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Employment

Get the Vaccine or Get Fired?

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

 

To mandate the COVID vaccine, or not to mandate?

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq.

Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq

Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq.

That is the question on the minds of employers across the globe. As employment lawyers, we have been asked that question countless times by clients (and friends). Until about a month ago, all we could do was provide our best guess based on guidance and legal decisions related to other vaccines, like the flu shot. However, on May 28, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided some comprehensive COVID-19 guidance that addresses this topic head-on.

The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws applicable to workplaces. The news is good for Massachusetts employers considering a mandatory vaccine program. Some of the key takeaways for employers are described below.

 

Mandatory Vaccinations

The EEOC guidance declares in no uncertain terms that an employer can lawfully require employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Such a practice would not run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA). There is one big catch: an employer mandating vaccines must reasonably accommodate employees who are unable or unwilling to get vaccinated because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief.

These employees might need to be excepted from the vaccine mandate if other safety measures can keep them and others safe. The EEOC provided examples of such accommodations, including requiring an employee to continue to wear a mask and socially distance while in the workplace, limiting contact with other employees and non-employees, providing a modified shift, permitting continued telework if feasible, conducting periodic COVID testing, or reassigning the employee to a vacant position in a different workplace.

Notably, employers should not assume that an employee does not require an accommodation relating to COVID simply because the employee is fully vaccinated. The guidance provides that an employer may need to accommodate an employee who is fully vaccinated for COVID if there is a continuing concern for heightened risk of severe illness from a COVID infection.

For an employee who is unwilling to obtain the vaccination because of a sincerely held religious belief under Title VII, employers should presume that the request is legitimate. The EEOC does make clear, however, that if an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer is aware of facts that provide an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

Employers presented with this issue should proceed with caution, as the EEOC will take a narrow view of such circumstances. Employers are required to engage in a similar ‘interactive process’ with employees who have sincere religious objections to vaccination and provide an accommodation that allows the employee to return to work where doing so does not present an undue hardship.

 

Vaccination Incentives

An employer may lawfully provide an incentive to its employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccination outside the workplace so long as the incentive is not so substantial as to be coercive. Unfortunately, the EEOC did not give any examples of what incentives would be considered ‘so substantial as to be coercive’ and also failed to clarify whether and to what extent an employer must provide a vaccine incentive to employees who are unable to obtain a vaccination due to a medical or religious-based reason.

 

Confidentiality

An employer’s request for self-disclosure of vaccination status, or for documentation or other confirmation that an employee has received a vaccination from a third party (such as a pharmacy or personal physician), is not a medical examination or a disability-related inquiry. As a result, employers may lawfully request this information without implicating the ADA or GINA.

With that said, employers should restrict access to vaccine-related information, apply safeguards similar to those applied to other types of sensitive personal information, and obtain appropriate consent from employees before disclosing vaccine-related information to third parties.

 

Legal Actions

To date, there has been one reported case dealing with mandatory vaccines in the workplace. Similar to the EEOC guidance, the case supports an employer’s right to mandate COVID vaccines.

In April, the Houston Methodist Hospital System in Texas issued a directive requiring that all employees be fully vaccinated by June 7 or they would be placed on a two-week suspension. Employees who were not vaccinated by the end of the suspension period would be terminated.

In late May 2021, more than 100 employees who were not vaccinated, and apparently did not qualify for a disability or religious exemption, filed a lawsuit against the hospital raising a number of claims, including wrongful termination. The judge dismissed the lawsuit entirely. In his written decision, the judge expressed his dismay with the plaintiffs for equating the threat of termination for refusing to get the COVID vaccination to the forced medical experimentation in concentration camps during the Holocaust, calling the comparison “reprehensible.”

Addressing an argument that the vaccine mandate was contrary to public policy, the judge wrote that the vaccine requirement “is consistent with public policy. The Supreme Court has held that (a) involuntary quarantine for contagious diseases and (b) state-imposed requirements of mandatory vaccination do not violate due process.”

 

Bottom Line

While this EEOC guidance and recent decision may seem like a big victory for mandatory COVID vaccines in the workplace, Massachusetts employers should be cautious in relying on them too heavily. The Commonwealth has its own anti-discrimination and public-policy laws, so it’s difficult to predict how this might play out in a state court or administrative proceeding.

In other words, while the decision is encouraging for Massachusetts employers who want to require vaccines, it is important to check in with experienced labor and employment counsel before implementing a mandatory vaccine program.

 

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

Employment

Breaking Down the Trickier Aspects of Massachusetts Laws

By Ludwell Chase and Amy B. Royal, Esq.

State and federal laws pertaining to minimum wage, tips, overtime, and employing minors are complicated. As a result, these are areas where mistakes are often made.

Ludwell Chase

Ludwell Chase

Amy B. Royal, Esq

Amy B. Royal, Esq

Employers, however, cannot afford these errors because the consequences of not complying with these laws can be very costly. In fact, in Massachusetts, there are mandatory treble (triple) damages for violations of wage-and-hour laws relating to minimum wage, tips, and overtime. This means that, if an employer is found in violation of state law, at a minimum, for every dollar an employer does not pay in accordance with wage-and-hour laws, that employer will have to pay three times that amount.

Under Massachusetts and federal law, employers are allowed to pay employees who receive tips an hourly wage that is lower than the minimum wage. This works by allowing employers to take a ‘tip credit’ for a certain amount in tips that the employee earns. The employee must not make less than minimum wage when their tips and hourly wage are combined. Under the federal law, the Federal Labor Standards Act, all hourly workers must be paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Tipped workers may be directly paid $2.13 per hour if their tips and hourly wage combined are at least equal to the minimum wage. In other words, employers can claim a ‘tip credit’ of $5.12 per hour.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently released new proposed regulations for tipped workers that reinstate the 80/20 rule. This rule limits the amount of time tipped workers can spend performing activities that are related to tip-generating duties, while their employers can still claim the tip credit. Tipped workers must spend at least 80% of their time performing directly tip-generating activities, such as serving customers, and no more than 20% of their time performing not directly tip-generating activities, such as setting tables. This rule was previously in effect but was replaced by DOL guidance in 2018.

The 2018 guidance provided that employers could claim the tip credit if non-tipped duties were performed at the same time as tipped duties, or if the non-tipped duties were performed for a reasonable time before or after tipped duties. This new proposal returns to the 80/20 rule. In addition, the new proposal specifies that, if an employee performs non-tipped activities for 30 minutes in a row, the employer cannot pay the employee the lower tipped hourly wage for that time.

For employers with tipped workers that are subject to federal wage-and-hour law, this proposal is a good reminder that they need to pay attention to these potential changes and their effects on how they compensate employees.

 

Caution on the Menu

Massachusetts has its own complex laws relating to tips, minimum wage, and overtime. As a result, these are areas where it is easy for employers to make mistakes. Therefore, employers need to pay special attention to ensure they are complying with both state and federal laws. As of Jan. 1, 2021, the minimum wage in Massachusetts is $13.50 per hour. Massachusetts is incrementally increasing the minimum wage in order to reach a $15 minimum wage by 2023. For now, employers may pay workers who make at least $20 a month in tips a tipped hourly wage of $5.55 and take a tip credit of up to $7.95 per hour, for a combined minimum wage of $13.50.

The Massachusetts Tip Law mandates that all tips must be given to employees whose work directly generates tips, and that employers and managers may not keep any portion of their employees’ tips. The law applies to three categories of employees: waitstaff employees, service bartenders, and service employees. Waitstaff employees include waiters, waitresses, busboys, and counter staff who serve beverages or food directly to patrons or clear tables, and do not have any managerial responsibilities. Service bartenders prepare beverages to be served by another employee. Service employees include any other staff providing service directly to customers who customarily receive tips but have no managerial responsibilities. For the purposes of this law, managerial responsibilities are duties such as making or influencing employment decisions, scheduling shifts or work hours of employees, and supervising employees.

Massachusetts law allows for ‘tip-pooling’ arrangements. This means all or a portion of tips earned by waitstaff employees are pooled together and then distributed among those employees. Employers must be cautious when administering a tip pool and ensure that only waitstaff, service bartenders, and service employees are being paid from the pool. This means managers and back-of-house employees like cooks and dishwashers cannot share in tips. Even employees with limited managerial roles who also directly serve patrons are not considered waitstaff employees on days when they perform managerial duties.

When employees do not receive enough in tips to make up the difference between the tipped hourly wage and the minimum wage, employers must pay the difference. Employers are required to calculate tipped employees’ wages at the end of each shift, rather than at the end of the pay period. This requires employers to keep track of how much workers receive in tips for each shift. This may also require employers to pay their tipped employees additional amounts in order to compensate for slow shifts.

Under Massachusetts law, certain businesses, including restaurants, are exempt from paying employees overtime; however, they may not be exempt under federal law. If subject to federal law, employees working in restaurants must be paid one and one-half times the minimum wage (not one and one-half times $5.55 per hour) for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week.

Under the Massachusetts Tip Law, if a restaurant includes a service charge, which serves as the functional equivalent of an automatic tip or gratuity, all the proceeds from that service charge must be paid only to waitstaff employees, service employees, or bartenders as a tip. Employers may, however, charge a ‘house fee’ or an ‘administrative fee,’ which they may use or distribute at their discretion, but only if it is clearly stated to customers that the fee is not a tip, gratuity, or service charge for tipped employees. Thus, any fees not intended as gratuities and not paid solely to tipped employees should not be labeled as a service charge.

 

Food for Thought

These complexities are especially important to Massachusetts employers, given that the consequences of failing to comply with wage-and-hour laws can be costly, and the penalty is the same regardless of whether the employer violated the law willfully or by mistake.

Considering the consequences of violations, businesses with tipped employees should regularly consult with their employment counsel to review their practices and policies to ensure compliance with state and federal law.

 

Ludwell Chase and Amy B. Royal work at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, boutique, corporate law firm; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Play Time

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Among the industries battered by the pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown, indoor recreation centers — from bowling alleys to trampoline rooms to roller rinks — took a massive hit last year, forced to close for longer than most other businesses and then tasked with navigating a very gradual ramp-up to normal operations. Now, a month after the final restrictions were lifted, the owners and managers of these businesses are grateful to be fully open, with a renewed understanding of the value of play in people’s lives.

By Mark Morris

After a successful 2019, Jeff Bujak looked forward to 2020 as a chance to further grow Prodigy Mini Golf and Game Room in Easthampton. Then the pandemic hit.

“In the beginning, we were told to shut down for 15 days, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Bujak recalled. When two weeks stretched to four months, however, he became worried about his business surviving.

He wasn’t alone. Every business that offers indoor entertainment was affected by the lengthier-than-expected, state-mandated shutdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Rob Doty, managing partner at Bounce! Trampoline Sports in Springfield, said his doors remained closed just two weeks short of a full year.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments. I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

“We had just installed a laser-tag arena,” Doty said. “We were getting it up and running for the season when we had to shut down.”

Like Bounce!, Interskate 91 North closed the roller-skating rink at Hampshire Mall in March 2020 but was allowed to reopen in October. Management held off opening until after Thanksgiving, but then had to shut down again when COVID-19 infection rates began to climb.

“To follow the guidelines, we stayed closed for a few more months and opened again in late March,” said Sarah O’Brien, sessions manager.

Meanwhile, Sarah Blais, general manager of Spare Time Bowling in Northampton, said her facility remained closed until late July 2020, and then, by mandate, could only operate at 25% capacity.

Jeff Bujack

Jeff Bujack is happy that customers can once again access his collection of vintage video games at Prodigy.

“We spaced everyone out by using every other lane,” she said. “It was slow in the beginning, and we didn’t even hit our 25% capacity numbers.”

Once the calendar turned to 2021, Blais said business began to pick up, and Spare Time began to reach its limited capacity. As more employees returned, she held an orientation for them on how to operate during a pandemic that’s not yet over.

“In short, it involved much more work than usual, and my team was all in for it,” she said. Much of the extra work concerned lots of sanitizing, including every bowling ball in the place.”

While extra cleaning was part of the mandate to reopen, all the managers BusinessWest spoke with agreed that the emphasis on cleaning went a long way toward helping customers feel safe.

“For the most part, we were doing our normal cleaning, but we did it more often,” O’Brien said. “People loved seeing us constantly cleaning.”

Doty concurred. “Now that hyper-cleaning has become second nature, I don’t see us changing things,” he said, adding that his crews use a fogger/mister to clean the trampoline courts as well as additional handheld sprayers to clean other areas.

“It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

It’s yet another step in emerging from what has been a challenging 16 months, to say the least. But with the state lifting all pandemic restrictions on gathering sizes and mask wearing at the end of May, this is also an optimistic time for these facilities that are eagerly welcoming back families grateful for something to do.

 

Leveling Down

Prodigy doesn’t easily fit into a business category because it offers its customers the chance to play mini-golf, vintage video games, and even board games. Located in the Eastworks mill complex, Prodigy occupies 8,000 square feet, with 14-foot high ceilings, industrial fans, and windows that open to the outside.

While disappointed that his business was considered an arcade by state standards, Bujak was able to open last summer because indoor mini-golf courses were allowed to operate. He could not offer play on the video games, however, due to limits on arcades.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

While nearly breaking even during the during the warm months, by November, the losses began to pile up, and Bujak was desperate.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments,” he recalled. “I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

With plenty of spacing and cleaning protocols in place, he reached out to his social-media followers to at least try the new layout and give their feedback. He said his spacious location eased concerns about social distancing and air flow.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place. The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

“Gradually, friends, family, and our regular customers came in,” Bujak said. By January, business had returned, and February was the most successful month in Prodigy’s history.

“I don’t know if all these efforts with masks, distancing, and cleaning actually made people more safe,” he said. “It was more important that people felt safe in the environment and felt good about their choice to come in.”

As to why February was a banner month for Prodigy, Bujak said people had begun to figure out they could go out as long as they wore masks and distanced. People were also becoming more hopeful as access to vaccines received news coverage. “Most people were not ready for a concert or bar atmosphere, so this was a good middle ground of being social but still low-key.”

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

Blais credits a simpler rationale. “I think everybody just met their quota of staying at home,” she said with a laugh.

For the better part of a year during which Interskate 91 opened and closed a couple times, O’Brien found herself sidelined, without work, for the first time since she was 14 years old.

“I was home for nearly a year, and I missed not being here,” she said. “It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

At the height of the pandemic when nearly everyone was advised to stay home, many used their time to clean out garages and basements to get rid of things that were no longer useful. Bujak benefited greatly from the COVID cleanout as many people donated old video-game consoles, video games, and board games to him.

“I might have doubled my amount of games just from people cleaning out their basements,” he said.

While most managers said they used the closed time to deep-clean their locations, O’Brien said Interskate 91 installed a new carpet and created a dedicated area where food is sold and eaten. “In the past, we let people eat anywhere. By keeping it all in one area, we can offer more food choices than we did before.”

As of May 29, people who had been vaccinated no longer had to wear masks in retail settings, and bounce houses, roller rinks, bowling alleys, and similar businesses could once again operate at full capacity.

“On the first weekend where people didn’t have to wear masks, we had lots of families and kids come in,” O’Brien recalled. “ Our regulars were so excited that we were open again.”

Blais admits seeing the return of people bowling was an emotional experience. “It’s very nice to hear bowling balls hitting the pins again.”

Doty is looking forward to finally getting use out of the laser-tag room. “Now that we’re fully open, we’re getting the word out about our laser tag and our expanded arcade,” he said, adding that he’s also looking forward to booking birthday parties and other group events.

To recognize the challenging 16 months everyone has gone through, Spare Time has begun offering weekly Service Industry Nights to workers in the restaurant industry.

“I’ve been talking with the restaurants in town, and we offer them free bowling from 9 to 11 p.m., and they have the place to themselves,” Blais said. “We are extending our service nights to our police and fire departments as well.”

 

Replay Value

Bujak said the experience of the past 15 months has made him a different person. At the start of the pandemic, he saw himself as an individual business owner who worried about losing his dream. He didn’t realize that Prodigy was bigger than just him.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place,’” he told BusinessWest. “The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

Now that he can operate at full capacity, Bujak is grateful his business has survived and he can once again take care of his regular customers and introduce Prodigy to new ones.

“Here we are,” he said, “back to normal-ish.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Banking and Financial Services

Brokerage App Is a Dangerous Culmination of Intersecting Trends

By Jeff Liguori

 

It was supposed to democratize Wall Street — yet another DIY trend, this time with your hard-earned money.

Robinhood is a popular brokerage application that allows subscribers to open an account with as little as $1, charges nothing for commissions, and allows users to buy fractional shares of stock. Backed by venture capital and slated to go public with an estimated $30 billion valuation, the company has enjoyed meteoric growth with an estimated 13 million users, 50% of whom use the mobile app daily, often multiple times, and 90% of whom use it on a weekly basis. The overwhelming majority of its user base belongs to the millennial demographic.

Robinhood achieved what it set out to do, but at what cost?

I’ve worked in the investment field since 1994 and have managed assets for clients since 2006. I’m also an entrepreneur, so I appreciate disruptive technology amid a changing business landscape. Robinhood, however, is the dangerous culmination of intersecting trends that have harmed investors and, according to financial regulators, may have contributed to a death by suicide.

Jeff Liquori

Jeff Liguori

“Robinhood is not the Home Depot of investing. Do-it-yourself portfolio management has been around since the advent of E-Trade in the mid-’90s. That company disrupted the brokerage industry and forced commissions at most every other firm lower in order to compete for customers.”

The basic business model for financial advisory or money management is that the client pays a percentage of his or her account balance as an annual fee, generally around 1%. To be clear, Robinhood is a brokerage; the firm does not use discretion to manage a client account or offer advisory services. Many brokerage firms have morphed into advisors and now focus more on money management as trading commissions have trended to zero. Overall, this trend has been a positive for individual investors and has improved access to many financial solutions — mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, or individual stocks — as well as financial research and news.

Robinhood is not the Home Depot of investing. Do-it-yourself portfolio management has been around since the advent of E-Trade in the mid-’90s. That company disrupted the brokerage industry and forced commissions at most every other firm lower in order to compete for customers. Just as E-Trade blazed a path for lower commissions, Schwab, Fidelity, and TD Ameritrade slashed commissions to zero in 2019 in response to Robinhood taking market share.

But growth has consequences. Robinhood was at the center of some incredibly volatile trading in a handful of individual stocks. You may have heard of GameStop (GME). The Robinhooders gathered virtually in chat rooms, most notably on a platform called Reddit, and decided as a community which stock they wanted to manipulate. It was no small feat. From Jan. 18 to Jan. 28 of this year, the price of GME went from about $18 to a high of $478, an increase of more than 2,600%. The Robinhood crowd is believed to be the main catalyst for this action. The day GME hit $478, it also went down to $112 before finally closing around $193.

