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A Matter of Self-worth

When Jessi Kirley took the reins at the Family Business Center in 2018, she was looking for a new challenge — and some meaning.

“I had a major what-matters-most moment,” she said. “I had just lost my dad to cancer, my own health was suffering, I’d been working in the medical field for 20 years, and I was facing burnout and overperformance. When my dad died, I ended up quitting my job — what mattered most was reconnecting to my health and wellness.”

The FBC, known for its dinner forums, morning workshops, peer-advisory groups, custom consulting, and other programs cultivated under the long-time leadership of Ira Bryck, proved a gratifying role, but it — like so many companies and organizations across the U.S. — became a financial victim of COVID-19 and closed its doors last spring.

“That was another moment when I asked myself, ‘what really matters?’” Kirley said. “Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

As the single mother of three teens, she felt pressure to provide stability to her household, but she also loved working. “It was a lot of figuring things out, like so many of us needed to do. And what I noticed was that I felt compelled to go back to my roots of helping people.”

Seven months later, the result of those ideas became JKirley Collective, which offers personal- and professional-development courses, beginning with its first track, the “Dignity Series,” and the pilot program in that track, “Dignity in Conversation,” which includes a virtual workshop on Jan. 19 and a follow-up virtual peer-group session on Jan. 26.

As she explained, JKirley Collective collaborates with others who share the mission of helping people unlock their potential to build the lives they want through transformative action. As the pandemic wore on, she said, “I found myself asking what really matters — to me, and to this world. I started a business to pursue my passion of helping people unlock their potential, to craft the lives they want.”

It’s quite a detour from when she studied biology at Smith College with a goal of one day curing cancer.

“I was very ambitious,” she said. “But I always came back to that anchor within myself, wanting to help people. With COVID and the loss of jobs and just moving through this workforce disruption and transformation, how can I help people navigate that? What skills do I have? That’s what brought me to offer my Dignity Series programs.”

 

Three Pillars

Although ‘dignity’ is the theme of the collective’s first series of courses, it’s also the foundational concept of the business itself, Kirley explained.

From that foundation rise three pillars. “The first is dignity as defined by self-worth, something that’s inherent, that we bring with us all the time. The second pillar is the embodiment of this connection to our self-worth; there’s a difference between simply understanding dignity and bringing it into the body and seeing it as a platform for growth and a way to increase confidence and ward off self-doubt. That’s the embodiment piece.”

The third pillar is about action. “We’ve dived into concepts of self-worth and our dignity and really worked on ways to embody that and practice that. So, how do we connect to our agency, our actions, our free choice? And the choice, in this case, maybe, is to move through these disruptions to make a better life for ourselves, or to be more generous, or to step into a new role.”

Many individuals these days are certainly doing the latter. “In this time of change, we’re stepping into new responsibilities, with massive amounts of uncertainty — and what does that feel like? Maybe we’re unsure of ourselves, not confident, doubting our own abilities, questioning our success. And that can derail our ability to reach our goals and move to the other side.”

Getting back to the collaborative concept at the heart of her new enterprise, Kirley credits Andrea Bordenca, who is helping her design and develop the Dignity Series, with being a sounding board as she built the business.

“Considering her valuable experience, it gave me a kind of safety net,” she said of Bordenca, who is CEO of both the Institute for Generative Leadership and DESCO Service, as well as the founder of Lead Yourself Youth. “Taking a chance to start a business — the visioning, the planning — is a very vulnerable experience, and it can be scary. Having a safety net in Andrea allowed me to reach higher.”

Jessi Kirley

Jessi Kirley

“Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

Another early collaborator is Amy Jamrog, a financial advisor and founding partner of the Jamrog Group, who is helping Kirley develop a second track of courses, called Claim Your Worth, which will incorporate concepts of self-worth and dignity into practical lessons on financial empowerment. That program’s first course will launch on Feb. 10.

The individual classes are collaborations as well; offerings in the Dignity Series will include Kelly Vogel, owner of Sound Passage, who helps her clients discover the power of their voice; and Dr. Tom Naro, a physical therapist and owner of My PT.

Naro actually approached Kirley, she said, because he felt her concepts could help his clients reach their physical-therapy goals. “Sometimes they struggle with self-doubt, questioning their self-worth, think they don’t deserve to feel good and look good — all those negative thoughts,” she explained.

Each class will feature a workshop followed by a peer-group session a week later, so participants can be introduced to theories and then unpack them in a deeper way, talk about their own personal struggles, and develop strategies for action. While the classes are held virtually now, Kirley sees a role in the future for a hybrid model, even after folks are able to gather in groups again, because it opens her programs up to a wider geographic area.

And, while most participants will likely be women, JKirley Collective welcomes everyone. “Honestly, who doesn’t need this kind of work?” she said. “We know from consumer behavior that women tend to sign up for self-help, self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for everyone.”

She also sees many different applications of these courses, from employee-assistance programs to management team building, to an individual preparing to join a nonprofit board or take on a new leadership role in the community. “The theme is, when we step into something new, by force or by choice, we can doubt ourselves. We want to help people be successful in whatever change they’re going for.”

Currently a business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, Kirley has been committed to serving the community in various capacities for more than 20 years. “I had the fortunate opportunity to go through a Foundations course with the Institute for Generative Leadership,” she said, “which helped me clarify my offering and build a collaboration model for my business.”

 

Bump in the Road

However, she ran into a discouraging roadblock right off the bat. She initially planned to launch in the fall and call her enterprise DignityWorks — a name that, despite her research, proved to be a problem.

“A business owner in the UK contacted me who had been using DignityWorks for many years, and I faced the threat of litigation,” she recently wrote in her blog. “I halted all program promotion, postponed the pilot to January 2021, and resigned to go back to square one for brand name and design. It felt like a devastating loss of time, money, and momentum. This breakdown opened the door for all of my dignity threats to come knockin’!”

Specifically, all the ‘I’m not worthy’ stories she helps clients deal with flooded her own head and wracked her body with anxiety, thoughts like “I should have known how to avoid this setback,” “this business will never be ‘real’ or earn me a living,” “I am letting everyone down, and no one will trust me after this,” and “I look like a fool, and who am I to start my own business?”

She had to put her own advice into practice — to stay calm, actively move away from anxiety and toward dignity, and take “many deep breaths” — before having a productive Zoom meeting with the business owner across the pond, and then going about changing her business name.

Through the whole experience, “I had to walk the talk of my own worth,” she told BusinessWest. “That was pretty cool.”

By the way, she loves the new brand name, especially its focus on the word ‘collective.’ “Who am I as a person? What are my values? I love connecting people, and I love working collaboratively. When I started to think about my values, it was important that collaboration was the driving force in starting this business.”

So, a new year begins on a more positive note. “Having endured 2020, we’re trying to start 2021 by finding ways to invest in self, grow positively, and have better wellness,” Kirley said — and, above all, do it together.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

As the world looks to generate energy from different sources and reduce waste, a new facility just opened in Agawam that contributes to both efforts.

What looks like a plain green building on Main Street is actually a plant that converts food waste into natural gas and fertilizer. Vanguard Renewables, based in Wellesley, approached Agawam Mayor William Sapelli about locating an organics-recovery facility in Agawam. After addressing some initial concerns about truck traffic and potential odor from the plant, the town gave the go-ahead.

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this,” Sapelli said, noting that this is only the second plant of its type in Massachusetts.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say the nearby Hood dairy plant has a pallet of yogurt that does not meet specifications or has expired. Hood can bring that pallet to the Agawam facility, where large extracting machines separate the packaging from the yogurt. The packaging gets bundled and brought to a recycling facility, while the yogurt is mixed with other food waste and water. This forms a slurry, which is then delivered by tanker truck to an anerobic digester, a large, dome-shaped structure. (The closest digesters to Agawam are located on farms in Deerfield and Hadley.)

The slurry is mixed with farm-animal waste in the digester, where two things happen. First, biogas rises from the mix and gets converted to renewable natural gas for heating and cooling. Then, the remains of the slurry, known as digestate, are used as low-carbon fertilizer for area farmers.

“In the past, all this waste was incinerated or dumped into a landfill, but now it’s being turned into energy and fertilizer,” Sapelli said, calling the process “amazing.” As the Agawam facility ramps up to full capacity, it will be able to process 250 tons of food waste per day, according to Vanguard.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this.”

That’s just one project that has Agawam officials excited as they move past a challenging 2020 for all municipalities. While the pandemic is still a daily reality, they say this town is focused on growth as a new year dawns.

 

Bridge to Tomorrow

For the past couple of years, the largest infrastructure project in Agawam has been the rebuilding of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge connecting Agawam and West Springfield. The original completion date was scheduled for May 2022. After Sapelli met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to incentivize the project contractor, Northern Construction, to work overtime and weekends to shorten the deadline, the date was moved to August 2021.

Once the pandemic hit and fewer people were out and about, bridge construction accelerated further. Favorable weather, as well as lighter traffic from both vehicles and pedestrians, allowed crews to get more done every day. Then, the Big E canceled its 2020 fair.

“By contract, the crews had to stop work during the Big E,” Sapelli said. “When the fair was canceled this fall, it gave them an extra 17 days to work on the bridge.” While noting that he is not putting pressure on the construction crews, he predicted the bridge may now be completed by June 2021.

The mayor is also pleased that many of the headaches and traffic jams that usually occur with a major construction project have not materialized. “It’s been a great project,” he said. “You don’t hear a mayor say that very often.”

Like every community, Agawam has had to deal with COVID-19. In fact, the mayor himself had a false alarm after testing positive on a quick test. After going into self-quarantine for several days and not experiencing any symptoms, he took a PCR test (referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of COVID testing), which revealed he had never been infected with coronavirus.

the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June

With the pandemic reducing traffic and accelerating the pace of work last year, the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June.

“I asked if I was asymptomatic or if I’d had it a week before, and the answer to both was, ‘no, it was a false positive,’” he said.

While state mandates have limited public access to Town Hall, Sapelli explained that, even if it were open to the public, the building’s layout just doesn’t work well with COVID-19 mandates.

“For example, the public area in the Collector of Taxes office measures about five feet by eight feet,” Sapelli said. “With social distancing, that means no more than one person can stand there; anyone else would have to wait in the hall, which is also cramped.”

Still, with an emphasis on safety first, Sapelli said Town Hall is open for business for anyone who calls ahead for an appointment.

In order to reduce COVID-19 risks and still encourage in-person education, Agawam’s public schools have adopted a hybrid model. Students whose last names begin with the letters A-K attend class on Monday and Tuesday, while those with L-Z last names attend Thursday and Friday. On the three days they are not scheduled in person, students attend class remotely.

The Department of Health and the superintendent of schools are employing the hybrid model as long as COVID-19 cases within the education community remain low compared to the community as a whole. As a former Agawam school superintendent, Sapelli supports this direction.

“The hybrid approach has been working for Agawam. First, we’re making sure everyone is safe so we can get our students in front of teachers,” he said, adding that parents who are uncomfortable with the hybrid model may choose remote learning full-time.

Bars and restaurants everywhere have greatly suffered during the pandemic from mandated closings, limited seating, and other restrictions. To support those businesses in Agawam, the City Council and the mayor have co-sponsored a resolution to waive the $1,500 liquor-license fee in 2021 for all bars, restaurants, and banquet halls.

“We recognize they’ve lost a lot of revenue and have not been able to host the types of events and gatherings they normally do,” Sapelli said. “Waiving the fee is one thing we can do during the pandemic to help local businesses in these tough times.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

The fee waiver is just one of the ways the City Council and the mayor are working together to help local businesses, he added. “We are business-friendly. When a new business wants to locate in Agawam, we try to expedite the permitting process by having a team meeting that includes everyone from our fire and police departments to the health inspectors and building inspectors. They all meet together with the business owner, so it becomes one-stop shopping.”

 

House Calls

That cooperative attitude makes life easier for Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development in Agawam, who told BusinessWest about several projects in the area of South Westfield Street in the Feeding Hills section of town. One of the most anticipated projects is the Villas at Pine Crossing, an over-55 community that will add 44 units of senior housing to the market.

“Our office frequently gets calls from residents who are looking to downsize, but they want to stay in Agawam,” Strange said. “The designs at the Villas are more friendly for an aging population, something that is desperately needed in Agawam and everywhere else.”

He said he’s grateful the developer chose Agawam for the Villas, and welcomes similar projects. “We’re hoping this will trigger future developments for 55-plus communities in Agawam.”

The land parcel that was once the Tuckahoe Turf Farm sits adjacent to the Villas at Pine Crossing. After years of considering new uses for the property, Agawam officials are now looking at a solar-energy installation for part of the site. “The revenue from the solar field will allow us to develop the rest of the property for recreational uses, such as walking trails and such,” Sapelli said.

Agawam also completed a project in 2020 to convert all its streetlights to LED fixtures, which emit brighter light but also help the city reap potential savings of $220,000 every year. “Agawam is looking to save about $100,000 per year in energy costs and nearly $120,000 per year in streetlight maintenance,” Strange said.

During construction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, crews are using two desirable land parcels to stage and store equipment. Once the bridge is complete, those two parcels will be available for development as well.

“To be clear, as exciting as it is to market prime commercial sites, the new bridge will have an impact on the town that goes well beyond those two parcels,” Strange said.

All of which promises a brighter future for Agawam — literally and figuratively.

Law

A Question of Mandates

By Timothy F. Murphy

 

Employers have a key role to play in ensuring the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and that people are safe at work. Many employers may wish to adopt vaccine mandates, especially if their employees work in close contact with others. But before doing so, employers need to consider a number of things.

 

Can Employers Require Vaccinations?

Yes. Non-union employers can unilaterally require employee vaccinations because employment relationships are ‘at will,’ and they have a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Many employers already require workers to get inoculated against certain infectious diseases.

 

Can Employees Object to Vaccine Mandates?

Yes. Anti-discrimination laws provide disabled and religious employees with legal protections from vaccine mandates. Employers that require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine must meet certain requirements under those laws.

Timothy F. Murphy

Timothy F. Murphy

“Non-union employers can unilaterally require employee vaccinations because employment relationships are ‘at will,’ and they have a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace.”

A worker with a covered disability may seek an exemption from a vaccine mandate. For instance, medical advice to avoid a vaccine due to an employee’s underlying health condition may legally justify a vaccine refusal. In such situations, the employer must explore whether an exemption is a reasonable accommodation given the disability and job duties — so long as it isn’t an undue burden for the employer. Accommodations — like telework or working in isolation from co-workers — that would allow the unvaccinated employee to perform essential job functions would likely not be an undue burden.

According to recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sincerely held religious beliefs may also justify a vaccine refusal. An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation “for the religious belief, practice, or observance” that prevents the worker from receiving the vaccine, unless that accommodation poses more than a “de minimis” cost or burden. Employers may seek verification of such beliefs only if they have an objective reason for doing so.

 

Government Vaccine Mandates Appear Unlikely for Now

A general state vaccine mandate does not appear to be in the cards anytime soon. On the federal level, President-elect Biden has signaled that he is not considering a vaccine mandate at this time. It also appears unlikely that the federal agency charged with workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), would require employers to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine. In the past, OSHA has permitted employers to require employees to receive the flu vaccine.

 

Public-health Experts Warn Against Mandates for Now

Even if employers can legally mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recommends against it. “Right now, we are not recommending that anyone mandate a vaccine,” Adams said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance, noting that Pfizer’s vaccine hasn’t been fully approved yet. According to Saad Omer, a vaccinologist and infectious-disease epidemiologist at Yale University, “mandates shouldn’t be the frontline policy option.”

 

Avoid the Backlash

A vaccine mandate could trigger employee-morale issues. Vaccine hesitancy is a concern across the country. One study revealed that more than one-third of Americans would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine if offered one. However, other data suggests that Americans’ willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine has risen as data on the vaccines’ efficacy have emerged. Many people have said they are more comfortable waiting a few months to get the vaccine. Employers need to be sensitive to employee concerns if vaccination is mandated as soon as it becomes publicly available.

 

Reduce Potential Legal Liability

Employees injured by a mandated vaccine may bring legal claims for workers’ compensation, negligence, and OSHA violations. It is difficult to predict the success of such claims. The ability to argue that government recommendations were followed would go far in defending against them. Limiting a vaccine mandate to high-risk positions or workplaces may also reduce potential legal liability and employee backlash.

 

Wait and See Is the Way to Go

Most Massachusetts non-healthcare employers and their employees are not going to have access to any vaccines before the spring of 2021. So most employers can wait to decide to mandate vaccines simply because there won’t be vaccines immediately available.

In the meantime, employers should be prepared to provide reliable information; reinforce other steps to protect employees and the public, like continued screening, fitness-for-duty programs, and contract tracing; implement employee incentives for voluntary vaccinations; and consider mandatory rapid testing, as those products come to market, as an alternative to mandatory vaccination.

 

Timothy Murphy is a partner at Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., focusing his practice on labor relations, union avoidance, collective bargaining and arbitration, employment litigation, and employment counseling.

Law

To Contest or Not to Contest?

Benjamin Coyle, Esq.

 

None of us want to think that, after we pass away, our loved ones may someday fight over an inheritance. But as we all know, family relationships are complex, and can be particularly so when finances are involved. Add in the grief of losing a loved one, and suddenly, relatives who have always gotten along well may find themselves at odds. Keeping peace in the family is often a vital consideration in estate planning.

One of the most important components of a person’s estate plan is the document that ultimately directs the final disposition of their property, both real and personal, upon their passing. In most circumstances, that document is either a last will and testament or a trust. A question that often arises during the drafting process is: “what can I do to make sure that no one fights over my estate?”

Benjamin Coyle

Benjamin Coyle

“Family relationships are complex, and can be particularly so when finances are involved. Add in the grief of losing a loved one, and suddenly, relatives who have always gotten along well may find themselves at odds. Keeping peace in the family is often a vital consideration in estate planning.”

While an attorney can never guarantee that heirs or beneficiaries will not fight, there are provisions that can be made to deter an interested person from contesting the terms of a will or trust. For wills, Massachusetts law recognizes a provision purporting to penalize an interested person for contesting the will or instituting other proceedings relating to the estate. For trusts, the courts in Massachusetts have upheld the enforceability of ‘no-contest’ (or ‘in terrorem’) clauses.

In 2012, Massachusetts adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), a model code adopted by 18 states in order to standardize probate laws. However, in adopting the UPC, Massachusetts did not incorporate the model’s no-contest provision, which essentially allowed for challenges or contests where probable cause exists. Rather, Massachusetts determined that the Commonwealth would maintain its historic baseline regarding no-contest provisions, and, in doing so, the Legislature provided that such clauses are enforceable as a matter of law, subject to some limitations as determined by the court.

Generally speaking, a no-contest provision is a clause within a will or trust with specific language stating that any person who challenges the estate must then forfeit their share. One of the primary purposes of including such a provision is to deter an interested person from bringing a challenge against the estate.

Typically, if an interested person believes they are not receiving what they may consider to be their fair share of the estate, that perception can provoke a desire to fight the terms of the will or trust. Emotions tend to run particularly high if a sibling or family member may receive a larger portion, or if someone is left out of an estate altogether. These challenges are not often successful, so long as the creator of the will or trust complied with all statutory requirements, was not subject to undue influence or duress, and had the appropriate mental capacity to execute the document.

Occasionally, though, when an interested person is able to present evidence of duress or incapacity, a successful challenge to a will could result in the entire document being invalidated, which would naturally include the no-contest provision. If the no-contest provision is eliminated as a result of the challenge, the contesting party may then be eligible to receive a share of the estate or trust, depending upon the other circumstances at hand.

When administering any will or trust, whether a no-contest provision is included or not, the fiduciary in charge (that is, the trustee of a trust, or the personal representative under a will) must still comply with all the other terms of the document, and the fiduciary is still responsible to beneficiaries. They are required to account to the beneficiaries for the assets under their control, as this is a matter of public policy that the courts have determined cannot be avoided with a no-contest provision.

Typically, we might see no-contest provisions enforced within the discretion of the fiduciary, for frivolous matters involving the administration of the will or trust. Occasionally, a beneficiary may ask the court for an interpretation of the provisions of a will or trust, to make sure the fiduciary is complying with its terms. Provided they are not trying to challenge or change the provisions in the document, the court is unlikely to invoke the no-contest provision when a request for interpretation is made by an interested person.

If you are a beneficiary of a last will and testament or a trust, it is extremely important to review the document to see if it contains a no-contest provision. If it does, and if a challenger comes forward, the court is likely to uphold the no-contest clause, which could result in the forfeiture of an inheritance. One must carefully weigh the options and potential outcomes before asserting a challenge.

On the other hand, if you are preparing your own estate plan and are concerned that disagreements may erupt among beneficiaries, you may wish to consider including a no-contest provision in your documents. Keeping the family peace in the future is certainly worth spending some time and effort today.

 

Benjamin Coyle is a shareholder with Bacon Wilson, P.C. He specializes in matters of estate planning and administration and also has extensive experience with real estate, business, corporate, and municipal law; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Undervalued Again

By Alex Thornton

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic downturn it has caused, have hit everyone hard. But the impact has not been spread equally. A new report by UN Women has found clear evidence that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase, women are bearing more of the burden than men.

Even before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours as men on domestic chores, childcare, and looking after vulnerable or elderly loved ones. Widespread restrictions on daily life, school closures, disruption to businesses, and a big rise in working from home have made many tasks more time-consuming and arduous. And more women than men have reported an increase in their workload in almost every aspect of domestic life.

The data also shows more men saying they usually don’t do a particular task. The average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average man. Nearly one-third of women report spending more time cooking and serving meals, compared to just under one-fifth of men. Half of all men say they don’t normally get involved in preparing food at all.

A similar picture emerges when looking at childcare. Research for UN Women carried out by Ipsos in 16 countries showed that, before the pandemic, women spent an average of 26 hours per week looking after children, compared to 20 hours a week for men. That has now risen by 5.2 hours for women, and just 3.5 hours for men. As a result, the average mother now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average father.

There are big regional differences. Although every nation surveyed showed a rise, the effects were most pronounced in less affluent countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, compared to wealthier countries.

The pandemic has reaffirmed the persistence of gender bias in social and cultural norms. All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house, while just two-thirds of women say the same of their husbands or partners. Perhaps more concerning for gender equality in the future is that parents are more likely to notice their daughters doing more to help than their sons.

The overall effect is that the gradual progress toward gender equality seen in recent decades could not only stall, but be reversed.

Already, more than 28 million women over age 25 are estimated to have left the labor market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Given that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a serious threat to the economic status of huge numbers of women. On a global scale, it’s thought that the pandemic will push a further 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.

Despite the clear evidence that women are disproportionately suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic, the vast majority of measures that have been enacted by policymakers do little to address the increased burden on women.

However, there are some notable exceptions: increases in monthly child allowance payments in places like Argentina, expanding paid parental-leave programs in Italy and Belgium, and compensating parents affected by closures, as in Germany and South Korea.

Perhaps the biggest step would be simply recognizing the value of the unpaid domestic and caring work done by women, pandemic or not. The 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly 10% of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate. Women were grossly undervalued before the pandemic — now the situation is getting even worse.

 

Alex Thornton is senior writer, Formative Content for the World Economic Forum.

Economic Outlook

The Big Picture

Bob Nakosteen has an old saying hanging in a frame in his office at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — the one he hasn’t been in but once since last March.

It reads: “You Can See the Future by Looking at the Past.”

Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at Isenberg, said he’s lived by those words, especially at this time of year, when he’s asked to try to forecast what might come over the next 12 months.

Only this time, that saying doesn’t hold. Indeed, while people tend to throw that word ‘unprecedented’ into the mix early, often, and sometimes when it doesn’t actually apply, one could certainly use it with regard to COVID-19, the economy, and any efforts to look into the crystal ball and make some projections.

“In virtually every situation I’ve been in before, you can pick out an historical situation that came close and give some perspective on what might happen next,” he said. “Now, you can’t at all. Even 1919 and the last global pandemic was different; there was lingering demand from World War I, and a lot of global agriculture had been shut down. That really bolstered United States agriculture; we were still predominantly an agricultural country. There were some circumstances that we can’t duplicate now.”

So if people can’t look to the past to project what will happen in 2021, how can they handle that assignment?

“Not very easily,” said Nakosteen, who noted there are always question marks going into a new year. This year, they come by the bushel bag, and cover everything from vaccines — how effective they’ll be and when they’ll be widely available — to overall consumer confidence, always a huge issue in determining which way the arrow will point; from the election of a new president to what’s happening in other countries, especially with regard to the pandemic; from the employment scene (specifically, how many of those millions of lost jobs will actually come back) to whether, and to what degree, Congress keeps printing money and dispensing it to those in distress.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating. But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

Add it all up, and there is simply too much uncertainty to make any real projections, said Nakosteen, adding that, while the country may well avoid another recession, or the dreaded ‘double-dip recession,’ as it’s called, the eventual shape of the recovery — which has been the subject of endless conjecture, with possibilities ranging from a V to a U to something like a Nike swoosh — is still be to determined. Obviously.

“What we could have is a W-shaped recovery,” said Nakosteen, offering another possibility, noting that, in this scenario, the economy would move back down again, hopefully not as bad as it did when it cratered last March, but eventually climb back up.

