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Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento say the pandemic has increased people’s anxiety — and the need for self-care.

Stephanie Nascimento and Jeanette Wilburn have long explored the connections between physical and emotional health at their decade-old practice, Be Vital Wellness. These days, they say, with so much anxiety gripping Americans, it’s more critical than ever to understand those connections.

“Obviously, mental illness has always been a crisis, but it’s at an all-time high now,” Nascimento said. “We spend a lot of time digging with our clients. They don’t always walk in the door and say, ‘I’m depressed.’”

In fact, the Hadley-based business began as a weight-loss and nutrition enterprise, and that’s still a major part of it. But Wilburn said it’s gratifying when clients begin to understand how their choices and circumstances affect them in ways they’ve never considered.

“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re depressed; they don’t know they’re anxious,” she explained. “They just know that they can’t fall asleep, or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of people call it ‘busy brain,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually anxiety. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

The problem is, almost a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on physical and mental health, relationships, and finances, has only cranked the wheel faster, and too many people are coping with unhealthy habits like overeating and alcohol abuse.

“ I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

“Those bad habits were there before COVID — then the pandemic arrived,” Nascimento said. “There’s so much fear, not to mention people’s whole lives are changing. Kids are home from school, parents are trying to be teachers while also working and managing Zoom calls … there’s been a lot of stress on families. We’ve had clients who were managing well, but are now struggling to maintain good habits.”

Kristy Navarro, clinical supervisor for BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA, said the causes of increased anxiety are easy to understand.

“A lot of it is the stress people are going through financially. People have had to close down businesses they owned and lost all their income. So that produces this feeling of anxiety — ‘where am I going to get the money to pay my bills? How am I going to stay in my house? I wasn’t in debt, and now I am, so how am I going to do this?’”

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say the first step to dealing with anxiety and mental-health stresses is talking about them.

“It can be physical — the shaking, the heart pounding, sweating. It can look like avoidance — maybe not checking your mail or not going outside. It’s not just being worried, but genuine fear. Fear and feeling worried are two different things.”

Dr. Mark Kenton says healthcare workers have been feeling anxious, to varying degrees, since the start of the pandemic.

“The anxiety, depression, and worry all got heightened,” he said, especially in the early days last winter, when so little was known about coronavirus, and news media reported on soaring death counts in places like New York City. “It made you think, ‘if I get this, am I going to die?’ You think of the worst-case scenario. Healthcare providers had that anxiety, and a lot of us had to find ways to get through.”

These days, as the pandemic wears on, Kenton, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, still worries about such issues — and not just for providers.

“I’m definitely worried about healthcare providers getting exhausted or getting sick, but also the mental health of patients, and especially the mental health of children who have to do this remote schooling for a year and a half. What is the actual impact on children going forward?”

It’s a question being asked across the U.S., and it has no one-size-fits-all answer. But the overwhelming sentiment BusinessWest heard from health and wellness experts in the region is this: help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

Navarro said much of the anxiety and depression related to the pandemic has to do with isolation — and not just physical isolation.

“We’re asking people to physically isolate,” Navarro said. “What’s more concerning is when we emotionally disconnect from people — the inability to reach out, or to get the support we need when we feel we need it.”

Kenton agreed. “Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element. We have elderly people who have been completely isolated and haven’t seen loved ones since March.”

It doesn’t help that many things people like to do to escape from their troubles — and get some exercise — have been eliminated or limited.

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element.”

“They gain weight, they don’t eat well, they get depressed or drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “We already have difficult winters in the Northeast, between the snow and the cold; we can’t do much of anything, and now we’re completely isolated at home. We can’t even take a trip to Florida with the family for a week to get away from the cold weather.”

That said, many activities are still possible, Navarro said.

“What is it you like to do? If we’re able to continue to do those things that we enjoy doing, we can feel better,” she explained. “And also, what in this situation can you control? We know that COVID is out of our control. So, what is it that you can control in that context? Maybe the only thing you can control is wearing your mask outside and not being around other people. So control that piece, and have ownership over what you are able to do.”