In the month of January, 1.26 billion shares of stock changed hands in GME, almost 15 times the average monthly volume. Robinhood eventually cut off any trading in GME shares on Jan. 28, as well as trading in several other stocks with a similar backstory. Imagine being a small investor, buying GME shares at, say, $250 on Jan. 27, watching your investment nearly double the next day, but not being able to trade and exit your position profitably.

As previously stated, the Robinhood story is the intersection of several trends: fiercely independent millennials, ‘killer app’ technology, and the rewards reaped from the instantaneous decision making of like-minded people, all backed by institutions awash in venture capital, looking for the next big idea. I cringe at the thought that Robinhood may compete with what firms like mine provide for clients, namely deep expertise, sound financial advice, and disciplined investing backed by serious research.

FINRA, a regulatory agency that oversees brokerage firms, recently fined Robinhood $57 million and ordered $13 million in restitution to customers. It is the largest fine ever imposed by that regulator. In the press release, FINRA even referenced the suicide of a 20-year-old trader who panicked when his Robinhood app may have incorrectly displayed a massive $730,000 loss and received only a generic autoreply when he e-mailed Robinhood customer service three times seeking help.

Robinhood the idea is a good one. Robinhood the company has a lot more growing pains on the horizon, which likely won’t prevent the founders from becoming fabulously rich. And I have no problem with wealthy entrepreneurs, who typically risk everything for a single idea. Time and again, however, the investment profession is plagued with these stories in which investors are persuaded to pursue the next big thing. I think FINRA’s message is a powerful one. Now, if someone would just listen.

 

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.

 

Insurance Special Coverage

Give and Take

With five generations in today’s workforce, employee benefits are no one-size-fits-all proposition — yet, they remain a key issue for employers looking to attract and retain a skilled workforce. Striking a balance between what employees want and what the business can afford is certainly a challenge — but the flexibility and options available to employers these days makes the task a little easier to navigate.

By Mark Morris

Between demographic changes in the workforce and the impact of the pandemic, employers face multiple challenges these days in offering health insurance and other benefits to their workers.

In the U.S., 49% of people receive health-insurance coverage through their employer. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, that percentage represents approximately 156 million Americans. Many of those workers also receive coverage for dental care and disability, as well as access to a retirement plan as part of a complete benefits package.

And, despite the increasing costs of health insurance, employers are not cutting back on this essential coverage, said Peter Miller, partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield.

“They are trying to strike a balance between offering a benefits package that is attractive to new hires, while also trying to control costs and keep the business running,” he noted.

Traditional benefits, such as healthcare coverage and retirement plans, have always been important to employees. According to Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., traditional benefits make up the core of an employer’s value proposition to employees.

In putting together a benefits package, an employer decides whether a particular offering will be paid 100% by the employer, or use a cost-sharing approach in which employees contribute as well. A third option, known as a voluntary benefit, is completely paid for by the employee.

LIMRA provides research for the insurance and financial-services industry. One significant trend Leary has studied is the expanding demographics of the workplace.

“There are now five generations in the labor force,” he said. “The oldest workers are staying longer, while Gen Z is just beginning to enter the workforce.”

Each generation has different benefit needs, and they are all looking to their employer to address them. Voluntary benefits are one way for an employer to accommodate different needs among a diverse employee population.

Peter Miller

Peter Miller

“They are trying to strike a balance between offering a benefits package that is attractive to new hires, while also trying to control costs and keep the business running.”

“A company can offer a broad-based plan where some benefits appeal to younger workers and some to older,” Leary said. “Because they are voluntary benefits, the employer can address the various needs of their employees without increasing their costs.”

He emphasized the importance of employers working with a benefits consultant to find the right mix. “Part of the process involves the employer understanding their current employees and the types of workers they plan to recruit for the future.”

Employers typically add benefits to make their companies more attractive to the specific types of workers they seek. For example, Miller has been discussing benefit packages with a tech company looking to attract engineering graduates from prominent colleges. While traditional benefits are important, flexible work arrangements and college debt-repayment programs also have a strong appeal to this group.

“It’s important for employers to think outside the box to make themselves more attractive to the people they’re trying to hire,” he said.

College debt repayment offered as a formal benefit is relatively new, but it’s quickly becoming a popular benefit as more graduates enter the workforce saddled with large debt obligations.

Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said employers are using different tactics to help new employees manage their student-loan debt. Some employers offer a hiring bonus so new employees can pay off a chunk of their student loan.

Another approach allows employees to pay down their debt and contribute to their retirement savings at the same time. Based on his conversations with employers, Leary said the 401(k)/student-loan payment approach strongly resonates with young employees.

“The amount the employee pays each month toward their debt is matched up to 5% by the employer in a 401(k) plan,” Wise said. “This is helpful to young workers who would not normally be thinking about their retirement savings because they are saddled with debt.”

 

What COVID Wrought

There’s nothing quite like a worldwide pandemic to remind everyone of the importance of having healthcare coverage. After 14 months of operating during the pandemic, the benefits professionals BusinessWest spoke with cited two notable trends: an increase in telehealth offerings and usage, as well as an increased demand for mental-health services.

“There’s definitely been an increase in utilization for traditional medicine and mental health,” Miller said.

Wise agreed. “Employers are looking at the mental-health benefits covered under their policies and, in many cases, are augmenting those benefits with employee-assistance programs,” she noted.

A survey released in March by America’s Health Insurance Plans reported that 56% of employees said their telehealth and mental-health services are more valuable now than they were a year ago, before COVID-19.”

Offering wellness programs as a benefit is another trend that has gained popularity in the last several years. “Employers are adding or increasing benefits around wellness, nutrition, stress management, and other areas,” Wise said.

In addition to health wellness, Leary said employers are increasingly offering financial wellness programs as a benefit.

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“Some older employees might be sandwiched between taking care of their children and their parents at the same time, while others are looking at their planning needs for retirement.”

“If an employee is stressed out about their personal finances, it affects their productivity at work,” he said, pointing out that financial wellness is a benefit that can help employees at every stage of their careers by providing guidance tailored to their individual needs.

“It’s a chance to help younger employees get off to a good start and to check in with older Millennials, now approaching their 40s, about retirement planning and the telehealth benefit they can access,” Leary explained. “Some older employees might be sandwiched between taking care of their children and their parents at the same time, while others are looking at their planning needs for retirement.”

Because employees have so many different needs, communication around benefit offerings becomes essential. As COVID disrupted so many other norms, it also caused significant changes in benefit communications. But in this particular case, Miller said, the change was an improvement.

For years, the model for enrolling employees into a company’s benefit plan involved on-site meetings and speaking directly with as many employees as possible to make sure all their questions and concerns were addressed. Miller said the strong in-person presence continued even after the actual enrollments were done online.

“We’re doing many of our open-enrollment meetings now on Zoom,” he said. “One advantage is that you can gather employees no matter where they are for the live presentation, and they can ask questions, either by shouting them out or using the chat box.”

For employees who may be on vacation or traveling, the Zoom meeting is recorded and uploaded to a video-sharing platform like YouTube.

“Lots of people want to discuss their benefit options with their spouse,” Miller said. “Now they can, because everyone can access the presentation whenever they want.”

Miller said the video gives employers a tool they can use for the entire plan year. “When a new hire comes in, they can be directed to the link and listen in on the entire employee-benefit presentation. The video approach was one of the few positive developments that resulted from adjusting to COVID concerns.”

Sometimes, a new employee benefit can emerge from a catastrophe. At the onset of COVID, Leary said, employers were frantically setting people up at home just to keep their businesses in operation.

“Several months later, they began seeing the benefits of having people work from home,” Leary said. “While many are discussing a hybrid approach, where employees split their time between the office and home, working from home to some degree is now undeniable.”

Because his business lends itself to working remotely, Miller said his employees definitely perceive it as a benefit.

“If you asked me last February if working from home would be feasible, I would have said ‘no way,’” he noted. “But it not only works, it works very well.”

 

Help Wanted

These days, employers need every benefit they can offer when recruiting new employees. Despite businesses itching to expand, Miller said, employers face new challenges in doing so. “I’ve been doing this nearly 30 years, and I don’t ever remember so many different employers saying they can’t get good people.”

Local employers he’s speaking with are increasingly hiring workers from other states to meet their needs.

“My clients are looking for health plans that are more robust and have a national presence,” Miller said. “I’m hearing that from employers right here in Western Mass.”

For many, traditional benefits remain important, but they make up only a part of the employment experience. Leary said the move to remote work means employers and benefit consultants need to think in new ways to communicate benefits and enroll employees in a new hybrid environment.

“You can make the argument that flexible work schedules and the ability to work autonomously without having a manager look over your shoulder are also benefits that go beyond traditional health, dental, and disability plans,” Miller said.

It’s a trend to keep an eye on — one of many employers need to consider as they determine which benefits will attract and retain employees in a changing economy — while making sense for the company’s bottom line.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Selling Online?

In the early days of e-commerce, states attempted to get out-of-state companies to collect sales tax on transactions into the state — without success. Enter the Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision that physical presence is no longer needed, and if a company’s activity has substantial ‘economic nexus’ with a state, it can be required to collect sales tax. That means online businesses of all kinds may have tax exposure they’re not even aware of.

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST

 

The shutdown of stores and malls during COVID-19 fueled the already-prospering world of internet shopping. Many businesses were forced into direct-to-consumer marketing on their own webpages or using e-commerce online marketplace companies such as Wayfair, Amazon, and Etsy, just to name a few.

So, why is this important to you? Well, if you are one of those businesses who started selling direct to consumers on your website or if you turned a previous hobby into a business venture that markets using an online marketplace that does not collect sales tax for you, you might have a significant tax exposure you’re not even aware of.

In the 1980s and 1990s, states attempted to get companies to collect sales tax on transactions into the state. These companies were predominantly located out of state and were making sales via mail or telephone calls. The companies were not collecting sales tax on the transactions.

The states were less than pleased. One state, North Dakota, passed a law requiring any company engaging in ‘regular or systematic’ solicitation in the state to become registered for and collect sales tax. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a company needed to have a physical presence (employees, property, or offices) in a state before the state could require the company to collect sales tax. This landmark case was Quill Corp. v. North Dakota.

Quill made sales-tax compliance easy for companies: if a company was physically present in a state, it had to collect sales tax for that state. If the company was not physically present in a state, it did not have to collect sales tax, although it was inevitable that there would be some controversy about when companies were ‘present.’

Seeing revenues were on the decline, states began adjusting their tax laws or regulations. One by one, states devised new requirements to make companies collect sales tax. States enacted various laws or promulgated regulations to creatively find nexus, such as Massachusetts, which taxed sales based on an electronic ‘cookie’ on a computer, and New York, which developed so-called click-through nexus, taxing internet sales that were derived from clicking through advertisements on websites.

South Dakota was one state that enacted an economic nexus law. The South Dakota law says that if a seller makes $100,000 of sales into the state or has 200 or more sales transactions into the state in a calendar year, the seller must collect sales tax. The law did not impose sales taxes retroactively; it law was designed to provoke litigation and for the issue it raised to reach the U.S. Supreme Court as quickly as possible. South Dakota pursued four large companies it knew would meet its threshold. Three of those companies sued: Newegg, Overstock.com, and Wayfair.

The case became known as South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. After rocketing the case through state courts and losing, South Dakota took its arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Now, physical presence is no longer needed; if a company’s activity has substantial nexus with a state, the state can require the company to collect sales tax on sales into the state.

“If you are one of those businesses who started selling direct to consumers on your website or if you turned a previous hobby into a business venture that markets using an online marketplace that does not collect sales tax for you, you might have a significant tax exposure you’re not even aware of.”

Almost all states with economic nexus allow an exception for small remote sellers, which is determined by a remote seller’s sales and/or transactions in the state (the economic-nexus threshold).

Any remote seller whose sales into the state meet or exceed a state’s economic-nexus threshold must register with that state’s tax authority, collect and remit sales tax, validate exempt transactions, and file sales-tax returns as required by law. Remote sellers whose sales and/or transactions in a state are under the state’s threshold don’t need to register; however, they do need to monitor their sales into the state, so they know if they develop economic nexus.

Unfortunately, state economic-nexus thresholds vary widely. This seriously complicates nexus determinations.

In a post-Wayfair sales-tax world, how are states enforcing the new economic-nexus rules and identifying companies that fall within them? Given the budget shortfalls due to COVID-19, states are identifying new ways to increase their revenue, and what better way than enforcing the Wayfair economic-nexus rules as they relate to sales-tax obligations?

Accordingly, states have taken a broader perspective on enforcing economic-nexus rules on various sellers (including internet retailers) by creating new registration and collection tools for all registered sellers. Under this new nexus standard, it is important to note that, if states find that the taxpayer purposefully did not comply with state law, then the departments of revenue (DORs) can not only require that the taxpayer pay back sales tax, but also assert that it is liable for penalties as well as interest.

 

Since the Decision

In the nearly three years since the Supreme Court in Wayfair upheld South Dakota’s economic-nexus law, overruling the court’s physical-presence precedents, states have faced challenges enforcing this new nexus standard on remote internet sellers, given that traditional audit approaches leverage information that is geared toward identifying sellers with some physical identity or connection within the state.

For example, if employees work in the state, the entity is required to file payroll taxes, or if the entity owns real property, then DORs can obtain real property and tax records to help validate sales tax compliance or identify potential audit targets. Economic nexus, however, provides fewer avenues for states to prove that an entity should collect sales tax in comparison to traditional physical-presence standards, where data is more readily available.

On the other hand, some states are taking an aggressive approach in seeking out taxpayers for compliance with the new nexus rules. For example, DORs are sending out more nexus questionnaires to various companies to, for all intents and purposes, scare them into compliance. Companies should take great care in responding to these questionnaires because states can use this information to force reporting for sales tax and other areas of taxation. To find targets, state auditors have been known to visit an e-commerce site and place an order to see if the seller charges sales tax. If no tax is charged, a questionnaire is then mailed to the seller.

Auditors can also check on companies that advertise heavily in their state or have achieved some level of public notoriety. States will also continue to look for sellers that may have established facilities in their state to make sales or store inventory. A facility or in-state inventory constitutes old-school physical presence and can be the basis of an audit stretching back to well before economic-nexus standards came into existence.

Some states are now ostensibly working to make sales-tax compliance and collection easier for taxpayers. Some examples include websites that allow users to manually calculate sales tax based on address, or an application programming interface (such as California’s) that can be integrated into retailers’ online order forms to determine the appropriate rate and taxing location in real time.

A majority of states now have such a lookup tool in one form or another. Arkansas has a tool for searching by ZIP code or address. The state of Washington’s lookup tool incorporates a state map, allows searching by geographical coordinates, and calculates the tax for any given taxable amount of sale. Colorado’s site incorporates a clickable map and provides a breakdown of tax-rate components.

Companies should be aware of and monitor their physical and economic presence nexus on a quarterly basis. Also, companies should defend against and challenge state assertions concerning sales-tax nexus rules, as well as petition Congress for clearer and more equitable nexus guidelines, especially during these times of financial upheaval caused by COVID-19. If organizations decide to register to collect sales tax in a state, they should take advantage of any benefits and tools the state is providing.

A company will be in a better position to manage its sales-tax collection responsibilities for a state if it determines whether it has physical or economic nexus before it receives a notice, letter, or nexus questionnaire from the state DOR.

 

Kris Houghton is a partner and executive committee member at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Accounting and Tax Planning

Death and Taxes

By Jim Moran, CPA

 

On April 28, the Biden administration released its FY 2022 revenue proposals. Along with raising the corporate tax rate to 28% and the top individual rate to 39.6%, widespread changes have been proposed to the capital gains tax rate and estate tax.

Under current federal law, upon death, property passes to a beneficiary at fair market value, with a few exceptions. This means the beneficiary’s basis generally becomes the value of the property at the decedent’s date of death, also referred to as ‘step-up in basis.’ For gifts made during a donor’s lifetime, the donee receives the donor’s basis in the property. This means the donee’s basis remains the same as the donor’s basis, generally original cost plus any improvements. No taxable gain or loss occurs upon the transfer of the property. Gain or loss is realized only when the property is eventually sold.

Under the Biden administration’s proposal, transfers of appreciated property upon death, or by gift, may result in the realization of capital gain to the donor or decedent at the time of the transfer. This means tax may be triggered at the date of the transfer regardless of whether the property is subsequently sold. This would be accomplished by eliminating the step-up in basis upon death of a decedent and requiring a tax be paid on a portion of the value of a gift made.

Fortunately, the Biden proposal would allow a $1 million per-person exclusion from recognition of unrealized capital gains on property either transferred by gift or held at death. The per-person exclusion would be indexed for inflation after 2022 and would be portable to the decedent’s surviving spouse under the same rules that apply to portability for estate- and gift-tax purposes (making the exclusion effectively $2 million per married couple). It is important to note, however, in the case of gifts, the donee’s basis in property received by gift during the donor’s life would be the donor’s basis in that property at the time of the gift to the extent that the unrealized gain on that property counted against the donor’s $1 million exclusion from recognition.

“Under the Biden administration’s proposal, transfers of appreciated property upon death, or by gift, may result in the realization of capital gain to the donor or decedent at the time of the transfer. This means tax may be triggered at the date of the transfer regardless of whether the property is subsequently sold.”

Tangible personal property (other than collectibles) would also be excluded from the triggering of gain. The exclusion under current law for certain small-business stock would remain, and the $250,000 per-person exclusion under current law for capital gain on a principal residence would apply to all residences currently allowed under IRC Section 121 and would be portable to the decedent’s surviving spouse, making the exclusion effectively $500,000 per couple.

The Biden proposal allows for some exempt transferees. Property transferred by a decedent to a charity would be exempt. Transfers by a decedent to a U.S. spouse would be at be the carryover basis of the decedent, and capital gain would not be recognized by the surviving spouse until the surviving spouse disposes of the asset or dies.

In addition to transfers upon death or gift to an individual, transfers of appreciated property into, or distributed in kind from, trusts (other than revocable grantor trusts) and partnerships may be treated as recognition events for the donor or donor’s estate. Valuation is another important concern in regard to a partial interest. The transfer of a partial interest would be at the ‘proportional share.’ Valuation discounts for minority interests will not apply.

Under Biden’s proposal, the donor would report any deemed recognition events on the donor’s gift-tax return. A decedent would report any capital gains on an estate-tax return or, potentially, a separate capital-gains return. A decedent would be able to offset capital gains against any unused capital-loss carry-forwards and up to $3,000 of ordinary income on their final individual income-tax returns. Any capital-gains taxes deemed realized at death would be deductible on the decedent’s federal estate-tax return if required.