“With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the bounce-back might also take the more dramatic Nike swoosh shape. “But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

When asked about the factors that will dictate the eventual shape of the recovery, Nakosteen said there are almost too many to count. They include:

• How much more stimulus money will be injected into the economy. Like most, Nakosteen said the recent $900 billion package approved by Congress will help, but it won’t be enough. When asked if the federal government could keep on printing money, in essence, he said he didn’t see why it couldn’t. “One of the things that happens during an economic crisis is that the government will provide temporary support until the economy heals itself. This is not permanent; this is temporary, and it’s a bridge to the future. And right now, we need a bridge.”

• The election of a new president. “That generally seems to perk things up — there’s generally a first-administration bounce — but in these unprecedented times, who knows?”

• To what extent new habits might become permanent. These include everything from not dining out or traveling to doing most shopping online, to working remotely. “I would like to get back to going out more, but my guess is that my life has changed, and we’ll never really go back to the way it was before the pandemic.”

• How many of the jobs that have been lost are regained. Employment is always a key to any recovery, and there is conjecture that many jobs will be lost permanently due in part to those changes in behavior; and

• Whether this region can somehow benefit from these changes in behavior and attitude. Some have suggested that, now that people can successfully work remotely, they may choose to do so in a setting like Western Mass., which provides space and a lower cost of living than Boston or other major cities.

While making hard projections is difficult, Nakosteen said he could offer what he considers to be a best-case scenario:

“By early summer, enough of the country is vaccinated and enough of the state is vaccinated, and, almost as importantly, people have confidence in the vaccine and the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated, and then you see people start to re-engage. The industries that have been hurt have all been face-to-face industries — accommodations, retail, other services, the arts, and recreation. These face-to-face services start to bounce back quickly because people have a great hunger to get back out. If things go well, you’re going to see them get back out in the summer, and that’s when you’ll start to see the beginning of a serious rebound.”

Again, that’s the best-case scenario.

The worst case? An insufficient percentage of the population receives the vaccine, supply-chain issues “gum things out,” news of new strains of the virus spreads fear, people lose confidence in a recovery, and things drag on into the fall and perhaps longer, he said, adding, again, that myriad factors will determine which scenario — possibly one in between those two — becomes reality.

Summing things up, Nakosteen noted that, in some respects, we know what’s coming next — the administering of vaccines to millions of people over the next several months. What we don’t know is how all that is going to play out.

As he said, normally you can look to the past to see the future. But not in this case.

 

Economic Outlook

Education

Jamie Birge was searching for a piece of wood to knock on.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), which he serves as president, had essentially made it through a very different fall semester with only a handful of positive cases of COVID-19. He considers this a victory for his institution, and a clear indication that the many protocols put in place were effective.

“For the full semester, our positive rate was 10 times lower than the Commonwealth’s positive rate, and each week we outperformed our host city [North Adams], the county, and the Commonwealth,” he explained. “We were actively hunting the virus through our testing protocol, and through our tracing protocol, we made sure there was no spread. I think we had six cases, and in each of those cases, none of them spread on campus, because we were able to identify the virus through testing, we were able to either quarantine or isolate individuals, and we went to remote learning after Thanksgiving, which turned out to the best time to do that because there was an uptick in positive cases in Berkshire County, and our students were already off campus learning remotely. From a numbers perspective, we did extraordinarily well.”

The semester was a success on many levels, he went on, but for the students living on campus in singles or in off-campus housing, it certainly wasn’t the “typical residential college experience,” he noted, adding that those on campus were all in single rooms, and access was limited between residence halls. “You couldn’t go visit other people.”

Jamie Birge

Jamie Birge

“Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Focusing on the future, Birge is obviously looking forward to the day when the school can again offer that full experience. He’s not sure when that will happen — certainly not before next fall and perhaps not even then — but there are signs of encouragement, he said, referring to everything from the introduction of vaccines to the projections for enrollment for next September.

“The latest I’ve seen for the 2021 cycle is that we’re within 3% of the pre-pandemic numbers, so we’re feeling good about that,” he said, noting that, by this time of the year, many students have already committed to where they will be attending school in the fall, although the next four or five weeks are critical. “I think that’s a soft figure, and, overall, we think this is going to be a multi-year emergence to return to where we had been. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re only off 3%.”

He said that number seems to be consistent with what the other eight state schools are reporting, although there is some variation. And time will tell if those numbers hold up as the vaccines are rolled out and their effectiveness is gauged.

Meanwhile, beyond the all-important process of rebuilding enrollment, colleges and universities will face other challenges, said Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), especially the need to “adjust, adapt, and evolve,” as she put it, to effectively prepare students for what will be a changed landscape when it comes to the workforce and how work is done.

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID,” she explained. “We know that there are a number of jobs that won’t be returning.”

Elaborating, she said GCC will lean heavily on a panel it created called the Future of Work Advisory Committee, comprised of area business leaders across several sectors, including healthcare, hospitality, financial services, manufacturing, and others.

“They help us keep a pulse on what’s changing, what they anticipate, and what the outlook is, so we can align our new academic programs, and also adjust our existing programs to meet their demands,” she noted. “Also, it will be critically important for us to get a sense of what the workplace will look like and the skills that employers will be looking for.”

In this respect, she said colleges and universities, at least those with an eye on the long term, will be taking lessons from evolved companies that looked at the marketplace and how it was changing and began to adjust accordingly.

“These companies started asking themselves, ‘what are the market needs today that we can adapt to and meet — and what will be the unmet needs in the future, and how can we best position ourselves to meet them?’” she explained, adding that colleges have to do the same.

As for enrollment, the lifeblood of any college or university, area schools have been battling not only the pandemic, but demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes. The two forces collided with considerable force this past September, with enrollment down as much as 20% at some area schools (that was the number at MCLA) and 15% at most of the institutions, with many high-school graduates taking a gap year and many already in college simply taking a break.

The question hanging over the industry involves that matter of pent-up demand and whether there will be good amount of it when the product is a college education.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID.”

Birge believes there will be such demand, although, as he said, it might be the fall of 2022 or 2023 before pre-pandemic levels return.

“From the information we collect from students, the students want to return to campus,” he told BusinessWest. “Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Noting that enrollment at community colleges usually rises during times of recession and high unemployment, Salomon-Fernández noted that this past fall semester was an exception to that rule, both because of large amounts of assistance to those who became jobless and the inability to attend in-person classes. She believes the vaccines, and the eventual end to those stimulus benefits, will change that equation.

“I think enrollment will start picking up in the fall of 2021,” she said. “In the long term, we can’t keep borrowing against ourselves — the national debt is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. This is not sustainable, and we expect that, as the vaccine becomes available, the government subsidies will decline, and people will have ample incentive to get back to work — and they’ll need the skills to enter, continue in, and thrive in the job market.”

Looking ahead to the spring, Birge said MCLA will operate very much as it did in the fall, but with even more testing due to the colder weather at the start. Spring break will be eliminated, and an extra day will be tacked on to President’s Day weekend.

Like he said, the spring will be a lot like last fall. It will be different, though, if the vaccines work as the experts project they will, because the finish line, when it comes to the pandemic, will be much closer.

“Everyone is down right now when it comes to enrollment,” Birge said. “But we’re feeling a little bit of encouragement that it’s better than we thought it was going to be, although it’s certainly not what we want it to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Banking

Donna Boulanger says she doesn’t how the landscape might change in 2021. What she does know is that it changed quite a bit in 2020.

That goes for everything from attitudes regarding online and mobile banking to sentiments on remote working, to thoughts on where people might prefer to live. Overall, she noted, these past 10 months have been a time to rethink how we do things and where we do them. And many of these changes may well be permanent, which will go a long way toward determining what 2021 — and the years that follow — will be like.

“A lot depends on the rollout of the vaccine and the effectiveness of the vaccine,” she said. “There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not,” said Boulanger, president and CEO of North Brookfield Savings Bank, which has eight branches and serves customers in both Western and Central Mass.

Donna Boulanger

“There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not.”

“And how much have consumers’ habits changed?” she went on. “Are they going to go back to retail stores? Are they going to go back to restaurants? Will they go back to traveling? They are so many factors in play, and that makes predicting what will happen in 2021 very difficult. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Looking back on 2020, she said it was a period of adjustment — for the bank and many of its customers. Like all financial institutions, North Brookfield Savings Bank had to pivot, as she termed it, when it came to everything from staffing branches — teams would rotate in for two-week periods — to providing much-needed lessons in online and mobile banking to the bank’s generally older customer base.

Overall, Boulanger said, many businesses and consumers adjusted well to the pandemic, and state and federal support played a large role in this.

“In the Western Mass. and Central Mass. area, the loan portfolios held up very well; delinquencies, and I know this is hard to believe, are at record lows,” she explained. “Whether it is the increased unemployment or stimulus checks, our customers have weathered this storm fairly well. But there are certainly pockets, in Massachusetts and across the country, where people are not faring so well.

“We have a lot of customers who have fully recovered,” she went on, meaning they’ve returned to pre-pandemic revenue patterns. “These are generally manufacturers or specialty businesses; they’re not in hospitality, they’re not in retail. The people still being impacted are those in personal service, whether you’re a nail salon, a barbershop, a gym, or daycare facility.”

The bank took what she called a “proactive approach,” calling each and every business customer to see if help was needed, and in what form. Meanwhile, it was active with the Paycheck Protection Program, handling applications not only for customers, but businesses well outside its general service area.

Looking ahead, like others we spoke with, she noted that winter is a slow time for many business sectors, and the next few months could well be tough sledding for many ventures. And beyond those few months, question marks loom about consumer behavior and just how much pent-up demand there will be for some products and services.

But some shifts are already taking place, she said, adding that there are visible signs that attitudes are changing, about everything from where people want to live to how and where they will work.

“There is an outward movement from cities — we see it in our market,” she told BusinessWest. “When I talk to our local Realtors, we see people moving into Central and Western Mass. They’re coming from New York, they’re coming from New Jersey. Is that going to continue? No one knows, but it’s happening now.

“Palmer, Belchertown, Ware … we’re seeing people move there from outside Massachusetts, and I don’t think you would have seen that before,” she went on. “There’s demand for open space because people are going to continue to be able to work remotely. And because people aren’t going to restaurants as much, they don’t need to be in the big city; you’re not going to walk to the local restaurant or the local business.”

The question moving forward is how much permanence can be attached to these changes in attitude and behavior.

“Are these going to be long-term changes, or will people, when they feel safer, return to the cities because of the amenities?” she said in conclusion. “That’s the struggle for all the big cities.”

And that’s just one of the questions, one of those moving parts, that make predicting the future, even the next few years, so difficult.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Accounting

‘Uneasiness.’

That was the word Julie Quink summoned, after considerable thought, to describe the sentiment of most small-business owners as the calendar turns to 2021.

And it seems like an appropriate choice.

Indeed, regardless of how a business fared in 2020 — and some of her clients actually held up pretty well — Quink, managing partner at the West Springfield-based accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, said most simply don’t know what to expect for the year again. Thus, they are uneasy and likely to be cautious and conservative in the months to come, which will likely play a role in how quickly and profoundly this region bounces back from all the body blows it took over the past 10 months or so.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

Many of these businesses are also uneasy because they were able to “limp along,” as she put it, thanks to support from the CARES Act, especially in the form of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that provided a much-needed cushion from sometimes dramatic drops in revenue.

Starting this past fall, when many businesses effectively spent down their PPP, they’ve been getting a look at operating without a net underneath them, if it can be called that, and for many, it’s a scary proposition.

“That’s why I think we’re going to see the true impact of this crisis over the next 12 months or so, especially as the pandemic continues,” said Quink, adding quickly that, another round of PPP was included in the recently passed stimulus package, little is known about how much help will be available, when, and to whom. And even for those businesses that get another round of help, 2021 is likely to be a struggle, she went on, again because of all that uneasiness.

Quink, like most of those in the accounting and tax field, has a good read on the economy and the factors driving it because her portfolio of clients is diverse and represents virtually every sector. Slicing through the phone calls, the questions asked, and the answers provided, she said some businesses have actually done well during this pandemic (she has a few commercial cleaners, for example), others are holding their own, and still others are really struggling.

“There is such a mixed bag with our clients,” she said, adding that this diversity of performance reflects what’s happening across the region. “I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

She related the story of a second-generation business, a wholesaler that services the airline industry, among many others. Revenues are down roughly 50% from a year ago, not because there are fewer customers, but because most of the existing customers are ordering far less as their needs have diminished.

“We had a conversation today about how to plan, and I said, ‘you should tighten your belt because I think this is going to be a rough ride this year,’” she recalled, adding that she has given this same advice to many of her clients.

Getting back to that sentiment of uneasiness, Quick said there are many things to be uneasy about, from the ongoing pandemic to a presidential election that, while officially over, has been tumultuous in every way, to the deep uncertainty about the year ahead.

“People are waiting — they’re waiting for things to be final,” she said, using that phrase to describe everything from the stimulus package to the pandemic itself. “And I don’t think the election helped anything; all the events surrounding the election have made people uneasy.”

Still another factor contributing to this state concerns changes that have come to how business is being done, and questions about when, or even if, things will go back to normal.

“I have some clients who are international and can’t fly and can’t participate internationally in person,” she explained. “So they’ve had to refocus on how they do business now, and they don’t really know what the future will bring.”

As for her own profession, 2020 was certainly a different year, one with a tax season that never seemed to end. But it was a good year for most, because clients needed more assistance, or ‘touches,’ as she called them, with PPP and other matters.

And 2021 is certainly shaping up as more of the same, with another round of PPP looming, more questions concerning how to plan for the months and quarters ahead, and more of that uneasiness that will certainly play a large role in determining what kind of year this will be.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Healthcare

 

Editor’s Note: One of the sectors most impacted by the pandemic — and one facing a great number of questions moving forward — is healthcare. We put some questions to Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack, who has become a very visible leader during this crisis and was recently named one of BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes for 2020.

 

BusinessWest: Dr. Keroack, already we’re seeing a great deal of optimism and expectation accompanying the arrival of vaccines in this nation and this region. What are your thoughts on the impact these vaccines will have on the broader economic picture in this region and when that impact will be seen?

 

Dr. Keroack: The vaccines represent a major scientific breakthrough, and they are the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Economies depend on consumer confidence, and, therefore, I have always seen recovery from the pandemic and recovery of the economy as one and the same. Removing the pandemic will boost confidence and enable the economy to recover. What is less clear is which businesses will have survived the terrible stress test of 2020 to even be able to recover.

 

BusinessWest: ‘Normal’ is a word we hear a lot these days, as in ‘when things return to normal.’ With the vaccines now here, is there any more clarity on when ‘normal’ — as in pre-COVID — may return?

 

Dr. Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack

“The light at the end of the tunnel is real, but it is still months away, and we are now in a perilous situation with more virus circulating in the community than we had last spring.”

Dr. Keroack: I believe that when a majority of people — more than 70% — receive the vaccine and are immune, case numbers will fall precipitously because the virus will not be able to find new hosts easily. That will enable governmental leaders to lift the restrictions we all have been struggling with these past several months. I suspect that will happen in late spring or early summer.

 

BusinessWest: Dr. Keroack, this has been a trying year for the healthcare system and hospitals in general. Can you in any way anticipate what 2021 will be like — both in terms of providing services and from a business (bottom-line) perspective?

 

Dr. Keroack: I think we should expect consumer attitudes to be changed in the wake of the pandemic. For several months, people have been getting used to different ways of getting their needs fulfilled, whether it is virtual visits, remote working, takeout dining, or online retail. I think this will put greater pressure on traditional bricks-and-mortar enterprises, including Baystate, to revisit their business models.

 

BusinessWest: In many ways, you have been the face of the pandemic in this region, often sending out strong statements on the need to socially distance, wear masks, and take the steps necessary to stem the spread of the virus. What is your message to the community now, 10 months after the start of the pandemic, and with what many are calling a light at the end of the tunnel in sight?

 

Dr. Keroack: The light at the end of the tunnel is real, but it is still months away, and we are now in a perilous situation with more virus circulating in the community than we had last spring. Many people, especially older people, are doing what they need to do to protect themselves, but many more are minimizing or still denying the risks of infection. It is now more important than ever to follow the guidance on masking, social distancing, and handwashing. Furthermore, we need to restrict our visits to indoor spaces that are not our homes, particularly if masks are not being worn.

 

BusinessWest: The governor recently rolled back, if that’s the proper phraseology, many of the restrictions on certain types of businesses. Do you believe further restrictions will be needed before the current situation improves?

 

Dr. Keroack: I think it is likely that the latest restrictions will not be enough to slow down the spread of the virus. We are seeing that some mayors are issuing regulations that go beyond what the governor recently proposed, and I suspect he too will have to roll back things still further before we are through the current crisis.

 

BusinessWest: Continuing with that thought, many businesses have closed over the past several months, and many more are barely hanging on amid the restrictions placed on them. It’s often been said that elected leaders have to choose between saving the economy and saving lives. Is there any way, in your opinion, to effectively do both?

 

Dr. Keroack: There are examples of countries that have done both. They are characterized by high rates of rule following, easy access to testing, and financial support for people who are sick and cannot work. Many Asian countries had great success opening their economies while also driving down infection rates. Other countries, like the U.S., were more likely to object to or doubt the effectiveness of the guidelines, and we saw a lot of people deciding to exempt themselves, sometimes with disastrous consequences. We also are not consistent in terms of sick leave, so many were tempted to go to work while sick. For all these differences, it is fair to say that now nearly every country is sliding backward to higher virus levels, because even the most compliant groups get fatigued by these restrictions.

 

BusinessWest: As a business leader and manager of one of the region’s largest employers, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has changed business and how it’s conducted, and which of these changes may be permanent?

 

Dr. Keroack: I mentioned earlier the importance of flexibility and meeting the customer where they are. We have recommitted to improved customer service and easier access to care. We are still learning in healthcare to be more like more customer-friendly sectors. I also expect that the strains on the economy will cause healthcare to be examined again for being too high in cost. Baystate Health is the lowest-cost large health system in the state, and yet we still need to drive down costs further. We also need to remember that embedded in the pandemic was the George Floyd killing, which led to a reckoning with systemic racism in our country. Baystate Health as an organization has made eliminating racism and enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our health system a top priority. Finally, I think we need to re-examine and improve how we do preventive public health in our state, and I hope Baystate Health can play a role there.

 

BusinessWest: They say adversity makes those who endure it stronger. How will this region become stronger because of this lengthy and difficult battle against COVID-19?

 

Dr. Keroack: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all connected to each other. Infections historically have attacked those in lower socioeconomic groups more severely. When those infections spread easily, we all suffer when we have not dealt fully with advancing economic opportunity across all our communities. If we come out of this with a greater sense of community and togetherness, we will have gained something valuable from what was otherwise a terrible ordeal.

 

BusinessWest: Personally and professionally, what has it been like for you to lead a company like Baystate though this crisis? What have you learned about yourself, as a leader, if anything?

 

Dr. Keroack: There have been many stressful days, given the unknowns and dangers of this virus. I worry a lot about protecting our employees and see the stresses they have been going through. I am blessed with a wonderful team that has strong experience in infectious-disease management and epidemic containment. I also am gratified by the can-do attitude from so many on the front lines. They show tremendous commitment, compassion, and innovation. I think the major lessons I learned as a leader is to make sure people understand the reasons behind what we are trying to do and then to trust them to find the solutions. I have not been disappointed in that trust.

 

Economic Outlook

Fitness

For a year and a half after F45 Training Hampshire Meadows opened in Hadley, owner Danny Deane knew what members wanted — to get fit, sure, but also to cultivate a sense of family and community with their fellow goal-setters.

“We were sharing equipment, people were shoulder to shoulder, giving sweaty high fives,” he said, noting that none of that has been possible since the pandemic began.

Danny and Jessye Deane, owners of two local F45 Training franchises.

Danny and Jessye Deane, owners of two local F45 Training franchises.

In fact, the fitness center, like all others in this industry, closed its doors for almost four months, a casualty of Gov. Charlie Baker’s sweeping lockdowns in March, following by a slow, gradual, phased approach to reopening — during which time F45 launched online programs and later ran outdoor boot camps before getting the all-clear to invite members back inside.

These days, the Hadley facility — and a second F45 location Deane and his wife, Jessye, opened in West Springfield over the summer — have implemented a series of strict safety protocols, from reducing session sizes and mandating masks to requiring everyone to sanitize, pass a temperature check upon entry, and even change shoes; from reformatting space for physical distancing and barring shared equipment to sanitizing all surfaces, floors, and equipment every 45 minutes. Both studios — and their HVAC systems — have been fitted with the hospital-grade PermaSAFE disinfectant and antimicrobial system and are electrostatically fogged weekly.

The result? Out of 20,027 member visits since July, the two studios have been responsible for exactly zero transmissions of COVID-19.

“Making health everyone’s priority is really why we opened this,” Danny said, which is why he and Jessye considered CDC and state safety recommendations and not only met, but exceeded them, at both locations.

It’s certainly a bold move to expand during a pandemic, especially in an industry as hard-hit as this one by COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and restrictions.

“The industry is hurting, significantly,” Danny said. “We say failure is never an option for us, but for the majority of fitness in the United States, it is certainly an option.”

Indeed, while most fitness centers say they’re hanging on, many have shut their doors permanently. The most recent capacity rollback in Massachusetts, to 25%, isn’t helping matters for an industry whose leaders have consistently maintained they’re not the problem when it comes to spreading COVID-19.

“These setbacks are crushing,” said Frank Nash, president of Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators, noting that the industry’s rigid safety measures have resulted in a less than .000034% positivity rate in more than 1.3 million check-ins. “Our industry has collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars outfitting studios with ventilation equipment, social-distancing measures, employing robust cleaning procedures, and instituting contact tracing, and it’s working.”

Jessye Deane agreed. “The data shows gyms are not breeding grounds for transmission, and we’ve certainly seen that,” she said, adding that industry stresses go beyond government mandates; some people simply don’t want to return yet, while others, due to economic strain, have had to cut certain things out of their household budgets, fitness memberships among them.

Yet, many gyms and fitness centers are taking lessons from the pandemic and plan to expand upon innovations introduced this year, such as virtual classes.

“We thought COVID-19 was a catastrophic event for our industry, but — although challenging — it has turned into a transformative event,” said Kevin Mannion, vice president of Marketing at Glofox, a consulting firm for the international fitness industry. “Less than a week after most countries went into lockdown, we noticed that gyms everywhere were organically starting to run online classes through Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Some larger operators were able to offer classes free on their social-media channels, while at the same time developing a paid online service that could reach people the world over.”

For gyms that are moving forward with in-person activity, the safety measures are critical, Danny Deane said. At a time when Baker is rolling back indoor capacity limits and tightening safety mandates due to the recent viral spike, “we’ve had all this set in stone from the get-go, so we don’t have to all of a sudden introduce masks or reduce capacity. We’ve been on point the whole time.”

Added Jessye, “there’s no reason for us not to be as safe as possible. We have members who have compromised immune systems. We have members who have elderly parents. It’s really important to us that we’re protecting all our members — our F45 family, and all their families.

“This is hard,” she said, gesturing at a safely distanced group workout going on behind her. “It’s even harder with a mask. But people have adapted, and it’s been really impressive to see the way our members have been committed to us and stuck by us — because we would not be able to get through this without them.”

Not only has the business survived, but, as noted, it expanded. When the Deanes decided last year to open a second location in West Springfield, called F45 Training Riverdale, the pandemic was months away from anyone’s radar.

When COVID-19 did appear, “did we ever think about turning the other way?” Danny said. “No, absolutely not. It was full steam ahead, always.”

Jessye called it a “burn the boats” move. “We will always adapt, and we’re committed to the people we serve because we’ve seen how it changes lives,” she said. “Every worry has been worth it. We’re giving people years on their lives. We’re not here so people can have abs. Abs are great, don’t get me wrong, but we really want people to live longer and move better. So there was no way we were going to turn our back on that.”

Of course, the planned April opening on Riverdale Street wasn’t going to happen, but they did go ahead with a grand-opening event of sorts: a virtual workout fundraiser to support local healthcare heroes, with all proceeds donated to Baystate Health. The new facility opened its doors to members four months later, in August.

The fitness centers that survive 2020 will have to make their own decisions about how much programming to offer in-person and virtually going forward. As Mannion noted, “COVID-19 accelerated a trend of at-home workouts, and businesses have been forced to respond … The fitness businesses of the future realize they need to be adaptable and offer both in-person and virtual workouts in order to prevent shocks and to cater to the evolving needs of the consumer.”

Still, Jessye Deane said she’s looking to the days when they can once again pack in members at their two physical locations.

“This isn’t the business model we signed up for,” she said of the much-less-crowded studios these days. “I don’t think it’s the business model anyone signed up for. But we wouldn’t be operational at all if we weren’t positive we could offer a safe environment.”

However, they’re both optimistic about what will happen in 2021, as mandates fade and people realize they miss working out together.

“We have done a significant job growing through this, but there’s still a significant pool to tap into once the restrictions are lifted,” Danny said. “I’m really excited to see both facilities back at full capacity.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Economic Outlook

Restaurants

Andy Yee was still slogging — his word, and he would use it more than a few times — through the holiday season when he talked with BusinessWest for this Outlook section. But he was already thinking about the next one and what it might be like.

