and one that no one should have to confront alone.

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Pivoting … Again

By Mark Morris

David Ianacone says infection-control expertise

David Ianacone says infection-control expertise in the skilled-nursing world predates COVID by far.

Just when it seemed COVID-19 was getting under control, the Delta variant of the virus took hold — and has encouraged many communities in Western Mass. to once again mandate wearing masks indoors.

With the variant showing no signs of slowing, BusinessWest checked in with several companies that serve seniors in the area — through home care, assisted living, and skilled nursing — to ask how they are navigating this stubborn virus that won’t go away.

They all have different stories, but one constant stands out: all of them have kept safety protocols in place that exceed the requirements of state and local mandates.

For David Ianacone, administrator at the Center for Extended Care and Rehabilitation at Amherst, rigid protocols are in place at all times to prevent infection problems.

“In the nursing-home business, we’re experts in infection control,” he said. “Long before the virus, we’ve had protocols in place known as ‘universal precaution.’”

Indeed, everyone who enters the facility must get their temperature taken and fill out a health questionnaire. Masks are required for staff and visitors at all times. Ianacone said 99% of the patients are fully vaccinated, and he estimated that 92% of the staff have received the vaccine.

“We have around 15 unvaccinated staff, most of whom work in the office or dietary area and are not in direct contact with patients,” Ianacone said. “They are tested every day before their shift begins.” If the test comes up positive, they have to leave.

The protocols have certainly been working; since January, when one patient at the center contracted the coronavirus, no staff or patients have tested positive.

This clean bill of health has allowed visitors to once again see their loved ones in person, but Ianacone pointed out there are restrictions based on the visitor’s vaccination status.

“If they are vaccinated and their loved one is also, they can meet with them closely in their room,” he explained. “But if a visitor is not vaccinated, we have a special room where they can visit in private, but they must maintain social distancing.”

Visitors to Cedarbrook Village at Ware have also returned to restricted visits with residents due to the resurgence of the virus.

Before Delta, Executive Director Kelly Russell said, families could visit with loved ones in their apartments and take meals with them. Since the resurgence, only a few guests can meet with the resident in a designated area that is disinfected after each visit.

“We’re actually going above and beyond what the CDC is recommending for our community,” she noted.

Before the Delta variant, the assisted-living facility was starting to return to normal activities like outings and even a trip to MGM Springfield.

“The residents had a great time at the casino, but we had to stop all trips like that because of the variant,” she said. “We also had to cancel the one-year anniversary of our opening that we had planned for September.”

Russell said her focus is now on “out-of-community risks,” meaning staff and residents out in public, residents coming out of acute settings, and visitors. Protocols are in place to mitigate risk in all these areas.

Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp says she requires her home-care staff to be vaccinated to protect senior clients.

Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp says she requires her home-care staff to be vaccinated to protect senior clients.

With vaccination rates among Cedarbrook staff at nearly 80%, the next challenge will be a state mandate that takes effect on Oct. 31 requiring everyone who works with seniors to be vaccinated.

“We have a responsibility to keep the residents in our community safe,” Russell said. “If there are still some people who refuse to get vaccinated, there’s a good chance they will not be able to work here.”

 

Girding for Battle

Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp isn’t waiting for the state to act. The owner of Caring Solutions, a home-care company based in West Springfield, will not hire anyone who is not vaccinated. And, while 98% of her current staff is vaccinated, home care is an industry with lots of turnover.

“It’s already hard to find candidates, and by requiring a vaccination, the pool becomes that much smaller,” Baskin-Scholpp said. “Despite that, I won’t put my seniors at risk.”

A nurse by training, she discussed the reason she is passionate about vaccinations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “When you hold someone’s hand who is dying of COVID, it changes something in you.”

Baskin-Scholpp also believes we are in a war against COVID, and that one battle strategy worth embracing is wearing a mask. “I have N95 masks in many colors so our staff can make them part of their wardrobe,” she said. “We have to wear a mask anyway, so let’s own it.”

After several months without them, residents at Cedarbrook are back to wearing masks when they leave their apartments. For most, Russell said, it’s simply retraining.