The proposal would be effective for gains on property transferred by gift and on property owned at death by decedents dying after Dec. 31, 2021.

With a 50/50 partisan split in the U.S. Senate, it is currently unclear what the final proposal will end up being. Now is the time to start thinking about the how the proposed changes will affect you. Make an appointment with your tax or financial-planning professional to discuss what steps you should consider taking. You may need to be willing to act quickly should these proposals become reality.

 

Jim Moran, CPA, MST is a manager with Melanson CPAs, focusing on commercial services and tax planning, compliance, and preparation.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

 

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and the Commonwealth’s business community join with our fellow citizens in celebrating the first official state observance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 — June 19 — that the last enslaved people held in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom, two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The day is both an historical observance and an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of African-Americans here in Massachusetts and throughout the nation. It is also a reminder of an event largely ignored by history texts, much like the Tulsa massacre that took place 100 years ago.

AIM — as an organization committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion — regards the day as a symbol of the importance of creating an economy that provides opportunity for all the citizens of Massachusetts.

“The Juneteenth holiday is a long-overdue teaching moment about the contributions and history of a people who were instrumental in building the country. Reminders of what has kept us apart are necessary to forming bonds that bring us together moving forward,” said Donna Latson Gittens, founder of MORE Advertising in Watertown and a member of the AIM Executive Committee.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill last July making June 19 a limited-scope holiday, analogous to Patriots’ Day, Presidents’ Day, and Martin Luther King Day. Private employers may elect to observe the day but are not required to do so. Creation of the state holiday came amid a national racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd and several other black people during encounters with police.

Employers plan to mark Juneteenth in various ways.

AIM member National Grid announced that all of its U.S. employees, including 6,336 employees in Massachusetts, would be given the Friday before Juneteenth off as “a symbol of our dedication to honoring black Americans who have suffered the impacts of racism throughout U.S. history,” according to Natalie Edwards, the company’s chief diversity officer.

The company encouraged its workers to use the time off as “a day of reflection and to celebrate black communities, particularly in the neighborhoods where they live and work.”

AIM members New Balance, Foley Hoag, Boston University, Harvard University, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries have also instituted Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Other members, such as Fidelity Investments and Santander Bank, are conducting or sponsoring online events to discuss diversity and financial issues in communities of color.

When Baker signed the law last July, it was in recognition of “the continued need to ensure racial freedom and equality,” he said. “Juneteenth is a chance for us all to reflect on this country’s painful history of slavery and the systemic impact that racial injustice continues to have today. It is also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the goal of creating a more equal and just society.”

 

John Regan is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Construction Special Coverage

Framing the Issue

Few industries have been immune to the supply shortages and rising costs that have plagued the world economy over the past few months, but construction is especially vulnerable, relying heavily on materials — most notably lumber and steel, but dozens more as well — riddled by soaring prices. The good news is that demand for work is high, but many still worry about the long-term implications of a cost problem with no end in sight.

 

By Mark Morris

Early in 2020, several lumber mills and steel plants expected demand for their products to take a nosedive once the pandemic hit, so they slowed down or closed some of their operating plants. Instead, after only a brief hiatus in March, home and commercial construction resumed — and then significantly increased.

For Bob Boilard, vice president of Boilard Lumber, the decreased supply of lumber and growing demand have created multiple challenges. Orders for lumber that once took a week for delivery now have vague timetables and constantly changing prices.

“Pricing right now is set at the time of shipment, so we don’t know exactly what it’s going to cost us until it’s on the back of a truck,” Boilard said.

Because lumber prices change so often, Boilard and dealers like him study the commodity market every day to make sure they stay current. At press time, an eight-foot 2-by-4, used primarily to frame houses and certain commercial buildings, had increased to $11, up from $4 several months ago, a price hike of 175%.

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says shortages are nothing new in construction, but so many types of materials being in short supply at one time is very uncommon.

Construction professionals have called this an unprecedented time. Price hikes and shortages of certain building materials are nothing new to the construction industry, but no one has seen inflation and scarcity of so many supplies that go into building a house or a business.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers who said we are currently in a perfect storm of greatly increased demand, COVID-related manufacturing slowdowns, and, literally, storms.

For instance, back in February, ice storms knocked out the power grid in Texas, shutting down several resin plants there and in neighboring Louisiana for several weeks. The resins from these plants are used in a broad range of building products, from adhesives to make plywood to the plastic that insulates electric cables. The resins are also used in many paints and primers.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products. In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

Dan Bradbury, director of Sales and Marketing for Associated Builders, said the commodity price he follows closely is cold rolled steel. Most of the structures his company builds are pre-engineered metal buildings for commercial and industrial use.

“Cold rolled steel prices have increased 225% since last August,” Bradbury said. Due to shortages in getting the steel, he tells customers the building they order today will be delivered in about 20 weeks. Before COVID-19, that same project would take 10 to 12 weeks.

Increases and shortages don’t end with commodities, but also affect other materials involved in construction. Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction, said an electrical contractor told him about the price instability of a heavy-duty cable used in commercial applications.

“His supplier would only hold the price for one day,” Sweitzer said. “Usually, our material prices are good for 15 days, so we’re not used to seeing this.”

What makes this time different is the broad array of materials impacted, said Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products,” he noted. “In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

As someone who builds medical and dental offices, Sweitzer uses steel studs in place of 2-by-4 wood studs for interior wall partitions. At one time, the two products were close in price. While prices for both have increased, a steel stud is now far less expensive than wood.

“While the price of a steel stud has increased about 30%, it’s well below the double and triple price hikes we’ve seen with wood,” he said, adding that he’s also experienced shortages in random materials such as joint compound to finish walls, acoustical insulation, and interior doors. “There’s a particular style of door we use that once took a week to get. Now it can take eight weeks, and the price has increased.”

 

Steady On

Despite shortages and price hikes, the construction managers we spoke with are all grateful to have plenty of work scheduled.

“I’m fortunate to be busy, and at the same time, it’s incredibly stressful to keep everyone happy and meet deadlines,” Riley said. “It’s a crazy time right now.”

To manage some of that craziness, he has invested in a new tool, a CRM (customer relationship management) system.

“Through our system, we can keep everyone on the same page, and it allows customers to check in on their project,” Riley said. “By staying in closer contact with our customers, they’ll know immediately about any issues that might slow down a project.”

Managing expectations becomes essential when prices and timelines are uncertain. When someone wants a fast turnaround on a project, Bradbury gives them straight talk. “We’re honest and upfront with our customers as to what’s realistic,” he said.

Some customers have chosen to delay their projects, anticipating that prices may come down. Bradbury said that may work for some, but when a company needs a building to grow their business, they can’t always wait it out.

“My advice is to build it sooner rather than later because we are more likely to see further price increases,” he said. “Also, with lead times so long, the sooner you get in the queue for your project, the better off you’ll be.”

Beyond materials, shortages have also extended to the human element. Riley said finding laborers for home building has always been challenging, and the increased demand for new homes only exacerbates an already-tough situation.

One of the thorniest challenges to solving supply shortages, Boilard noted, involves finding truckers to move the goods. “You can’t get drivers to get behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. There are lots of trucking jobs open right now, but few people to fill them.”

Construction workers were deemed essential during the pandemic, so their time off the job was brief. Bradbury said the short shutdown allowed his company to retain most of its workers. “Some of our subcontractors have felt labor shortages, but we are grateful that has not had a significant impact on our business.”

When COVID first hit, Sweitzer gave all his employees a raise to make sure they were compensated well enough to stay with his company. “We’ve been lucky because we have an extremely good and loyal crew. I’ve found that good labor is worth the investment.”

 

Looking Ahead

Predictions on when prices and supplies might stabilize is anyone’s guess. Boilard explained that his company determines its lumber-buying needs early in the year, which these days is a real challenge. If a dealer stocks up heavily now only to see prices eventually crash, they are stuck with expensive inventory in a market that no longer supports those higher prices.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

“It’s not a fun time because we have to do a balancing act of meeting our customers’ needs without having too much inventory on hand,” he said.

Riley has seen conflicting predictions about lumber prices dropping either at the end of 2021 or sometime in 2022. He’s seen lumber and electrical wire come down before, but he’s more concerned about other materials that go into building a house.

“In my years in business, when windows, siding, and roofing shingles increase in price, I’ve never seen them come back down,” he said. “I think increases like that are here to stay.”

Bradbury said he can’t predict what will happen in his industry, but he hopes to see the supply of steel catch up to demand by the end of this year. “My best guess is supply will get better and lead times will improve before we see prices start to stabilize.”

Sweitzer noted that he has a degree in management, while his two sons have degrees in economics and business administration, so they often discuss what may lie ahead. And their conversations have been optimistic.

“Markets always find some level of equilibrium, and I believe that will happen in this market,” he said. “Market equilibrium may take a temporary vacation, but it has always returned, and I think it will again.”

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

While the economic reopening is being called the ‘new normal,’ things aren’t back to normal, really — at least not by pre-pandemic standards. With COVID-19 still lingering, developments like the loosing of mask and gathering rules and a growing call for employees to return to the office have only ratcheted up the stress and anxiety among a broad swath of the population. In other words, for many, returning to the world as they knew it will be a gradual process.

By Mark Morris

In these unique times when COVID-19 is still active but in decline, we all have lots of questions about how to navigate daily life.

For example, if you have been vaccinated, should you continue to wear a mask? Why does the CDC say you can go without a mask, yet many public places still require one?
Should we still socially distance and sanitize in certain situations?

And, importantly, how much anxiety are such questions causing these days?

Answers can come from many places. Lauren Favorite, assistant program director with Behavioral Health Network, noted that, while information can be good, an overload of messages from different sources results in confusion.

“When we are bombarded with a plethora of information, it’s difficult for people to make a singular choice that will be the right one for them,” Favorite said. “Too much conflicting information can create anxiety.”

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

BusinessWest spoke with several behavioral-health professionals who said much of the stress people are feeling right now is rooted in their concerns about how safe it is to go back into the world. Despite the May 29 reopening of Massachusetts, allowing everything from restaurants to sports arenas to fully welcome the public, Alane Burgess, clinic director for MHA’s BestLife program, said many people still do not feel safe going to the supermarket.

Alane Burgess

Alane Burgess says it’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than to unlearn that mindset.

“It’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than it is to be unafraid,” Burgess said. “Even when we’re told everything is OK, people still have questions.” As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus and scientists are still learning about it, continued concerns about personal safety are not surprising.

A recent research article looked at the trauma experienced by refugees after they emerged from a war-torn country. Favorite said their experience serves as a metaphor for these times.

“In the war zone, they had to develop certain habits and routines as a way to survive,” she said. “Once they escaped and reached a safe place, they held on to those behaviors because they didn’t know how else to act.”

All behaviors have a motivation, she continued, and the ones we followed to stay safe during the pandemic served us well. As we move beyond the pandemic, however, it’s time to examine if those behaviors are still serving us.

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose,” Favorite said. “I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

 

Baby Steps

For many, entering back into the world needs to be a gradual process. Kathryn Mulcahy, clinic director for Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the Center for Human Development, encourages her clients to start small.

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps,” Mulcahy said. “You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

As an incentive to go out again, Burgess advises her clients to make a bucket list of activities they are excited about doing again. “Making a list reminds people of what brought them joy before COVID and can help motivate them to get back to doing those things again.”

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

“I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

COVID also had a significant impact on the nature of work. Depending on the occupation, some people reported to work every day during the pandemic, while others followed a more hybrid approach of working at home some days and at the office other days. A third group has been working from home since last March.

Employers have begun asking Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, how to proceed as we move toward the end of the COVID era.

“Companies are struggling with how to translate all the different mandates,” Brock said. “They are having as much anxiety as their employees.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, employers are allowed to ask if an employee has been vaccinated. In some cases, they can require vaccination in order to report to work. Exceptions are allowed for those protected by legal rights, such as individuals who have disabilities or those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Brock said even those distinctions beg more questions. “What if I’m vaccinated, but the person next to me isn’t? How is that going to work with masks, social distancing, and other considerations?”

When there is no clear-cut direction, individuals usually figure out how to keep themselves safe. Brock said even modest steps to take control over one’s health can help reduce anxiety. “If that means you are the only one in the office wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine.”

Finding a comfort level at work and in the world ultimately depends on the individual. Burgess emphasized that everyone is on their own journey, and it’s OK to move at a different pace than others.

“I advise people to be patient with themselves and not make any self-judgments just because their comfort level is different than their friends or co-workers,” she said.

One clear demand Brock has heard from workers involves flexibility in work schedules.

“For the most part, people have enjoyed working from home because it makes child care easier to manage, they have been able to match or exceed their productivity, and many report lower stress levels,” she said.

With that in mind, many employers are looking at a hybrid model and trying to figure out the right mix between working at the office and from home.

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps. You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

A return to the office also means remembering how to be a colleague. Even if co-workers talk remotely every day, Mulcahy said people can get out of the habit of face-to-face conversations.

“As silly as it sounds, practicing an in-person conversation with someone outside your bubble is one more way to prevent that overwhelming feeling of being thrown back into the workplace,” she explained.

Beyond water-cooler discussions, Burgess said a successful transition back to the office also requires companies to be tuned in to the apprehensions their employees may have. “It will be important for people to have an open dialogue with their employers about any anxieties or concerns they may be feeling.”

Added Favorite, “as a supervisor in the workplace, I’m having conversations with my staff to assuage their fears about coming back on site.”

 

Talk About It

One key to putting COVID behind us is recognizing what everyone has gone through since last March.

“For the past 14 months, we’ve lived in a world full of trauma,” Burgess said. “The idea that we can suddenly go back to the way everything was is an impossible task.”

Mulcahy said she has heard from people who are embarrassed because they feel stressed and anxious about returning to a more normal life.

“They feel like they should be happy and excited that people are vaccinated, but instead they just feel worried,” she noted. “I want people to know they are not alone and they can reach out for help to navigate these feelings; that’s why we’re here.”

Burgess also pointed out that life was different during the pandemic, and we should accept that we are not the same people we were before.

“Our life has changed, and we have changed in some of the ways we think, how we feel, and what feels safe,” she said. “It’s important to respect who we are today because that, too, is part of the process in getting back into the world.”

When everyone was forced to suddenly deal with a pandemic, it created anxiety for many. Now, as the pandemic (hopefully) nears its end, that creates anxiety, too. Those who spoke with BusinessWest agree that talking about this stress, and letting people know their feelings are valid, will go a long way to easing everyone’s anxiety.

After all, Favorite said, “we’re still learning how to be in a world where we don’t have to worry all the time.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says businesses in town, including her own, Berkshire Hills Music Academy, are anxious to ramp up operations as the economy reopens.

 

For Mike Sullivan, the past 15 months have been a learning experience on many levels.

As town administrator in South Hadley, Sullivan has learned just how essential online payment systems and Zoom meetings have become for residents who need to do business with the town.

“As we make more access points available to the public, we’ve seen participation in government increase,” Sullivan said, adding that, while many people are looking forward to meeting in person again, Zoom is also here to stay.

The pandemic also taught him about the efficiencies of running Town Hall. By limiting in-person visits to appointment only, staff have been able to more efficiently get business done. Going forward, he looks to follow a model other towns have adopted of limiting hours or closing to the public one day a week.

“There are multiple ways to take care of business,” Sullivan said. “I appreciate that some people have complicated business they need to conduct in person, and we will accommodate them. When residents use online platforms or even ‘snail mail’ instead of visiting Town Hall, it saves money for the town and for everyone’s individual taxes.”

Sullivan made plenty of adjustments to keep South Hadley moving forward during the pandemic. Attendees to last year’s town meeting, for example, never left their cars.

“People tuned into the discussion over their car radios, just like an old drive-in movie,” he said. A similar drive-in town meeting is planned for this year, but there will also be a seating area for those who feel safe enough to leave their cars. “We’re looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley and Granby Chamber of Commerce, said one indication of a return to normalcy is the “we’re hiring” signs around town. She acknowledges there are many factors why people are not immediately returning to work, but even with recruitment issues, the signs represent a positive step.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce,” she said.

As the end of the pandemic nears, Theroux credits the South Hadley community for its support of small business. From restaurant takeout orders to holiday shopping, it was local people who provided enough support so that no chamber-member businesses permanently closed due to the pandemic.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive,” she said. “It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Because small business is such an essential part of South Hadley, banks in town worked with the chamber to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds for businesses in town. In addition, the chamber recently partnered with the Northampton chamber and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to secure $20,000 in state grants.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce.”

The chamber also spread the word among its members on how they could help each other, as well as support businesses that are not necessarily top of mind.

“If you look at the South Hadley Commons, we all think of the great restaurants there,” Theroux said. “The Commons also has a movie theater and a number of small boutiques that offer unique and personalized items you can’t find at a big-box store.”

 

Forward Momentum

One key project that kept going during the pandemic involves the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza. At one time the site of a Big Y supermarket, the parcel now features various retail stores anchored by Rocky’s Hardware. The site has been approved for a 60-unit, mixed-income apartment complex that will occupy three acres in the back of the parcel.

“Way Finders of Springfield is running the housing-complex project, and they are waiting for federal funding to come through before they break ground,” Sullivan said.

Theroux is excited about the project because it provides a glimpse at the future of development.

“At Woodlawn, you have a multi-use site with different types of businesses and living options all in one central location,” she said, while predicting that the entire area surrounding Woodlawn will see a revitalization over the next several years. As one example, Northampton Cooperative Bank and PeoplesBank have recently opened branches in or near the Woodlawn Plaza.

Sullivan also pointed with pride to the new senior center on Dayton Street, which is scheduled to open June 30.

“We were able to successfully build the senior center during the pandemic, and the costs were below the estimated bids,” he said. “Even with increases in some of the materials, we will still come in nearly $700,000 under the original estimate.”

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $19.46 (Fire District 1); $19.80 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

Six years ago, Mohawk Paper opened a plant in South Hadley to great fanfare and optimism for a long relationship with the community. Last year, in pursuit of more favorable taxes and incentives, the company closed its operations in South Hadley and moved to Ohio.

As tough as it was to see Mohawk pack up and leave, Sullivan noted that E Ink, the company located across Gaylord Street from the former Mohawk plant, has good news moving forward. “E Ink is planning to double in size because they have a new product line coming out.”

E Ink makes the agent used in tablets like the Amazon Kindle, which allows an electronic page to read like a physical book. In addition to tablets, E Ink screens are used in a variety of applications ranging from signage at MBTA stations and international airports to retail price signs.

On top of contributing as a successful company, Sullivan noted that E Ink is a strong supporter of community projects and events in South Hadley.