And his thoughts were colored with optimism.

“I think there is going to be a lot of pent-up demand,” he said, referring to that day when the clouds eventually lift and people feel confident returning to restaurants and especially indoor dining. “People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

While he feels confident in that assessment, and even offered a timeline of sorts — projecting some improvement by spring as vaccines are rolled out, much more by summer, and perhaps something approximating normal by Q4, or certainly next holiday season — what he doesn’t know is how many restaurateurs currently doing business in the region be along for that ride, whenever it does come.

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

“People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

Indeed, several have already been forced to shut their doors, he said, and others will be challenged to survive what will likely be another several months of slogging, even with the promise of additional help coming in the form of support from the state.

“January and February are traditionally leaner months — people have that holiday hangover, although I’m not sure what that will be like this year,” he noted. “It’s going to be hard for some people to hang on. There will be some casualties; there will be more closures.”

There have been several already, due directly to COVID-19 or perhaps the pandemic accelerating the timeline for retirement, said Yee, adding quickly that the number of additional losses to the landscape will be determined by a number of factors, from how quickly and effectively vaccines reach the general population to the level of confidence people have with going back out again, even with a vaccine, to the overall experience level and savvy of the restaurateurs in question.

“This really will be survival of the fittest,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his definition of ‘fittest’ is those with the experience and will to maneuver through this whitewater. “There are some people who have been doing this a long time, and this is a tough business; these are the ones who will probably buckle down and adjust to leaner times.”

Summing up 2020 and speaking for everyone in his sector, Yee said it’s been a long, long, long haul.

Indeed it has, a nine-month stretch of restrictions that have varied in their severity, but have been generally punitive to restaurateurs, limiting how, where, and when they can serve diners. Some have fared reasonably well with takeout, outdoor dining, and reduced indoor seating, he noted, but none are doing anything approaching what they were doing a year ago, revenue-wise.

And many have decided they can’t continue to slug it out, he said, noting closures up and down the Pioneer Valley and also in the Berkshires. As bad as it’s been, it’s been far worse in major cities with much higher commercial lease rates, he told BusinessWest, adding that Boston has been devasted, and perhaps 35% of all the restaurants in New York will chose for good due to the pandemic.

Despite the devastation, the pandemic did provide some positive learning experiences, especially when it came to outdoor dining, something few restaurants had tried, but now were all but forced to undertake. It’s something that may become a permanent fixture.

“It has been a good learning experience for us,” he said, citing the Student Prince in Springfield as perhaps the best example from within the Bean Group of an establishment that invested heavily in outdoor dining and saw some success. “We are going to try to emulate that and duplicate that next year.”

Looking ahead, he does have confidence that the vaccines are cause for optimism, and also that, when this pandemic is over, people will go back to their old habits of dining out — a question that many have been asking over the past several months as the discussion turns to how the pandemic may change societal norms for the long term.

“I agree with people who say we can see the finish line with COVID,” he told BusinessWest. “My feeling is that, by March, things will start to loosen up a little; by the summertime we’ll be back to some kind of new normal, whatever that means; and in the fourth quarter we’ll roar back with people going out and celebrating.”

Meanwhile, for the entrepreneurial — and he certainly falls into that category — there will be opportunities within this sector as the pandemic draws on and more establishments grow weary of the fight.

Yee said he’s already received a number of calls from individuals looking to sell, and he expects those calls to keep coming.

In that respect, 2021 might see many more changes to the landscape in this important sector.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Technology

In 2020, virtually every business was caught off guard by pandemic restrictions, which forced them to focus primarily on ways to stabilize and survive. For those that are back in operation, 2021 offers a chance to return to strategic growth — with the right tools.

“While businesses are not in control of whether or not there are secondary or terciary waves of infections, they can adopt a technology plan to support their new workplace environment and ensure productivity,” said Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology.

While business owners may have been surprised that their employees actually kept working while remote, they also want to ensure the technology employees are using works, too, he noted.

“In 2020, many businesses were using workarounds to solve communication breakdowns, but by now, there’s no reason for lapses in productivity,” he explained. “In fact, there are plenty of technology tools at our fingertips that businesses are utilizing successfully to keep team members engaged, productive, and efficient, regardless of the physical limitations imposed by the pandemic.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“For this workplace-interaction strategy to be successful, employees must be backed with technology tools that support key functions.”

Successful small to mid-sized businesses are well aware of the benefits of strategic planning, Hogan noted, and even though the pandemic has posed unforeseen variables, businesses now have enough information to build workplace-interaction strategies that will support revenue growth in 2021. “Although businesses may consider themselves to be lucky to have survived, they need to expand their thinking in terms of setting new goals, instead of being caught in reaction mode once more.”

COVID-19 has forced companies to adapt, he went on, and at this point, every business owner essentially needs three distinct strategic plans for workplace interaction, and the most sophisticated businesses are creating contingency plans for all three potential environments.

The first is a fully remote workplace. Many organizations that were flexible enough to sustain a fully remote workforce have opted to keep everyone remote until further notice. Such a work environment presents its own unique set of challenges, Hogan said, but also new opportunities.

“For this workplace-interaction strategy to be successful, employees must be backed with technology tools that support key functions,” he explained. “For example, employees need to be empowered to remain in constant communication with other team members. Additionally, business owners need to provide them central access to data, with responsible levels of cybersecurity on the network.”

A remote team means more exposure to the network, he added, but it also brings more flexibility than ever before. A full transition to this model means the business won’t be interrupted by further restrictions or lockdowns.

The second model is a hybrid workplace, which majority of businesses believe will be the most likely scenario in 2021. Over the past year, companies have cycled through lockdowns, partial openings, and full reopenings depending on health-risk factors.

If a business owner wants to plan for a hybrid model going forward, he or she must consider ways to secure entrances, exits, and access points with tools like body-temperature scanners or touchless door-access controls. They can also benefit significantly tools like cloud voice with call forwarding, to make transitions seamless when staff migrate from the office to remote-work environments.

“In order for hybrid to work, remote technology needs to be secure and seamless,” Hogan said, “while workers and customers need to feel safe in person.”

The third model is an in-person workplace with social distancing. “For a minority of businesses, all activities are dependent on the physical location remaining open,” he noted. “For these businesses, owners need to consider how to adhere to and accommodate various safety measures to ensure compliance and worker safety.”

Regardless of which workplace environment is chosen, Hogan said, three critical aspects must be addressed to ensure success. The first is that employees need access to cloud voice to keep team members in constant communication and to ensure that office calls are properly routed to cell phones when team members are out of the office. Second, the team needs to be able to collaborate effectively.

Lastly, every workplace environment needs to be kept secure. For in-person strategies, this means secure access points, with tech like body-temperature scanners to ensure illnesses cannot spread. For remote workplaces, this means cybersecurity precautions have to be considered because, generally speaking, home networks pose much higher risks than office environments.

“We are currently meeting with customers, and, depending on what they want to achieve in 2021, we are devising custom technology plans to help them accomplish their strategic goals,” Hogan said. “This is what leaders do — they step up and lead in times of uncertainty. We are using our expertise to provide structure and clarity so that businesses can continue to thrive. Technology just happens to be our particular expertise, but this effort is about honoring our responsibility to the business community at large.”

Economic Outlook

Retail

Editor’s Note: Retail was among the sectors most impacted by the pandemic. Some businesses were forced to close, while all others had to make sweeping changes to how they did things to keep customers and employees safe. BusinessWest asked Charlie D’Amour, president of CEO of Big Y, to put 2020 in perspective and look ahead to what might come next.

 

BusinessWest: 2020 was certainly a tumultuous year for retail — and business in general. No one has a crystal ball, but what do you project for the year ahead, in terms of the economy and Big Y?

 

D’Amour: 2020 has certainly been fraught with challenges. Keeping our employees and customers safe while providing essential services has been foremost in our efforts. One of the biggest challenges has been supply chain, and that has been compounded in a number of ways.

First, panic buying ensued, and safety stock that is usually kept in reserve evaporated overnight. Many manufacturers and food suppliers facing their own COVID challenges, from staffing to supply, have not been able to keep up. Distribution centers have also felt these impacts, along with transportation, etc. Going forward, I do not expect that these areas will see a complete return to normal operation until late into 2021 or even into 2022. The recent uptick in COVID cases has put a lot of pressure on transportation and distribution. I anticipate that once we get through the holidays and the winter months, things will slowly improve.

Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions. We’ve adapted our training protocols to keep everyone safe yet provide adequate training.

Though I’m optimistic about the economy starting to bounce back in 2021, it is clear that government help will be needed, especially for those who have lost their jobs and for businesses that are struggling. There may be some longer-term systemic changes to the economy that could continue to linger. From my conversations with other supermarket operators both in China and in Europe, it seems that people are still reluctant to venture into inside venues. This has had an ongoing impact on restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, travel and hospitality, etc. As the vaccine takes hold, I believe that this will improve and folks will begin to travel again, and ‘experiences’ will become foremost in returning to some normalcy.

Charlie d’Amour

Charlie d’Amour

“Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions.”

How and where people work, I think, will be forever changed. Even in our own offices, more and more folks are working remotely. We are communicating more with video and virtual meetings. We continue to adapt and adjust. And, though I think the supermarket will continue to be the primary way people get their food and groceries, the growth of online shopping is here to stay. In 2021, we are excited to be opening our first micro-fulfillment center, which was planned and begun before the pandemic hit but which we believe will have an ever-increasing role in the way people shop in the future.

 

BusinessWest: Big Y has been on a path of steady expansion over the past several years. Will this pattern continue in 2021, and how and where will this growth take place?

 

D’Amour: We have been pleased that, despite the pandemic, we’ve actually had an exciting year of growth. We have opened two new gas and convenience stores, a new supermarket, completed our new Fresh & Local Distribution Center, and remodeled over 16 supermarkets. We’ve accomplished a lot. We have two new supermarkets planned for next year, several new gas and convenience stores, and, as I mentioned, the opening of our online ordering and micro-fulfillment center in Chicopee.

 

BusinessWest: Over the course of the past several months, we have seen a number of changes when it comes to how work is done and where. How has Big Y responded to these shifts, and will some of them be permanent?

 

D’Amour: Obviously, in our supermarkets, distribution centers, gas and convenience stores, and at Table & Vine, a physical presence is required. We very quickly realized in our physical locations that we needed to keep our employees safe, and to that end, we jumped on making sure that the appropriate cleaning procedures were in place and that PPE was available. We were one of the first retailers to install plexiglass shields at our registers, among many many other things. We have made sure to accommodate not only our frontline workers, but everyone with flexible schedules, leaves of absence if required, and continuing to pay employees who had to quarantine or care for a loved one.

We have continued to provide our employees with ‘thank-you’ pay, first as an hourly bump and now through a monthly bonus which will continue into the first part of 2021. We have also provided a holiday bonus to all full-time, part-time, and casual employees to reward and thank them for rising to the challenges we have all faced with this pandemic.

In our offices, we have definitely moved from a company that favored in-person meetings and collaboration to embracing new technologies and remote working. Here, again, flexible schedules and accommodating employees with childcare issues, etc. has been our focus and will likely continue. One area that has been accelerated because of the virus has been our use of virtual meetings and video communications. As our geographic territory has spread, bringing our store folks to our Store Support Center has presented more and more of a challenge. As a result of the virus, we have been forced to explore more avenues to connect, which have, for the most part, been effective and well-received by our employees.

 

BusinessWest: As the leader of a major corporation, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has impacted your ability to plan long-term, or if it has?

 

D’Amour: The supermarket business is very dynamic, and, as such, we are always in a state of change and flux. We are also in a business where our customers give us almost instant feedback to what’s new and changing. Our leadership team gets together every year to focus on our strategies and how we are adapting and evolving as our customers are adapting and evolving. As such, we are maintaining our current course of action, and our long-term plans and strategic initiatives have not changed. Every year, there are minor course corrections and adjustments, but our overall direction is the same, and that has not changed because of the pandemic.

 

BusinessWest: Speaking of leadership, talk about your experiences leading a company through these most challenging of times.

 

D’Amour: For me, first and foremost was the importance of communication. Being present, being authentic, and regularly communicating with our employees, customers, and other stakeholders was especially important early on when things were changing rapidly and coming at us a mile a minute. While I couldn’t get out to our stores as frequently as I usually like to, being able to find other ways to connect with our stores was essential.

Our employees especially were appreciative that we were visible, even virtually, and that we were genuinely concerned. Though we did shut down our offices for all but the most essential employees, I tried to be in our offices as much as possible to show a physical presence and to connect with our leadership team and others that were in the building. I believe that all of these things helped to inspire confidence within our organization. We tried to push decisions down to the lowest level and trusted in our employees and our teams. We established a crisis management committee, now dubbed the pandemic response committee. As such, we were able to quickly and effectively respond to a very fast-paced and changing dynamic.

Another area that underscored a point of focus for us this past year was in regard to redoubling our efforts regarding diversity and inclusion in our company. While we have made progress over the years, it was clear that we needed to do more. To that end, we have refocused and engaged our efforts, developed a new employee-resource group called “Y You Belong,” and created a steering committee of senior leaders and outside advisors from the community. We also conducted a half-day seminar for our leadership team with the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley to better understand our role in healing racism in our company and our community.

Throughout this past year, the role of leadership was and continues to be an important linchpin in our ability to deal with the challenges of this pandemic.

Giving Guide Special Coverage

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

While philanthropy is a year-round activity, this is a time when many of us think about those who are most in need, and how, in general, they can help make Western Mass. a better community for all who call this region home.

To help individuals, groups, and businesses make effective decisions when it comes to philanthropy, BusinessWest and the Healthcare News present the annual Giving Guide, which is especially relevant during this time of a global pandemic, when so many people are in need, and when so many of the nonprofits that work to meet those needs are struggling.

Open the PDF flipbook to view profiles of several area nonprofit organizations, a sampling of the thousands of agencies that provide needed services. These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing, and also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others desperately need.

Indeed, these profiles list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities. And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide in 2011 to essentially harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support the organizations dedicated to helping those in need. The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident that it will succeed with both of these assignments.

George O’Brien, Editor and Associate Publisher

John Gormally, Publisher

Kate Campiti, Sales Manager and Associate Publisher

 


 

 

The Giving Guide is Presented by:

 

 

 

 


 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Lending a Hand

By Mark Morris

Sometimes being thrown into a challenging situation leads to … well, a good idea or two. Or at least a new way of thinking.

Back in March, when COVID-19 first hit, banks and credit unions in Massachusetts were designated essential businesses by Gov. Charlie Baker. That meant making sure everyone had access to their accounts while, at the same time, limiting in-person banking to appointments only, complete with masks, social distancing, and frequent sanitizing protocols.

“It forced us to think outside the box and to figure out the best ways to serve our members during a time of reduced access,” said Kara Herman, vice president, Retail Administration with Freedom Credit Union, adding that her team set out to first communicate all the options members had available to them to get business done without going inside a branch.

BusinessWest spoke with several local bank and credit-union professionals about the challenge of making adjustments to their businesses in the middle of a pandemic. For Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president and chief banking officer for Westfield Bank, reducing foot traffic in the lobbies back in the spring was a chance to review how to make customer interactions with the bank easier in ways that were not face-to-face.

“We published all our branch phone numbers on our website so people can easily reach their local branch,” O’Connor said. “In this way, we could blend the digital experience with the personal touch of a local branch staff member who is there to assist.”

During the summer months, mandates were relaxed, and banks and credit unions were allowed to reopen their lobbies to walk-in traffic. But this month, as COVID-19 infection rates spiked, lobby restrictions were reinstated at many institutions.

“Because we went through lobby closures back in the spring, we were able to refine the process of helping customers find different ways to accomplish what they need to do,” O’Connor said.

Mike Ostrowski

Mike Ostrowski says the pandemic has been a “disruptive innovation” that helped many customers appreciate the benefits of banking online.

For example, Westfield Bank makes video tutorials available online for those who are new to electronic banking. “We do this to encourage people to be comfortable in whatever way they interact with us.”

Michael Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, noted that, when lobby traffic was first curtailed and members would call to complete a basic transaction, his staff would take the the time to educate the caller on how to accomplish what they wanted to do electronically.

“In some ways, the pandemic was a disruptive innovation because it helped us to migrate so many people to the electronic world,” Ostrowski, said adding that online and mobile activity with Arrha has increased 30% in the last nine months.

Educating members is also the approach Craig Boivin, vice president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, has taken. While the aim is to reduce traffic in the branch, there’s still one in-person appointment that he encourages.

“A member of our contact center staff will set up an in-branch appointment with folks who aren’t as tech-savvy and take them through a hands-on tutorial on how to use what’s available,” he explained. “We do this so the member can avoid going to the branch in the future for simple transactions.”

Customers who regularly use online banking and mobile apps barely noticed the limited lobby access, but there are others who rely on being able to walk into a branch and do business face-to-face.

“Some of our customers need to come in every day, such as small-business people who need coin and currency to run their shops,” said Kate Megraw, chief operating officer and chief information officer for New Valley Bank and Trust. This past summer, while adhering to all safety and cleaning protocols, New Valley’s lobbies stayed busy.

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor

“We published all our branch phone numbers on our website so people can easily reach their local branch. In this way, we could blend the digital experience with the personal touch of a local branch staff member who is there to assist.”

“As a new bank, we are in a growth mode right now, so we were trying to make it easy for customers to come in and open accounts,” she noted. With renewed limits on lobby access, she now encourages appointments as well as the drive-up location at the 16 Acres branch.

Drive-up banking has gone from a routine convenience to a vital service as customers bring more complex transactions to the drive-up window than in the past. It’s one way both bank customers and employees had to adjust to a new environment back in the spring — and may have to adjust again.

 

Striking a Balance

As branches reopened over the summer, loan activity related to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) ramped up as as well, Megraw said, providing another opportunity.

“The PPP allowed us to touch a lot of local businesses in Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut,” she added, noting that, through the PPP, New Valley arranged more than 500 small-business loans totaling nearly $90 million.

With branches retreating to a less-accessible time, the challenge now is to strike the right balance between giving people the time they need and keeping the line of cars in the drive-thru moving. Along with placing experienced tellers at the window, O’Connor said, other branch staff speak with people as they approach the drive-up to make sure they have their materials at the ready to make their visit more efficient.

Kate MeGraw

Kate MeGraw

“The pandemic has shown us that high-touch customer service and the ability to speak to someone over the phone or safely take a meeting still makes a big difference when a customer is trying to get something done.”

UMassFive recently converted a drive-up ATM machine at its Hadley branch to a video teller. As a complement to the two existing drive-up tellers, the video teller provides a third option that reduces long lines and still maintains the personal touch.

“It gives our members an additional way to talk to a live person without having to come into the branch or get out of their car,” Boivin said. Installed in two other branch foyers, he added, video tellers have really caught on as usage has tripled just this fall.

Herman said Freedom recently launched video chat as part of its online offerings and said it’s the next best thing to an in-person meeting. “It gives people a chance to see us and talk to us. It’s face-to-face communication even though they are not physically in front of us.”

Because so many people are more comfortable doing things from their home, opening accounts online has substantially increased. While this tool was lightly employed before the pandemic, O’Connor saw an opportunity to enhance it for customers who use it.

“We are supplementing the online account-opening process by having a branch person follow up with the customer to make sure they received the experience they wanted,” he said.

On the lending side of the business, Herman noted that online applications and electronic signatures have further streamlined the process of people conducting bank business from home.

Boivin reported that volume at the UMassFive contact center is up 43% for the year and has nearly doubled in the last two months as coronavirus has spiked. A number of employees moved out of their traditional retail positions to handle the increased activity in the contact center.

“Our staff has been impressive with their flexibility and willingness to work in different departments to get the job done,” he added.

Ostrowski believes his staff were as vulnerable as essential retail workers who have been on the job throughout the pandemic. “Because we appreciate their hard work,” he said, “we recently rewarded our staff with a hazard-pay bonus for all their efforts during COVID-19.”

 

The People Part

As customers increasingly use online and mobile apps for banking, all the managers we spoke with agree that in-person branches still play a vital role. Ostrowski emphasized that technology doesn’t take the place of personal service, but just enhances it.

While acknowledging that digital services are an important and growing part of banking, Megraw also believes the “people part” is still essential.

Craig Boivin

Craig Boivin

“Our staff has been impressive with their flexibility and willingness to work in different departments to get the job done.”

“The pandemic has shown us that high-touch customer service and the ability to speak to someone over the phone or safely take a meeting still makes a big difference when a customer is trying to get something done.”

Boivin hopes the changes that forced people out of the branches will result in more convenience for them and an elevated role for the branches.

“In the long run, we see branches being centers where people can sit down with someone face-to-face for those in-depth conversations about their finances, such as buying a house for the first time,” he said. “We still see a need for those interactions to continue at the branch level.”

Ostrowski predicts banking will move toward a hybrid approach that combines the latest technology innovations with an old-fashioned, hometown banking experience.

“I like the term ‘the big hug,’ meaning, even if you do all your regular business electronically, there are times when you want to come in for a mortgage, or you’re having trouble with a tax bill, and we’re there to give you that big hug of caring service when you need it.”

Herman believes the events of the last nine months have caused banks to re-evaluate the roles and responsibilities that branch staff will have in the future.

“I think the traditional job descriptions we had back in February no longer exist, and they are evolving as we speak,” she said, adding that, while people will remain an important part of branch banking, the industry has to figure out how to serve the new needs their customers will have going forward.

Autos Special Coverage

Driving Forces

 

Rob Pion was walking outside at his family’s Buick/GMC dealership on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee, and used the view to put things in perspective for this industry as a trying, but not altogether terrible, year comes to an end.

“That’s basically the new-car inventory,” he said, pointing to a long single line of cars along the front of the property, noting that he was exaggerating, but only slightly.

Indeed, inventory remains an issue for almost all dealers in this region as manufacturers struggle to catch up after weeks, if not months, of shutdown at the factories. And matters are worse for GM dealers, said Pion, the third-generation principal of this venture, because of the lengthy strike at that corporation in 2019.

But aside from supplies of new cars — and things are getting slightly better on that front as well, as we’ll hear — the picture is brightening somewhat for auto dealers, and a sense of normal is returning, at least in some respects.

Or a new normal, if you will.

Indeed, Pion said the pandemic has effectively served to speed up the pace of change within the auto industry when it comes to doing things remotely and moving away from those traditional visits to the dealership to look at models, kick the tires, and even drop off the car for service.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says inventory remains an issue at his dealership, and it will likely remain that way into the new year.

“There are experts out there saying that we moved forward 10 years in three months when it comes to internet purchasing, out-of-state deliveries, and people doing 98% of the deal over the phone or the internet,” he told BusinessWest. “And that sounds about right.”

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, which operates four dealerships (Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, and Volvo), agreed. She said the pandemic has certainly made online buying, as well as vehicle pickup and dropoff for needed service, more popular, and these trends will have staying power, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases rises again.

And while it was a somewhat tumultuous year, especially when it came to inventories of both new and used cars (and the prices of the latter), it wasn’t really a bad year for many dealerships — and certainly not as bad as things as things looked in March and April, when some dealerships actually closed and all others were seeing business come to something approaching a standstill.

“We’re actually on track for what our plan was 2020, even with what happened in March, April, and May,” said Peter Wirth, co-owner with his wife, Michelle, of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, quickly noting a few caveats to that assessment. “Some things moved around a little — more used cars and fewer used cars based on supplies — but overall, as I said, we’re on track for where we wanted to be as a dealership.”

Cosenzi concurred. “Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020,” she said. “When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

‘Normal’ also applies, to some extent, to end-of-year, holiday-season sales, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that smaller inventories will certainly limit how many cars, trucks, and SUVs will be sold, including to businesses looking for tax incentives — although demand is certainly there.

But those end-of-year sales, such as Mercedes’ annual Winter Event, are happening, and they are bringing customers to the ‘dealership,’ literally or figuratively.

“It’s like a cherished piece of normalcy,” said Wirth. “People see that the Winter Event is happening, that the deals are out there. I feel like both our customers and our team are enjoying the fact that there’s a normal, busy holiday-selling season — so far, at least.”

He made that statement toward the middle of December, and that tone reflects a degree of uncertainty that still prevails in this industry and most all others as well.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their Mercedes-Benz dealership managed to hit most of the set goals for 2020 despite the pandemic.

Indeed, while it’s easy to reflect on 2020, projecting what will happen in 2021 is much more difficult, said those we spoke with. Generally, there is optimism — or guarded optimism, which is the popular phrase at this time of year, and this time in history especially — but still some concern.

Overall, those we spoke with said trends and sentiments that took hold in 2020 — from less reliance on public transportation and services like Uber and Lyft (fueled by pandemic fears) to people gaining more comfort from (while also putting more resources into) their vehicles — should continue in 2021, and that bodes well for the year ahead.

But, as this year clearly showed, things can change — and in the time it takes for one of these new models to go from 0 to 60.

 

Changing Gears

Looking back on 2020, the dealers we spoke with said it was a trying year in many respects, and, overall, a time of adjustment — for both those selling cars and buying them — because of the pandemic.

Many of those adjustments involved the purchase or leasing process, with much of it, as noted, moving online. But the pandemic also forced most car manufacturers to shut down for weeks or months, eventually leading to those half-full (if that) lots at the dealership that became one of the enduring, and very visible, symbols of the pandemic.