“We opened at the height of COVID when many of our residents moved in. At that time, they had their masks with them at all times. Now they just need occasional reminders.”

“We opened at the height of COVID when many of our residents moved in,” she recalled. “At that time, they had their masks with them at all times. Now they just need occasional reminders.”

Because the virus is prone to change, Ianacone said he and his peers at other long-term-care facilities have an open communication stream with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the state office of epidemiology. “From time to time, they will recommend new protocols for us to implement to keep everybody safe.”

State health officials had raised concerns when several nursing homes discovered cases of the Delta variant. Ianacone pointed out that the protocols to protect against the Delta variant are the same as protecting against the original coronavirus, so staying consistent in COVID-prevention practices works.

“Because our patients are vulnerable, we always go the extra mile in our safety measures,” he added.

Baskin-Scholpp and her staff of 70 caregivers routinely go the extra mile based on a simple principle.

“If you treat people the way they want to be treated, it works,” she said. “We believe people should be able to stay in their own home and shouldn’t have to pay a fortune to do so.”

She named her company Caring Solutions because she believes every challenge has a solution, even COVID.

“This virus isn’t going anywhere right now, so let’s do everything we can to keep everybody safe,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really less about individual rights and more about protecting each other.”

As a new facility, Cedarbrook still has apartments available for new residents. When the pandemic first hit, many seniors and their families were fearful of moving into a senior community.

Since that time, as everyone gains more knowledge about the virus, Russell and her staff have continued their diligence with cleaning and safety protocols, which have helped many of those fears to subside.

“People are still able to take tours, and we simply follow a cleaning schedule after the visit,” she said. “As a result, we’re seeing four to six move-ins a month, which is great.”

 

Life on the Front Line

Reflecting on the past 18 months, Ianacone said he appreciates how grateful the families of his patients have been during a time of constant adjustment.

“Hearing from the families is very warming to us staff members because they feel we are doing a good job taking care of their loved ones and keeping them safe.”

While these senior service professionals wage their fight against a stubborn virus, they continue to succeed in keeping seniors in our community safe. Baskin-Scholpp may have summed up the reason for everyone’s dedication.

Simply put, she said, “I am very passionate about our seniors.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, but staffing remains a problem for businesses.

As Northampton works through the various stages of the pandemic, one term best describes any discussion about looking ahead.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ hundreds of times in the last several weeks, never mind the last year and a half,” said Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) — cautious because the city reimposed mask mandates before many other communities did, and optimistic because, despite all the challenges, Northampton can point to many successes.

Janet Egelston, owner of Northampton Brewery, said the last 18 months have been an ongoing process of pivoting, adapting, and learning, adding that “we call what we’re going through ‘pandemic university.’”

Northampton enjoys a long tradition as a dining destination. With more than 100 places to eat in the city, restaurants are a key sector to Northampton’s economy. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said economic studies have shown that, when restaurants are thriving, other business sectors do, too.

“Every job a restaurant creates results in another job in the community,” he explained. “Think about a typical date night — go out for dinner, go see a show, and then maybe a drink at the end of the evening.”

That’s why the pandemic, and the business restrictions that have accompanied it, have been so disruptive to the city’s economy. And the disruptions have come in waves; earlier this spring, when vaccines became widely available and COVID-19 infection numbers began to decrease, Northampton, like many communities, was able to relax masking requirements. Once vaccination levels began to plateau and the Delta variant of the virus kicked in, infections began to trend back up.

And when the city’s Health Department found several breakthrough cases that forced a couple restaurants to close for testing and quarantine, Mayor David Narkewicz made the decision to bring back indoor mask mandates.

“We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors.”

“It’s never easy to be out front and be the first, but since we brought back masking, the communities around us have followed suit,” he said, adding that the city’s priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. “We need businesses open for customers. Otherwise, the engine that drives Northampton isn’t going to run.”

The return to wearing masks was an easy change for Egelston’s staff at Northampton Brewery.

“In the restaurant business, we often make quick adjustments,” she said. “We also have a box of masks at our entrance for customers who arrive without one.”