Meanwhile, the Ledges Golf Club, owned by the town and a financial drag for many years, is on its way to performing at par. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, golf courses across the state were mandated to stay closed for several weeks. Sullivan called the lost months a “kick in the shins” because, once it opened, the Ledges did brisk business all season and came close to hitting a break-even point.

“This year, we made $200,000 in revenue in just March and April,” Sullivan said. “By the end of the fiscal year next June, we think the Ledges will break even.”

In addition to her duties as chamber president, Theroux’s full time job is executive director of Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a music-infused program that helps young adults with special needs to expand their social, vocational, and life skills. Before the pandemic, BHMA employed just over 100 people. Though it normally offers both residential and day programs, state mandates forced BHMA to quickly shift to remote classes for its day students. After furloughs and layoffs due to the new mandates, 64 staff remain.

“Our current state is a hybrid model where we have about 40% of our day students back on campus, with the rest joining us by remote,” Theroux said. “Once we can fully reopen, we’d like to staff up to where we were before the pandemic.”

Looking ahead to the fall, she wasn’t sure what to expect for new enrollments, but was pleasantly surprised to see strong numbers for BHMA’s incoming class.

“Once their loved one is vaccinated, many families are all in on our program, and that’s a huge positive for us,” Theroux said. “Three months ago, I would not have been as confident about what next year would look like.”

 

Back to School

After more than a year of remote learning, Mount Holyoke College students have begun to return to campus. While remote learning is still available, many have indicated they plan to return to campus in the fall.

“The presence of Mount Holyoke students back on campus will provide a real boost to South Hadley feeling normal again,” Theroux said.

Sullivan is on the move, too. After a long career of public service, he has announced he will retire in June. Looking back, he points to a number of projects he’s helped shepherd to success. One area of particular pride is the progress South Hadley has made in hiring a more diverse workforce. As an example, he mentioned Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen, who recently joined South Hadley’s force after several years in Amherst.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive. It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Sullivan in only one of South Hadley’s leaders who are moving on. Planning Director Richard Harris is also retiring, and the superintendent of schools left in December to pursue another professional path.

While grateful for their service to the town, Theroux sees this as a time for South Hadley to bring new faces into leadership roles.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future and a new era of leadership for our town,” she said, adding that she looks forward to people once again enjoying all that South Hadley has to offer.

Construction

Soaring Again

 

MassDevelopment has provided an $800,000 loan to Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC, which is using the proceeds to redevelop the former Eagle Mill and surrounding parcels in Lee into a mixed-use complex featuring 128 residential housing units and 14,000 square feet of retail and office space.

The developer used loan proceeds and additional financing from Adams Community Bank to buy 10 adjacent properties that will be combined and subdivided into six separate parcels for future redevelopment. Construction on the project, which is expected to cost approximately $55 million, is slated to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, with its first phase completed within 14 to 18 months.

“A priority of the Baker-Polito administration is to breathe life back into underutilized factory and mill buildings that were once integral to the Commonwealth’s industrial success,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors. “These properties are uniquely situated for redevelopment into mixed-use communities that accelerate economic growth and expand housing opportunities, and we were proud to deliver a $4.9 million MassWorks award to facilitate needed infrastructure work at Eagle Mill. MassDevelopment’s contribution of loan financing advances the transformation of the site and complements the other state, local, and private investments.”

“Bringing additional housing, businesses, and jobs back to Eagle Mill, a defining site in Lee’s industrial history, will be an important part of the community’s next chapter.”

Built in 1808, Eagle Mill is located along the Housatonic River in Lee. In the later part of that century, Lee was the national leader in papermaking and home to 25 paper mills. As operations dwindled, Eagle Mill closed in 2008 — resulting in the loss of 165 factory jobs — and has remained vacant since. The town received a $4.9 million MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant in 2018 to upgrade the water main in the town and install 9,000 linear feet of new water main to the development site, allowing the Eagle Mill project to move forward. The project is also supported with both state and federal historic tax credits.

“Bringing additional housing, businesses, and jobs back to Eagle Mill, a defining site in Lee’s industrial history, will be an important part of the community’s next chapter,” MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera said. “MassDevelopment is proud to be a financial partner in Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC’s plans to unlock the economic potential of this property.”

Jeffrey Cohen, the lead developer in the Eagle Mill redevelopment, has been involved in the project since 2012. He has done similar, large-scale historic restoration and redevelopment projects in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Maine; and St. Paul, Minn. DEW Construction, another partner and the project’s general contractor, brings similar experience and expertise to the effort, with projects of more than $150 million each year.

“It is incredibly fortunate that MassDevelopment has so many tools by which they are able to enhance the likelihood of our project’s success,” Cohen said. “They provide financing for predevelopment, amongst other things, which is otherwise so difficult to obtain, making their support invaluable to our project. The essential turning point that will lead to the project’s ultimate success was, and is, the approval by then-Secretary [Jay] Ash and MassWorks of the $4.9 million grant to the town of Lee, enabling the replacement of the water line to the mill, without which we would not have been able to move forward.”

MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development agency, works with businesses, nonprofits, banks, and communities to stimulate economic growth across the Commonwealth. During FY 2020, MassDevelopment financed or managed 341 projects generating investment of more than $2.69 billion in the Massachusetts economy. These projects are estimated to create or support 10,871 jobs and build or preserve 1,787 housing units.

Home Improvement Special Coverage

Upscale but Simple

While interior-design trends in homes can be slow to change — and, in many ways, have been, as evidenced by the white and grey colors that still dominate — the way people are using their homes did change somewhat over the past year. That, and a growing desire among older homeowners to age in place, has influenced what people are looking for in kitchens and bathrooms — and they have no shortage of options to achieve their vision.

By Mark Morris

 

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

 

 

While homebuyers want to put their own stamp on a new house, Scott Keiter said, when it comes to kitchens, they tend to think alike.

In fact, the owner of Keiter Builders currently has six new homes under construction, and for every one, the owners want kitchens that provide plenty of light, an airy feeling, and enough room for people to gather.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space,” he said.

In many cases, the anchor to this space is the kitchen island. While islands have been popular for years as a way to provide more counter and cabinet space, during the pandemic, they saw increased use for food preparation as people ate more meals at home. The island also served as a desk for many who suddenly found themselves working from home. As a result, Keiter said, islands have become more multi-purpose, and the kitchen is now seen as a multi-use space.

“On top of the normal cooking and food prep, we’re seeing a movement to make the kitchen a more communal room. It’s becoming a place to work from home, as well as a place for guests and friends to congregate.”

While the kitchen is becoming more of a gathering place and its form and function are changing, Dave Lloyd, manager of Budget Cabinet, said every customer looking to remodel that space shares one objective: convenience.

“While new houses allow for bigger islands, we do a lot of remodeling projects where people are limited by the footprint of their house,” he said.

Whether incorporating an island or not, one trend that addresses convenience and improved function is what Lloyd called “drawers over doors.” Many cabinet designs offer wide and deep drawers to store bulky or heavy items. That way, instead of making someone reach overhead for heavy dishes in a cabinet, a waist-high drawer allows for easier access — which becomes more important as people age.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space.”

Aging in place also comes into play in bathroom design, said Lori Loughlin, manager at Frank Webb Home. These days, she noted, handheld shower heads are the choice of nearly every bathroom renovation. Also popular are shower fixtures that combine a handheld with a rainfall feature.

“We work with many people who want to age in place, so we stress that a handheld shower is more convenient to use and clean the shower stall,” she explained.

Converting old bathrooms to accommodate a lower-threshold shower for the aging or physically challenged isn’t new, she added, but the styles are changing. “There are things we can do to make a shower safe and functional without it looking institutional. For example, there will be a seat and grab bars, but they are done with more style, so the result looks more like a spa.”

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Aging in place also affects kitchen design, where islands are available in multiple levels, with a lower level constructed to accommodate seniors or people in a wheelchair.

Because everyone is more aware of touching surfaces, touchless bathroom faucets and a toilet that flushes by waving one’s hand over a sensor are available as well. While once considered gimmicky, sophisticated toilet seats that have a warmer built in, along with a bidet, are growing in interest. Loughlin noted that these more premium seats also contribute to aging-in-place considerations by allowing people who might otherwise need assistance to take care of themselves.

Such bathroom renovations might seem like an indulgence, Lloyd said, but the result is a space that provides easier access and convenience, again, allowing people to live in their homes longer.

During this boom time in home building and renovations, BusinessWest caught up with several professionals who shared what their customers are looking for in their kitchens and bathrooms — for both their present and future needs.

 

Form and Function

Lloyd noted that today’s kitchens emphasize designs that are high-functioning and less ornate, and tastes are trending toward cabinet designs with clean lines such as the Shaker look, as well as simpler cabinet hardware.

While the overall trends haven’t changed much over the years, he added, colors have seen some changes. “Translucent cabinet stains are becoming popular because it gives you some color, but you can still see the grain of the wood. Whites and grays — both light and dark — are still very popular color choices.”

Lloyd said his customers want interesting but not ornate designs in kitchen backsplashes, while upscale appliances remain very popular in kitchen remodels, with stainless steel a popular option and black stainless on the rise as a trend.

Black may become the new neutral, Loughlin said, noting that touchless and black faucets are currently big sellers in kitchens. “For the next couple of years, I think we will be seeing a trend of faucets with mixed metals, such as black and gold,” she noted, while faucets with a black finish are trending in the bathroom as well.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

While white farmhouse sinks remain popular, she said they are now available in black and other colors to better match darker shades of quartz and granite countertops. Speaking of which, quartz has passed granite as the most popular stone countertop material.

“People are spending more time in their kitchens, so they are getting what they want,” she explained. The styles that resonate most with her customers include the contemporary farmhouse look and industrial chic, where faucets and lighting have a stylish but industrial look to them.

Lighting also reflects black and gold color schemes, with open fixtures creating an airy look. Pendant lighting, which once featured small pendants suspended from the ceiling, have grown into larger pendants that fill more space and provide more light.

Kitchen floor upgrades were once limited to hardwoods or tile floors made of ceramic or porcelain. Eclipsing both of those choices, the current most popular trend in flooring is LVT, or luxury vinyl tile. Resembling wood planks, LVT floors click into place and are known in the industry as ‘floating’ floors, so named because they are not glued down. Jake Levine, manager of Advanced Rug and Flooring Center, said the waterproof properties of LVT make it a best seller in his store.

“Because LVT handles water so well, it is replacing other more expensive alternatives,” he said. “LVT is also 40% warmer to the touch than a tile floor, and it’s not prone to chipping, also an issue with tile floors.”

Installing a hardwood or tile floor takes real expertise, Levine explained, noting that LVT floors can be a do-it-yourself project because they allow more room for error.

“If you don’t like the direction of the planks, you can unclick them and reinstall,” he said. “I’m not saying everyone will get the same results as a professional, but a capable DIY-er can do it.”

For customers who prefer a tile look, LVT is available in 24-by-12-inch pieces featuring stone patterns that click in place similar to the planks. This style and its waterproof properties make it a good choice for a bathroom, but Levine said most people still prefer porcelain or ceramic tile.

“For many people, the word ‘vinyl’ suffers from an old stigma of linoleum floors that discolored and peeled,” he said. “The click floors are very good for bathrooms because they are designed for areas that get water.”

As Western Mass. is known for its many older homes, a bathroom renovation can often involve converting a spare bedroom into a larger, more modern bathroom, usually adjacent to the master bedroom. Lloyd said this is a popular renovation among empty-nest couples.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

“People who want to stay in their home are figuring out how to use the same square footage, but improve it,” he explained. “The idea of living space is changing, where people will give up a bedroom for a luxury bathroom with better lighting, better shower, and more storage in the cabinetry.”

While many bathroom renovations replace the tub with a more upscale shower, Loughlin said that decision is usually driven by personal preference.

“There are bath people, and there are shower people,” she noted. “People who like to take baths will spend whatever they want for a bathtub, while those who only want a shower won’t even install a bathtub in their master bathroom.”

 

As Seen on TV

For those considering upgrading a kitchen or bathroom, popular media such as the HGTV cable network and social-media sites Pintrest, Instagram, and others offer endless examples of what’s new in design and accessories.

“Every customer who comes in has at least one Pinterest photo on their phone, or they reference something they saw on HGTV,” Lloyd said, adding that houzz.com is another influencer.

Meanwhile, Levine credits HGTV shows with increasing the awareness of LVT flooring. “The vinyl plank is now common knowledge thanks to them.”

Loughlin said the Frank Webb showroom carries several kitchen sink styles that appear on HGTV because customers often have a vision that is influenced by the network. While helpful most of the time, however, these shows can also contribute to outlandish and unrealistic expectations.

“Some people think they can redo their house in 30 minutes; it just doesn’t work that way,” she said. “It’s not unusual for the timeframe to surprise people, especially now, when hiring a contractors is more difficult because they are all so busy.”

While new trends emerge in kitchens and bathrooms, older ones are meeting their demise. In new homes, Keiter noted, people still want bathrooms that are upscale and functional, but use less space.

“Real estate is so expensive now, some people are reassessing where they want to spend their money,” he said. “Instead of a 250 square-foot bathroom with a whirlpool tub, they are opting to lose the whirlpool and reduce the overall size of the bathroom.”

Instead, he said, customers are spending their money in the kitchen or a sunroom, where they spend far more of their time.

In the spirit of simplicity and a clean look, Lloyd said the recent trend of glass cabinet doors is on its way out because “people like to put things away and not have to keep looking at them.”

He also noted that counter space for wine bars is starting to give way to dedicated cabinetry to house an emerging trend: coffee bars. “Wine was big for a while, but coffee has become bigger of late.”

Though tastes may differ, kitchen and bath professionals all agree that customers these days have plenty of options.

“Manufacturers are expanding their product lines to accommodate many different tastes and needs,” said Loughlin, giving people the opportunity to follow their vision or create their own style.

Law

Examining PFML

Paid family medical leave is now the law in Massachusetts. And while most all employers know that, they may not know all the provisions and eligibility rules for this important piece of legislation. They need to know, because failure to abide by all those provisions may be costly, in more ways than one.

By Katharine Shove, Esq.

 

Back in 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave program (PFML) into law. That legislation has now taken effect, and many employers have questions about exactly how the law works and to whom it applies.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, most eligible employees who work in Massachusetts are entitled to paid, job-protected time off from work to manage a serious health condition of their own; to bond with a child following the child’s birth, adoption, or foster placement; or to care for a family member suffering from a serious health condition.

Katharine Shove, Esq

Katharine Shove, Esq

“The PFML law has strict notice requirements. Employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date.”

The PFML program is run by the state’s Department of Family and Medical Leave, providing income replacement benefits to eligible employees. PFML benefits are funded by a payroll contribution deducted from employees’ wages. Under the PFML law, employers were required to begin such contributions on Oct. 1, 2019.

 

 

Who Is Eligible?

Leave under the PFML program applies to most W-2 employees in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal. Unlike the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Massachusetts PFML law says an employee is not required to work for a minimum length of time in order to be eligible for leave under the PFML law. However, an employee must meet the minimum-threshold earning requirements in order to be eligible for leave under the law.

 

How Many Weeks of Leave Are Available?

The PFML law requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 26 weeks of leave in a benefit year. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, eligible employees may be entitled to up to 20 weeks of paid leave to manage their own serious health condition. Eligible employees may also receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a child who is newly born, adopted, or placed in foster care, and up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the Armed Forces.

On July 1, 2021, employees will be able to receive up to 12 weeks to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Under the Massachusetts PFML law, a family member could be an employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, parent of a spouse, or parent of a domestic partner.

In the aggregate, eligible employees may not receive more than 26 weeks of paid leave in a benefit year, even if they have more than one family member who may need care.

 

Requirement of Written Notice to Employees

The PFML law has strict notice requirements. Employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date. Such notice must include information about the benefits under the PFML program, contribution rates, and job protections under the law. The notice to employees must also include an opportunity for an individual to either acknowledge or decline receipt. In addition to written notice, employers must display posters (issued or approved by the Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave) that explain the benefits available to eligible employees under the PFML law.

 

Application Process

Employees must inform their employers of their need to take leave under the law at least 30 days before the start of the leave, and before filing an application for leave with the state. Where reasons beyond an employee’s control prevent them from giving such advance notice, they must inform their employer as soon as is practical. It is then the employee’s responsibility to apply for leave through the Department of Family and Medical Leave, and the department will make the decision as to whether the leave is approved or denied. Once the department receives the employee’s application, the department will request information from the employer relative to the employee’s job status.

 

Important Considerations for Employers

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate or retaliate against an employee for exercising any right to which he or she is entitled under the law, including the right to request PFML leave. To this end, the PFML law has a strict anti-retaliation provision. If an employer takes adverse action against an employee during the employee’s leave, or within six months after their return to work, there is a presumption that the employer retaliated against the employee for exercising his or her rights under the PFML law.

It is then the employer’s burden to prove there was some independent and justifiable reason for taking the adverse employment action. Adverse employment action can include termination of employment, disciplinary action, or reduction in status, pay, or benefits.

The PFML law runs concurrently with other applicable state and federal leave laws, such as the federal FMLA and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Similar to the federal FMLA, a Massachusetts employee who returns to work after taking leave under PFML law must be returned to same or similar position as he or she had prior to their leave.

If an employee files a lawsuit against his or her employer for violation of the PFML law and the employer is found to be in violation of the PFML law, numerous remedies are available to the employee. These remedies include reinstatement of the employee to the same or similar position, three times the employee’s lost wages and benefits, and the employee’s attorney’s fees incurred in bringing the action.

 

Can Employers Opt Out of the Program?

Some Massachusetts employers can opt out of the PFML program and apply for an exemption from paying PFML contributions if they purchase a private plan with benefits that are as generous as the state’s plan, and which provide the same protections.

 

Get Assistance with Making Policy

The PFML rollout presents a great deal of new information to navigate both for employees and employers. A qualified attorney will be able to assist with interpretation of the PFML, amending current leave policies, and practical matters of doing business in this new benefit environment. For those with questions about the Massachusetts PFML program, the best protection is to seek guidance from an experienced employment-law attorney.

 

Attorney Katharine Shove is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. and a member of the firm’s litigation team. She works on matters of employment law involving discrimination and retaliation, wage-and-hour laws, and workplace policies and compliance; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

After a year when everyone got used to pivoting — and got sick of that word — Chicopee Mayor John Vieau is happy to be pivoting in a different direction.

Specifically, he made some adjustments to a standing meeting with his staff — but this time for a more positive reason. Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Vieau met three times a week with a COVID-19 task force made up of city department heads. He’s still meeting with the group, but their focus has now shifted from COVID to reopening Chicopee. Among the agenda items are reinstalling basketball hoops and opening essential city buildings.