Thus, instead of going to the lot and picking out what they wanted, as they had become accustomed to doing for years, many more customers had to factory-order their vehicle and wait, usually several weeks, for it to arrive. This meant extending leases in some cases, said Wirth, adding that the factory-ordering process took longer, in general. Overall, he noted, customers and his dealership adjusted, and there wasn’t a significant loss of business.

“Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020. When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

That’s because demand was consistently high, for a number of reasons, starting with some pandemic-fueled reliance on the family cars — yes, even as people were driving less, and considerably less in some cases — and a greater desire to take care of that car or trade up, something made more feasible and attractive by everything from incentives from the manufacturers to stimulus checks from the federal government, to the fact that people weren’t spending money on vacations or many other things.

Indeed, Michelle Wirth said 2020 was a year of greater appreciation for the car, and a time when many chose to focus on, and put money in, their homes, their cars, or both.

“There was a point in time during all this when your vehicle was probably the only recommended mode of transportation available to you,” she explained. “And if you chose, for whatever reason, not to have a car for a long time, suddenly, you felt you needed one.

“And if you had one, and it wasn’t as safe or new or nice as you might like, you did something about that,” she went on. “It was the same with home improvement — people were looking around and saying, ‘I didn’t spend much time here before. Now I do; I need to do something.’ The same with their car.”

Cosenzi agreed. “We saw many people reallocating their household budget,” she said. “We saw the majority of the people who shop our brands put their money in their houses and their vehicles, and also feel more like they had to rely on their vehicles, now more than ever.”

Elaborating, she said — and others did as well — that this sentiment applies to both service (taking better care of the car currently in the driveway) and buying or leasing something new or newer, more reliable, and in some cases lighter on the monthly budget.

Indeed, some manufacturers have been offering unprecedented incentives — Cosenzi noted that at least one brand is offering no interest for 84 months — and many of those still employed and with stimulus checks in hand soon eyed new or used cars as rock-solid investments.

“People were saying, ‘I can upgrade my car and get a lower interest rate; I can have a newer car that’s under warranty; I can pay less in interest in the long run and maybe lower my payment,’” she explained. “There are a lot of people who weren’t working or nervous about not working, that were taking advantage of the stimulus and really took that to make decisions about how to allocate their income.”

The problem is that supplies haven’t been able to keep up with demand — for most of this year and on most lots, anyway.

 

Keep On Truckin’

Which brings us all the way to back to Rob Pion pointing at that single line of new cars at his dealership. He said inventories have been consistently low and are due to remain that way. And when vehicles do arrive on the lot, they’re either already spoken for or not on the lot for long, especially when it comes to trucks, the pride of the GM line.

“We’re preselling vehicles at an unprecedented rate — the vehicles are sold before they hit my lot,” he explained. “Typically, people just want to come in and see them: ‘give me a call when it gets here.’ Now, they’re ‘here’s my deposit, call me when I can pick it up.’

“I don’t have any pickup truck inventory,” he went on. “So any businesses looking to make those year-end purchases for tax writeoffs … that’s just not happening this year because there’s little or no availability for them when it comes to that type of vehicle.”

Still, overall, dealers are reporting that the parking lots are more full than they have been.

Peter Wirth said supplies have been steadily improving at Mercedes-Benz, and in the meantime, between the stock at the Chicopee location and a sister dealership in New York, most customers have been able to find what they’re looking for or factory-order it.

Cosenzi, meanwhile, said inventory levels have “balanced out” at her dealerships, and there are now adequate supplies for what she hopes will be a solid end-of-year run.

As for what has been a crazy year for the used-car market, where at times vehicles were difficult if not impossible to find and prices skyrocketed, some normalcy is returning to that realm as well.

“As quickly as it went up, the market is perhaps just as quickly coming back down,” said Pion, adding that, overall, it’s been ultra-challenging for dealers to not only get used cars but cope with the fluctuations in that market — from when the bottom dropped out back in the spring to when prices soared during the summer, to the state of relative uncertainty that exists now.

Peter Wirth agreed that it’s been a bumpy road when it comes to used cars — for a time, he had one employee who did nothing else but try to find vehicles to buy — but said some stability has returned.

“We have roughly 75 used cars in stock,” he noted. “It took us a while to catch up on inventory, just because sales were really good on pre-owned cars all year, so while we kept buying more cars, we sold them right away. It’s taken us until now to find more cars so we replenish supplies. And it’s not just about buying cars — you want be selective and find the right cars.”

Looking ahead … well, while people can do that, it’s difficult given how many unknowns dominate the conversation, regarding everything from pandemic spikes to vaccines to new- and used-car inventories.

“The vaccine is a positive, people not wanting to depend on public transportation or ride-sharing is a positive, and the incentives and low interest rates are positives,” Cosenzi said. “But we can’t be in denial that there is still a virus out there and people are being more cautious than ever before.”

But while question marks remain for the year ahead, the consensus is that 2020 was, overall, not as bad as it could have been, and that a sense of normal — if perhaps a new normal — has returned.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

No Time Like the Present

By Mark Morris

The senior-living industry is preparing for a “gray tsunami.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 10 years, while the oldest Boomers will start turning 80 in 2025.

Robert Kelley, in-house counsel for Everbrook Senior Living, predicts that, once Boomers start reaching that age, the demand for senior-living communities will increase significantly. That’s one of the many reasons he’s excited about his company’s newest community, Cedarbrook Village in Ware.

From its corporate office in Southampton, Everbrook already manages three senior-living communities in Windsor Locks, Hebron, and Bozrah, Conn., and Cedarbrook is its first community in Massachusetts.

Originally planned for a July opening, various delays postponed the ribbon-cutting ceremony until Sept. 14. Kelly Russell, executive director of Cedarbrook Village, has worked in the industry for more than 20 years and has overseen plenty of community openings, but this one was different.

“For this grand opening, we made sure to have plenty of PPE on site for anyone who needed it,” Russell said. Moving people into their apartments safely during COVID-19 also required a new approach.

“We set up different times and arranged for people to use different doors, so they would not run into each other,” she said, adding that social distancing and cleaning between move-ins was all part of the extra planning and organization necessitated by the pandemic.

When families help their parents move into senior living, it’s often a stressful time, she said, and the added stress of COVID-19 has only intensified the anxiety and guilt family caregivers feel. With all the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, families now worry they won’t be able to see their loved ones.

“We reassure family members that we are taking all the necessary precautions so they can schedule visits in a safe environment and stay in touch with their loved ones,” Russell said.

For example, scheduled visits are a departure from pre-COVID times when families could drop in anytime.

Kelly Russell

Kelly Russell says senior living is an attractive option during a pandemic because the safety measures in place give families peace of mind.

“We would tell families this is their home, too. If they wanted to come spend the night with their loved ones and eat in the dining room with them, they were welcome to do all that,” Russell said.

Unfortunately, that wide-open policy is on pause — one of many ways life is different right now in the senior-living sector. But the fact that Cedarbrook opened at all during such a year is a reflection of the growing demand for such facilities, and how this multi-site company intends to continue meeting that need.

 

Safety First

Keeping an aging loved one safe at home during the pandemic can mean a great deal of work for a family. That’s why senior living is a good option, Russell said, noting that Cedarbrook has extensive COVID-19 safety measures in place which can ease the burden for families and give them peace of mind.

“We saw this location as a good fit, and the town of Ware was very accommodating to work with.”

“Even if families don’t see them as much, they know their loved ones are getting all the care they need and still being able to socialize with the residents,” she noted, adding that she also reassures families through social-media postings.

“Whether we’re using FaceTime or sending videos, I post a lot online,” she said. “This way, the families who can’t visit their loved ones often enough can see them smiling and engaged in activities with other people. It lets the family know their loved one is OK.”

Among its 119 units, Cedarbrook offers independent living, assisted living, and a memory-care center. Russell explained there are many reasons why people choose to move in.

“Folks usually move in to our independent-living apartments because they are tired of taking care of a house and a yard, or their laundry is in the basement and stairs have become too difficult, things like that,” she said, adding that independent residents can either make meals for themselves or join others in the dining room.

“Those who move into assisted living usually need some help with everyday tasks such as eating, dressing, and grooming,” she continued. Instead of sitting home alone watching TV, they can be part of a community and engage in activities and exercise programs, and socialize with other people.

Independent-living residents

Independent-living residents can either make meals for themselves or join others in the dining room.

Everbrook chose Ware as the site for Cedarbrook because the Quaboag region, encompassing Ware, Brimfield, and surrounding towns, had no senior-living facilities; the closest options were located in the Wilbraham/Ludlow area to the west and Greater Worcester to the east.

“We saw this location as a good fit, and the town of Ware was very accommodating to work with,” Kelley said, adding that the building design incorporated local influences.

“Several design details of the building are reminiscent of the South Street School that once occupied this site,” he noted, while another example is the large-screen movie room at Cedarbrook, called the Casino Theatre, inspired by the iconic movie house once located on Main Street in Ware.

Trends in senior living have changed over the years. Twenty years ago, such communities tended to attract people in their mid- to late 70s. As longevity has increased, the average move-in age these days has risen closer to the 80s and even 90s.

In the past, inquiries from families focused on services and amenities offered, as well as activities and the level of care. Since COVID-19, Russell said, the questions have changed. “Now, we’re asked, ‘do you have a generator?’ ‘how do you respond to emergencies?’ and ‘what supplies do you have on hand?’”

As a new building that has only recently opened, Russell is able to market the community as having plenty of space for socially distanced meals in two large dining rooms. “Everyone can eat together because we can space them far enough apart.”

Cedarbrook also works with a primary-care physician whom residents can access through telehealth for routine inquiries, rather than going out to a doctor’s office. Meanwhile, an exercise physiologist runs the fitness programs for residents. At one time, exercise programs and other activities filled the calendar, but the number of activities has been reduced to allow for disinfecting equipment and rooms in between sessions. Russell described it as emphasizing quality and safety over quantity.

“If you’re smart about it,” she said, “you can still offer activities and keep everyone safe.”

 

Shifting Tides

By following that same approach, Russell continues to assure families that senior-living communities such as Cedarbrook are the right choice for their loved ones during this crisis.

“We want families to feel secure in knowing that there will always be support here for their loved ones,” Russell said, adding that, while no one can guarantee COVID-19 won’t find a way to infect people, Cedarbrook has measures and equipment in place in the event of an outbreak.

“If our residents have to quarantine, they will still get the care they need and still have their meals,” she said. “We will also help residents stay in touch with their families.”

Keeping safety as the main priority, Russell believes the key is to make adjustments as things change. “I don’t really feel like there is a ‘new normal’ because every day brings new and different challenges we have to face.”

And, like everyone, she looks forward to a time when COVID-19 restrictions are a thing of the past. “We can’t wait until we can fully open the community and share with families everything we have to offer here.”

Prior to Cedarbrook’s opening, Russell had another big event on her calendar this year — she was married on Aug. 28, a date she intentionally chose before the September opening.

“The wedding was much easier to plan than opening the building,” she said with a laugh — but is happy to have accomplished both during a year no one will forget.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Play Ball

Paul Scully Charles Steinberg

Paul Scully (right) tours the under-construction Polar Park in Worcester with team President Charles Steinberg.

Baseball season is — hopefully — just four months away, and Paul Scully says that’s reason for excitement in Massachusetts.

“Just think about this year and the fact that so many of us have been inside, just looking for something to do,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank, while talking about the bank’s ‘founding partner’ status with the Worcester Red Sox during a recent episode of BusinessTalk, the BusinessWest podcast.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

As one of 21 founding partners of the WooSox, who plan to begin play in Worcester’s brand-new Polar Park this spring, Country Bank’s multi-tiered sponsorship includes a large sign in right field atop the stands known as the Worcester Wall, along with the Country Bank Guest Services area located on the first-base concourse.

“We toured the park two weeks ago … and it really has some wonderful attributes that represent the Central Mass. area. It’s different from Fenway, but there are some similarities,” Scully said, noting that the high Worcester Wall is in right field, and will be colored blue, as opposed to the left-field Green Monster in Fenway.

Meanwhile, the Country Bank Guest Services area is a place where fans can come for help with any number of issues, from missing keys to missing kids, he noted — a way for the bank to extend its customer-service philosophy to this new partnership.

Speaking of partnerships, the bank and the WooSox Foundation will work together on a number of charitable efforts, from a Teacher of the Month recognition program to a combined charitable-giving campaign throughout the baseball season.

“We have been impressed and inspired by Country Bank’s sense of community involvement,” WooSox President Charles Steinberg said. “We see how helpful they are to various institutions and thousands of people in our region, and we welcome them to Polar Park with open arms as we work together to enhance the quality of life in our community even more.”

To kick off their partnership last month, a team from Country Bank and the WooSox mascot, Smiley Ball, delivered 500 Thanksgiving meals prepared by Old Sturbridge Village along with apple pies from Worcester-based Table Talk to the St. John’s Food Pantry for the Poor.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

“The alignment of our organizational values with the WooSox solidifies our commitment to service and teamwork as we continually strive for excellence in all we do,” Scully said.

He noted that, at a time when spectator sports continue to be redefined by new norms of social distancing, sports sponsorships are taking on new forms, extending beyond the stadium walls to make a real impact in the community. But he knows fans want to have a good time, too.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the WooSox and the Worcester community,” he said. “The addition of year-round entertainment, including ballgames, concerts, and various family activities at Polar Park, is exciting for the people and businesses in the region. We all look forward to the day when we can come together again at the ballpark, enjoying activities with our families and friends. We also look forward to seeing our businesses thrive once again after being heavily impacted by the pandemic.”

Scully knows, of course, that the pandemic is far from over, and the baseball season may or may not start on time in April. But he also senses a regional fan base that will enthusiastically support another professional sports franchise in this region, especially one with the cachet of the Boston Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate.

“They’re part of the Central Mass. community now, and we’re excited for them, and we’re excited for us,” he told BusinessWest. “But, more importantly, we’re just excited for the fans.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Banking and Financial Services

More Than Just Bitcoin

By Matthew Ogrodowicz, MSA

 

‘Blockchain’ is a term used to broadly describe the cryptographic technology that underpins several applications, the most widely known of which is Bitcoin and other similar cryptocurrencies.

Matthew Ogrodowicz

Even though it is the largest current application, a survey conducted on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in 2018 found that 48% of American adults were not familiar with Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin, three cryptocurrencies among those with the largest market capitalizations. The largest of these, Bitcoin, currently sits at a market capitalization of approximately $355 billion. If half of all adults are unfamiliar with this largest application, it is safe to assume that even fewer know about other ways the technology could be used — including for some of the region’s major industries.

Three of these largest industries in Western Mass. are healthcare, manufacturing, and higher education. In each of these industries, the secure and verifiable information network created by blockchain can provide efficiencies. This network, essentially a public ledger, consists of a series of transactions (blocks), which is distributed and replicated across a network of computers referred to as nodes. These nodes each maintain a copy of the ledger, which can only be added to by the solving of a cryptographic puzzle that is verified by other nodes in the network.

The information on the ledger is maintained by another aspect of cryptography, which is that the same data encrypted in the same way produces the same result, so if data earlier in the chain is manipulated, it will be rejected by the other nodes even though the data itself is encrypted. Thus, an immutable chain of verifiable, secure information is created, capable of supporting applications in the aforementioned fields.

Each of these industries can benefit from the blockchain’s ability to host ‘smart contracts.’ A smart contract is a digital protocol intended to facilitate, verify, or enforce the performance of a transaction. The simplest analogue is that of a vending machine — once payment is made, an item is delivered. Smart contracts would exist on the blockchain and would be triggered by a predefined condition or action agreed upon by the parties beforehand. This allows the parties to transact directly without the need for intermediaries, providing time and cost savings as well as automation and accuracy.

Combined with the security and immutability noted earlier, smart contracts should prove to be a valuable tool, though there is still work to be done in codifying and establishing legal frameworks around smart contracts. Other applications of blockchain technology are more specifically applicable to individual fields.

In the field of healthcare, blockchain’s ability to process, validate, and sanction access to data could lead to a centralized repository of electronic health records and allow patients to permit and/or revoke read-and-write privileges to certain doctors or facilities as they deem necessary. This would allow patients more control over who has access to their personal health records while providing for quick transfers and reductions in administrative delay.

In the field of manufacturing, blockchain can provide more supply-chain efficiency and transparency by codifying and tracking the routes and intermediate steps, including carriers and time of arrival and departure, without allowing for unauthorized modification of this information. In a similar fashion, blockchain can provide manufacturers assurance that the goods they have received are exactly those they have ordered and that they are without defect by allowing for tracking of individual parts or other raw materials.

Finally, in the field of higher education, blockchain could be used to improve record keeping of degrees and certifications in a manner similar to that of electronic medical records. Beyond that, intellectual property such as research, scholarly publications, media works, and presentations could be protected by the blockchain by allowing for ease of sharing them while preserving the ability to control how they are used.

And, of course, blockchain development will be a skill high in demand that will benefit from the creation of interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities that help students understand the development of blockchain networks as well the areas of business, technology, law, and commerce that are impacted by it.

For these reasons and many more, businesses should feel an urgency to increase their knowledge of blockchain’s impact on their industries while exploring the potential dividends that could be reaped by a foray into an emerging technology.

 

Matthew Ogrodowicz, MSA is a senior associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Business of Aging

Shot in the Arm

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll off production lines, many questions remain — about how quickly they’ll reach the general public, about long-term efficacy and safety, about how many Americans will actually want one.

But on one issue, there is no doubt, Dr. Andrew Artenstein said.

“This is a spectacular achievement just to get where we’ve gotten so far, and I think we should appreciate that,” the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health told BusinessWest. “It’s been a whirlwind, and I mean that in a good way.”

Everyone in healthcare understands the upside — the dramatic promise — of a vaccine as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 10th month.

“A vaccine is a major component of getting on the other side of this,” Artenstein added. “It’s not the only component, but it’s an important and necessary piece of shortening the duration of this pandemic and possibly preventing future waves.”

With Pfizer gaining emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to begin distributing its vaccine — and Moderna expected to do the same — the Baker-Polito administration announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of vaccine shipments to Massachusetts, expected to begin around Dec. 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across eight counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for frontline medical workers. Another 40,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled-nursing facilities and assisted-living residences in Massachusetts.

In all, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 doses of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna to be delivered by the end of December. Both vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart. While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, state leaders expect to receive and distribute more than 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the public should not let down their guard when it comes to masking and social distancing while they wait for the vaccine.

“It does make perfect sense,” Artenstein said of the prioritization plans, which reflect judgments on the federal level and ensure delivery to groups like healthcare workers, first responders, the elderly, and people with co-morbidities before the rest of the public. In the case of seniors, for example, “it’s not that they’re more likely to get the virus, necessarily, but they’re more likely to die if they get infected. They do worse.”

Meanwhile, he added, healthcare workers have a greater risk of coronavirus exposure than most other people.

“We’ve been inundated — inundated — with calls from other groups that they want the vaccine,” he said, placing heavy emphasis on that word. “But the truth is, it isn’t available for the general population now, and it may be several months before it is.”

Artenstein, an infectious-disease expert who founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, has been one of the public faces locally of the fight against COVID-19, and he was careful to temper optimism about a vaccine with a reality check on the timeline — and what people need to do in the meantime.

“A vaccine may eventually be the answer, but it’s only going to be part of the solution for the next six to 12 months, assuming we continue to get vaccines that are safe and effective. It’s going to take a while — even if all goes well — before we get enough immunity in the population to really put an end to this thing.

“In the meantime,” he went on, “we would benefit greatly by continuing to push the classic ways to interrupt transmission: masks, distancing, avoiding gatherings. All those things will continue to help us because, even after we start vaccinating parts of the population, it will take the better part of the year to roll it out to everyone, and we need to continue to interrupt transmission.”

Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, agreed, even though it can be a challenge getting through to people suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue,’ who feel isolated and weary of all the changes in their lives over the past year.

“I’m sorry people are tired,” she said. “But the basic messaging isn’t hard — wear a mask, wash your hands, and don’t be inside spaces with a mask off with people you don’t know. I do think the holidays have created a tremendous sense of urgency to remind people again, especially with students leaving schools and coming back to their homes.”

Hopefully, health leaders say, vaccines will put a definitive end to the crisis. But that day is still far off, Collins added. “People need to wait it out.”

 

Making a List, Checking It Twice

In announcing the Commonwealth’s vaccine-distribution plans, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that Massachusetts goes further than national recommendations by prioritizing all workers in the healthcare environment, not only providers, but also food-service, maintenance, and other facility workers. Similarly, home health workers, including personal-care attendants, are prioritized on the list, recognizing their important role providing services to vulnerable individuals and the fact that they often reside in communities highly affected by COVID-19.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins

“Messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical. Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Phase one of vaccine distribution — which, as noted, includes healthcare-facility workers; police, fire, and ambulance workers; congregate-care settings, including not only senior-living facilities, but shelters and jails; and home-based healthcare workers — is expected to last into February. Phase two, expected to run from February to April, will prioritize individuals with co-morbidities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications; all adults over age 65; as well as workers in the fields of early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health.

Phase three, expected to follow in April or May, will see the vaccine more widely available to the general public.

Baker’s announcement noted that vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves the vaccine, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

All this is necessary for emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Artenstein said, but the testing process is far from over, and long-term effects won’t be known until, well, the long term.

The emergency-use ruling “is not licensure, but allows the immediate use of the vaccine pending more information that leads to licensure down the road — because we’re in a pandemic,” he noted, adding that he’s optimistic about further testing, as trials so far have shown about 95% effectiveness across all age groups, with no serious adverse effects.

“The data I’ve seen is pretty impressive for efficacy and safety of the vaccine. And there were around 40,000 people in the trial, so that’s a good sample,” he said — enough to start delivering some immunity to high-risk populations now.

The question, especially as distribution widens in the spring, is how many Americans will actually take the vaccine. Collins said the Public Health Institute has conducted preliminary outreach and found some skepticism and mistrust of the government when it comes to vaccine advice, especially in communities of color.

“In order to counteract that, we have been trying to find and lift up messengers in the community who are trusted people, whether faith-based leaders or other trusted messengers, to counteract skepticism and fear about getting vaccines, whether the flu vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine,” Collins told BusinessWest, adding that the institute held a virtual town-hall event two days before Thanksgiving and asked 10 such messengers to share their wisdom on prevention measures.

Artenstein breaks down vaccine attitudes into three distinct groups of people — two of which are those champing at the bit for a vaccine, and a small but robust community of anti-vaxxers who express skepticism at vaccines in general.

“Then there’s a whole middle group who could be convinced to get the vaccine, but they’re concerned about safety and effectiveness,” he explained. “It’s a risk-benefit calculation, and based on what I know about vaccines, the risk seems low, and the risk of COVID seems pretty high, especially right now, with such high rates in the community.

Hampden County, in fact, currently ranks third among Massachusetts counties for transmission rate, with more than 50 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Typically, around 70% of people in a community — or a nation — need to be exposed, either through natural infection or a vaccine, to reach the desired herd immunity, he added. “In the U.S., that’s a big number. But the risk-benefit calculation is obvious. You’d like, over time, to have enough people willing to get the vaccine to help the general population.”

 

Anticipation and Reality

While surveys currently suggest about 60% of Americans are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, that number could rise higher if early results from the priority groups demonstrate both effectiveness and safety.

“The U.K. is going first, and then U.S. healthcare workers have to go — which is obviously the right thing to do — then people over 65,” Collins noted. “It’s not like the general public is being made guinea pigs. We will actually be able to see a lot of people getting the vaccine, and the companies will see the reactions.

“So, messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Artenstein agreed, adding that, for the group of Americans ready to line up right now, the wait may be longer than they realize, but that’s OK.

“We’re a little over our skis on this,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, but it’s going to come out as more of a slow roll; there’s a manufacturing process, an approval process, and a safety process. There won’t be 300 million doses available tomorrow, and that’s hard for some folks.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest, questions, and anxiety, and rightly so,” he added. “We’re living in a very different time, and people want to move very fast. But we have to make sure we do things in the safest possible way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Education Special Coverage

The Sternest of Tests

By George O’Brien

 

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the region’s community colleges were facing some pretty severe headwinds before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Western Mass. in March.

Indeed, these institutions, like all colleges and universities, have been seriously impacted by demographic trends — specifically, a decade or more of consistently smaller high-school graduating classes, said Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC).

But they’ve also been adversely impacted by what was the nation’s longest economic expansion and historically low unemployment rates, in a continuation of a trend that has become quite familiar to those in the community-college realm — when times are good, enrollment suffers, she noted; when times are bad, like during the Great Recession, people go back to school and enrollment climbs.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the pandemic has in some ways accelerated the pace of change when it comes to jobs and the workforce, and community colleges will need to help individuals thrive in this altered landscape.

But while the pandemic has created some of the worst times this region has seen in the past 90 years or so and put thousands on the unemployment rolls, that development hasn’t benefited the community colleges in the manner it has in the past, said Salomon-Fernández and others we spoke with. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which have to do with the ongoing health crisis itself.

Listing some, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2020, said many individuals and families are simply coping with too many issues right now — from balancing life and work to trying to find employment, to simply putting food on the table — to consider adding a college education to the mix.