In 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic closed all kinds of businesses for several months, Egelston delayed her reopening until Aug. 10, the 33rd anniversary of the brewery. Even though outdoor dining has always been a part of the restaurant, with two levels of rooftop decks, she still had to retrofit the space for the times.

“We installed plexiglass barriers and socially distanced our tables outside as if we were inside. We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors,” she said, adding that all employees are vaccinated. “It’s our policy.”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic” despite 18 months of pivoting and persistent staffing challenges.

Since reopening last August, the brewery has operated at a lower capacity, not due to mandates, but because of trouble finding enough staff.

“The core staff who work here are great,” Egelston said, adding that, while there is always some amount of turnover, she hasn’t received many applications in the last several months. “That’s starting to improve, but we’re not yet ready to go to full capacity.”

 

Workforce Crunch

While the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, Cahillane said, staffing remains a challenge for most businesses.

“When everyone is hiring, it perpetuates the issue further because employers are all looking for the same people,” she noted. “They are also filling positions at every conceivable level, from dishwasher to front of house to store manager.”

Despite the staffing challenges, Jackson said most businesses in Northampton had a great summer. In talking with business owners in the restaurant, retail, and construction sectors, he said many reported success at pre-pandemic levels.

“A caterer I spoke with has 200 events booked through the end of the year,” he said. “One restaurant owner said her numbers are better than they’ve been in a long time.”

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.37
Commercial tax rate: $17.37
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

‘Summer on Strong’ was a successful effort to close an entire section of Strong Avenue to traffic and turn it into an outdoor dining pavilion shared by a few different eateries. Narkewicz credited local restaurants for suggesting and leading the effort. When ideas like this were proposed, the mayor said the city would “move mountains” to streamline the permitting process to make them happen.

“Northampton is a regional magnet for people who want to come here for entertainment, arts, dining, and the vibe of a walkable city where people like to hang out,” he noted.

The city lost businesses during the pandemic, including Silverscape Designs, which closed at the end of 2020. Despite the optics of that vacancy in the middle of downtown, Cahillane said a mix of new businesses have been opening at an encouraging pace.

“Between Northampton and Florence, we had roughly 18 businesses that left,” she noted. “And nearly 17 new places opened.”

The return of students to Smith College and campuses in the surrounding towns marked a sign of life before the pandemic. Cahillane said the students brought a needed emotional lift. “There has been a noticeable lightening and brightening downtown since the students have come back. Their return is what Northampton usually feels like in the fall.”

The return of events this summer has also provided a boost to Northampton. Cahillane said it’s satisfying to look at a calendar and see events scheduled once again. “The Arts Council held several concerts this summer, we recently started Arts Night Out, and the Jazz Festival is coming back the first weekend in October.”

Jackson is “cautiously optimistic” that momentum from the summer will continue into fall leaf-peeping season. In this area, Indigenous Peoples Weekend marks prime time for leaf peepers.

“One hotelier told me if you don’t book early for that weekend, you won’t find a place to stay,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful activities in November and December will also bring people to the city and surrounding towns.

This fall will be different for Narkewicz, as he will not seek re-election as Northampton’s mayor. Looking back on his 10 years in office, he discussed several areas in which he’s proud of his administration’s achievements, such as improving the fiscal health of the city and being one of the first communities to stand up for the important role immigration plays in the U.S.

“We stand up for equality for all our residents,” he said. “We’ve received high marks for our commitment to LGBTQ folks and have been doing more work around racial equality.”

For the next few months, he hopes to develop a blueprint for the next mayor. “My goal is to provide a map of the immediate needs and available resources, so the next administration can work with stakeholders in the community to make sure we see a strong, equitable recovery to COVID.”

 

Keep Moving Forward

Among many in Northampton, the consensus is to keep moving forward, but also stay safe.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am eternally optimistic,” Egelston said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to be in the restaurant business for so many years.”

Jackson said having events return to the city, sometimes in different forms, went a long way to giving people reasons to come to Northampton. “I won’t say this is a new normal, but it feels right for this moment.”

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