“For the last year, anyone needing services at City Hall, the library, or the Council on Aging had to make an appointment, so we’re excited about welcoming the public again,” he said.

Vieau pointed with pride to municipal employees for all their efforts during the pandemic, noting that the city made it through the last 14 months without having to furlough or lay off even one employee. “The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Moving forward, proper training and advancement of city employees is a priority for the mayor. Noting that both the fire and police chiefs worked their way into the top jobs in their respective departments, Vieau wants the same opportunities for those who follow. “I want to make sure there is always a success ladder available for employees and the right training is available for them.”

Like every community, local businesses in Chicopee were hit hard by the pandemic. That’s why the city contracted with the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce to offer free grant application assistance to any Chicopee business.

“The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Julie Copoulos, executive director of the chamber, noted that, because her organization has such a large network, it’s able to get information out quickly and to find out what a small business might need.

“Many business owners just needed someone who could say, ‘hey, I think this grant application fits you and would be a good one to apply for,’” Copoulos said. “These programs can save a person’s business, but the application can be complex, so it really helps to have a person who has been through the process, to sit with you and get it done.”

 

Positive Shifts

Two Chicopee chamber members did not see a slowdown during the pandemic, but instead ramped up their efforts. Universal Plastics shifted its production to make COVID testing machines and face shields, while Callaway Golf manufactured the company’s top-end Chrome Soft golf ball in a year when the golf business jumped 8%.

“Universal Plastics is an excellent example of what great companies do,” Vieau said. “During a time of uncertainty, they modified their production to meet current demands.”

Copoulos credits Chicopee businesses for being resilient and adaptable during a challenging year. “It was amazing to see these folks turn on a dime and change their business model,” she said. “Now they are in the process of changing it back.”

A new Chicopee Center project conducted in partnership with MassDevelopment is designed to bring more business to downtown and support the businesses already there, the mayor noted. “I’m excited about the future of downtown. It will be a thriving area with a small-town feel, and it will be one of the coolest downtowns you’ll see.”

Chicopee officials recently selected a developer for the last parcel of the former Facemate property. Plans for the site include a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing is expected to locate.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site, showing the athletic-field complex and the renovated Baskin building.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park and plans to move all its operations from its longtime location in Hadley. The Food Bank is making the move to expand its warehouse space and locate closer to major highways. “We’re going to be right at the center of the effort to solve food insecurity,” Vieau said.

In addition to businesses reopening, new ones are locating in Chicopee. On the day BusinessWest spoke with the mayor, he had just attended a ribbon cutting for La Diaspora, a new art consignment store. Vieau also noted that the pandemic did not slow down construction of a new Florence Bank branch that recently opened on Memorial Drive.

Like communities everywhere, home sales in Chicopee are booming. Copoulos said Chicopee has an advantage over neighboring communities by offering some of the lowest residential real-estate prices in the Pioneer Valley.

“Chicopee has huge opportunity right now because young families are getting priced out of towns like Easthampton and Northampton,” she said. “Chicopee is accessible for first-time homebuyers, and I look forward to young families locating here.”

 

Back to School

Vieau also looks forward to Chicopee students returning to their schools.

“Nearly all our classrooms are air-conditioned,” he noted, “and we’ve enhanced the air quality in all the school buildings as well.”

Both Vieau and Copoulos spoke of a general feeling of optimism now that COVID-19 is more under control and the economy is opening back up statewide. Both were excited to talk about the Center Fresh Farmers Market starting in June. Hosted by the chamber, Center Fresh represents a chance for people to get together again.

“I’m excited that we will be able to see people on the street again, face to face,” Copoulos said.

Added Vieau, “efforts like this help reignite downtown. We’ve been on pause far too long.”

While he admits the pandemic was a true test for Chicopee, the mayor pointed out that the city is finishing strong. In addition to hosting a regional vaccination site at the Castle of Knights, the city has partnered with Holyoke Health Center and its mobile vaccine clinic. Overall, he believes Chicopee’s success in weathering the coronavirus is due to efforts by people all over the city.

“It has been a team effort with different people stepping up to help,” Vieau said, citing examples like library staff who made comfort calls to check in on people and help them sign up for vaccines, and the Council on Aging providing up to 300 to-go lunches five days a week. “People all over Chicopee were willing to redefine their roles and their jobs because they wanted to do the right thing.”

Law

Policy Decisions

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to examine their balance sheets. One of the areas that could be looked at is how much benefit a business is getting from its current insurance portfolio, and whether downsizing coverage could be an option.

In today’s world, a common feature of a business-insurance portfolio is employment-practices liability insurance (EPLI), which is different than traditional liability insurance and provides coverage for discrimination, wrongful termination, and other workplace issues.

EPLI typically covers discrimination claims based upon sex, race, national origin, age, and all other characteristics prohibited by law. This includes claims made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, associated state discrimination statutes, and other federal laws. EPLI policies usually provide coverage to the company, management, supervisors, and employees from claims that arise under the policy. EPLI typically does not cover wage-and-hour law violations, unemployment issues, ERISA, or COBRA matters.

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

“COVID has prompted myriad adjustments in the business world. EPLI is one of the expenses a company will want to examine to see if it is getting the most bang for its buck.”

Perhaps your business has been fortunate enough to avoid employment litigation over the past few years. Therefore, the cost/benefit analysis to your business will be different than a business that has been tied up in employment litigation in the recent past. The first obvious cost is the cost of purchasing the policy. Higher insurance coverage costs more than a policy with a lower-policy limit. In addition to the cost of purchasing the policy, businesses will also need to factor in the cost of the ‘retention’ it is required to pay in the event of a claim.

Retention is similar to a deductible in other insurance policies, and is the amount of expenses for which the business is responsible before the insurer will begin paying for the cost of defense. Insurers use retention as a way to avoid incurring the expense of defending against nominal or frivolous claims by passing on that expense to the business. Conversely, the business will also want to evaluate the amount of their retention prior to obtaining EPLI.

A business will need to evaluate its options if it is faced with a high retention and a small amount of discrimination claims that are usually resolved at the administrative level. Has your business had EPLI for several years and never exhausted its retention? Or does your business have a high volume of discrimination cases at the administrative level and also never exhausted its retention?

Another factor to consider in evaluating the cost of EPLI is your company’s approach to employment lawsuits. Businesses will need to have a consistent strategy when it comes to employment lawsuits. Is your company going to vigorously defend against all claims? If so, that may impact your decision on the cost of the EPLI policy you intend to purchase. How many claims are made against your company? The more claims are reported, the more the policy will cost, and the higher the retention amount will be. The increased retention will have an impact on the company’s budget for the next policy period.

COVID has prompted myriad adjustments in the business world. EPLI is one of the expenses a company will want to examine to see if it is getting the most bang for its buck.

 

Timothy M. Netkovick, 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 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

Changing the Dynamic

By Jeremy M. Forgue

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the workplace forever.

According to a report titled “Women in the Workplace – 2020,” women have been hit especially hard. As the report explains, “the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted corporate America in ways we’ve never seen before. No one is experiencing business as usual, but women — especially mothers, senior-level women, and black women — have faced distinct challenges. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.”

Gender and racial diversity are unquestionably beneficial to the workplace as it can lead to a wider talent pool with people who provide different perspectives and skill sets to utilize. With job rates slowly climbing back towards pre-pandemic levels, businesses need to put a conscious effort on recruiting and retaining female employees, and females of color in particular. Businesses small and large should re-evaluate their current practices and consider several ways to increase or maintain women in the workforce. Here are some suggestions from an employment-law attorney.

 

Flexible Schedules and Core Hours

This can be the easiest strategy, depending on your business. Allowing employees to establish their own schedules or flex the typical 9-5 business model can assist them in better balancing their home and work responsibilities. This option can allow parents to mold their schedule around daycare availability (e.g., 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) or split their shift around home responsibilities.

 

Forgiving Gaps in Workers’ Employment History

According to a study by ResumeGo, applicants with work gaps of greater than six months have a 45% lower chance of receiving job interviews. Millions have lost their jobs during the pandemic and remain unemployed. With so many individuals forced to exit the workforce over the past year, accepting gaps in employment is critical to eliminating these hiring barriers.

 

Offering Job Training or Cross-training

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that new job skills are critical in a more digitized working environment. Remote work and Zoom meetings are here to stay. Offering initial job training for skills and requirements that do not require certification or a degree will allow displaced workers a chance to gain useful skills in a new working environment. Similarly, cross-training employees to learn each other’s responsibilities (so long as their positions have enough overlap) can be effective when emergencies arise due to absences from work or other staffing challenges.

 

Create Mentorship Programs or Opportunities

A female-led or minority-led mentorship program can support and promote the advancement of under-represented groups within the workplace. Seasoned women employees can be great support structures for other women trying to begin their careers or advance within the company. Women who are currently excelling at their position or working in an executive-level position can assist other women dealing with similar daily challenges, such as work-life balance.

 

Re-evaluate the Businesses Culture

This one is more abstract and requires internal inquiries, but you should ask if your business provides a culture where women are valued or has a diverse demographic that is often desired by applicants. Ask yourself: is your workforce gender-diverse? What about the leadership positions? If the answer to these questions suggests unequal gender representation in the workplace, ask whether it is because of a culture that does not support women. Perhaps it’s more of a recruiting issue. In any event, you should dig deep for answers and insist on change.

 

 

Childcare Options

Providing on-site childcare is probably an option only for larger businesses. However, here are a few suggestions for all businesses to consider:

• Revisit your employee benefits. Do you already, or can you afford to, provide a childcare subsidy, childcare referral services for nearby locations, or extended paid leave?

• Partner with surrounding businesses. If your business space is too small to provide on-site childcare, reach out to nearby childcare locations and discuss rates and hours that could create a partnership between the businesses or, at the very least, a referral resource.

• Offer extended FFCRA benefits, which are available until Sept. 30, 2021, and can be used by employees to take time off for childcare or other COVID-19-related reasons.

 

Final Thoughts

After making positive strides in the workforce over the past decade, women’s participation in the workforce declined over the last year. To correct this trend, businesses will need to put a conscious effort toward recruiting women into their workforce.

 

Jeremy M. Forgue is an attorney with the law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

By Sean Hogan

 

As COVID-19 winds down and we begin to go back to our normal lifestyle, I find myself asking what is next.

Let’s look back and see what has changed in the business world over the last year. The economy came to a halt, there was a major strain on the supply chain, restaurants and bars were closed, and business stopped. Certain industries, including IT, thrived, but COVID affected everyone; it missed no one.

We at Hogan Technology had to embrace meeting, selling, and collaborating over videoconferencing. This was a major shift in our protocol. We were hesitant at first, but there was not much of an option. We, like everyone else, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon. I quickly realized that Zoom had some security issues, and we moved all our collaboration to Microsoft Teams. Teams has been easy to use and efficient, and it had integration with our current voice platform. In the beginning, we were limited to viewing four participants; thankfully, MS made some changes and improved the capacity for our Teams meetings.

I have been managing and selling for more than 34 years, and shifting to video meetings with clients at first was clumsy. I was conditioned to prepping for my meetings, driving to the client site, waiting in the lobby, and then meeting face to face with my client. It took a few video calls to get into a process, but then I started to see how efficient and productive they could be. The ability to bring in my team to collaborate with my clients has worked exceptionally well.

Our sales and discovery process has completely changed, and this old dog has learned some new tricks. We now send out invites that allow our prospects and clients to log into our videoconference, and I can introduce my team and our vision. I then hand over the presentation of any software or applications to my tech team. Once the presentation is done, I can share or review any proposals or quotes though a screen share. This allows me to go line by line and make sure the client completely understands our solution.

This new style of sales has worked very well. We are printing far less, engaging the client more productively, and saving fuel and time by not driving to the site. We will still gladly meet on site, but if the client is open to meeting online, that will be our first step. Video collaboration and presentations are here it stay, and we welcome and embrace the cost-savings technology.

There were lots of new terms thrown about during the pandemic, but the two that made me think were ‘new normal’ and ‘pivot.’ The new normal, in my mind, is constant change. I like to think we all embraced the new normal, seeing that we are engaged in technology, which is constant change.

I think ‘pivot’ is what we have always internally termed ‘nimble.’ One of the advantages of being a small business is that it does not take much for us to turn our ship; we are not a large tanker, but more of a go-fast boat. We can turn on a dime, we can make changes without having to get board approval, and we can move fast when we need to get out of our own way. COVID taught us all how to be nimble and how to change the way we do business. I am amazed and proud to look at the business community and see how people have pulled together and toughed out a brutal year.

Yes, we all pivoted, and we all learned to deal with the new normal, but, most importantly, we all got up, went back to work, and supported each other.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Making Change

As essential businesses that couldn’t shut down operations during the pandemic, banks and credit unions met some daunting challenges over the past year — both logistical and in meeting the needs of customers, many of whom were navigating difficult financial times. While things are starting getting back to normal now, the definition of ‘normal’ has shifted — and area banking leaders say they’ve learned some lessons they will certainly bring into the future.

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank’s call-center activity tripled over the past 14 months.

By Mark Morris

Winston Churchill gets credit for first remarking, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

For bankers in Western Mass., the COVID-19 crisis was in many ways a chance to learn what works best for their customers and their workers.

While branch offices for most banks have reopened, they were ordered closed to the general public at the beginning of the pandemic, opening to customers only by appointment. As a result, many customers relied on online banking to handle routine transactions.

For those who needed to open an account, it was no longer necessary to visit a branch, as the entire process can be done online, said Aleda De Maria, senior vice president, Retail and Operations for PeoplesBank, who noted that new account applications doubled in the past year, and the use of mobile deposits is up nearly 40%.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them,” she added. “We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

Because customers had plenty of questions amid the uncertainty of the past 14 months, De Maria reported a significant increase in activity on the bank’s phone lines. “Our call center tripled the volume of activity we would normally see. Now we’re back to what I would call a busy, but more normal level.”

As cars lined up at drive-up windows during business hours, many banks increased their use of video tellers to extend the hours tellers can be available. A video teller looks and functions like a standard ATM, but the customer can also reach a live professional when they have a more complex transaction.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them. We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

“It’s as if you are standing in front of a teller,” said John Howland, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank. “We had six of these in place before COVID, and they really worked well for us during that time when we could not allow people to come into the branches.” The bank has since added six more of its Teller Connect video tellers.

De Maria said video tellers made it possible to expand beyond normal business hours to even include Sundays.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says credit-union CEOs have been discussing the future of hybrid work arrangements, since employees will expect that flexibility.

“We can now offer banking services seven days a week without us having to keep our banking centers open seven days a week,” she noted, adding that the pandemic made one point crystal clear: customers want options, now more than ever. “Customers want the flexibility to either interact with someone or not to interact.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with several executives from local banks and credit unions about how they have weathered the past year, what lies ahead, and what they — and their customers — have learned.

 

From a Distance

In addition to new ways of serving customers, banks were challenged to become more flexible with their employees, many of whom were forced to work from home.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, recalled that, at the height of the pandemic, 30 employees worked exclusively from home while another 30 split their time between home and the office. Now, 47 employees are taking a hybrid approach of splitting their work time between the office and home.

“Going forward, employees are going to expect to have an option for some kind of hybrid between working at home and the office,” Welch said, adding that an online forum of credit-union CEOs recently discussed how a hybrid approach might work. “The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

“The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, said 176 of his employees work from home right now, and he has no immediate plans to require a mass return to the office.

“In fact, we are so confident in the success of the work-from-home model that we are consolidating one of our branches with a nearby operations center,” Bissell said. While Greylock has no plans to permanently close branches, it is looking into shared-space arrangements to increase efficiency and save on future real-estate investments.

All the bankers agreed that, when possible, they prefer personal interactions with their employees and customers. When that’s not possible, they are grateful for advances in technology that have made it easier to work from home. Sometimes it results in seeing certain jobs in a different light.

John Howland

John Howland says some positions, such as those in loan processing, are more suited for a remote setup than others.

“I never thought I’d say this, but there are some situations where the business and the task is better suited to work remotely,” Howland said, citing certain loan-processing positions as one example. “Because all the documents are electronic, it’s easy to measure a person’s productivity without looking over their shoulder.”

Bissell admits this past year has helped him understand how the pandemic affects employees in different ways.

“Those with school-aged children or who are caregivers have different needs than those who may be at risk themselves or have a partner who works as a first responder,” he said. “We must pay close attention to employee needs and build in opportunities to meet them where they are.”

Whether employees worked in the office or from home, they all stayed busy with mortgage applications for people buying new homes and for those looking to refinance at historically low interest rates.

“Our mortgage business was up nearly 65% last year,” Welch said. “As fewer houses are available for sale, we’re making up some of that slack in the refinancing area.”

He predicts slower growth could loom on the horizon, however. “There are only so many people who can refinance, and when you have less housing inventory to sell, it suggests a slowdown in the mortgage business may be coming.”

While the mortgage market is still active, Bissell pointed out there is a greater demand than housing supply, so Greylock is trying to help increase the supply. “We are partnering with local leaders to look at ways to stimulate development of more housing across the pricing spectrum,” he said, with the goal of a healthy housing market that is accessible to all members of the community.

On the flip side of new mortgages, job losses during the pandemic made staying current on mortgage payments a burden for many.

“We anticipated that people would have trouble when COVID hit,” Howland said, “so we allowed people to defer their mortgage payments without having to substantiate they had a need.”

 

By All Accounts

The pandemic — and the economic shutdown it ushered in — challenged business-banking clients as well, and for the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Greenfield Savings Bank created a task force of 43 employees to help local businesses process their loan applications. Employees often made calls on the weekend to clarify any point that might slow down the process. Several applicants received calls from Howland himself.

“It was amazing that no one complained for calling them at 8 p.m. on a Saturday,” he said. “They were all just happy we were working on their behalf.”

In the first round of PPP, Greenfield Savings processed 720 loans totaling around $60 million, and followed up with nearly the same amount in the second round. Meanwhile, the business-banking team at Greylock secured $30 million in PPP loans, which Bissell said helped save nearly 4,000 jobs in the Pittsfield area.

As everyone tries to figure out what lies ahead, bankers remain optimistic. Like every institution, Freedom Credit Union saw a surge in deposits after $1,400 pandemic-relief checks began landing in accounts, Welch noted. “People have only spent about 25% of their government checks, so there’s lot of pent-up demand out there.”

While banks had been increasing their use of technology anyway, industry data suggests COVID accelerated that shift by at least five years. Based on that trend, Welch sees bankers moving toward more of a consulting role.

“I think, eventually, people will visit a bank or credit-union branch when they need financial advice such as buying a home or a car,” he said. “Increasingly, they will handle their routine transactions online.”

Video teller machines are another example of the increased use of technology for everyday transactions.