Beyond that, one of the real strengths of community colleges is their personal style of learning in the classroom, something taken away by the pandemic, and something that is keeping many students on the sidelines, Royal continued.

“We have a lot of students who prefer in-person learning,” she explained, noting that, in what would be normal times, roughly 20% of courses offered by the school are taught remotely; now, that number is closer to 95% or even 98%, and it will be that way at least through next spring. “So some students feel frustrated that the pandemic is continuing; what they thought would be a one-semester impact is now much more than that.”

But maybe the biggest reason this crisis has hit the community colleges harder than other institutions of higher learning is that this has not been an equal-opportunity pandemic, said John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), noting that it has impacted those in urban areas, those in lower-income brackets, and those in the minority community more severely than other constituencies. And these individuals, which were already struggling in many ways before the pandemic, form the base of the student populations at all of the state’s community colleges.

“For us and for the other community colleges, this is a conversation about equity,” he told BusinessWest. “We are a college that has a majority of students of color, and we’re seeing steep enrollment declines. It’s right in line with the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the African-American community and the Hispanic community.”

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says enrollment at community colleges has been dropping consistently since 2012, a pattern exacerbated by the pandemic.

Add all this up, and the region’s community colleges have had a very trying time since the spring. There have been cutbacks — STCC has had to cut several programs, for example, everything from automotive technology to landscape architecture (more on that later) — and workforce reductions by attrition at each school. And no one is really sure when the picture might at least start to brighten, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

“I’m encouraged, like the world, by vaccines, but just like everything with this pandemic, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when anything is going to take place,” Cook said. “So it’s really hard to forecast for next fall and beyond.”

But in some ways, this has been a proud moment for the schools, if that’s the right term, as they have focused their attention on the students who are enrolled and their growing needs during the pandemic — for everything from Chromebooks to hotspots so students can have internet access, to food and even desks so students can study remotely.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment. This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

Meanwhile, the schools are doing what they always do — looking to the future and seeing how the pandemic will impact the employment landscape with an eye toward preparing students for what will be a changing job market.

“The economy is changing, and jobs are changing, and we were already beginning to see these shifts before the pandemic,” said Salomon-Fernández. “When you read reports from the World Economic Forum, you see predictions that, over the next several years, many of the jobs that exist now will disappear. We knew there was a change coming in the future of work, and what we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is affecting how we work — and what the work is.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s community colleges, and how they’re responding to these even stronger headwinds.

 

Difficult Course

Cook told BusinessWest that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet weekly.

They’ve always done this, he said, but the meetings are different now. For starters, they’re by Zoom, obviously, and the tone is decidedly different as the schools collectively deal with challenges on an unprecedented scale.

Unprecedented, because the schools have never faced a perfect storm like this one.

“There’s a solidarity there, for sure — you’re with a group of peers and colleagues contending with similarly difficult circumstances,” he said with some understatement in his voice. “We do a lot of listening and sharing — of strategic actions; navigation of federal, state, and local regulations; and best practices. We’re all coping with the same challenges.”

And there are many of them, starting with enrollment. As noted earlier, several forces have been pulling the numbers down for the bulk of the past decade, including the smaller high-school graduating classes and the economy — and the impact has been significant.

Indeed, overall enrollment at STCC had fallen by 30% between 2012 (when there were 7,000 students on campus) and the fall of 2019, said Cook, and it took another 15% hit this fall.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment,” he noted. “This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

John Cook

John Cook says the pandemic has disproportionately impacted urban areas and communities of color — constituencies served by community colleges.

The story is similar at most all of the other community colleges. Royal said enrollment has been declining at a rate of roughly 5% a year since 2012, or the peak, if you will, when it comes to enrollment growth in the wake of the Great Recession, and the pandemic has certainly compounded the problem. At HCC, enrollment is down 13.7% (roughly 600 students) from the fall of 2019, while the number of full-time equivalents is down 17%. And they are projected to decline further for the spring (enrollment is traditionally lower in the spring than the fall), she noted, as her school and other community colleges have announced that all learning next semester will be remote.

At GCC, the school hasn’t been hit as hard when it comes to enrollment, perhaps an 8% decline, said Salomon-Fernández, but the numbers are still down, and the long-term projections show they will continue trending downward for perhaps the balance of the decade, something GCC and other schools have been trying to plan for.

These enrollment declines obviously take a toll on these schools financially, said those we spoke with, a toll that has been greatly acerbated by the pandemic; Cook equated the 15% drop in enrollment from last year to $3 million in lost revenues. State and federal assistance from the CARES Act and other relief efforts have helped, he said, but there are restrictions on those monies, and, overall, they certainly don’t offset the steep losses.

Meanwhile, other headwinds are blowing, he said. At STCC, for example, the school has a number of issues with its buildings, some of which are more than 150 years old, with costs totaling several million dollars.

In response, the institutions have been using every tool in the toolbox to cope with the declines in revenue, including inducements to retire, not filling positions when people do retire or leave, reducing part-time personnel (and then full-time workers) if needed, creating efficiencies when possible, and cutting down on expenses wherever possible, including travel, utilities, and more.

In some cases, schools have had to go further and cut programs, as at STCC, which has eliminated several programs, including automotive, cosmetology, civil engineering, and dental assisting, which together enrolled roughly 120 students. These cuts came down to simple mathematics, said Cook, adding that, while some programs were popular and certainly needed within the community, like automotive, they are losing propositions, budget-wise.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break. And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

“By and large, with every program we offer, the tuition and fees do not cover the costs; no program really breaks even, especially anything that has a lab or a technical or clinical element to it; those are all losing endeavors,” he explained. “Which means there’s even more pressure when enrollment falls.”

 

Steep Grade

And, as noted, enrollment is projected to keep falling for the foreseeable future, and for all of the reasons, many of them pandemic-related, mentioned above — from individuals not able to attend college for financial or other reasons to people not wanting to learn remotely, which is all that community colleges can offer right now, except for some lab programs. And these trends are piling up atop those falling birth rates and smaller high-school classes.

Overall, it’s far more than enough to offset any gains that might come from the economy declining and the jobless rate soaring, said Royal, noting that this downturn is unlike those that came before because of the pandemic and the wave of uncertainty that has accompanied it.

“When we think about the conditions that tend to drive more students to higher education during a recession, in normal times, there is more predictability when it comes to economic cycles,” she explained. “We know that during a recession, jobs are limited, and you use the time to focus on your education; the market is going to turn, and when it does, you’ll have more credentials and certificates to be competitive for a job.

“When you think of the conditions we’re in now, there’s still so much uncertainty that people are feeling nervous about starting a new program when they just don’t have a sense for where the world is going to end up,” she went on. “They’re thinking, ‘what is the world going to look like, and how do we even navigate this?’”

With many schools forced to offer only remote learning, Salomon-Fernández noted, there was some speculation that students, perhaps with some prodding from their parents, might opt to learn remotely at a community college rather than a far more expensive four-year institution of higher learning. But thus far, such a movement has not materialized, she said, adding that some students are opting out altogether and taking at least a semester or year off rather than enroll remotely at any institution.

What is materializing is a situation where those in the minority communities and the lower end of the income scale — frontline workers, in many instances — are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And this is the constituency that fills many of the seats — another term that takes on new meaning during the pandemic — at this region’s community colleges.

“If you look at Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield — those are our top feeder communities,” Royal said. “These are the communities that are getting impacted by the pandemic in a significant way; we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

She and the others we spoke with said the pandemic is putting many people out of work or reducing their hours, affecting everything from housing to food insecurity. Meanwhile, for others, the pandemic has them in a situation where balancing work and life has become more challenging and complicated, leaving fewer hours in the day and less time and opportunity for things like attaining the associate degree that might open some doors career-wise.

“There are so many uncertainties right now that have many people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle another thing right now — so I’m just going to wait and see if we can stabilize some of these other factors, especially some consistency with K-12 education and a better understanding of where the jobs are and who’s hiring,’” Royal said.

Cook concurred. “A lot of what we see in our enrollment decline is students not going anywhere — they’re sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “They’re not seeking another option because, frankly, we’re the most affordable and most accessible option in Springfield. They’re literally staying home — taking care of children who are similarly home, or taking care of family members, or addressing working concerns. That’s what we see, and that’s part of the larger story around racial concerns, equity, and structural racism, and this is how it lands at a place like STCC.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break,” he went on. “And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

 

Learning Curves

While coping with falling enrollment, the community colleges are facing additional challenges when it comes to serving those who are enrolled, said those we spoke with, noting, again, the disproportionate impact on those in lower-income brackets.

One of the biggest challenges many students face is getting internet access, said Salomon-Fernández, noting that this was already a challenge for some in rural Franklin County before the pandemic; now, it’s even more of an issue.

Royal agreed, noting that many students made use of HCC’s wi-fi and computer labs before the pandemic because they didn’t have it at home or had limited, low-band service.

The schools have responded by giving out laptops and Chromebooks on loan, as well as mobile hotspots to help with wi-fi connectivity.

“We’ve had hundreds of students access technology to help them with remote learning,” said Royal, adding that, through the school’s Student Emergency Fund, help has been provided for everything from rent payments to auto insurance to food, with more than $90,000 distributed to more than 230 students.

But the help goes beyond money, she said, adding that, at the school’s Thrive Center, students can get assistance with filling out applications for unemployment, get connected to mental-health services, find digital-literacy programs, and receive support from the school’s food pantry, in addition to those internet hot spots.

Looking ahead, though, the colleges face a much larger and even more important challenge as they try to anticipate changes to the job market, some of them being shaped by and accelerated by the pandemic, and adjust their programs accordingly.

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change. We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.”

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change,” said Salomon-Fernández. “We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.

“We’re already working with our Workforce Investment Board and with our chamber of commerce and other employment partners to help them think through training, both right now and for what’s coming down the pike,” she added. “It’s a matter of being agile in our thinking, of being responsive in terms of what new academic programs and new workforce-development programs might be needed, and making sure they are informed by industry and that we are ready to serve when people are ready to re-engage in this work.”

‘Ready to serve’ is a phrase that defines the purpose and the mission of the region’s community colleges. Carrying out that mission has become more difficult during the pandemic and the many changes it has brought, but the schools are persevering.

This has been the sternest of tests for them, but they are determined to pass it themselves, and enable all those they serve to do the same.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Knowledge Is Power

The WBOA team with a mural

The WBOA team with a mural commissioned from member and artist Mary Kearney.

 

When the Women Business Owners Alliance launched in 1982, there wasn’t anything quite like it, Anita Eliason said.

“Because there were so few women business owners in the Valley, they felt a need to get together and kind of strengthen their bond and share the experiences they were having that, maybe, were different than the experiences of men in business,” said Eliason, WBOA’s president. “They kind of broke some barriers and did it with a sense of camaraderie with other women business owners.”

These days, business groups, including those focused on women, are much more prevalent, but she thinks the WBOA is still unique — because of its diligent focus on education.

When the alliance became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit recently, “the goal was to establish ourselves as an educational organization,” she said. “Some organizations exist to bring people together to be one another’s customers, like BNI; the whole point of getting together is so I can get to your six degrees, and you can get to my six degrees, and we can all create business.

“We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

“That’s not how we operate,” she went on. “We really come together to be enlightened, to be educated, to be inspired so go out and do the business of work. It’s not so much that your sister’s going to be my client, and my mother’s going to be yours. It’s mutually getting together to up our skill level.”

Members of the WBOA say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.

The organization’s tagline is “going the extra mile for women in business,” reflecting that desire to be more than a networking group or one solely focused on generating new business. In fact, the WBOA tends to avoid the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on making connections and sharing information in a variety of ways.

Eliason, who is also the senior business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s (MSBDC) Western Regional Office, said not all alliance members are business owners. Some aspire to own a business, while others — such as managers of banks and insurance companies — aren’t technically owners, but are responsible for a company’s day-to-day operations.

“Some people think it’s a social organization, and I think 40 years ago it was something like that. I have the sense that, when they started, they met over dinner in restaurants to start with and then became more formal,” she noted. “Many networking organizations have cropped up in the meantime that are women-focused, and we see ourselves as complementary to those.”

Meaning, the WBOA adds value women professionals may not find elsewhere, and education is at the heart of that value proposition.

For example, the group holds a breakfast meeting every second Thursday at the Scibelli Enterprise Center in Springfield, where the WBOA is based. While the organization has operated remotely since March and the events are virtual for the time being, they have continued without interruption.

Members of the alliance

Members of the alliance meet for an evening roundtable discussion during pre-pandemic times; all meetings since the spring have been remote, but none have been canceled.

Last month, the guest speaker was an electrical engineer at Raytheon and a Six Sigma lean-manufacturing black belt, who talked about organization and creating leaner operations. A week later, as is typical following the breakfast events, a longer evening program took a deeper dive into the subject matter, and more specific strategies were introduced.

The WBOA also holds quarterly events like social-media boot camps, which, last spring, featured a general session and 14 breakout sessions. Next month, a virtual financial workshop will present an accountant, an enrolled agent, and a tax preparer, who will speak about tax laws, PPP forgiveness, and a host of other issues. “The goal is to leave with a profit-loss statement and a balance sheet from this year and then set up a blank one for the following year.”

One of the positives of hosting the organization — and, before the pandemic, these events — at the Enterprise Center is that so many resources, from the SBA to SCORE, are also located there, and that aspect has been missed, Eliason said.

“It’s a great hub of activity for women business owners. But when we had to shift online, we never missed a meeting. We continued to meet without exception, which we’re kind of proud of,” she said, noting that even more programming was added, such as ‘happy hour’ events that are more motivational in nature than the breakfast discussions, with topics ranging from personal wellness to navigating remote work. “It’s really relevant stuff.”

 

Making Connections

It also requires resources to make it all happen, which is why the WBOA seeks sponsorships from organizations to underwrite its work. “We’re nonprofit, but there are expenses,” Eliason said, noting that fundraising has been more difficult in a year when businesses of all kinds are struggling.

Still, she made a point of listing many of the businesses that do support the alliance’s work, including Advanced Manufacturing, Allstate Longmeadow, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Attorney Marie T. Jablonski, Bacon Wilson, Dale A. Frank Financial Group, Fletcher Sewer and Drain, Goss and McLain, Jerome’s Party Plus, JL Raymaakers & Sons, Latka Printing, Main Street Deli, New England Disc Golf, Veryl’s Automotive Services, and WEIB-FM.

Collaborators include the MSBDC, SCORE, Valley Community Development, the Franklin County CDC, the Center for Women and Enterprise, and Common Capital. The WBOA also created the first TedX event in Easthampton and established the WINGS mentor program at STCC.

“We see ourselves as a place to learn about all the other resources that are available and always come back for additional education. That’s why we’re strategically placed at the Scibelli Enterprise Center,” she said. “We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

It’s been called a sisterhood in the past, and Eliason appreciates that.

“I think of it almost like a sorority — we’re going through similar experiences, we have similar challenges, and for every challenge we face, there’s someone who was at that level with their business years ago, and someone who hasn’t gotten there yet.”

Elaborating, she noted that BOA members feel comfortable calling on professionals who have been through what they’re experiencing. “It’s an evolving group of people at different stages of business ownership, so there are people you can call on, really, for anything.”

Right now, the group boasts about 45 members, though it has topped 100 in the past, and Eliason expects the number to rise to about 70 next year, once the pandemic slows. That number, she said, would be a sweet spot, generating a rich pool of experience and connections, but not such a high number that events become unwieldy.

As for those events, she said platforms like Zoom will continue to have a place at the WBOA even after members return to meeting in person, because the virtual events have cast a wider geographic net, and those technologies also allow the organization to archive webinars where important information gets shared.

In each meeting and newsletter, members also learn about available loan and grant opportunities to help them grapple with a pandemic that has hit small businesses hard, and forced many to close altogether. Other members are trying to keep their businesses afloat while working at home and balancing their careers with what their kids need in terms of remote learning.

“They’re doubling as a teacher for their kids,” Eliason said. “That’s not just a woman’s challenge, but for many of them, it’s been tough trying to juggle those two roles. It’s a lot to navigate.”

Even without the adjustments wrought by COVID-19, there’s always more to learn about how to build and grow a business, and to that end, WBOA leadership will continue to identify categories of information that would be most useful to its members.

“We’re looking for even more diversity of speakers in terms of the industries they come from,” she said. “It’s about linking what’s deliverable to really out-of-the-box thinking.”

 

Making the Time

In this difficult year, Eliason knows women aren’t necessarily looking for another networking group. But the WBOA isn’t just another networking group.

“Just come,” she said when asked what she’d say to women wondering whether the alliance is for them. “Attending a meeting is significant. It’s a really safe place to learn information. A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t need what the main speaker had to say, but one of the other people who spoke for five or six minutes, she made it worth coming.’

“We think of it as a think tank,” she continued. “If you’re stuck or in a rut, you can just put yourself in a place where there’s every possibility that someone will say something that will further you. Someone will say something in the course of a meeting that makes you say, ‘yeah, that was great.’”

And the learning — and, hopefully, growing — continues.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a Picture

In its recently released 2021 Dodge Construction Outlook, Dodge Data & Analytics predicts that total U.S. construction starts will increase 4% in 2021, to $771 billion.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and recession has had a profound impact on the U.S. economy, leading to a deep dropoff in construction starts in the first half of 2020,” said Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “While the recovery is underway, the road to full recovery will be long and fraught with potential potholes. After losing an estimated 14% in 2020 to $738 billion, total construction starts will regain just 4% in 2021.”

Furthermore, he added, “uncertainty surrounding the next wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall and winter and delayed fiscal stimulus will lead to a slow and jagged recovery in 2021. Business and consumer confidence will improve over the year as further stimulus comes in early 2021 and a vaccine is approved and becomes more widely distributed, but construction markets have been deeply scarred and will take considerable time to fully recover.”

He noted that the dollar value of starts for residential buildings is expected to increase 5% in 2021, non-residential buildings will gain 3%, and non-building construction will improve 7%. “Only the residential sector, however, will exceed its 2019 level of starts thanks to historically low mortgage rates that boost single-family housing.”

The pattern of construction starts for more specific segments is as follows:

• The dollar value of single-family housing starts will be up 7% in 2021, and the number of units will grow 6% to 928,000. Historically low mortgage rates and a preference for less-dense living during the pandemic are clearly overpowering short-term labor-market and economic concerns.

• Multi-family construction, however, will pay the price for the single-family gain. The large overhang of high-end construction in large metro areas combined with declining rents will lead to a further pullback in 2021. Dollar value will drop 1%, while the number of units started falls 2% to 484,000.

• The dollar value of commercial-building starts will increase 5% in 2021. Warehouse construction will be the clear winner as e-commerce giants continue to build out their logistics infrastructure. Office starts will also increase due to rising demand for data centers (included in the office category), as well as renovations to existing space. Retail and hotel activity will languish.

• In 2021, institutional construction starts will increase by a tepid 1% as growing state and local budget deficits impact public-building construction. Education construction is expected to see further declines in 2021, while healthcare starts are predicted to rise as hospitals seek to improve in-patient bed counts.

• The dollar value of manufacturing plant construction will remain flat in 2021. Declining petrochemical construction and weak domestic and global activity will dampen starts, while a small handful of expected project groundbreakings will level out the year.

• Public-works construction starts will see little improvement as 2021 begins due to continued uncertainty surrounding additional federal aid for state and local areas. Additionally, the unfinished appropriations process for fiscal year 2021, which began Oct. 1, raises doubt about the sector’s ability to post a strong gain in 2021. Public-works construction starts will be flat over the year.

• Electric utilities and gas plants will gain 35% in 2021, led by expected groundbreakings for several large natural-gas export facilities and an increasing number of wind farms.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

the new Ludlow Senior Center

Depending on how the pandemic progresses, the new Ludlow Senior Center could begin hosting some indoor programs by February.

 

Despite the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the town of Ludlow keeps building and improving.

As coronavirus rates continue to rise across Massachusetts, Manuel Silva, chairman of the Ludlow Board of Selectmen, said officials in town are closely monitoring the number of cases there.

A long-time selectman who served an earlier term as chairman, Silva said the pandemic has brought more challenges than a typical year. Like most places, Ludlow Town Hall is closed to the general public except by appointment. Silva said some town functions, such as the town clerk and tax collector’s offices, are conducting limited public business from the rear of the building, where they can offer service through a window. “It almost looks like an ice-cream stand,” he said with a laugh.

While Ludlow Mills features several ongoing projects (more on that later), Silva wanted to talk to BusinessWest about a few prominent municipal projects that are nearing completion.

For example, construction on Harris Brook Elementary School is progressing, with a good chance that students will begin attending next fall. Harris Brook is being built to replace Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, with the new school located on what used to be playing fields for the adjacent Chapin School.

It’s possible the old buildings may be repurposed and given a second life, Silva said. “We are looking at doing a study on both Chapin and Veterans Park to see what other use the town might have for them.”

He and other town officials are scheduled to tour Harris Brook and inspect the progress that’s been made on it. Once the new school is complete, Ludlow will receive reimbursement from the state for nearly half the cost of the $60 million project.

Another project nearing completion involves road improvements to Center Street, a main artery in Ludlow. Because the street is also part of Route 21, a state highway, the Commonwealth paid for most of the $5.6 million in improvements.

Harris Brook Elementary School

Construction continues on Harris Brook Elementary School, which will replace both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools.

Perhaps no one in Ludlow is more enthusiastically looking forward to opening the new Ludlow Senior Center than Jodi Zepke. As director of the Council on Aging, she and her staff plan to move out of the basement of the former high school on Chestnut Street and into the new building on State Street. While staff will be taking occupancy of the new building in mid-December, the Senior Center will remain closed to the public because of COVID-19 concerns, a situation that Zepke said poses both pros and cons.

“We’re excited to get into the building. It will give the staff an opportunity to get comfortable in their new surroundings before we have seniors come back,” she said. “At the same time, we know how excited everyone is to visit the new building as soon as they can.”

In what she called a “perfect world” scenario, the Senior Center could begin hosting some of Council on Aging programs indoors at the new facility in February. Throughout the warmer months, the council’s popular exercise and social programs were held outdoors at the park adjacent to the current senior center. As the weather became colder at the end of October, the outdoor programs wrapped up for the season.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart.”

“The outdoor programming was a great opportunity for people to see each other, get out of the house, and do some exercising,” Zepke said, noting that said groups took part in yoga, tai chi, and discussion groups, all socially distanced. Several of the exercise programs are available on local cable-access TV. While the broadcasts can help keep people active, she recognizes that people still need the socialization such programs provide for seniors in town.

“The most important thing is to remain connected to people, otherwise the social isolation is terrible,” she said. “We’re pushing for at least some indoor programming because we’re already seeing the mental-health effects of staying home all the time.”

Before COVID-19, the Senior Center hosted a popular daily lunch program. When coronavirus hit and it was no longer possible to bring people to the center, Zepke said her staff switched gears overnight and converted the daily lunch to a thrice-weekly grab-and-go meal where people drive up and receive a box lunch from center staff who are dressed in appropriate PPE. Zepke calls it one of the best things her organization has done since the pandemic hit.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.62
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

“It’s an opportunity for us to see people and take a few minutes to chat with them,” she said. “It’s the highlight of my day.”

 

Milling About

One of the brightest spots in Ludlow’s economic development for the last several years has been the redevelopment of a series of old mills located on the banks of the Chicopee River. The Westmass Area Development Corp. owns the mills and works closely with the town to bring new vitality to the entire area. Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the partnership between Ludlow and Westmass is a win-win.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart,” he said. “Instead, they are developing state-of-the-art projects that enhance the whole State Street corridor.”

Notable tenants in the mill project include businesses such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts and Iron Duke Brewing, but Stefancik also pointed to a successful housing development known as Residences at Mill 10, which added 75 units of senior housing to Ludlow when it opened in 2017.

Looking forward, plans are in the works to develop the clock tower, also known as Mill Building 8. WinnDevelopment, builder of Residences at Mill 10, has proposed a plan for 95 units of senior housing in the building, with 48,000 square feet on the first floor dedicated to retail space. Stefancik said the project is in the early stages, and the next steps include site-plan approval and a public hearing.

“We’re fortunate that WinnDevelopment is coming back to work on Mill Building 8 because their work is first-rate,” he said. “They completed Residences at Mill 10 three years ago, and since its opening, it has been wildly successful.”

As more residents move to the area, Stefancik said the Ludlow Riverwalk, located behind the mill complex, is growing in popularity. “It’s becoming a walkable neighborhood area, and we like to see that.”

Earlier this year, a key infrastructure component in the redevelopment of the mills was approved. The Riverside Drive project is a proposed roadway that replaces an old access road in the mill complex. The project is currently out for bid, with construction expected to start next year on 4,130 feet of roadway that runs through the mill complex from East Street to First Avenue. When complete, Riverside Drive will improve access to all areas of Ludlow Mills.

The revitalization of the mills has become a major asset for the town of Ludlow.

“It’s been one of the areas where we’ve seen massive growth for economic development and housing opportunities,” Stefancik said, adding that potential exists for even more growth in the years ahead — something that’s true not only for the mill complex, but for the town itself.

Coronavirus Features

Looking Up

Could better times be around the corner? A growing number of executives across the U.S. think so.