“I think the pandemic made customers more willing to try new technology that we hadn’t offered before,” De Maria said. “We’ve seen some real success in their adoption of tools like our video banker.”

Still, while bankers are pleased with how well customers have adjusted to making technology part of their banking routine, they all look forward to the time when in-person banking becomes normal once again.

“When you get down to the basics, we provide relationship-based financial services,” Bissell said. “It’s really about personal relationships.”

In addition to engaging customers again, Howland said the camaraderie and collegiality of the staff being together is also essential.

“I’m a big believer in the small talk around the water bubbler,” he said, adding that the pandemic robbed people of those everyday social interactions that were taken for granted in the past.

“We are looking forward to a routine where we see our customers on a regular basis and we can have that friendly conversation once again,” he went on. “Everyone in our company is looking forward to that happening.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Class of 2021

Attorney, Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law; Age 34

Nick Amanti grew up in a family business where he learned life lessons he still follows.

For 60 years, his family has owned Advance Manufacturing, which provides precision-manufactured parts for a number of industries. Amanti was taught to treat the people who work for Advance like family. Though his career is outside the company, Amanti provides legal services for many different business owners and feels a true connection with them.

“I know how much they care about their business and how much they care about their employees,” he said, adding that it’s an honor to help his business clients. “It takes so much courage to actually start a business and take on the responsibility for yourself, as well as to help others support their families.”

Amanti’s decision to pursue a legal career was the result of a near-tragic event. When he was 18 years old, his father, David, suffered a brain tumor. Many of the people who came to their house were lawyers who worked hard to get all the family’s affairs in order. Amanti called this episode a turning point in his life.

“Watching them, I realized I could help people in their time of need, and I could help businesses through tough times,” he said. “Whether it was my family or other individuals, I felt this is something I could do.”

This story has a happy ending because his father survived the brain tumor, has returned to work, and these days enjoys golfing with his sons.

As an attorney, Amanti provides legal counsel to businesses from inception through all the services they need while they are up and running, to guidance at the end when a company decides to wind down.

He helped local businesses keep their doors open during the worst of COVID-19 by helping them claim federal PPP grants totaling more than $3 million. And when restaurants and taverns were hit hard by loss of business, he appealed to the state licensing board to allow them more time to pay their bills without penalty.

Meanwhile, among his many civic roles, he volunteers with the YMCA of Greater Westfield and bikes in the Pan-Mass Challenge, personally committing to raise a minimum of $5,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Center and the Jimmy Fund.

Through all that, his advice for a good life is simple. “Take pride in your work, show respect to others, and enjoy the ride.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Founding Executive Director, Teach Western Mass; Age 39

When two local school districts faced a severe teacher shortage, they called in Pema Latshang.

She began her career as a middle-school teacher in the Bronx and worked her way up as an education administrator. After nearly 10 years, Latshang, a Western Mass. native, returned to the area to live closer to her family and raise her two children where she grew up.

In 2015, she was hired as director of Professional Learning and Educator Leadership for Holyoke’s public schools. “In that role, I worked on professional development with teachers and figuring out how to provide more resources to support educators in Holyoke,” she explained.

In 2016, Springfield and Holyoke schools were both facing huge teacher shortages. Between the two cities, nearly 300 vacancies were emerging every year. On top of that, many of the shortages were in licensed areas such as special education, English as a second language, math, and science.

“Think about what it takes to find that many teachers,” Latshang said. “It was a huge issue that was putting a real strain on the schools.”

Administrators from the two cities formed a collaborative called Teach Western Mass (TWM), but they did not have anyone to run it, so they approached Latshang to be the founding executive director of the organization.

“We founded it with an objective of quantity, quality, and diversity,” she said. “So our aim is for highly capable teachers who represent diverse populations in our cities.”

In addition to recruiting, TWM has a residency program that provides training and licensing in specific areas of teaching. In its first year, the residency program placed 20 new teachers, then followed with 30 the following year and 40 last year.

“We hope to place more than 50 teachers this year from the residency,” she said. “That’s on top of our general recruiting, which can also be up to 50 teachers.”

Latshang knows that schools and communities have the potential to be inclusive places that accept and empower everyone to be their best. In her role with TWM, she works hard to make that potential a reality.

“I believe in seeing the good in people and building on their strengths,” she said. “Everyone is doing their best, so how can we help them achieve their goals?”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Operations Manager, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Springfield Technical Community College; Age 39

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

That’s a framed quotation in Vonetta Lightfoot’s office at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). Spoken by the Lorax, a Dr. Seuss character, it’s a guiding principle in her life.

“I keep that quote in my mind to make sure I do my part to inspire people, engage students, and help them be global citizens,” she said.

Last year, as the world reacted to the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matters protests gained momentum, Lightfoot wondered aloud to her husband, “how does it feel to be a man of color in the country right now?”

She processed that thought further, discussed it with colleagues, and eventually turned the idea into “Heart of a Man,” a discussion series designed to explore issues that affect men of color.

Lightfoot has expertise in organizing events and bringing people together, but COVID-19 restrictions forced her to quickly learn Zoom and reimagine the series as a virtual discussion.

“The sessions are centered on a main topic with three or four men and a moderator, then we open it to the audience for questions,” she explained. Topics have ranged from healthy masculinity and being a father to police violence.

“Heart of a Man” has received a great response on campus and with community partners. By recording and posting each discussion on YouTube, the series has been viewed more than 4,200 times. Its success has led to a second season of discussions, presentations at other local colleges, and a focus group on campus.

The virtual format turned out more positive — and impactful — than Lightfoot could have imagined. “It’s easier to participate virtually than coming to campus, and with YouTube, we reach more people than we could have with an in-person event.”

An initiative like this is just one reason Lightfoot loves her job at STCC, because it gives her the chance to “dream things up and then make them happen.” After creating “Heart of a Man” in that spirit, she almost echoed the Lorax as she explained why she pursued the idea.

“I feel like, if I don’t care, how will things get done? How is it going to get better?”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

President and CEO, DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center; Age 36

When someone who is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease meets Chad Moir, he asks if there is any activity they did before their diagnosis that they wish they could do again.

Moir uses exercise programs to help people stop or slow down the progression of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that increasingly robs the body of dopamine, which is released during exercise. Moir chose DopaFit as the name of his company to suggest improving a person’s dopamine fitness.

“Parkinson’s wants to make a person small — crunch down and take small steps,” he said. To counteract that, exercises for his clients are overexaggerated, featuring big body movements. “Applied to someone’s daily life, the exercises we work on in class will correlate to them having a normal walking pattern.”

Moir became involved in the Parkinson’s community when his mother became afflicted with the disorder and eventually died due to complications from the disease. “The love she gave me for many years is the same love I have instituted into DopaFit in helping people with Parkinson’s disease,” he said.

Because high-intensity exercise works so well for Parkinson’s patients, boxing is a centerpiece of the activities at DopaFit.

“Boxing elevates your heart to a rate almost equal to running around the block, without putting the stress on your knees and joints that you would get from running,” Moir said, adding that, in addition to the physical benefits, there are big mental-health payoffs, too. “It’s so cool for our clients to say they’re going to boxing class instead of they’re going to therapy. It really lifts their spirits.”

The most satisfying part of his work is when people can return to activities they enjoyed before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. For example, one client went skiing for the first time in three years. “Another client who used to be a pilot hadn’t flown in 10 years because of Parkinson’s. We recently got him in the cockpit for the first time, and he was able to fly again.”

Moir — who was also recently honored as one of BusinessWest’s 2021 Difference Makers — said he’s happiest when he is helping others, taking inspiration from the Muhammad Ali quote, “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

In other words, he added, “I just want to leave the earth a little better than when I got here.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Vice President, Pioneer Valley Hotel Group; Age 39

Kishore Parmar takes pride in finding distressed hotel properties and returning them to greatness in the community.

He does so as vice president for Pioneer Valley Hotel Group (PVHG), his family’s business, which manages the largest number of hotel rooms in Western Mass.

For example, nearly a decade ago, Parmar oversaw the revitalization of La Quinta Inn in downtown Springfield, which had suffered years of neglect.

“We always knew La Quinta had good bones and was something we could build on,” he said. “We also saw things were happening in Springfield, so we thought it was the right time and the right place to make the investment.” Since the rehab, La Quinta has been a successful business and received accolades from the state for contributing to Springfield’s economic growth and revitalization.

As a family business, Parmar said the emphasis is on family, which includes the 75-plus employees who work for PVHG.

“We have employees who have worked with us for decades and have dedicated their professional careers to our company, and they are like family to us,” he said. “My family is blessed to have these people, and that’s why we’ve succeeded.”

In 2020, the impact of the pandemic on hospitality and tourism brought the industry to a near-standstill. After robust growth years in 2018 and 2019, PVHG entered what Parmar labeled “the ice age of COVID.” The most heartbreaking impact of this time, he said, was the need to reduce some of the workforce. “As the ice age starts to thaw, I’m looking forward to bringing people back and getting our properties fully staffed again.”

Meanwhile, as an executive board member with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Parmar is helping to lead the effort to start envisioning a post-COVID tourism economy.

“There will be long-term changes in the hospitality industry,” he said. “One area we are studying looks at how to market tourism in our area. I’m looking forward to seeing what we learn.”

The arrival of spring has sent occupancy rates slightly upward, and Parmar remains hopeful the trend will continue into summer, traditionally the busiest months for PVHG.

“We predict some growth this year, but the real momentum will be next year and 2023,” he said. “The foundation is in place for us to really take off in the next few years, so I’m excited.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Owner and President, Clayton Insurance Agency; Age 38

Integrity means a great deal to Michael Regan.

As an insurance professional who had been steadily growing in his career, Regan was ready to pursue his next business goal: to run his own agency. He had heard that Martin Clayton, longtime owner of the Clayton Insurance Agency in Holyoke, was looking for a young person to carry on the legacy of his business.

While he appreciated Regan’s 10-plus years of experience with Goss and McLain Insurance Agency, Clayton was particularly impressed that the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce had honored Regan with the Henry A. Fifeld Award for Voluntary Service to the Chamber.

“It turns out Clayton knew Fifeld and told me, ‘if you won Hank’s award, you must be a pretty good citizen,’” Regan recalled, adding that the conversation was a key step toward eventually acquiring the agency.

Once he settled in as the new owner at Clayton, he admits he felt some pressure to uphold the integrity of the firm and to make sure customers receive the same quality service they always have.

“I gave Martin my word that I would continue the legacy of the agency,” Regan said. “I work very hard to always keep my word.”

He had the option to change the name of the agency or add his name to it, and Clayton even encouraged it. But Regan decided he didn’t need his name on the sign. “The Clayton Insurance Agency has such a good reputation, I didn’t feel the need to mix that up and add my name. It’s not about me, it’s about continuing the agency and taking care of employees and customers.”

Since Regan took the helm in 2019, the agency has grown by just over 30%, a trajectory he hopes to continue for years to come.

“We’re looking to bring on more staff in the next couple of years and to keep the agency moving forward,” he said.

Regan is extremely community-minded, from funding scholarships to running food drives; from collecting donations for youth sports in Granby to volunteering with the First Tee program to teach inner-city kids about golf, a sport he’s also introduced to his four daughters.

Meanwhile, he hopes to continue the legacy of his agency until he’s ready to pass it along. “Fast-forward 50 years, I want to look back the same way Marty did and find a successor who can continue the Clayton Insurance Agency even further.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Litigation Paralegal, MassMutual; Age 30

When Victoria Ann Rodriguez says she likes to stay busy, she’s not kidding.

In addition to her work as a litigation paralegal for MassMutual, she chairs the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, serves on the board of the Springfield YWCA, and on nights and weekends helps clients find their dream homes as a part-time real-estate agent.

Back when she was looking into colleges, Rodriguez considered majoring in criminal justice with the hope of eventually becoming an FBI agent.

“Once I realized there was blood and other things involved, I was no longer interested in the FBI,” she said with a laugh. Instead, she decided to pursue legal studies and has just begun studying for the LSAT exam. “I love the law, and I hope to one day become an attorney.”

Passionate about giving back, she formerly chaired the community responsibility subcommittee for the Assoc. of Latinos at MassMutual and Allies, and she’s heavily active with the Girl Scouts as a decorated alumna, troop leader, and tireless advocate. Before COVID-19, she served as a mentor to students from her alma mater, the High School of Commerce, in weekly sessions at MassMutual.

“We taught them skills such as budgeting, how to prepare for an interview, and how to draft a résumé,” she recalled. “I enjoyed the sessions because I saw myself when I was in high school and would have loved to be part of this type of program.”

The Rodriguez family has always been civically active. In fact, two decades ago, Victoria’s mother was chair of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee.

“I remember helping out my mom when I was younger, and now here I am, 20 years later, as the chair of the parade committee, so it’s come full circle,” she said.

With the pandemic still lingering, the committee is weighing its options for the next parade, always with the safety of the community in mind. But she can hardly wait to step off once again. “The parade draws folks from all ethnicities, and everyone is so excited on that day. I just love it.”

The idea of persistence motivates Rodriguez; when times get tough, she calls on her courage and strength to keep “leveling up.” And through it all, she still appreciates the journey.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here,” she said. “I have my own place, my own car, I even have my own dog. I’ve grown up. It’s crazy.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Chief, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Springfield; Age 39

Deepika Shukla always savors the moment in court when she states her name and declares her representation of the United States of America.

“I don’t just rattle off my name because for someone like me to stand up and represent the United States is a real honor,” she said.

A naturalized citizen who was born in Canada and lived in Chelmsford before moving to Western Mass., Shukla is chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Springfield — the first woman of color to run the Springfield office and the youngest to attain the chief’s position.

In a normal legal setting, a lawyer’s job is to always try to win a judgment for the client. Working for the Department of Justice had a strong appeal to Shukla because a U.S. attorney takes a different approach to the law.

“At the DOJ, your objective is to pursue justice,” she said. “It’s not about winning, it’s about doing the right thing.”

Shukla oversees eight U.S. attorneys and five staff members in the Springfield office, which covers the four counties of Western Mass. While many cases involve prosecuting federal crimes, the Springfield office also brings civil-rights actions against various entities. Shukla takes a special interest in these cases.

“I have experienced discrimination in my life, and I feel that’s an important perspective to bring to the job,” she said, adding that she has also successfully prosecuted hate-crime cases.

While in college, Shukla became a U.S. citizen, calling it one of the greatest days of her life. The day was September 6, 2001, when she and a roomful of people all rejoiced in becoming Americans. The sense of elation was short-lived when, five days later, the tragic events of 9/11 took place.

“Suddenly, I found that people who look like me and my family were being targeted as victims of hate crimes because of the way we looked and just for being ourselves,” she said — an experience that motivated her to give a voice to people who are not often heard from in the justice system.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King Jr. once declared, a quote that resonates strongly with Shukla.

“Wherever we see injustice, it’s our job to correct it,” she said. “If we let it go, it becomes a threat to our whole justice system.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Vice President, Chief Financial Officer, and Treasurer, North Brookfield Savings Bank; Age 34

“There’s no place like home” is more than a sentiment for John Thomasian. The North Brookfield native was 3 years old when his parents opened a savings account with North Brookfield Savings Bank. Back then, no one could have predicted he would return someday as the bank’s chief financial officer.

Representing the fifth generation of his family to live in town, Thomasian joined North Brookfield Savings last March. “The opportunity to come back to my hometown savings bank was just too good to ignore,” he said.

During his career, Thomasian appreciates what he’s learned from working closely with successful CEOs, but his biggest inspiration comes from days spent with his late grandfather, longtime North Brookfield Chief of Police Harbig Thomasian.

“I remember driving around with him and seeing how everyone liked and respected him,” he said. “I thought I could carry on his legacy and the family name by coming back to town.”

The return to his hometown is not simply nostalgia, but, rather, a look ahead. After a decade in the financial industry in roles of ever-increasing responsibility, Thomasian understands that banking business models of the past will not work going forward, so he has brought a data-driven approach to North Brookfield Savings.

“Since joining the bank, I’ve implemented several new strategies that will put us in a position to succeed in the future,” he said.

Along with innovative approaches, he also understands the importance of the personal touch. “I’ve had the chance to reacquaint myself with lots of old friends. That’s good for the bank because people like to do business with someone they know and can trust.”

Thomasian also made clear there are no limits to his ‘banker’s hours.’

“My cell-phone number is on my business card, and I tell people they can call me personally any time of day,” he said. “If a customer has an issue with any of our products or services, I want to be the first to know.”

It’s always a good situation for a bank when its customers are, literally, friends and neighbors, Thomasian said, adding that returning to his hometown is more than just business — it’s personal. “North Brookfield has always had a special place in my heart.”

 

—Mark Morris

Class of 2021

Clinical Director, Autism Learning Partners; Age 35

To hear Erin Zwisler tell it, working with autistic children every day is challenging and, at the same time, very satisfying.

“Every day is different,” she said. “The children are teaching us just like we are teaching them.”

She joined Autism Learning Partners in 2018 and has been credited with growing its clinician team and client base, as well as expanding the group’s locations into Connecticut, with offices in Hartford and New Haven.

Within the Western Mass. autism community, Zwisler is known as an ally and an advocate for families. In that role, she has forged dynamic and diverse partnerships in the larger community.

As a board-certified behavior analyst, she was drawn to her career choice by a fascination with applied behavior analysis (ABA), a scientific approach to behavior proven to work well with autistic individuals. Unlike other approaches, she noted, ABA helps those with autism to achieve at higher levels.

“Let’s say we want to encourage a particular behavior from a child,” Zwisler said. “We look at the environment to understand what barriers they are facing, then change one thing in the environment, and we begin to see progress.”

As an example, if a child sees a toy on a shelf and expresses they want it by crying, a clinician will help the child communicate what they want and model how to say it.

“So, the next time the toy is out of reach, the environment you’ve set up and the prompts you’ve exposed the child to make it possible for them to request it on their own,” she said.

COVID-19 presented a challenge to Zwisler and her staff because so much of their services are provided in the home. In addition to nervous parents who feared letting outsiders in, the children suddenly saw clinicians wearing masks and could no longer give high-fives or hugs.

But she said her team treated living with COVID like any new skill they teach their clients. “We meet them where they are, then slowly and surely increase the demands and provide positive reinforcement as they achieve each step in what they’ve learned.”

Zwisler remains passionate about her work because every small success helps build behaviors to promote independent living in the long run.

“A child’s progress can be amazing,” she said. “From holding a fork to speaking their first words, we see big accomplishments from them.”

 

—Mark Morris

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.

 

By Mark Morris

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.

Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.

For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.

“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’

In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.

“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.

Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.

“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”

BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.

“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

 

Change of Scenery

While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.

When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.

“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.

In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”

With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.

“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.

As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.

“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.

While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”

Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.

“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”

As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.

“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”

 

Safe at Home

While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.

“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”

Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.

All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.

“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”

Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”

That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.

Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.

And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.

Education

Making Change

By Mark Morris

Sustainathon

Students gather at a booth during the 2019 Sustainathon, the last time it was held in person.

One modest act can inspire others — and when that happens, the entire community benefits.

That’s the premise behind the Cooler Communities effort led by Uli Nagel, project director for Ener-G-Save, a program run by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation.

Cooler Communities (the word ‘Cooler’ refers to reducing global warming) encourages school systems in Western Mass. to take on class projects relating to energy and energy efficiency. These projects are then displayed at a public exhibition in the community, where all attendees are asked to pledge one action they will take to conserve energy.

“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy,” Nagel said. Staff from Ener-G-Save keep a running total on pledged actions to measure their impact on the community.

For example, in 2019, Agawam schools held a Cooler Communities event in which 115 people took an energy-conservation pledge. Ener-G-Save estimated that follow-through by those Agawam residents would result in $87,600 in energy savings and 605 tons of carbon emissions eliminated from the air every year.

“Put another way, the energy-saving impact would be similar to removing 86 cars from Agawam roads every year,” Nagel said, demonstrating the impact from just one town.

The Cooler Communities efforts have continued this spring in the Berkshires and Agawam. This is the first year Springfield is taking part, as more than 1,000 high-school students have researched energy-related topics and recommended different actions they and their peers can take to make Springfield a safer, cleaner, and healthier place to live.

“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy.”

Nagel credited Springfield school officials for taking on Cooler Communities during the challenging year everyone has faced due to COVID-19 concerns. Ron St. Amand, director of Science for Springfield schools, appreciates the educational opportunity.

“It’s exciting to be able to help our students understand their choices have an impact,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”

To properly display all the student exhibits and invite others to take actions on saving energy, Ener-G-Save worked with Springfield to develop a dedicated website to make the effort accessible to everyone at a time when in-person exhibits are not possible.

From left, the 2019 Sustainathon

From left, the 2019 Sustainathon, STCC mascot Rowdy the Ram, Reena Randhir, the three-student winning team from Springfield Sci-Tech School, and (back row) Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman and STCC president John Cook.

Nagel pointed out that setting up a virtual exhibit has definite advantages because more people can see all the student projects and pledge to reduce their energy usage online.

“The Berkshires Cooler Communities online event drew 600 visitors to the site, nearly double the number who attended the live event the year before,” Nagel said. “Keeping the exhibits and information online encourages more people to take part in the experience.”

 

Sustaining Momentum

A similar effort to raise awareness and take action on environmental challenges, known as Sustainathon, is happening at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). This effort, now in its fourth year, brings together STCC students and high-school students to create awareness of environmental-sustainability challenges and how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields contribute to finding solutions.

Reena Randhir, director of STEM Starter Academy at STCC, said Sustainathon was developed because many students are not aware of environmental efforts in their own backyard.

“While we certainly have environmental challenges, Western Mass. also has many success stories, like turning food waste into fuel,” Randhir said. “People from other countries are studying what’s happening here, so our students should also be on top of these innovations.”

Similar to Cooler Communities, students who take part in Sustainathon create exhibits relating to environmental issues and present them at a public event. Because of COVID concerns, the public event switched to a livestream on April 14 that attracted more than 800 registrants. While Randhir hopes to once again hold Sustainathon in-person, moving online this year turned it into an international happening.

“This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”

“Nearly 80 people from India participated in the live event, as well as smaller numbers of students from five other countries,” she said. “By livestreaming, we were able to reach classrooms around the world as well as our own students.”

The Sustainathon also encourages participants to pledge at least one action to benefit the environment, Randhir said. “We hope everyone is a champion of change in their life. Even the simple act of eliminating the use of plastic bags can make a difference.”

One of the actions she and her students had planned was a tree-planting campaign around Western Mass. timed for Earth Day on April 22.

The Grinspoon Foundation and the Community Fund of Western Massachusetts have come together to provide $5,000 grants to the school systems taking part in Cooler Communities efforts. Nagel explained that philanthropist (and recent BusinessWest Difference Maker) Harold Grinspoon started Ener-G-Save because, as a real-estate developer, he was always troubled by energy-inefficient New England homes that commonly leaked heat from roofs, windows, and walls.

“Harold made it his goal to raise awareness of energy efficiency to help people spend less money on energy that is, literally, going out the window,” Nagel said. At one point, Ener-G-Save took drive-by thermal images of 100,000 homes in Western Mass. and encouraged homeowners with the worst heat leakage to take advantage of free energy audits from Mass Save.

 

Every Bit Helps

Though a number of the energy-saving pledges are tied to home ownership, Nagel said one doesn’t need to own a home to find plenty of ways to make a difference. “Simple acts like stopping junk mail and including more meat-free meals in your diet are two easy things anyone can do that benefit you and the environment.”

She also suggested riding a bike for a short trip instead of driving a car and, when using a car to run errands, consolidating trips to save gas and time.

“Energy use and conservation are huge topics,” Nagel said. “When we see the simple things others are doing that make a difference, we are less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to act.”

Education

Prepared for Launch

By Laurie Loisel

 

David Gruel stands next to the launchpad

David Gruel stands next to the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center on July 29, 2020, the day before NASA’ s Perseverance rover mission launch.

Not many people can say they’ve worked on every U.S.-led rover mission to Mars. One who can is David Gruel, a Holyoke Community College graduate from the class of 1991.

Five years out of HCC, Gruel was part of the Pathfinder mission that landed the Sojourner rover on Mars, the second Mars mission since the Viking became the first-ever U.S. mission to Mars in 1975. Sojourner had limited movement when compared to other rovers (most recently Perseverance) that travel across the planet, but it was a milestone nonetheless.

“Pathfinder was the return to the red planet some 20 years after Viking,” he said of the rover that launched in December 1996, landing on Mars in July 1997.

After that, through his job as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Gruel was among the crews working on the Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance NASA rover missions.

Considering that Gruel falls into a category of people for whom the maxim “it’s not rocket science” most definitely does not apply, the 50-year-old is modest and candid about his high-school years as an avid underachiever. He is equally clear about the role HCC played in putting him on a path to a career in rocket science. In fact, he flat-out declares that, if not for HCC, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics professors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”

As a student at Westfield High School, Gruel spent more energy stocking grocery-store shelves, tending to the car those earnings bought him, and socializing with his friends than on academics. “I was looking for the easy road out at all times,” he admits.

After graduation, when many of his friends headed off to four-year colleges, Gruel continued working in the grocery store. “And then I realized I needed a different challenge in life,” he said.

That’s how he ended up at Holyoke Community College. Despite a less-than-stellar high-school transcript, he knew HCC “would actually give me a chance,” he said. “HCC was there to give people a second chance.”

Once enrolled, encouraged by his professors, he buckled down. He believes he had a better academic experience at HCC than he would have had he attended a four-year program right out of high school.

“The classes were small, and the teachers actually cared about you,” he said. “I still have an incredible memory of the math and physics professors at HCC, and it was mutual. They went out of their way to know their students and to figure out where they could help.”

It was not easy. He worked two jobs while a full-time HCC student, sometimes studying while logging third shift at a gas station.

“I was willing to work at it,” he said, “but there were people who were willing to support me, and that’s what I needed.”

Gruel graduated with honors and an associate degree in engineering, an accomplishment he remains proud of to this day. “This was something I had done for myself, and I had earned it.”

 

Up, Up, and Away

It also earned him acceptance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he found he had a real affinity for engineering. And here is where his humility rears its head again.

“A lot of things went my way,” he said. “In addition to working hard, there’s a lot of luck involved in where we end up in our lives.”

In his senior year at RPI, he learned that two friends who also had gone to HCC were doing co-op semesters in the field, working at engineering jobs. He decided to pursue one, landing a co-op placement at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, a federally funded research and design center managed by Caltech, with the vast majority of its funding and contract work coming from NASA.

Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing

Dave Gruel’s favorite photo of Perseverance was captured moments before the Mars landing by one of the EDL (entry, descent, landing) cameras he installed on the rover.

Gruel thought the experience would spice up his résumé by adding that he worked on a team designing interplanetary spacecraft. Little did he know it would lead to his life’s work.

After eight months, he went back to RPI to finish school and graduate. Once on the job market, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was among the job offers he received, and though he always imagined settling down in New England, he found himself changing those plans when such an enticing job.

“The challenge of JPL massively dwarfed the benefits of being in New England,” he said.

Gruel’s role in the last two Mars missions was to lead the team known as ATLO (“I’m the boss man,” he said cheerfully.) ATLO stands for Assembly, Test, and Launch Operations. Essentially, the team takes all the parts for the rover and its spacecraft — tens of thousands of them — and assembles them.

“We get delivered to us a bunch of intricate Legos,” is how Gruel put it.

Next the team conducts endless tests to simulate launch, touchdown, and the harsh conditions on the ground. “So when it’s cruising from Earth to Mars, it works as designed,” he noted.

To simulate launch, the machine goes into a large vibe table; to mimic the Mars environment, it goes into a vacuum chamber that gets as cold as the red planet itself.

From mission start to landing, it takes about six to eight years, he explained. And timing is everything: because the planets align every 26 months in a way that creates optimal conditions for Earth-to-Mars travel, all assembly and testing must be fully complete when that time comes.

“The schedule pressure is intense,” he said. “We need to get our testing done and our design done in order for it to be ready to launch.”

In addition to finding a career at JPL, Gruel met his wife, Danelle, there when she was working in the Finance division, though now she stays home with their two boys, Dylan, 14, and Ethan, 11 (who also love Legos, as well as watching mission launches with their father).

Typically, once a mission has landed, Gruel’s role slows down quite a bit, but the Perseverance landing in February 2021 was different because he had installed a camera system to take video and still images of the descent, and he was responsible for it.

“Even after we launched, I was still intimately involved in making sure that system was going to function,” he said. “We continued to do testing on it to make sure it would reach its full potential, and it sure did. The images were amazing.”

Those images captured the spacecraft’s descent and landing, including video of the rover setting down on Mars and kicking up dust. “We joked it was kind of like our selfie cam,” he said.

 

Back to His Roots

In 1998, Gruel returned to HCC as the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award at commencement and delivered the keynote address, an invitation he seems to still find hard to believe to this day: “I spoke at commencement! Me, a flunkie out of high school!”

It’s a fact he mentions not to boast, but rather to inspire. If there’s anything he hopes people take away from his story, it’s that they should never underestimate their potential, even if they’ve had trouble living up to it.

“When you as a person make a decision to do something, the sky opens up,” he said. “The sky is no longer the limit.”

And that’s coming from someone who knows how to get to Mars.

 

Laurie Loisel is a freelance writer based in Northampton.

Technology

What Works, What Doesn’t

By Lisa Apolinski

 

Here’s a surprising statistic from Kinsta: LinkedIn has over 575 million users, and nearly half of those are active every month (meaning they post, comment, or like on the platform). If that isn’t impressive enough, LinkedIn has its sights on further investments into Latin America. What makes LinkedIn even more powerful is that users update their bios regularly, so the connections you are potentially requesting are in the roles they have listed on their bios.

LinkedIn is a digital goldmine, especially now in the post-COVID digital paradigm. Users post on career engagement, network with others in their industry, and share expertise and advice. Unfortunately, less professional engagement can and does happen on LinkedIn. Understanding what works in the world of LinkedIn for networking, and what hinders, can help remove obstacles for engagement. Here are the five biggest blunders that can hurt credibility and, potentially, career advancement.

“What makes LinkedIn even more powerful is that users update their bios regularly, so the connections you are potentially requesting are in the roles they have listed on their bios.”

 

Blunder #1: Being vague about why a connection is requested. Some people believe more connections are better. However, some connection requests come with a note that does not share why the sender wants to network. If there is not a clear reasoning for the network connection, many of these requests appear to not help or enhance the receiver’s network. A connection request with a note can help put the connection request into context for the receiver.

Try Instead: Clearly state why a request has been sent and how the connection benefits both parties. To get a connection request accepted, think about why you are requesting the connection.

 

Blunder #2: Focusing on selling versus connecting. Many LinkedIn users complain about this practice, and it seems to have become more common. After a connection has been accepted, the next message is a long selling pitch. What is even more surprising is the immediate request for a call or virtual demo. This is a request of someone’s time without taking time to connect first. A focus on selling will not help with lead generation or brand reputation. This type of communication does little for the recipient.

Try Instead: Thank the person for the connection and share something that might benefit the new connection, such as a video or article. Sharing knowledge can go a long way.

 

Blunder #3: Not investing in a current professional photo. One of the first digital impressions from a LinkedIn profile is the user photo. Using a photo that is casual, old, or provocative is missing a great opportunity to showcase a level of professionalism. A photo is a visual precursor to a job interview or lecturer. Investment in a professional photo is also a wise one as it can be used in a variety of digital ways. By keeping the photo current, network members are also easy to identify in other settings (remember those trade shows?).

Try Instead: Even a quick shot with your mobile can work. Use direct lighting, and natural light is best (morning or late afternoon). Capture yourself from the shoulders up and minimize distractions in the background.

 

Blunder #4: Posting on politics. While most people have an opinion on the current political climate, sharing political viewpoints may not be the best decision. Posts and articles on LinkedIn should highlight expertise, provide knowledge and leadership within an industry, and share resources that can help networks. Political postings do not fall into these three categories. These may also be offputting or polarizing to current and future networks.

Try Instead: If you wish to share political viewpoints, consider posting to another social-media channel. Keep your LinkedIn channel focused on how you can provide professional leadership and insight.

 

Blunder #5: The social channel is LinkedIn, not Love Connection. With so many other dating apps and websites available to find a soul mate, LinkedIn is not the place to request a connection with the purpose of asking someone out. Not only is this request unprofessional, it can easily come across as creepy, especially to women. LinkedIn users are using the platform for career and networking and expect others to do the same.

Try Instead: Use LinkedIn for its primary purpose, namely professional networking, and save the search for love to those websites or apps specifically created for that reason.

 

Bottom Line

LinkedIn offers amazing potential to connect with experts, learn about new trends in your industry, and discover new career paths and positions as you explore options. LinkedIn can work well for digital connection and professional networking, especially if these blunders are avoided.

These small modifications can unlock new networking opportunities and strong professional engagement now as well as in the future, and help establish your credibility within both your industry and your organization. By avoiding these five missteps, you will be able to more easily harness the power of LinkedIn in your professional practice and take your career to new heights.

 

Lisa Apolinski is an international speaker, digital strategist, author, and founder of 3 Dog Write. Her latest book, Persuade With A Digital Content Story, is available on Amazon. She works with companies to develop and share their message using digital assets; www.3dogwrite.com

Business of Aging

Peace of Mind

By Mark Morris

 

Heidi Cornwell says families looking for a senior-living community should consider its continuum of care.

Heidi Cornwell says families looking for a senior-living community should consider its continuum of care.

Between now and 2030, 10,000 Americans each day, on average, will reach age 65. That type of growth affects all the industries that serve the senior population — and, not surprisingly, senior living is one industry paying close attention to this trend.

Kimball Farms Life Care provides independent and assisted living as well as dedicated memory-care services. In 2020, the Lenox facility received more inquiries about its residential offering than in any year prior. Heidi Cornwell, marketing and sales director for Kimball Farms, said potential residents are doing more online research to educate themselves about senior community living.

“Many people are ‘shopping around’ earlier because they saw their own parents ill-prepared for this part of their life journey,” Cornwell said. She also noted that, as people live longer, they are moving into senior at a later age.

As a continuing-care retirement community (CCRC), Kimball Farms offers increasing levels of care for those who need it. Residents can easily move from independent living to assisted living, giving the individual and their families greater peace of mind.

For residents who develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Kimball Farms offers memory-care services through its Life Enrichment Program (LEP). Cornwell explained that the program is centered around a philosophy know as habilitation, which increasingly emphasizes a person’s remaining skills instead of the skills they have lost.

For example, if a sandwich is placed in front of a person with dementia, they may not be able to process what to do with it. “However, if someone sits across from them with a sandwich, picks it up, and takes a bite, that is the only queuing they need to understand what to do,” Cornwell said, adding that they can then enjoy their lunch without any further assistance.

“We are so grateful to our residents and their families because they worked with us to find creative and innovative ways to stay engaged and informed, while at the same time keeping everyone healthy.”

Singing is another good example of emphasizing a remaining skill. “The individual may not sing along to a song by themselves, but if an activities person or nurse sings with them, they can sing with pride and remember every word.”

The LEP puts its focus on maximizing quality of life for each resident. Regular routines and programs built around the interests of the individual keep them busy all day and into the evening. As a result, the residents thrive, Cornwell said, noting that the stimulation helps residents with dementia maintain the abilities they still have for as long as possible.

“We place no expectations on them, but encourage them to be the best person they can be,” she said. “We celebrate the good days, bolster self-esteem, and we treat them with the utmost dignity and respect.”

 

Safe Spaces

As research on dementia has evolved, caregivers have increased their understanding on how to manage the condition. Embracing the skills that remain for those with dementia can encourage feelings of acceptance and personal success. That’s important, Cornwell said, because, even though the disease can have an effect on a person’s ability to communicate or recall recent events, they still have a sense of the quality of life they desire.

Or, as she put it, “although they may no longer be able to dance, they still enjoy the music.”

Kimball Farms social worker Jackie Trippico leads what is known as Reminisce Group. This weekly activity begins with staff presenting a specific topic and asking residents to recall a significant memory related to that theme. Cornwell said one popular reminiscence involved talking about a trip to an ice-cream parlor.

Providing comfortable spaces is also part of the program. Kimball Farms’ memory-care neighborhood is a secure, self-contained community. Private apartments are modeled after a typical home with an open floor plan, while residents also have access to a secure outdoor courtyard so they can garden, see visitors, or take part in other activities. The staff ratio is higher than traditional assisted living, and they have all been trained in specialized dementia care.

When COVID-19 hit last year, families could no longer make in-person visits to residents in LEP. Cornwell said the activities professionals and nursing team quickly adapted to using tablets to arrange virtual visits or phone calls so families could stay informed on the care and well-being of their loved ones. Celebrating special occasions simply became virtual events.

“Zoom birthday and anniversary parties, as well as Skype holiday festivities, became our new normal,” she explained.

As COVID vaccine levels rise, Kimball Farms is able to welcome families to visit by appointment. Cornwell reported that residents and their families have been thrilled to resume the personal visits.

“We are so grateful to our residents and their families because they worked with us to find creative and innovative ways to stay engaged and informed, while at the same time keeping everyone healthy.”