In the just-released 2021 National Business Trends Survey from the Employer Associations of America (EAA), 44% of company executives see an improving economic outlook in 2021. This annual survey shares information on what executives nationally are doing to address the changing business climate. Survey responses also reflect the impact COVID-19 has had on this year’s business trends.

When executives were asked if the overall U.S. economy in the next 12 months will “improve, stay the same, or decline,” the largest segment of respondents (44%) think it will improve, as opposed to last year, with only 12% expecting the economy to improve — and that was before the pandemic had come into view. This year, 33% think it will stay the same, as opposed to 52% last year. Only 24% think it will decline, compared to 36% a year ago.

“COVID certainly has had a significant impact, and perhaps many are feeling that the economy can only get better moving forward into 2021,” said Thoran Towler, who chairs the EAA board of directors. “In fact, fueling that optimism, 57% of executives project slight to significant increases in sales and revenue. American businesses are showing their resilience and readiness to tackle today’s challenges and come out stronger than ever before.”

An additional 11 questions were added to this year’s survey regarding COVID-19’s impact on business, addressing employee safety, stay-at-home measures and social distancing, remote work, online interviews and training, hazard pay and bonuses, and candidates who are unwilling to work in the office or out in the field.

When asked how concerned respondents are regarding COVID-19 and its impact on business continuity (specifically the supply chain, financial implications, and temporary shutdowns), 52% indicated they are “extremely to moderately concerned.” In the Northeast, 43% of the region’s executives expect the pandemic to negatively impact business and capital spending either moderately or significantly.

However, companies are already starting to pivot from a focus on pandemic measures to investing in the future. As the charts the two charts demonstrate, respondents expect to put less effort into COVID-specific activities in 2021 than they did in 2020, and more effort into investing in technology, equipment, and other efforts to grow their business.

“The pandemic has forced companies to be agile and innovative during these uncertain times,” said Mark Adams, director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “While expenditures are being scrutinized now more than ever before, the need to invest strategically nonetheless remains important as businesses seek to position themselves to rebound in 2021 and make up for lost ground.”

Similar to last year’s survey responses, the top three serious challenges for business executives include talent acquisition, talent retention, and the ability to pay competitive wages. The ability to pay for benefit costs and the cost of regulatory compliance rounded out the top five.

Also noteworthy for 2021, 64% of the survey respondents are planning to award wage and salary increases, while 29% plan to award variable pay bonuses next year.

The EAA is a national nonprofit association that provides this annual survey to business executives. The 2021 survey included 1,484 participating organizations throughout the U.S., an increase of nearly 400 over last year’s survey.

Construction

It’s All in the Details

 

The pandemic has upended many activities; however, contractors are continuing to work to modernize homes across the country.

Professional remodelers are taking on extra safety precautions to help meet the needs of homeowners during the pandemic. If you’re interested in remodeling your home, consider the following advice from the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Massachusetts to help put your mind at ease, so you can comfortably start your next home-remodeling project.

 

Find a Remodeler That Prioritizes Safety

If you’re ready to start your remodeling project, you’ll want to work with a professional committed to keeping you and your family safe during a remodel. The best place to start is by utilizing a directory of professional remodelers. The National Association of Home Builders has a directory of professional remodelers dedicated to the highest professional and safety standards during the pandemic.

 

Ask About Safety Precautions

After you’ve narrowed down your list of potential professional remodelers, ask questions related to safety. A qualified remodeler will be forthright and answer any questions you may have about personal protective equipment, social distancing while in your home, and other concerns about sanitation or other potential hazards.

 

Establish an Online Communication Channel

When you’re working with a professional remodeler, you’ll have to discuss details about your project, from evaluating your design ideas to agreeing to the scope of work. Talk to your remodeler about what areas of the planning process can be discussed online instead of meeting in person. Some remodelers may even request a virtual tour of your home through a video call. Photos, design ideas, measurements, and estimates can also be shared electronically. If you must meet with your contractor in person, practice social distancing and wear a face covering.

 

Discuss Your Living Arrangements

If you’re working from home or if you have kids who are distance learning, tell your contractor. A professional will provide guidance on how to minimize significant disruptions, including those related to plumbing or electrical work. If you have small children, most professionals will be willing to remove tools at the end of each work day or place them out of reach as an extra safety precaution. A contractor can also erect temporary walls to minimize dust in your primary living areas.

 

Communicate Clearly

The most important thing to remember if you’re moving forward with a remodeling project during the pandemic is to keep an open line of communication with your contractor via videoconference or phone — and be flexible. Your remodeler may take extra time to ensure extensive cleaning while undergoing your project. Due to the nature of the pandemic, other unexpected delays may occur. A dose of extra patience may be required during this time, but a professional remodeler will remain committed to safety without jeopardizing quality workmanship.

 

Women in Businesss

Urban Oasis

mani-pedi area

Leanne Sedlak (right) and Kim Brunton-Auger renovate the mani-pedi area of their new location.

When spas were allowed to reopen several months ago following a statewide economic shutdown, clients of SkinCatering, LLC were happy to return — even if booking became a little trickier.

“I haven’t been able to meet the demand,” owner Leanne Sedlak said, noting that some staff couldn’t return during a raging pandemic because they or a family member were immunocompromised, while fewer clients than normal were allowed in the space, and extra time had to be added in between appointments for cleaning and sanitizing.

“I feel like we’ve been limping along in a way,” she added. “It is frustrating for the client, and it’s hard to tell them, ‘no, we’re booked up for the next three weeks because we have two people working.’”

Meeting that demand will be easier now that SkinCatering has moved downstairs to the main level of Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in a larger, renovated space offering massage, skin care, hair and nail treatments, among other services.

“It’s nice coming down here,” she said. “We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

Sedlak and Kim Brunton-Auger, a licensed aesthetician who joined the company in 2012 and now serves as vice president of skin-care development, celebrated the move downstairs with a VIP event last week, taking time amid the bustle to recognize the challenge of keeping their enterprise not only alive, but thriving during a year of unprecedented challenge for small businesses.

“We’re definitely blessed because we know other businesses had the opposite experience, so our heart goes out to them for sure,” Sedlak said. “We’re very grateful; we know how fortunate we are in that regard.”

 

Hit the Road

Like many who start down the path of entrepreneurship, Sedlak did so out of necessity. In 2010, the U.S. was dealing with a different sort of economic crisis, the Great Recession, and both she and her husband were laid off from their jobs.

So, when she finished her time in massage school, she went into business for herself with a venture she would call SkinCatering. At first, it was a traveling enterprise, with Sedlak taking her massage table door to door.

“We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

“I’d load up my Tahoe with all my stuff and drive to my first appointment of the day, and that would pay for my gas the rest of the day,” she recalled. “To be in this space now, to build something like this, and to be in business for 10 years, feels validating.”

Since opening a salon in Tower Square toward the end of 2013, the company — mainly focused on massage and skin care — has grown significantly over the years, and the new space will allow for a salon and nail services, which had been a dream of Brunton-Auger’s for some time.

These days, SkinCatering offers massages, body wraps, waxing, Reiki, facials, an infrared sauna, and more. The company formulates its own line of skin-care products that don’t use harsh chemicals and are vegan, gluten-free, and ‘cruelty-free,’ meaning they’re not tested on animals.

“That’s been the mission all along,” Sedlak said of the company’s ‘clean’ products. “It’s a big trend now, and I hate using the word ‘trend’ because it’s not going away; it’s a way of life now. I love it when other estheticians discover our products and their clients have great results.”

Indeed, SkinCatering sells its products in other salons, and is also commissioned by other companies to create private-label products. Both Sedlak and Brunton-Auger would like to see the skin-care line grow in the future.

While retaining its original location upstairs for offices and a product-development laboratory, the new space downstairs is completely dedicated to client services, including four rooms for massages — including always-popular couples massages — and skin care, as well as two hair stations, two stations for manicures and pedicures, and an infrared sauna for one or two people. The latter is perfect, Sedlak said, for people who might want to try a sauna experience, but are intimidated by a larger, group sauna at a gym.

Equally important is a comfortable, subtly lit ‘tranquility area’ where clients can sit between appointments for multiple services, or while waiting on a friend, while sipping tea or water — a more important amenity now that each piece of furniture and surface must be well-sanitized between treatments. “It’s part of the spa experience now instead of there being an awkward pause,” Sedlak said.

“We have to take extra time to super-sanitize,” Brunton-Auger added. “Back-to-back isn’t what it used to be.”

As for other COVID-related changes, staff wear masks, aprons, goggles, and — except in the case of massage — gloves, all of which are changed out between appointments.

The pandemic led to other pivots as well, including a switch to making hand sanitizer in the lab back in the spring. It was hard to find materials and containers at times, Sedlak said, but a small salon like SkinCatering was able to make the production switch more quickly than a large company could. In the meantime, even when the shop was shut down, product orders soared, as people still wanted to treat themselves.

“We had more skin-care orders in the first two weeks of the shutdown than we ever had in the pre-COVID days,” Brunton-Auger said. “It saved the business in some ways.”

 

Moving On Down

She and Sedlak both expect the move downstairs to boost their business further, especially after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, whenever that might be. For one thing, they can stay open seven days a week; because the upstairs space was tucked amid offices, the floor essentially shut down on the weekends, and they would have to call to security to turn on the lights every Saturday; they kept it closed on Sundays.

Now, with a shop right next to the hotel entrance that draws more foot traffic, SkinCatering will be open seven days a week.

“We have been working on this project for almost two years, so to see it finally realized and ready to open is a great feeling of accomplishment, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Sedlak said. “Tower Square has a history of being a hub of activity for Springfield, and we’re very excited to be a major part of why people are coming back into the city.”

And perhaps, eventually, not just the city, as the partners have explored the possibility of franchising their model.

“It’s a duplicatable system that works,” Sedlak said, especially in conjunction with hotels. “It’s an amenity for the hotel and the rest of this tower. It’s convenient, but I don’t want to be known as a convenience spa. I mean, I want it to be convenient, but when you come in, you also have an incredible luxury experience.

“And I don’t mean luxury like stuffy,” she was quick to add. “We want you to be relaxed. It’s the idea of lush, but you feel so comfortable here, you want to stay for a long time. The theme is an urban oasis. Modern, clean, funky, cool, but comfortable.”

While expanding a business during a pandemic may not be the most comfortable move for a small business, so far, Sedlak and Brunton-Auger are proving it’s the right one.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Courting History

Danielle Williams

Danielle Williams, seen outside the courthouse in Northampton, says her time as an assistant clerk magistrate has helped prepare her for service on the bench.

Danielle Williams was asked about the style, or approach, that she would bring to the bench as a District Court judge.

She paused for a minute to think, and then recalled a conversation she had with a colleague recently — one that revealed just how she intends to address each matter that reaches her.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities,” she said. “Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

She told BusinessWest that this human factor, the people represented in the words typed on those pages, was driven home during her years spent as an assistant clerk magistrate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Trial Court, a position with a wide job description (more on that later), and one that opened her eyes to not only court procedure, but also the many issues facing those living and working in this region — and her own skill sets and abilities.

Williams said she didn’t take the clerk magistrate’s job with the goal, or intention, of becoming the first African-American woman to be sworn in as a District Court judge in Western Mass., but she was eventually convinced by many of those she was working with that this was the logical next step — and that she was ready.

Williams brings what might be called an eclectic résumé to her latest position, one that includes experience in the Hampden County District Attorney’s office … and experience writing and producing comic books.

“Each case that comes before you represents people, it represents families, and it represents communities. Cases are not just papers, they’re not just documents … and you have to address each case with that in mind.”

Indeed, as she told BusinessWest when she was named one of its 40 Under Forty honorees in 2015, Williams, while practicing law with the Northampton-based firm Fierst, Kane, and Bloomberg LLP, specializing in, among other things, intellectual-property law, she was also writing stories about unlikely superheroes known as the Mighty Magical Majestics.

While Williams still has somewhat of a passion for science fiction and graphic novels, she has spent the past several years focused entirely on the law and, more specifically, the courts.

After a short stint working in the Office of the Attorney General in Springfield, she joined the Trial Court as an assistant clerk magistrate in the spring of 2016, a role she’d been drawn to since very early in her career.

“I really admired how they [magistrates] really controlled the courtroom and set the tone for giving people access and making sure they felt comfortable in the courtroom,” she noted. “They dealt with all the components of the courtroom, whether it was probation, members of the public, the lawyers, the other court officers. There was the administrative aspect and also the substantive aspect, where they presided over small claims and criminal show-cause hearings, and I decided that’s really what I wanted to do.

“When I got that job, I was thrilled, and I loved it,” she went on. “I really anticipated staying there.”

But it wasn’t long before people started asking her what was next when it came to her career. The obvious answer was the bench, and while she listened to those who said she was ready to take that step forward, including Judge William Boyle, whom she considers her first mentor, she was at first reluctant, thinking she wasn’t ready to take that step forward.

“I think we’re always our toughest critics,” she said. “We want to be at our very best before we move on to the next level; you want to make sure you’re ready for the responsibility, have the education and knowledge, all that.

“Judge Boyle said, ‘why don’t you think about it?’” she went on. “I said, ‘but I’m not ready, judge; I haven’t even thought about it.’ And he said, ‘well, you should think about it.’ That meant a lot to me that someone who has seen me grow through my legal career thought this was something I should consider.”

Eventually, she gained the confidence to apply, and while her first bid for the bench was not successful, she applied again, and this this time, in a decidedly different interview process in the midst of a pandemic, she succeeded in impressing various interviewers and the Governor’s Council, the body that confirms nominations made by the governor.

She said her four years as assistant clerk magistrate certainly has prepared her for this next stage of her career.

“As an assistant clerk, you come to know who you are, especially if you’re sitting in the Springfield District Court,” she explained. “I know my temperament, I know the different agendas that happen in the courtroom — and having a different agenda is not a bad thing. The district attorney’s office represents the Commonwealth, the defense attorney represents their client, and I am a neutral party in the courtroom. Understanding those things, and having experience in managing all those different agendas in the courtroom, has been invaluable.

“Also,” she went on, “to sit in those sessions with the judges in motion hearings and trials, and listen and try to anticipate how I would respond to those issues, has been a tremendous platform for me, and a way to be prepared for the role of associate justice.”

If the interviewing and selection process was different because of COVID-19, so, too, was the swearing-in ceremony.

Usually a formal affair attended by hundreds of colleagues, friends, and family, this swearing-in was conducted from her dining room with just a few people in attendance.

“I had planned to have it in the atrium on the Springfield District Court, where I could hopefully social distance and have the public, friends, and colleagues in attendance,” she said. “But, given the circumstances, it seemed safer just to have a small swearing-in for now.”

As for where she’ll be next week, or the week after … she doesn’t know yet. While appointed out of Westfield, she could be in one of several other courts across the region, from Chicopee to Palmer to Orange, depending on where there is need.

What she does know is that, whichever court she’s in, she’ll bring in that mindset she mentioned at the top — that court cases are not documents or pieces of paper; they represent people, families, and communities.

It was the ability to communicate this philosophy, if you will, that helped her win this coveted — and historic — appointment, and it’s the one that will guide her for the next 26 years or so.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

Safety First

By Mark Morris

Carl Mercieri says the pandemic protocols have been challenging, but they’ve kept his company’s job sites totally free of COVID-19.

Call it a time of constant adjustments.

Since COVID-19 hit, area contractors have continued to work after adopting a number of state-mandated safety protocols to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Construction managers have adjusted to the extra requirements to get the job done, but it has come with a learning curve.

After working with safety consultants, Kevin Perrier, president of Five Star Group, said his company established a COVID-19 compliance plan and implemented it across all its job sites.

“It’s been helpful because it covers everything — daily sign-in sheets, temperature checks, self-reporting procedures, sanitation of the job site, and social distancing.”

Even with a solid plan, Perrier admits the additional protocols make it more challenging to bring projects to completion on time.

“We try to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and that delays our production. The reason for the slowdown is that we can’t cram as many workers onto the sites as we have in the past.”

Tim Pelletier, president of Raymond R. Houle Construction, said it’s a common occurrence on a job site for a large number of people to work in close proximity to each other.

“There’s a point where you have lots of moving parts, where different trades are working together in order to meet a completion schedule,” he said. “Because of coronavirus mandates, we can no longer have large numbers of people in one spot.”

In the beginning, adopting the safety mandates proved cumbersome as Pelletier would allow only one trade at a time to work on a site. After a few adjustments, more crews were able to be on site and still follow the guidelines.

“It’s a challenge to stay on schedule, but at least we’re now able to bring more than one trade in at a time and assign them work in different areas, so they’re not on top of each other,” he noted.

Wearing a mask all day has also been met with grudging acceptance; Pelletier said crews typically look forward to the moment they can remove them. “In the 90-degree weather, wearing a mask is definitely a health concern, as well as a comfort concern, but they are required, so we wear them.”

In the early days of the pandemic, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) also affected construction projects, as each site needed certain quantities for workers, as well as extra devices such as thermometers and wash stations.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Marois Construction was overpaying for — and overbuying — things like thermometers because they didn’t know how many they would need, said Carl Mercieri, vice president and project manager. On one occasion, he recalled, the project owner stepped in and provided enough hand-washing stations for the entire construction site.

“That worked out well,” he said. “Everyone did what they had to do, and we got through it together.”

 

Pandemic Problems

Implementing safety protocols didn’t always go smoothly early in the pandemic. Mercieri noted a school building project where as many as 30 workers stood in line each morning for a temperature screening and sign-in before they could start their workday.

“Our biggest concern was the loss of labor caused by all the downtime in the beginning,” he said. “It’s hard to put a number on it, and you can never really recoup that cost.”

Building material costs also increased with the onset of the pandemic. Perrier’s construction portfolio includes retail buildings, which require substantial quantities of lumber. So far this year, lumber wholesalers are reporting price increases of 300%, and, to make matters worse, they won’t hold those inflated prices for more than 48 hours.

Kevin Perrier

Kevin Perrier

“We try to maintain social distancing as much as possible, and that delays our production. The reason for the slowdown is that we can’t cram as many workers onto the sites as we have in the past.”

“The volatility of lumber prices makes it difficult to bid on a large, wood-framed project that we wouldn’t be framing until next summer,” he said. “It’s a big problem because you really have no idea where the pricing is going to be.”

Availability of building materials has also been an issue this year. Perrier said light fixtures and flooring materials are two items he’s had trouble procuring for the last several months, while Pelletier said doors and hardware have been in short supply. Rahkonen said finding certain parts for heavy equipment, such as excavators, has been difficult as well.

“We had a couple projects that needed vinyl fencing, and we just couldn’t get it because it just wasn’t out there,” Mercieri said. “We’ve since finished those jobs, but we were delayed by four to six weeks in getting the fencing.”

Much of the supply deficits are caused by overseas factories that experienced shutdowns early in the pandemic. These manufacturing delays from months ago are still being felt now as contractors need these supplies. “We just can’t meet the same deadlines because we can’t get our hands on the materials,” Pelletier said.

From the delays caused by socially distanced workers to not having materials when they’re needed, Pelletier said it’s difficult to take on fast-track jobs that need to hit a deadline. Mercieri echoed that point when discussing his company’s many jobs at hospitals.

“If you are renovating an operating room, for example, the hospital will need it back on line by a certain date, no matter what.”

Mercieri also mentioned a recent instance where he was offered a project that involved complicated construction and needed to be built on a tight schedule.

“When COVID hit, we were up front with the owners and advised them that, with the tight schedule and all the uncertainties of COVID causing delays, they might want to consider some alternate plans,” he told BusinessWest. “They rejected our suggestion and wanted to move forward at 100%, but ultimately they scrapped the project.”

Another concern early on was lost time due to COVID-19 infections. However, Mercieri said none of his workers have tested positive. The closest call was an exposed plumber who was not on site, but had worked with the plumber on Mercieri’s job site. Contact tracing revealed these two had not worked together in the previous six weeks. Perrier said a few of his employees and subcontractors on projects in Eastern Mass. weren’t so lucky and contracted coronavirus.

“We shut down the site for two or three weeks while contact tracing was completed,” he said, adding that the employees recovered, and everyone who had been affected tested negative. “Sites were sanitized, and then back to work.”

Tim Pelletier

Tim Pelletier

“It’s a challenge to stay on schedule, but at least we’re now able to bring more than one trade in at a time and assign them work in different areas, so they’re not on top of each other.”

John Rahkonen, owner of Northern Constructions Service, said four of his employees came down with minor cases of COVID-19, with one showing no symptoms at all. He was quick to point out that no one contracted the virus from the job site.

“Even though most of our crews work outside, we encourage people to stay in their own bubbles,” Rahkonen said. “If you stay within your bubble, you’ll be in pretty good shape.”

 

Widespread Impact

The economic impact of COVID-19 on a national level is often reflected at the local level, especially for construction companies. In the travel sector, Standard and Poor’s recently projected a 70% decline in airline-passenger traffic for 2020. The core business of Perrier’s company involves aviation construction, ranging from airline and rental-car facilities to restaurants and retail stores located at Logan International, Bradley International, and other airports.

“We had a considerable amount of work that, within a period of two weeks, was flat-out cancelled for the airlines,” he said. “A great deal of the other work was either temporarily postponed or put on an indefinite hold.” One large airline client told Perrier that its facility’s goal was to reach a “zero spend by November first.”

Two to three months into the pandemic, Mercieri began getting word of projects being canceled. His company had already bought materials to start construction for one of those projects.

“When they first shut us down, they told us it was temporary,” he said. “Then, six weeks later, they wrote us a letter to say they had canceled the project.”

Two natural-gas compression stations that Rahkonen’s company had planned to build in Pennsylvania this year have been put off until next year. While those still look viable for 2021, they represent $20 million less in projects for Northern Construction this year.

Perrier predicts the long-term impact of aviation construction will be felt by many for years to come. That’s why his company has diversified into other industries besides aviation.

Houle Construction

Houle Construction continues to take on work in the medical field, including this recent project at a local hospital.

“We are doing a decent amount of work in the cannabis industry. It’s booming right now, so that’s helped us out,” he said. One project nearing completion is Dreamer, a cannabis dispensary in Southampton scheduled to open in 2021.

The holiday season tends to be a time when activity begins to slow down in construction and many jobs approach their completion. It’s also a time for active bidding on projects for next year. Mercieri struck a positive tone and suggested a possible rebound in construction activity for 2021.

“Back in March, a lot of projects were delayed, and now they are getting put back on the table and going out for bid,” he said, adding that some of the projects getting approved involve bringing public buildings into compliance with COVID-19 mandates.

When Pelletier surveys the landscape, he senses both uncertainty and hopefulness.

“Clients have had projects on the docket to get done but were skittish for the last seven months, and with a rise in case count, there is still some uncertainty,” he said. “On the plus side, interest rates are extremely low, so borrowing the money for a project is less expensive now.”

Pelletier and the other managers we spoke with have all taken a one-day-at-a-time approach because they understand that coronavirus levels, and the government regulations aimed at lowering them, will most likely change again — and they will simply make the necessary adjustments.

“Because we’re wearing masks all day, everyone has a sore on their nose and a generally irritated demeanor,” Pelletier said. “But we’re navigating through it.”

Special Coverage The Cannabis Industry

Natural Resources

Tim Van Epps

Tim Van Epps with some of the ‘mother plants’ growing indoors at Heritage CBD’s Northampton facility.

Tim Van Epps volunteers with an organization called Fairways for Freedom, which helps combat-injured vets assimilate back into society through holistic initiatives and golf, teaching them the game and sponsoring trips to great courses around the world.

That’s where Van Epps, president of the Sandri Companies, first saw the benefits of cannabidoil, or CBD, a chemical compound made from the hemp part of the cannabis plant.

“I saw veterans who were taking 30 different pills a day, and a lot of these veterans are just using CBD now, and that’s it,” he told BusinessWest. “I saw 25 guys who were doctor-prescribed drug addicts, and now they’re on CBD, and their lives have changed dramatically. I saw what this could do. I saw what it did for one of my older brother’s sons, and for folks with stage-4 cancer. I’ve watched with my own two eyes what it’s done for a lot of people who had a lot of problems.”

He’s done much more than observe, however, launching a company called Heritage CBD almost three years ago with Sarah McLaughlin, a nutritionist and registered sports dietitian who had built a whole-foods company called Sun Valley Bars, sold it to Nature’s Bounty, and was looking for a new challenge in the natural-products world.

“We took the idea to start a hemp/CBD company in the carriage house on my property,” Van Epps said, and soon after moved to a 17,000-square-foot property on nearby Industrial Drive in Northampton, where the company now works with well over a dozen farms that grow hemp, which is processed into a mulch-like substance called biomass, then processed into the line of oils, lotions, tinctures, gummies, and other products Heritage sells today.

“We wanted to do everything, soup to nuts — or seed to sale,” he explained, but emphasized the company’s relationship with local farmers as a critical component to his vision.

Heritage CBD founders

From left, Heritage CBD founders Tim Van Epps and Sarah McLaughlin and President Jake Goodyear.

“Many have been hurt financially over the past 10 years, and for many, the next generation doesn’t want to go into the business, so farms out here are struggling,” he said. “We saw hemp as a value-added cash crop we could introduce to the farming community. This was all about jobs, first and foremost — creating jobs in Western Massachusetts.”

Michael Lupario’s vision was multi-faceted as well. With a degree in environmental science from UMass Amherst, he’s long been passionate about soil sciences and promoting cleaner, more sustainable ways to farm.

Meanwhile, his interest in plant-based medicine goes back to high school, when he learned to forage medicinal plants and experimented with making teas and oils. As president of Western MA Hemp, he now combines his desire to farm with the opportunity to bring plant-based medicine to a broader audience.

“My company’s focus has always been intertwining cannabis back to the larger pharmacopia that is herbal medicine — to not only show the efficacy of cannabis, but get back to this broader realm of plant-based healing,” Lupario explained. “There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about hemp and CBD and cannabis, and we want to bring it to people and explain what we do and how it’s done.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there about hemp and CBD and cannabis, and we want to bring it to people and explain what we do and how it’s done.”

Like Van Epps, he’s seen plenty of people use CBD to relieve pain, anxiety, restlessness, and other conditions — some of the same issues for which medicinal marijuana is often used, but without the psychoactive ingredient THC (the stuff that gets users high), which is present in only the barest sense in CBD.

“I find a certain set of consumers are looking for that psychoactive side; that’s appealing for them. For others, it deters them from cannabis. Some can integrate it into their lifestyle with no problems, but others may be drug-tested on the job.”

Michael Lupario

Michael Lupario

Whether seeking out marijuana or CBD for chronic injuries or any number of other conditions, in many cases, “conventional medicine is not working, and they’re looking for something new — they’re willing to try anything,” Lupario said. “They just want to feel better.”

While providing products that many customers swear by — although the products themselves, because they’re not FDA-approved, are not allowed to make specific medical claims — companies like Heritage CBD and Western MA Hemp have set down roots (literally and figuratively) in a field that’s still rapidly changing, in ways both regulatory and otherwise.

 

Overcoming the Stigma

Jake Goodyear, who ran the Renewable Energy division at Sandri before moving into the role of Heritage CBD president, said it wasn’t initially a move he wanted to make.

“I was a skeptic,” he told BusinessWest. “I’d been brainwashed into the stigma around cannabis and marijuana. It took me a while just to get my head around the history of the plant — and then I got mad that my point of view was so twisted on this subject because of what I had been told my whole life. When I got over that, I realized there was a huge opportunity here, and there really was nothing negative about hemp and CBD, and there are a lot of positives.”

One of the first challenges was regulatory, as the federal government still listed hemp and CBD as a Schedule 1 drug, so Heritage was unable to access a bank account or merchant services for credit-card payments. That changed with the 2018 Farm Bill, though THC-rich cannabis remains federally illegal as a Schedule 1 drug. Still, the state has offered its own unique series of barriers.

“Massachusetts policy gave us a license to grow hemp and process it into specific products like tinctures and gummies and soft-gel capsules,” Goodyear said, “but there was no regulatory pathway to sell them to market.”

For that reason, product sales at both Heritage and Western MA Hemp are largely online. Both companies emphasize multiple layers of third-party testing to ensure the products are clean, free of pesticides and toxins, and contain the ratios of ingredients they claim.

“I had a cannabis background — I was a fan of cannabis, both medical and recreational; it helped me a lot,” said Lupario, who launched his business a couple years ago with mentor and arborist Jim Sweeney. “He took me under his wing and provided some finances to allow me to put to use what skills and knowledge I had.”

The company also wholesales hemp flower and biomass to various processors for industrial uses; in fact, that’s the more lucrative side of the business while Lupario continues to grow his line of wellness products.

“It takes time to build a brand. We knew we wouldn’t be able to make our operating costs with what we made from these products … so what we don’t use in our products goes into the wholesale line,” he explained. “Because we grow our own material, we can keep margins down, have competitive pricing, and still create a really high-grade product.”

Trays of CBD-infused gummies

Trays of CBD-infused gummies are ready for packaging at the Heritage plant.

On a similar note, on a tour of the Heritage plant, Van Epps paused in the room where gummies are being infused with CBD to point out a rack of the gummy substance in bulk sizes without any CBD, which Heritage sells to cannabis companies that infuse it with THC, which he is legally unable to handle.

“Right now, this is what pays the bills, our bulk formulation,” he said. “We could morph into a candy company.”

McLaughlin said she brings a strong science background to her work at Heritage, citing the six different tests — checking for everything from pesticides to potency — each product has to pass along the production journey. “We wanted everything evidence-based. We really came at this trying to make the highest-quality product possible.

“It seems like a bit of a stretch from being a dietitian, but if you think about what a dietitian does, we study the effects of what you consume and how it affects your body, and this is no different,” she went on. “I saw all the potential and all the different areas CBD could help. And since we started, more and more research has come out about the positive effects of CBD. It’s exciting work, with incredible potential to help people.”

Van Epps said a growing public awareness about the benefits of CBD helps boost sales, but competition is fierce, too. “There are so many brands. What brands do you trust? We’re seeing lot of inferior brands that tried to get rich quick fall by the wayside.”

The key for Heritage, he added, is to stand out with quality products that are tested in transparent ways.

“We had a blank slate at first,” McLaughin said. “Anything known about formulating came from the black market, and you almost had to scrap it all and start over and understand there was most likely a better way of doing it.”

 

Altered States

More industry standardization would be another ‘better way’ to do business, said all those we spoke with. For instance, while Massachusetts limits THC levels in CBD to 0.3%, Vermont allows 1%. “In a perfect world, you’d standardize the rules across the country,” Van Epps said.

Added Lupario, “you’ve got to be able to pivot and deal with all the upheaval of laws and everything that comes with the ever-changing dynamics of the agriculture industry. You’re going to see that for the next couple of years until it settles down a bit; that will come with more federal oversight. We’re getting there.”

Van Epps said it’s been a tough year for some in the hemp industry, especially for farms that planted too much, too soon. “They thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme, and unfortunately, a lot of farmers got hurt by that. Farmers who didn’t bite off more than they could chew will tell you it’s a good business, worth investing in, and they see long-term growth. It’s exciting.”

Goodyear said less than 25% of American adults have tried a CBD product, so there’s plenty of room for growth; in fact, he sees the potential for Heritage to expand from about 20 employee today to 150 in a couple of years.

The trend toward greater public awareness is certainly good for business, Lupario said, but it also boosts his mission to give cannabis and hemp a stronger connection to natural, plant-based wellness.

“It’s another plant within the herbal pharmacopeia,” he said — one whose story continues to blossom in Massachusetts and beyond.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

Is the Gig Up for Some Workers?

By Amy B. Royal, Esq.

Getty Stock Images

The number of gig workers has been on the rise over the past few years with the advent of many online-platform companies, such as DoorDash, Instacart, and Uber.

The notion of gig workers and a gig-worker-based economy, however, is not new. Whether one refers to such workers as gig workers, freelancers, or broadly as independent contractors, this area of employment law has been a thorn in the side of many businesses for several decades. With the significant and robust growth in the online gig-economy world, the restrictiveness of independent-contractor law on business and business growth, as well as on worker independence, has gotten a new look.

Both a recent victory in the state of California and a new proposed rule from the federal government may be signaling a change in the tide when it comes to the future of independent-contractor law.

Independent-contractor law, especially in Massachusetts, has been very restrictive when it comes to certain business models. Many industries have historically relied on the classification of workers as independent contractors to augment their operations and build capacity as well as to attract workers who want independence when delivering services for them.

For example, traditionally, the real-estate industry has classified real-estate agents as independent contractors. Similarly, tattoo parlors, hair salons, and transportation services have done the same. In these industries, oftentimes, the expectation of the worker is that he or she will be classified as an independent contractor and, thus, have the freedom and flexibility to maintain independence over their own schedule and their own craft.

Indeed, the benefit of such gig work is often mutual: the company can reduce its overhead costs in payroll, benefits, and expenses, while the workers can retain freedom and flexibility over their schedules while garnering higher compensation for the services they deliver.

Earlier this month, California voters sent a message to their lawmakers when they passed a ballot question that exempted app-based drivers working for companies like Lyft and Uber from a California law that had previously made them employees. Earlier this year, a law had taken effect in California that made it clear these drivers were to be treated as employees and, thus, were entitled to certain employment-related benefits and legal protections. The California ballot win is a significant victory for app-based companies that utilize gig workers to deliver services.

Amy Royal

“Whether one refers to such workers as gig workers, freelancers, or broadly as independent contractors, this area of employment law has been a thorn in the side of many businesses for several decades.”

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), our federal agency that enforces federal wage-and-hour laws, appears to be trending toward loosening its stance on independent-contractor law as well. This September, the DOL proposed a new rule that establishes two core factors as determinative ones in an overall five-part independent-contractor test. The two core factors are the nature and degree of the worker’s control over the work and the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss based on initiative and/or investment.

Remember, this rule is pending approval and, therefore, is not the current federal law on this matter. Our current federal rule in effect for establishing independent-contractor status is based upon a multi-factor test, which can be confusing in its application, thus prompting the proposed change. The purpose behind the newly proposed rule is to bring clarity to the confusion in the application of the test itself.

Prior to the proposed rule, there was no definitive guidance on how to go about weighing and balancing the various factors and whether there was a prioritization among them. Now, the two core factors proposed should make it easier to assess a worker’s status and, arguably, pave the way for more workers to be classified as independent contractors. The proposed rule seems to recognize the prerogative of workers who want to work independently and maintain freedom from an employer’s day-to-day control over them.

For now, whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee is a clear question in the Bay State. Massachusetts law utilizes a clear three-part test that is otherwise very restrictive on both businesses and the workers who do not want to be considered employees. In Massachusetts, when analyzing a worker’s status, there is always a presumption of employment. This means the burden is on the company to prove why a worker is not an employee.

To establish that fact, Massachusetts companies must satisfy all three parts of a three-part test: companies must show that the work is performed without the direction and control of the company, outside the usual course of the company’s business, and by someone who has their own independent business or trade in that type of work. Again, all three parts of this test must be met for the Massachusetts worker to be deemed an independent contractor.

Where most companies fail the test is with respect to the second part — that the worker must perform work outside the usual course of the company’s business. For example, with respect to a driver for Uber, arguably, under Massachusetts independent-contractor law, the driver would be deemed an employee; the company is in the business of ride sharing, and the driver is performing that work by driving customers to and from certain locations.

The problem with the misclassification of workers as independent contractors is that it carries with it very stiff penalties and triggers several potential violations of laws. Indeed, misclassification of an independent contractor can create issues with respect to wage-and-hour law, such as minimum wage and overtime compensation, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation coverage, and certain payroll-tax withholdings.

Furthermore, situations involving the misclassification of workers can give rise to class-action lawsuits. Companies that violate Massachusetts wage-and-hour laws alone are subject to mandatory treble damages for any unpaid wages. In addition, a prevailing employee will be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs of the litigation.

What is the takeaway on all of this for your company? While the law may be changing in other parts of the country, nothing has changed in Massachusetts (so far). Massachusetts law remains very strict and extremely restrictive when it comes to proving independent contractor status. As noted, misclassifying a worker can carry steep penalties and trigger a violation of various laws, as well as class-action claims.

But stay tuned. This area of the law seems to be evolving with the newly proposed federal rule and the California state-law change. It is estimated that, collectively, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, and DoorDash spent approximately $200 million to lobby California voters to change their state law on independent-contractor status. That may spark more challenges to independent-contractor laws in other states, including Massachusetts.

 

Amy B. Royal, 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]

Accounting and Tax Planning Coronavirus Special Coverage

Year-end Tax Planning

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST

 

This year has been unlike any other in recent memory. Front and center, the COVID-19 pandemic has touched virtually every aspect of daily living and business activity in 2020. In addition to other financial consequences, the resulting fallout is likely to have a significant impact on year-end tax planning for both individuals and small businesses.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Furthermore, if the election of Joe Biden is confirmed and the Republican party does not hold a majority in the Senate following the runoff elections in Georgia, it is likely to affect the tax situation in 2021 and beyond. This article will first address 2020 planning and then summarize some of the Biden tax proposals at the end.

In response to the pandemic, Congress authorized economic-stimulus payments and favorable business loans as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act also features key changes relating to income and payroll taxes. This new law follows close on the heels of the massive Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017. The TCJA revised whole sections of the tax code and includes notable provisions for both individuals and businesses.

This is the time to paint your overall tax picture for 2020. By developing a year-end plan, you can maximize the tax breaks currently on the books and avoid potential pitfalls.

 

BUSINESS TAX PLANNING

Depreciation-related Deductions

Under current law, a business may benefit from a combination of three depreciation-based tax breaks: the Section 179 deduction, ‘bonus’ depreciation, and regular depreciation.

• Place qualified property in service before the end of the year. Typically, a small business can write off most, if not all, of the cost in 2020.

• The maximum Section 179 allowance for 2020 is $1,040,000 provided asset purchases do not exceed $2,590,000.

• Be aware that the Section 179 deduction cannot exceed the taxable income from all your business activities this year. This could limit your deduction for 2020.

• If you buy a heavy-duty SUV or van for business, you may claim a first-year Section 179 deduction of up to $25,000. The ‘luxury car’ limits do not apply to certain heavy-duty vehicles.

• If your deduction is limited due to either the income threshold or the amount of additions, a first-year bonus depreciation deduction of 100% for property placed in 2020 is also available.

• Massachusetts does not follow the bonus depreciation, but does allow the increased Section 179 expense; however, many states do not follow that increased expense either.

 

Business Interest

• Prior to 2018, business interest was fully deductible. But the TCJA generally limited the deduction for business interest to 30% of adjusted taxable income (ATI). Now the CARES Act raises the deduction to 50% of ATI, but only for 2019 and 2020.

• Determine if you qualify for a special exception. The 50%-of-ATI limit does not apply to a business with average gross receipts of $25 million (indexed for inflation) or less for the three prior years. The threshold for 2020 is $26 million.

 

Bad-debt Deduction

During this turbulent year, many small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, resulting in large numbers of outstanding receivables and collectibles.

• Increase your collection activities now. For instance, you may issue a series of dunning letters to debtors asking for payment. Then, if you are still unable to collect the unpaid amount, you can generally write off the debt as a business bad debt in 2020.

• Generally, business bad debts are claimed in the year they become worthless. To qualify as a business bad debt, a loan or advance must have been created or acquired in connection with your business operation and result in a loss to the business entity if it cannot be repaid.

 

Miscellaneous

• If you pay year-end bonuses to employees in 2020, the bonuses are generally deductible by your company and taxable to the employees in 2020. A calendar-year company operating on the accrual basis may be able to deduct bonuses paid as late as March 15, 2021 on its 2020 return.

• Generally, repairs are currently deductible, while capital improvements must be depreciated over time. Therefore, make minor repairs before 2021 to increase your 2020 deduction.

• Switch to cash accounting. Under a TCJA provision, a C-corporation may use this simplified method if average gross receipts for last year exceeded $26 million (up from $5 million).

• An employer can claim a refundable credit for certain family and medical leaves provided to employees. The credit is currently scheduled to expire after 2020.

• Investigate Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgiveness. Under the CARES Act, PPP loans may be fully or partially forgiven without tax being imposed. Despite recent guidance, this remains a complex procedure, so consult with your professional tax advisor about the details.

 

INDIVIDUAL TAX PLANNING

Charitable Donations

Generally, itemizers can deduct amounts donated to qualified charitable organizations, as long as substantiation requirements are met. Be aware that the TCJA increased the annual deduction limit on monetary contributions from 50% of adjusted gross income (AGI) to 60% for 2018 through 2025. Even better, the CARES Act raises the threshold to 100% for 2020.

• In addition, the CARES Act authorizes an above-the-line deduction of up to $300 for monetary contributions made by a non-itemizer in 2020 ($600 for a married couple).

• In most cases, you should try to ‘bunch’ charitable donations in the year they will do you the most tax good. For instance, if you will be itemizing in 2020, boost your gift giving at the end of the year. Conversely, if you expect to claim the standard deduction this year, you may decide to postpone contributions to 2021.

• For donations of appreciated property that you have owned longer than one year, you can generally deduct an amount equal to the property’s fair market value (FMV). Otherwise, the deduction is typically limited to your initial cost. Also, other special rules may apply to gifts of property. Notably, the annual deduction for property donations generally cannot exceed 30% of AGI.

• If you donate to a charity by credit card in December — for example, if you make an online contribution — you can still write off the donation on your 2020 return, even if you do not actually pay the credit-card charge until January.

 

Family Income Splitting

The time-tested technique of family income splitting still works. Currently, the top ordinary income-tax rate is 37%, while the rate for taxpayers in the lowest income tax bracket is only 10%. Thus, the tax rate differential between you and a low-taxed family member, such as a child or grandchild, could be as much as 27% — not even counting the 3.8% net investment-income tax (more on this later).

• Shift income-producing property, such as securities, to family members in low tax brackets through direct gifts or trusts. This will lower the overall family tax bill. But remember that you are giving up control over those assets. In other words, you no longer have any legal claim to the property.

• Also, be aware of potential complications caused by the ‘kiddie tax.’ Generally, unearned income above $2,200 received in 2020 by a child younger than age 19, or a child who is a full-time student younger than age 24, is taxed at the top marginal tax rate of the child’s parents. (Recent legislation reverses a TCJA change on the tax treatment.) The kiddie tax could affect family income-splitting strategies at the end of the year.

 

Higher-education Expenses

The tax law provides tax breaks to parents of children in college, subject to certain limits. This often includes a choice between one of two higher-education credits and a tuition-and-fees deduction.

• Typically, you can claim either the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) or the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). The maximum AOTC of $2,500 is available for qualified expenses of each student, while the maximum $2,000 LLC is claimed on a per-family basis. Thus, the AOTC is usually preferable. Both credits are phased out based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI).

• Alternatively, you may claim the tuition-and-fees deduction, which is either $4,000 or $2,000 before it is phased out based on MAGI. The tuition-and-fees deduction, which has expired and been revived several times, is scheduled to end after 2020, but could be reinstated again by Congress.

• When appropriate, pay qualified expenses for next semester by the end of this year. Generally, the costs will be eligible for a credit or deduction in 2020, even if the semester does not begin until 2021.

 

Medical and Dental Expenses

Previously, taxpayers could only deduct unreimbursed medical and dental expenses above 10% of their AGI. When it is possible, accelerate non-emergency qualifying expenses into this year to benefit from the lower threshold. For instance, if you expect to itemize deductions and have already surpassed the 7.5%-of-AGI threshold this year, or you expect to clear it soon, accelerate elective expenses into 2020. Of course, the 7.5%-of-AGI threshold may be extended again, but you should maximize the tax deduction when you can.

 

Estimated Tax Payments

The IRS requires you to pay federal income tax through any combination of quarterly installments and tax withholding. Otherwise, it may impose an ‘estimated tax’ penalty.

However, no estimated tax penalty is assessed if you meet one of these three ‘safe harbor’ exceptions under the tax law:

• Your annual payments equal at least 90% of your current liability;

• Your annual payments equal at least 100% of the prior year’s tax liability (110% if your AGI for the prior year exceeded $150,000); or

• You make installment payments under an ‘annualized income’ method. This option may be available to taxpayers who receive most of their income during the holiday season.

If you have received unemployment benefits in 2020 — for example, if you lost your job due to the COVID-19 pandemic — remember that those benefits are subject to income tax. Factor this into your estimated tax calculations for the year.

 

Capital Gains and Losses

Frequently, investors time sales of assets such as securities at year-end to produce optimal tax results. For starters, capital gains and losses offset each other. If you show an excess loss for the year, it offsets up to $3,000 of ordinary income before being carried over to the next year. If you sell securities at a loss and reacquire substantially identical securities within 30 days of the sale, the tax loss is disallowed.

• Long-term capital gains from sales of securities owned longer than one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 15%, or 20% for certain high-income investors. Conversely, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates reaching up to 37% in 2020.

• Review your investment portfolio. Depending on your situation, you may harvest capital losses to offset gains realized earlier in the year or cherry-pick capital gains that will be partially or wholly absorbed by prior losses.

 

Net Investment-income Tax

In addition to capital-gains tax, a special 3.8% tax applies to the lesser of your net investment income (NII), or the amount by which your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) for the year exceeds $200,000 for single filers or $250,000 for joint filers. (These thresholds are not indexed for inflation.) The definition of NII includes interest, dividends, capital gains, and income from passive activities, but not Social Security benefits, tax-exempt interest, and distributions from qualified retirement plans and IRAs.

• Assess the amount of your NII and your MAGI at the end of the year. When it is possible, reduce your NII tax liability in 2020 or avoid it altogether.

 

Required Minimum Distributions

As a general rule, you must receive required minimum distributions (RMDs) from qualified retirement plans and IRAs after reaching age 72 (70½ for taxpayers affected prior to 2020). The amount of the RMD is based on IRS life-expectancy tables and your account balance at the end of last year

• Take RMDs in 2020 if you need the cash. Otherwise, you can skip them this year, thanks to a suspension of the usual rules by the CARES Act. There is no requirement to demonstrate any hardship relating to the pandemic. Finally, although RMDs are no longer required in 2020, consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). If you are age 70½ or older, you can transfer up to $100,000 of IRA funds directly to a charity. Although the contribution is not deductible, the QCD is exempt from tax. This may benefit your overall tax picture.

 

IRA Rollovers

If you receive a distribution from a qualified retirement plan or IRA, it is generally subject to tax unless you roll it over into another qualified plan or IRA within 60 days. In addition, you may owe a 10% tax penalty on taxable distributions received before age 59½. However, some taxpayers may have more leeway to avoid tax liability in 2020 under a special CARES Act provision.

• Take your time redepositing the funds if it qualifies as a COVID-19-related distribution. The CARES Act gives you three years, instead of the usual 60 days, to redeposit up to $100,000 of funds in a plan or IRA without owing any tax.

• To qualify for this tax break, you (or your spouse, if you are married) must have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or experienced adverse financial consequences due to the virus (e.g., being laid off, having work hours reduced, or being quarantined or furloughed). If you do not replace the funds, the resulting tax is spread evenly over three years.

• This may be a good time to consider a conversion of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. With a Roth, future payouts are generally exempt from tax, but you must pay current tax on the converted amount. Have a tax professional help you determine if this makes sense for your situation.

 

Estate and Gift Taxes

Since the turn of the century, Congress has gradually increased the federal estate-tax exemption, while eventually establishing a top estate-tax rate of 40%. The TCJA doubled the exemption from $5 million to $10 million for 2018 through 2025, inflation-indexed to $11.58 million in 2020.

Under the ‘portability provision’ for a married couple, the unused portion of the estate-tax exemption of the first spouse to die may be carried over to the estate of the surviving spouse. This tax break is now permanent.

Finally, guidance has been published establishing that, when the exemption is decreased in the future, a recapture or ‘claw-back’ of the extra exemption used will not be required.

Update your estate plan to reflect current law. You may revise wills and trusts to accommodate the rule allowing portability of the estate-tax exemption. Additionally, consider the maximum gifting currently as allowable in your financial position.

 

Miscellaneous

You can contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) in 2020 ($26,000 if you are age 50 or older).

 

BIDEN’S NOTABLE TAX PROPOSALS

Business Tax

• The statutory corporate tax rate would be increased from 21% to 28%.

• The benefits of the Section 199A/qualified business-income deduction would be phased out for individuals with taxable income greater than $400,000.

• The real-estate industry will potentially be impacted. The Biden campaign had suggested potential changes to the §1031 like-kind exchange provisions as well as changes to effectively limit losses that may be utilized by real-estate investors.

 

Individual Tax

Many of the revenue-raising aspects of the Biden tax proposal for individuals apply only to those taxpayers with taxable income over $400,000. It has not been specified whether this threshold is to be adjusted for filing status.

• The top ordinary rate would be restored to 39.6% for taxpayers with income over $400,000. This reflects a return to pre-2017 tax reform when the top ordinary rate was dropped to 37%.

• For top income earners, this rate is currently capped at 20% (plus 3.8% to the extent subject to the net investment-income tax). Under the Biden plan, capital gains and qualified dividends will be subject to the top rate of 39.6% for individuals with more than $1 million in income.

• The Section 199A/qualified business-income deduction would begin to phase out for individuals over $400,000 in taxable income.

• Itemized deductions would be capped to 28% of value. Additionally, benefits would begin to phase out for individuals with taxable income over $400,000.

• The child and dependent care credit would be increased to a maximum of $8,000 for low-income and middle-class families. In addition, the credit would be made refundable.

• First-time homebuyers could receive up to $15,000 of refundable and advanceable tax credit.

• There could be temporary expansion of the child tax credit, depending on the progression of the pandemic and economic conditions. This expansion would increase the credit from $2,000 to $3,000 for children 17 or younger with an additional $600 for children under 6. The credit would also be refundable and allowable to be received in monthly installments.

 

Gift and Estate Tax

The gift- and estate-tax exemption amount would be reduced. Many are suggesting that Biden is looking to reduce the gift- and estate-tax exemption to the pre-TCJA levels.

 

Conclusion

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

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

 

Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST is partner, Executive Committee, and director of Taxation Services at Meyers Brothers Kalicka; (413) 536-8510.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For Longmeadow Town Manager Lyn Simmons, it’s been quite a first year on the job.

With 16 years of experience in municipal government in of Northampton — the last six years as chief of staff for Mayor David Narkewicz — Simmons became Longmeadow’s town manager a year ago this month. After three months on the job, Longmeadow — like the entire world — found itself in uncharted territory.