As more Americans reach their senior years and live longer than previous generations, the demand for memory-care facilities to treat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease will continue to increase.

According to Seniors Housing Business magazine, from 2013 through 2018 (the latest figures available), the number of new memory-care units increased by 55%.

Cornwell advises those who are looking at senior-living options to consider the continuum of care a community offers. Healthy seniors who may choose independent living in senior housing to downsize from their homes need to think about future needs as well, she said.

“The community they choose should be a place that will provide them with the best quality of life, for the rest of their life, with increasing levels of care when and if they need it.”

Estate Planning

Crunching the Numbers

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was passed by the U.S. Congress by the narrowest of partisan margins, but its impact promises to be broad, for individuals and businesses alike. Following is a breakdown of how the act, signed into law by President Biden last month, affects everything from unemployment benefits to tax credits to employee retention.

By Jim Moran, CPA, MST

 

On March 11, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP). Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is aimed at stabilizing the economy, providing needed relief to individuals, small businesses, and improving and accelerating the administration of coronavirus vaccines and testing.

The relief package, which is Biden’s first major legislative initiative, is one of the largest in U.S. history and follows on the heels of the Trump administration’s $900 billion COVID relief package enacted in December 2020 (Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021).

The most significant measures included in the ARP are the following:

• A third round of stimulus payments to individuals and their dependents;

• Extension of enhanced supplemental federal unemployment benefits through September 2021;

• Expansion of the child tax credit and child and dependent care credit;

• Extension of the Employee Retention Credit (ERC);

• $7.25 billion in aid to small businesses, including Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans;

• Increased federal subsidies for COBRA coverage;

• More than $360 billion in aid directed to states, cities, U.S. territories, and tribal governments (the Senate added $10 billion for critical infrastructure, including broadband internet, and $8.5 billion for rural hospitals);

• $160 billion earmarked for vaccine and testing programs to improve capacity and help curb the spread of COVID; this includes funds to create a national vaccine-distribution program that would offer free shots to all U.S. residents regardless of immigration status; and

• Other measures that address nutritional assistance, housing aid, and funds for schools.

Here are details on many (but not all) of the provisions of the ARP.

 

MEASURES AFFECTING INDIVIDUALS

The ARP includes several measures to help individuals who have been adversely affected by the impact of the pandemic on the economy. The additional round of stimulus checks, in conjunction with supplemental federal unemployment benefits, should provide some measure of relief to individuals. A temporarily enhanced child tax credit offers another area of assistance.

 

Cash Payments

An additional $1,400 payment is being sent for each dependent of the taxpayer, including adult dependents (such as college students and parents). The previous two stimulus payments limited the additional payments to dependent children age 16 or younger.

jim Moran

jim Moran

“The relief package, which is Biden’s first major legislative initiative, is one of the largest in U.S. history and follows on the heels of the Trump administration’s $900 billion.”

The amount of the stimulus payment is based on information in the taxpayer’s 2020 tax return if it had been filed and processed; otherwise, the 2019 return is used. The amount of the payment will not be taxable income for the recipient.

The stimulus payments are subject to certain limitations with respect to a household’s adjusted gross income. Households with adjusted gross income of more than $80,000 for single filers, $120,000 for head-of-household filers, and $160,000 for married filing jointly will not receive any payment. For taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes below those respective limitations, the stimulus is subject to a phaseout beginning at $75,000 for single filers, $112,500 for heads of household, and $150,000 for married filing jointly.

 

Extended Unemployment Benefits

The current weekly federal unemployment benefit of $300 (which applies in addition to any state unemployment benefits) is extended through Sept. 6, 2021; the Senate cut back the $400 that would have applied through Aug. 29 under the House version. The extension also covers the self-employed and individual contractors (such as gig workers) who typically are not entitled to unemployment benefits.

Additionally, the first $10,200 (per person if married filed jointly) of unemployment insurance received in 2020 would be non-taxable income for workers in households with income up to $150,000. If you have already filed your 2020 federal taxes (Form 1040 or 1040-SR), there is no need to file an amended return to figure the amount of unemployment compensation to exclude. The IRS will refigure your taxes using the excluded unemployment compensation amount and adjust your account accordingly. The IRS will send any refund amount directly to you.

 

Child Tax Credit

The child tax credit will be expanded considerably for 2021 to help low- and middle-income taxpayers (many of the same individuals who will be eligible for stimulus payments), and the credit will be refundable.

The amount of the credit will increase from the current $2,000 (for children under 17) to $3,000 per eligible child ($3,600 for a child under age six), and the $3,000 will also be available for children who are 17 years old. The increase in the maximum amount will phase out for heads of households earning $112,500 ($150,000 for couples).

Because the enhanced child tax credit will be fully refundable, eligible taxpayers will receive a refund for any credit amount not used to offset the individual’s federal income-tax liability. Part of the credit will be paid in advance by the IRS during the period July through December 2021 so that taxpayers do not have to wait until they file their tax returns for 2021. The IRS will publish future guidance as to how the payments will be refunded.

 

Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit

The child and dependent care tax credit will be expanded for 2021 to cover up to 50% of qualifying childcare expenses up to $4,000 for one child and $8,000 for two or more children for 2021 (currently, the credit is up to 35% of $3,000 for one child or 35% of $6,000 for two or more children). The credit will be refundable so that families with a low tax liability will be able to benefit; the refund will be fully available to families earning less than $125,000 and partially available for those earning between $125,000 and $400,000.

 

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

The EITC will be expanded for 2021 to ensure it is available to low-paid workers who do not have any children in the home. The maximum credit will increase from about $530 to about $1,500, and the income cap to qualify for the EITC will go from about $16,000 to about $21,000. Further, the EITC will be available to individuals age 19-24 who are not full-time students, as well as those over 65.

 

MEASURES AFFECTING BUSINESSES

The ARP also contains provisions designed to assist businesses — small businesses in particular.

 

Small Businesses and Paycheck Protection Program

An additional $7.25 billion is allocated to assist small businesses and the PPP forgiven loans. The current eligibility rules remain unchanged for small businesses wishing to participate in the PPP, although there is a provision that will make more nonprofit organizations eligible for a PPP loan if certain requirements are met.

The PPP — which was originally created as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted on March 27, 2020 — is designed to help small businesses that have suffered from disruptions and shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic and keep them operational by granting federally guaranteed loans to be used to retain staff at pre-COVID levels. A PPP loan may be forgiven in whole or in part if certain requirements are met.

The Economic Aid Act, which is part of the CAA, earmarked an additional $284 billion for PPP loans, with specific set-asides for eligible borrowers with no more than 10 employees or for loans of $250,000 or less to eligible borrowers in low- or moderate-income neighborhoods. The program has recently been extended from March 31, 2021 to May 31, 2021.

 

Employee Retention Credit (ERC)

The ERC, originally introduced under the CARES Act and enhanced under the CAA, aims to encourage employers (including tax-exempt entities) to keep employees on their payroll and continue providing health benefits during the COVID pandemic. The ERC is a refundable payroll-tax credit for wages paid and health coverage provided by an employer whose operations were either fully or partially suspended due to a COVID-related governmental order or that experienced a significant reduction in gross receipts.

The CAA extended the eligibility period of the ERC to June 30, 2021, increased the ERC rate from 50% to 70% of qualified wages, and increased the limit on per-employee wages from $10,000 for the year to $10,000 per quarter ($50,000 per quarter for startup businesses). The ARP also extends the ERC until Dec. 31, 2021 under the same terms as provided in the CAA.

 

 

Other Measures

• Employers offering COVID-related paid medical leave to their employees will be eligible for an expanded tax credit through Sept. 30, 2021.

• The ARP increases the proposed subsidies of insurance premiums for individual workers eligible for COBRA, after they were laid off or had their hours reduced, to 100% through Sept. 30, 2021.

• Funds are allocated for targeted Economic Injury Disaster Loan advance payments, as well as for particularly hard-hit industries such as restaurants, bars, and other eligible food and drink providers, shuttered venue operators, and the airline industry.

• Effective for taxable years beginning after Dec. 20, 2020, the ARP repeals IRC section 864(f), which allows U.S.-affiliated groups to elect to allocate interest on a worldwide basis. This provision was enacted as part of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 and has been deferred several times. The provision is relevant in computing the foreign tax-credit limitation under IRC section 904.

• The ARP does not cancel student-loan debt, but there is a provision that would make student loan forgiveness passed between Dec. 31, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2026 tax-free (normally, the cancellation of debt is considered taxable income).

• A deduction will be disallowed for compensation that exceeds $1 million for the highest-paid employees (such as the CEO, CFO, etc.) for taxable years beginning after Dec. 31, 2026.

• The limitation on excess business losses of non-corporate taxpayers enacted as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will be extended by one year through 2026.

• The threshold for third-party payment processors to report information to the IRS is lowered substantially. Specifically, IRC section 6050W(e) is revised so that the current threshold of $200,000 for at least 200 transactions is reduced to $600. As a result, such payment processors will have to provide a Form 1099K to sellers for whom they have processed more than $600 (regardless of the number of transactions). This change, which applies to tax returns for calendar years beginning after Dec. 31, 2021, will bring many more sellers, including ‘casual’ sellers, within the 1099K reporting net.

If you have questions about any of the items above, reach out to your tax professional, who will be able to navigate you through any portion of the American Rescue Plan Act and how it may affect you.

 

Jim Moran, CPA, MST is a tax manager at Melanson, advising clients on individual and corporate tax matters; [email protected]

Features

NFTs and Cryptocurrency

By Bart Galvin

 

Digital assets such as Bitcoin and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are transforming global capital markets and the art world, with market capitalization reaching $2 trillion and digital artworks packaged through NFTs regularly selling for millions of dollars. As these assets gain prominence in the marketplace, it is increasingly important to understand why these assets appeal to investors, how they represent value, and how they function under the hood.

 

NFTs and Digital Art

NFTs have exploded in popularity in the past year, with notable examples like CryptoPunks, which are collectible, algorithmically generated pixel artworks, as well as the works of Mike Winkelmann (known professionally as Beeple), who recently sold a piece of NFT art at a Christie’s auction for $69 million.

Bart Galvin

An NFT is a unique digital token representing an interest in something else, which could be a piece of art, a share of stock, a stream of royalties, or even, in the case of Unisocks, entitlement to a physical pair of socks. NFTs are ‘non-fungible’ because, unlike cryptocurrencies, they aren’t interchangeable — your NFT corresponds to the specific entitlement or right to the underlying thing.

The eye-popping price tags of many digital-art NFTs poses the question: what exactly are you buying when you purchase an NFT? In its most basic form, an NFT is simply verifiable proof that you are the purchaser of whatever the NFT represents. But the devil is in the details. The rights granted by an NFT are entirely up its creator, so some NFTs have strict terms and conditions that prohibit exhibitions or commercial use of the art, while others might grant you the copyright in the work.

 

Cryptocurrency and the Rise of Bitcoin

Bitcoin has been the most prominent cryptocurrency since its introduction in 2008, but many other cryptocurrencies exist, such as Ethereum, an important part of many ‘smart contracts,’ and Tether, which is pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. Bitcoin accounts for about half of global cryptocurrency market capitalization.

At the end of March, the price of one Bitcoin was approximately $60,000. Unlike a cryptocurrency like Tether, the value of Bitcoin can fluctuate wildly. Indeed, it has increased tenfold in the past year, dwarfing its previous peak of $17,000 in December 2017. The value of Bitcoin is determined almost entirely by what purchasers believe it is worth, and investors speculate on that value, driving price fluctuations. These price fluctuations can have a snowball effect, whereby widespread speculation in Bitcoin that drives the price upward can lead investors to believe Bitcoin will be adopted more widely, leading to further speculation that its value will increase.

 

Why Do People Care?

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs represent a fundamentally new way of transacting. The reason is in the revolutionary qualities of their underlying technology: the ‘blockchain.’ A blockchain can be thought of as a tamper-resistant digital store of data, constructed using computer cryptography and distributed among participants over the internet. Here’s what makes the blockchain special, and why people are jumping on board.

First, the blockchain allows parties to transact without intermediaries. No banks or clearinghouses are needed to execute or verify transactions since the underlying technology ensures that transfers are reliable, practically irreversible, and publicly verifiable.

“In the world of blockchain technology, Bitcoin and digital-art NFTs are the tip of the iceberg. There are already countless blockchain-based technologies, and new ones are invented every day.”

Second, blockchain transactions are not limited by jurisdictional or national boundaries. The transaction’s terms are dictated by computer code, not local law. Perhaps more importantly, the code is self-enforcing, which limits opportunistic behavior. Parties do not need to appeal to the judicial system to enforce an agreement because it happens automatically.

Third, blockchains are not subject to a central point of control or a central point of failure. Blockchains work by interconnecting users running the same software over a peer-to-peer network on the internet. No one party controls the blockchain. All new transactions are shared over the network, and they become final only when a majority of users determines that the transaction is valid. If a user doesn’t own the digital asset they’re trying to transfer, or tries to transfer it twice, the transaction will be rejected.

Fourth, blockchain transactions are publicly visible and verifiable. A blockchain serves as a ledger of transactions and all the transactions that came before them, allowing anyone to view and verify the trail of activity occurring over the network.

Fifth, blockchains allow parties to transact pseudonymously (not quite anonymously), without needing to trust or even know each other. All you need to know is your counterparty’s digital address or ‘wallet.’ And because transactions are practically irreversible and verified by the consensus of the network, the opportunities for fraud are heavily curtailed.

 

The Future of Blockchain Technologies

In the world of blockchain technology, Bitcoin and digital-art NFTs are the tip of the iceberg. There are already countless blockchain-based technologies, and new ones are invented every day. The blockchain is highly flexible and has tremendous untapped potential for consumer transactions, private contracts, corporate structuring, securities and derivatives, and even public administration. If your business is not using the blockchain yet, it’s only a matter of time.

 

Bart Galvin is an attorney at Bulkley Richardson, where he is a member of the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency practice group; (413) 272-6200.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop, making it an oft-discussed part of conversations about expanded east-west rail.

As the nation recovers from a year of dealing with COVID-19, Palmer Town Manger Ryan McNutt looks to the future with optimism.

While larger cities had to contend with high COVID infection numbers and revenue losses from business taxes, Palmer maintained low infection numbers and relies more on residential taxes, which remained stable.

These days, as many people in the larger metropolitan areas work from home, there is no certainty they will return to five days a week in the office. That dynamic, McNutt believes, gives Palmer a real opportunity. With the average home price in Palmer at $191,000 compared to the Greater Boston area average of more than a half-million dollars, he wants to take advantage of this moment.

“The ability to start a family and work toward the American dream is much more difficult to afford in the Greater Boston area and much easier in our area,” he told BusinessWest. “We may see a change in working conditions where office workers spend up to four days a week at home, which would allow them to live in Western Mass. and take advantage of our affordability.”

McNutt is creating a marketing plan to reach out to the Boston area as well as other densely populated urban areas to promote the value and quality of life available in Palmer and surrounding areas.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario.”

One huge boon for Palmer in this regard would be the proposed east-west rail project. The plan to offer passenger rail service from Pittsfield to Boston has been included in the federal infrastructure plan about to go to Congress. McNutt said east-west rail would be transformative for his town.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario,” he said. Though many steps remain before the plan wins approval and comes to fruition, town planners are looking to identify the right location, and they want to make sure it’s shovel-ready.

“I want to be so ready that, if we were told they could helicopter in a train station and drop it where a site was selected, we want to be ready for that helicopter,” he said.

 

Engine of Opportunity

The economic potential of a train stop in Palmer is not lost on Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce. On the job since January, Surprise looks to help chamber members increase their engagement with state and local officials, as well as identify economic programs to benefit the area.

He has already begun working on a grant for downtown Palmer through the Transformative Development Initiative, a MassDevelopment program. The grant provides incentives for businesses to locate in condensed areas, like downtown settings, that are walkable.

“That’s a positive for us because Palmer’s downtown is very walkable,” Surprise said.

He is also applying to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have downtown Palmer designated as a cultural district. In addition to being a walkable area, a community must show it hosts arts and cultural events on a regular basis.

Surprise admits these projects will take several years to be successful, but the effort would be worth it. “A well-developed and vibrant downtown will help us bring in other businesses.”

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise

“Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

As part of his outreach to local officials, he reminds them of Palmer’s tradition and continued relevance as a manufacturing town.

“There has been a lot of talk on the national level about restoring manufacturing jobs,” he said, adding that communities like Palmer that have plenty of available land could be attractive to Boston-area high-tech companies looking for manufacturing space. “Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

The chamber recently conducted a survey among its members to find out how they weathered the pandemic. Results so far show that two-thirds of businesses have been able to avoid employee layoffs. By finding alternatives such as reducing hours, many avoided having to reduce their staffs.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.63; Three Rivers, $23.28; Bondsville, $23.67; Thorndike, $23.62
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

“We conducted the survey to learn what types of services the chamber could offer to help businesses find success going forward,” Surprise said, noting that these are only preliminary results, as all surveys have not yet been returned.

As a first step, the chamber is planning a number of seminars for small businesses to help them increase foot traffic and bring in new customers through approaches such as digital marketing.

“Many small businesses are not familiar with digital or social media marketing, and it’s really a necessary tool in the 21st century,” he noted.

 

On the Right Track

McNutt is hopeful some kind of infrastructure package passes Congress because, like municipal leaders all over the country, he faces big projects that need attention.

“There are 47,000 deficient bridges in the U.S., including the nine that are in Palmer,” he said.

But for a small community, he added, taking on a big infrastructure project is a heavy lift, and Palmer has been working with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to secure funding for at least two bridges, on Main Street and Church Street, which need the most attention.

One project that could add significantly to the town tax revenues involves building 300 seasonal cottages on Forest Lake. McNutt is excited about the potential for this project.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

“Right now the cottages are planned for warm-weather use and would bring plenty of folks in to stay in town,” he said. “They will most likely go to local restaurants and make other purchases, so we could see a real economic multiplier effect from this project.”

Palmer has also agreed to be a host community for the cannabis industry. Two retail sites and two cultivation businesses have run into delays to start their enterprises, but McNutt blames COVID for the slowdown.

“The Cannabis Control Commission held fewer meetings than they normally would, and site visits were more difficult to do,” he explained. “In short, everything in the regulatory environment was just harder to do during the pandemic.” He feels confident at least one site will be up and running this year or early in 2022.

As the number of people vaccinated increases and COVID concerns decrease, he believes the opportunity is now for Palmer and surrounding towns.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

McNutt noted that people can still pursue the American dream by locating to Palmer because, in addition to its natural surroundings, the town has easy access to metropolitan areas. In short, he said, “we have the best of both worlds.”

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