As challenging as the pandemic has been, Simmons said one positive has been the opportunity to build relationships with department heads and the emergency-management team much faster than she might have under less-hectic circumstances.

“We had to come together quickly and navigate all of this together,” Simmons said. “As difficult as the pandemic has been, the team that’s in place here and the relationships that we’ve formed have made dealing with it much easier.”

She also credits Longmeadow residents for their response in handling the pandemic, noting that people in town are adhering to public-health guidelines and taking personal responsibility. “We see people social distancing, wearing masks, and doing what they need to do to help protect themselves, their families, and our community.”

Lyn Simmons

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation.”

Because most residents complied with state mandates, Longmeadow experienced low numbers of the coronavirus throughout the summer. While the number of cases in town has begun to increase during the fall, this reflects the overall trend in Western Mass. and across the state, Simmons said, adding that a team of municipal employees is monitoring pandemic-related grants and other funding sources that might be available through the state and federal government.

“The pandemic has certainly been a disruption to normal life, whether it’s doing business with town offices or making adjustments to programs that are run by the Parks and Rec department, or the Adult Center,” she noted. But business not been halted, and as she spoke with BusinessWest, she outlined some of the ways progress continues in this small, residential town.

Worth Their Salt

In the midst of all the COVID-related disruption, Simmons points to two town projects she calls bright spots during these challenging times. First, a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility — a $24 million project on Dwight Road, on the site of a former tennis club — is nearing completion.

The second project is the $14 million Adult Center, where finishing touches are being applied as it gets closer to opening day. While the Council on Aging will have a large presence, the Parks and Recreation department will also run programs and activities from the facility, making it a resource for all residents.

After COVID-19 hit, safety protocols were implemented at the DPW and Adult Center sites to allow construction work to continue and keep both projects on track to open in early 2021.

“The only disruption we had occurred earlier in the spring when the subcontractor who was providing and installing a salt-storage shed was quarantined crossing the state line from New York,” Simmons said. “We’ve been able to move past that, and the salt shed is fully constructed now.”

With 95% of property in Longmeadow devoted to residential dwellings, town officials pay close attention to activity in the real-estate market. Like most towns, the normal sales bump that occurs each spring was delayed by the pandemic. Sales activity returned in July and has remained brisk since then, with most houses selling at the asking price.

“We’ve been able to capture that strong real-estate market,” Simmons said. “On average, houses are staying on the market for about 20 days; low interest rates have certainly helped.”

The demographics in Longmeadow have remained similar to what they’ve historically been. Simmons said the town has a healthy mix of approximately 29% families and about 30% in the over-60 demographic. One key indicator that remains steady is school enrollment, where no declines have been reported.

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation,” she noted.

Looking to the future, the town owns a 10-acre parcel on Academy Drive known as the Water Tower property. Prior to the pandemic, the area was under consideration for an over-55 housing development. If this project moves forward, Simmons said, it might solve a dilemma for many seniors in town. Many aging residents want to continue to live in Longmeadow but would also like to downsize from their current home to one-level living, and an over-55 housing development could be a good solution.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.21
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“Once we get the pandemic behind us, I expect our discussions of this site to be dusted off and brought back into the public sphere,” she added.

Meanwhile, conversations about two other potential projects are continuing, including development of a former church at the intersection of Williams Street and Redfern Drive with a different use, and a project on Williams Street that involves building a long-term-care facility. “As far as I know, those plans are still in the works,” Simmons said of the latter plan, “but it’s been slow-moving.”

 

Sharing Resources

More concrete progress can be found on a regional level. Last year, Longmeadow joined with Chicopee to form an emergency communications center called WESTCOMM. By taking a regional approach to emergency dispatch calls, both towns save money, increase efficiency, and have backup support when multiple calls come into either town.

Now nearly a year into the program, WESTCOMM has been a great success — and is growing, Simmons said. “Since WESTCOMM launched in December, we’ve added two more communities this year, when East Longmeadow and Monson came on board with Longmeadow and Chicopee.”

WESTCOMM currently operates out of the Chicopee Police Department, but officials are exploring a move to a larger facility as more communities come on board. Simmons said she expects to hear more about that in the coming year.

Before the pandemic, Longmeadow was looking to share some public-health services with neighboring East Longmeadow. Because the health departments and boards of health for both towns are expending all their energy on COVID-19 concerns, that project has been set aside at least until the pandemic is over, she added. “Looking at a merger of two health departments right now is a little more than we can take on at the moment.”

Simmons was born and raised in Northampton, and she first became familiar with Longmeadow while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Bay Path University.

As she completes her first year as Longmeadow’s town manager, she’s proud of how well people in the community have responded throughout the pandemic.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding and support as we all try to get through this time together,” she said. “I am really looking forward to the new year when we will open both the new DPW and Adult Center in town.”

Simmons added that she can’t wait for the public to see both buildings and hopes to take residents on tours of the new facilities when they formally open in 2021 — a year when municipal leaders in all communities hope they can put COVID-19 behind them and are able to focus fully on the future once again.

COVID-19 Features

Let There Be Light

Judy Matt says the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) exists for one reason — to entertain residents across the region and create some memories.

It hasn’t been able to do any of that to this point in 2020, obviously, and Matt, the long-time executive director of the nonprofit agency, has been frustrated and disappointed by this reality. Annual events such as the pancake breakfast (long heralded as the world’s largest), the Fourth of July fireworks, and the Big Balloon Parade have been wiped off the calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there remains uncertainty about whether any of those can be staged in 2021.

Meanwhile, at the SOS, with little revenue coming in other than a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the proceeds from the annual golf tournament, the staff — and that includes Matt — have been on unemployment for at least some of this year, although she has continued to come to the office every day.

But there will be one bright spot as a very trying year — for both the region and the SOS — comes to a close, as the necessary approvals (and many of them were required) have been received to stage Bright Nights in Forest Park from Nov. 25 to Jan. 6.

Things won’t be exactly the same — there will be new restrictions on everything from the hours of operation (the front gate will have to be shut at 8:45 p.m.) to how tickets are paid for (no cash, for example) — and the the gift shop in the park will be closed, although a facility will open downtown in the Springfield Visitors Center. And no one will be allowed to get out of their cars under any circumstances.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had.”

But just being able to have Bright Nights will provide a huge boost for the region and the Spirit of Springfield, Matt said. “The region needs Bright Nights, now more than ever. It’s been a long, trying year for everyone.”

Bright Nights will go on in 2020

There will be some new restrictions on hours, method of payment, and other matters, Judy Matt says, but Bright Nights will go on in 2020, a bright spot in an otherwise dark year.

But while the region needs Bright Nights, so too does the Spirit of Springfield, which relies on the income from this signature event to help carry out its mission and present those other annual gatherings listed earlier.

So Matt and others will be keeping their fingers crossed on the weather — past history has shown that a few snowstorms can wreak havoc on the bottom line — while trying to make the most of the opportunity it has been given to stage Bright Nights in the middle of a pandemic.

And early indications are that, despite some restrictions on the hours and other factors, this could be one of the best seasons in the 26-year history of the Bright Nights, given what kind of year it’s been and the need for some kind of relief valve, especially as the holiday season approaches.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while it might well achieve that status, this year’s Bright Nights will be challenged by the restrictions imposed upon it by city and state officials, especially the shortened hours of operation.

“We are theoretically losing 39 hours during which we could have been selling tickets — in the past, we had a lot of nights where we were open ’til 11,” she said, adding that, with vehicles going through at the rate of 300 per hour, those lost hours will hurt.

The city has allowed Bright Nights to stay open an additional three days, she went on, adding that, while this will help, the volume of traffic through the displays decreases markedly after Jan. 1.

“I can keep talking about what we can’t do and what we won’t have,” she said. “But we’re just very grateful to be able to do this; it’s important that this region has Bright Nights this year.”

As for what comes after Bright Nights … Matt said there are certainly question marks about whether the SOS will be able to get back into the entertainment business full-time next year, but she and her staff have to plan as if that is going to be the case.

But if the current conditions continue well into next year, the agency will be facing some hard questions. In addition to the events being wiped off the slate, COVID-19 also prohibited the agency from staging its annual Bright Nights Ball, which traditionally nets the SOS $50,000 to $60,000 for operating expenses.

Without that revenue, the agency needs a very solid year for Bright Nights and probably other forms of help, such as that small PPP loan it received last spring, which enabled a few of the staff members to remain on the payroll.

“We’re trying to figure it all out,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hoping we have a good year for Bright Nights; if we have a good Bright Nights, that will take us into March or April. After that … we’ll have to see what happens.”

While the long-term picture is clouded by question marks, the immediate future is bright — or at least brighter — now that the agency has been given the green light to continue what has become a holiday tradition, not just for those in this region, but for those who travel to it to enjoy what has been recognized among the top holiday lighting displays in the country.

The pandemic has turned out the lights on a great many institutions and activities this year, but not these lights.

It won’t be exactly the same — nothing is in the middle of a pandemic — but this impressive show will go on.

 

—George O’Brien

COVID-19 Features

A Week’s Worth of Happiness at Work

By Pam Victor

“Good grief, woman. How can we think about happiness at a time like this?”

That’s what you must be thinking, and as a professional improv comedian and happiness coach, I’ve been asked variations of this question a lot lately.

And it’s a totally valid query. With restructuring, layoffs, kids schooling at home, and a worsening pandemic, we’re all being stressed and stretched to our limits. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much relief ahead any time soon.

Pam Victor

Pam Victor

How can we think about happiness at a time like this? My response is: how can we not? Improv trains me to continually jump into the unknown and to keep moving forward together with as much joy and ease and play and laughter as I can possibly cobble together. After all, what’s the other option? (I tried hiding under my covers for a while. It’s not a financially sustainable practice.)

Establishing happiness practices at work provides much-needed mental healthcare and resilience support for your teams. Because we’re collectively experiencing a marathon of stress, anxiety, and unpredictable change, with an unsettling amount of unknown ahead, prioritizing happiness at work is more than just a goofy team-building exercise.

According to research findings conducted by Julia K. Boehm and Sonja Lyubomirsky published in the​ Journal of Career Assessment,​ “happy people are more satisfied with their jobs and report having greater autonomy in their duties. They perform better on assigned tasks than their less-happy peers and are more likely to take on extra role tasks, such as helping others. They receive more social support from their co-workers and tend to use more cooperative approaches when interacting with others. Happy people are less likely to exhibit withdrawal behaviors, such as absenteeism … happy people enjoy greater workplace success, and engage in more behaviors paralleling success, than do less-happy people.”

The good news is that happiness also feels great. The even better news is that it doesn’t take much to stimulate significant well-being benefits. Whether you’re remote or at the office, here are a week’s worth of simple but profound happiness practices to bring some more joy, ease, and laughter to your workplace:

Meditation Mondays​: Start the week off with a shared, guided 10-minute meditation. Apps like Insight Timer, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and YouTube provide a plethora of styles of meditation that start the week off with shared focus, grounding, positivity, and stress relief.

Treat-yourself Tuesdays​: Encourage employees to plan one experience of special self-care each week, such as picking up a favorite beverage from a coffeehouse they’ve been missing, a delicious dessert, an extra hour of sleep, a warm bath, or sitting in the sun during lunch hour. Generate ideas and support by inviting folks to share their treat-yourself treats on a Slack channel, e-mail thread, or during a weekly meeting.

Walking Wednesdays​: Everyone takes a 10- to 20-minute walk after lunch each week. This two-for-one happiness practice delivers both exercise and time in nature, both proven to benefit well-being. Make it a shared walk — either virtual or in-person — and now you’ve added in a third happiness enhancer: personal connection.

Thank-you Thursdays​: Each person sends a note of thanks to someone else on the team who brought them joy or ease over the course of the last week. Leadership can model the power of gratitude by incorporating regular, heartfelt thank-yous into every meeting in order to make it part of the company culture. Thank-yous could be public on a #ThankYouThursday Slack channel or private e-mails. To make it even more special, gift employees with a stack of company-branded thank-you notes to send actual handwritten thank-you notes, old-school style.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful happiness practices around. A regular gratitude practice is associated with improved mental and physical health, increased resilience, and stronger relationships. Other research has shown that managers who thank their team may result in employees feeling more motivated to work harder.

Friday Freshen Up​: In this simple but powerful practice, the team spends 10 minutes straightening up their work space at the beginning of the work day on Fridays. It’s astounding how impactful these 10-minute tidying sessions can be after a few weeks. It helps individuals start the day with an accomplishment, and it’s delightful to be greeted on Monday with a neater workspace. Add in some extra joy by playing 10 minutes of motivating, toe-tapping tunes (either in person or via Zoom) in order to make it a team-bonding experience.

It’s a common practice for improv comedians to tell their teammates, “I’ve got your back” before a show. At this challenging time, your team needs all the extra support they can get. By demonstrating the value of happiness at work, you’re showing the team you have their backs … and inviting them to bring their whole selves to their work.

 

Pam Victor is ‘head of happiness’ (president and founder) of Happier Valley Comedy; [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Growing a Job Market

By Mark Morris

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center was developed to train people for the hundreds of jobs being created in the industry locally.

When a new industry in Massachusetts reaches $1 billion in sales in only four years, it certainly gets people’s attention.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) recently announced that, four years after legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, and only two years after the first retail shops opened, this relatively new industry surpassed that $1 billion mark on Oct. 30.

“There are a lot of jobs that go along with a billion dollars in industry activity,” said Jeff Hayden, vice president for Business and Community Services at the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

Shortly after cannabis was legalized in the state, Hayden spoke with advocacy groups and business leaders in the industry, which led to establishing the Cannabis Education Center at HCC to provide training for in-demand occupations in the burgeoning industry.

“Our focus wasn’t on the product itself; we wanted to identify the occupations that make the most sense so we can train people for those jobs,” Hayden said.

After completing a core course to familiarize students with the cannabis industry, more concentrated training is available in four career tracks:

• Patient-service associates work behind the counter at a cannabis dispensary, interact with the public, answer technical questions, and provide information to registered cannabis patients, as well as recreational customers;

• Culinary assistants prepare cannabis-infused products such as gummy candies and baked goods infused with cannabis;

• Extraction technicians work in a lab assisting production managers in extraction, purging, oil manipulation, and quality control of cannabis products; and

• Cultivation assistants provide daily care of the crops from seed to harvest.

“Because HCC offers courses in business and customer service, culinary, chemistry, and agriculture, the career tracks for cannabis training line up well with the expertise the college already has,” said Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, who worked with instructors to set up the cannabis course offerings.

As a community college, HCC doesn’t allow cannabis or associated products on campus. That means classroom instruction might involve using computer simulations to show chemical reactions, for example. When a physical demonstration is needed, legally approved items like hemp plants are used in class.

“While we will not have cannabis or related products on campus, we will still do the job education has always done: share with our students the best knowledge we can provide and the best examples,” Hayden said, noting that students can get actual hands-on experience when they land internships or get placed in a job.

He added that the courses are designed to provide an entry-level workforce for the cannabis industry. Wages are usually comparable and sometimes slightly higher than other industries at entry level.

“Even more important than landing that first job is the ability to make a career out of cannabis, because the levels of compensation can be significant,” he told BusinessWest.

Whether a person is looking for an entry-level job or a second career, Cabral said cannabis can be a “phenomenal career track” for people who have never considered it before.

For example, someone with a sales background could train as a patient-services associate training to build on the skills they already have. Or someone with a science background and wants to work in a lab could train as an extraction technician to learn about cannabis-infused products such as skin creams and shampoos.

“This person with science and lab training would find an entire industry that is exploding, where they could have an amazing career,” she said. “Who knows? They could come in at entry level and work their way up to be the head of the lab.”

There’s much more to the industry than rolling a joint, Cabral continued, noting that cannabis-infused shampoos and skin creams are only two examples of the many different items that appeal to the general public. “These products are extremely clean, closely regulated, and environmentally sustainable. It’s not just about getting high.”

 

Elevating an Industry

Elevate Northeast, a nonprofit workforce-training and cannabis-advocacy group has partnered with HCC on career-training programs at the Cannabis Education Center.

Beth Waterfall, founder and executive director of Elevate Northeast, said the program at HCC is designed to help people become familiar and comfortable with the industry. “The coursework helps people see that this is real. There’s a place for their interests and their skills.”

Elevate Northeast’s main mission is to provide opportunities for people who have been marginalized or were disproportionately harmed by previous marijuana prohibitions. The CCC administers a Social Equity Program to provide assistance and training to encourage those impacted by the ‘war on drugs’ to pursue careers as workers or entrepreneurs in the cannabis field.

Waterfall said righting past wrongs is one of the mandates of the CCC. The Certified Economic Empowerment application process is a way to encourage people from neighborhoods and communities that suffered from the impact of the war on drugs to seek licenses to open cannabis microbusinesses. She added that establishing microbusinesses also prevents larger companies from dominating the cannabis market.

“I’m excited about the cannabis industry because, through programs like social equity and economic empowerment, Massachusetts has an opportunity to be a leader in business ownership by people of color and women,” she said.

Waterfall called HCC’s Cannabis Education Center a “wonderful” way to provide people with both an initial exposure and a deep dive into the cannabis industry, as well as helping people understand how they may fit into it. “Who knows? This exposure may encourage them to someday own their own business.”

While retail cannabis operations have launched in many Western Mass. communities, the city of Holyoke has been most active, currently boasting four dispensaries, with at least two more scheduled to open in 2021. Based on workplace needs identified by these companies, the job market for cannabis looks to be healthy through 2021.

“By rough estimate, I anticipate, within the coming year, we will have 400 to 500 workers in the cannabis industry, just in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Because Western Mass. offers both skilled workers and cheaper land compared to the eastern part of the state, Waterfall sees real growth potential and cited Holyoke as quickly becoming a center of cannabis commerce. “The city needed innovation and needed jobs. Cannabis is doing that very effectively in Holyoke.”

Such strong demand for talent would normally be an opportunity for career centers like MassHire to be involved. That’s not the case, however; David Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, noted that his organization receives most of its funding from the federal government, which has not recognized cannabis as a legal substance.

“Until laws change at the federal level, we cannot be actively engaged in getting involved with job seekers in the cannabis industry,” Cruise said. While he is aware of the increase in local job opportunities in the industry, MassHire will be taking a hands-off approach to cannabis employment.

That presents a stark opportunity for HCC’s programs. In her conversations with cannabis-industry employers, Cabral found they are looking for workers who represent the diversity of their customers. One dispensary owner said clients can range from a 40-year-old woman craving a good night’s sleep to a younger person looking for a recreational product.

“The people who use the products are as diverse as the population in general, so that’s who we want to train, and that’s who the employers want to hire,” she said.

During training, Cabral reminds her students that success means following basics like showing up on time with a good attitude, effectively communicating with the management team, and putting their cell phones away. “These are real careers in real businesses that are trying to make money, so come ready to work.”

Hayden echoes that point and noted that, while it’s not surprising for someone who has an interest in cannabis to work in the industry, employers will expect them to put in an honest effort and have an open mind to learn more and grow. He also advised they pay attention to the little things that can make a big difference.

“One employer told me, he chooses his customer-service people by whether or not they walk into the room with a smile.”

 

Cultivating an Ecosystem

While the cannabis industry offers many career pathways, Hayden said it’s easy to forget about all the traditional back-of-house functions such as accounting, marketing, and data analytics that companies need on top of the industry-specific positions.

While it’s called the cannabis industry, Waterfall added, it’s really more of an ecosystem that encourages people to bring their diverse skills to it.

“While I run a nonprofit, I pay my bills by consulting with cannabis companies on marketing communications and business development,” she said, noting that she started out doing similar work, except her clients were lawyers and accounting firms.

While COVID-19 has made it difficult to get a clear sense of job growth, Hayden said the industry is just getting off the ground and still promises a strong growth trajectory.

“Like any industry, there will be ups and downs,” he added, “but the projections post-COVID are suggesting we could hit a billion dollars a year in a short period of time.”

That kind of success helps overcome some of the stigma of cannabis use, which Waterfall admits can be very strong, whether coming from family or community. While she has been educating her own family, some are still not comfortable with cannabis use.

“Then I hear from someone who tried an infused gummy and has never slept so well, or the person who told me she drinks a CBD tincture in the morning, and it makes her a better mom.”

Anecdotes like those help debunk the stereotypes and stigmas about who uses cannabis, and why. Cabral hopes more people come to understand this is a serious industry with products that can be helpful to a wide range of customers. As such, cannabis needs a committed workforce that also takes itself seriously and moves past old stereotypes.

“Jobs in this field can be extremely technical,” she said. “It’s not just go listen to Bob Marley and have a party.”

Law

An Employment-law Forecast

By Andrew J. Adams, Esq.

On the heels of a fiercely contested election, President-elect Joe Biden has started his transition work, and has laid out plans that have the potential to affect business owners nationwide.

As expected, many these changes lean in favor of the employee as opposed to the employer. However, some plans should assist small businesses. While it’s difficult to predict the future, we can make some solid projections about what employers can expect from the Biden administration.

 

Workplace Safety and OSHA

Andrew J. Adams

Andrew J. Adams

The most immediate effect upon employers is likely to be a push by the Biden administration to enact emergency standards requiring employers to develop workplace-safety plans in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the current administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) performed the lowest number of inspections in the history of the agency and reduced the number of inspectors on staff to the lowest level in the past 40 years.

Biden will immediately address these policies, leading to increased inspections and enforcement, as was the case under the Obama administration. This means employers will likely face harsher penalties for non-compliance and more substantial fines than they have over the past four years.

Employers are also likely to encounter the return of the Obama administration’s workplace-safety reporting rule. This would require certain employers to report illness and injury information to OSHA, which will then be maintained online as publicly available information.

 

Wage-and-hour Law

President-elect Biden’s campaign has stated he will seek to address wage inequalities between black and white workers, make it easier for workers to pursue claims of discrimination, and push for a higher minimum wage. The administration would increase the funding allotted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency tasked with enforcing employment-discrimination laws.

“The most immediate effect upon employers is likely to be a push by the Biden administration to enact emergency standards requiring employers to develop workplace-safety plans in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In what is likely to be an immediate change, Biden is expected to rescind President Trump’s executive order banning training for federal agencies and contractors that contained “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.” The executive order banned training on several topics and recommended keyword searches for terms such as “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” and “unconscious bias” to identify if trainings were inappropriate under the order.

Employers can also expect a push at the federal level for a $15 minimum wage; during his campaign, Biden called for an increase to a $15 minimum wage by 2026. Another likely outcome is an increase in enforcement and compliance actions against employers for wage-and-hour violations, alongside enhanced penalties.

In a follow-up to the first piece of legislation enacted by the Obama-Biden administration (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), Biden will also prioritize ending paycheck discrimination, evidenced by his strong support of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would amend federal equal-pay laws to require “a bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training, or experience” in awarding different pay to men or women doing the same or similar work; protect workers from retaliation for discussing wages; and ban the use of salary history in the hiring process.

As an aside, Biden also supports federal legislation that would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for employees for their own or a family member’s serious health condition.

 

Small Businesses

Biden plans to restructure the existing Paycheck Protection Program by adding oversight and an approval guarantee for eligible businesses with 50 or fewer employees. The plan also calls for measures to increase small-business access to capital through an initiative called the Small Business Opportunity Fund.

 

Immigration

The president-elect has proposed a 180-degree turn from the current administration’s policies when it comes to immigration. The Biden plan would call for easing legal immigration into the U.S., including a pathway to citizenship for the large number of immigrants in the U.S. who lack legal permanent status, as well as some of those currently working illegally. Biden also proposes eliminating country-based caps on immigration and increasing the number of employment-based visas awarded each year, such as the H-1B, although those may come with stricter regulation.

 

Workplace Discrimination and Harassment

Biden supports the federal Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA), which was passed by the House in September, but has yet to be approved by the Senate. Under the PWFA, employers would be required to reasonably accommodate pregnant workers and employees with pregnancy-related conditions and would prohibit them from (1) requiring a qualified employee to accept an accommodation other than any reasonable accommodation arrived at through the interactive process; (2) denying employment opportunities to a qualified employee for the known limitations related to the pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions of a qualified employee; (3) requiring a qualified employee to take paid or unpaid leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided; and (4) taking adverse action in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment against a qualified employee on account of the employee requesting or using a reasonable accommodation.

The Biden-Harris agenda also includes support of the BE HEARD (Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace) Act, which would establish a national harassment-prevention task force and includes several mandates for covered employers, including mandatory non-discrimination training and limitations on the use of non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses in settlement agreements.

 

Federal Agencies

Employers will likely see a return to the pro-labor days of the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board, which is the agency that enforces U.S. labor law in relation to collective bargaining and suspected unfair labor practices. President-elect Biden will take office and have the ability to shift the board to Democratic control within the first year of his taking office.

In addition, the administration has affirmed a strong support for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a substantial piece of legislation that would provide sweeping reforms, including the imposition of substantial financial penalties on companies that violate labor laws. The Biden-Harris campaign page also promises to “go beyond the PRO Act by enacting legislation to impose even stiffer penalties on corporations and to hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional.”

All in all, employers should be ready for much more employee-friendly changes over the course of the next four (or eight) years.

 

Andrew Adams is an attorney at the law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]