Alane Burgess, clinic director at BestLife, tells clients to take some time every single day — even if it’s just 10 minutes, although 30 minutes would be better — to “relax and rejuvenate.”

“That means, allow yourself to take that step back from everything that’s going on — all the fears, the worries, and the anxieties — and do something that makes you feel really good about yourself. Maybe it’s a hobby or activity, or doing a teleconference with a family member or a loved one or somebody who is really going to make you feel good about yourself. That way, you can focus on the good feelings that some people are losing in the midst of the isolation and all the things in our lives that we can’t control.”

Wilburn promotes mindfulness, meditation, healthy eating, and a host of other ways in which people have the power to change their health and mindset — and, again, she’s a believer in the two being intertwined holistically. At a time when the world presents so many reasons to be anxious — and, if you read the news these days, it’s not just COVID-19 — she wants to teach people self-care.

“We don’t know about that as Americans,” Nascimento added. “Or we think it’s selfish. ‘Push harder, push harder, don’t take vacations.’ We’re teaching people you can work hard, but your play should be self-care — taking a long walk, getting body work done, taking five minutes to meditate.”

It’s important, Wilburn noted, because, even in better times, Americans too often live in fight-or-flight mode.

“Our nervous systems think we’re running away from a tiger, which means we’re not properly digesting our food, our heart rate doesn’t come down, and we’re not sleeping as well, because if you’re running away from a tiger, why would you be sleeping?”

She and Nascimento say people need to be educated on why it’s important to step back and take time for their own needs — but they also often need permission, especially men, who are quicker than women to dismiss the need for self-care. They’ll find that encouragement at Be Vital Wellness.

“They think, ‘I’m tough; I just need to tough this out,’” Wilburn said. “Women are better at it, but everyone needs permission.”

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While mental-health concerns have certainly been at the forefront lately, Kenton said it’s also important not to neglect physical health, especially when symptoms of serious problems arise.

“Looking back to March and April, we shut everything down and told patients that, unless they absolutely need to be in the Emergency Department, do not come,” he explained, noting that many patients use the ER as primary care because they lack a primary-care provider or health insurance. “We saw the wave in New York, then Boston, and we didn’t know what we were in for, so the message was, don’t come to the ER unless you’re sick.”

It worked — Mercy’s ER traffic fell from a daily average of around 225 to 110, with a low point of 72. And that caused concerns of a different kind.

“Before long, we were all wondering, where did the appendicitis go? Where did the heart attacks go? We started to worry that patients with symptoms were staying home, or coming in after four days of symptoms, and by then it’s really bad.”

By summer, ER volumes gradually rose again, but many patients still feared coming to the hospital — and still do — despite the safety measures in place to separate COVID-19 patients from those who have not been exposed. With elective surgeries being curtailed again and patients having trouble seeing their primary-care doctors in person — though telehealth is better than nothing — “there are a lot of challenges for patients trying to navigate the healthcare system right now,” Kenton said.

The challenges for kids and teenagers, on the other hand, have resided almost completely in the realm of mental and emotional health.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact on children,” Navarro said. “I’ve heard a lot of parents say to me, ‘my child is failing all their classes. They can’t concentrate.’ I’ve had children I work with talk about how there’s just too much, there’s not a break, there’s not a way to leave a home that maybe is having some turmoil — not being able to get a break from all that. They’re not going to school and having any socialization with friends. Yes, they see them through Zoom, but they’re not able to have those close conversations, the play time, those moments of friendship.”

One key, she said, is to keep kids connected, somehow, to other people, even if it’s just family, and don’t let them suffer in silence.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘talk to them. Have those conversations. Talk to them about what is going on, how they can cope with their feelings in an age-appropriate way.’”

For anyone struggling in any way — adults or children — it can be helpful to seek professional help. “Even with the smallest amount of anxiety, it does not hurt to talk to someone, whether it’s a professional or a friend or family member you trust,” Navarro said. “To talk about our feelings helps us gain control over them. Just talk to someone.”

MHA launched a program a couple of years ago called “Start Talking,” which promoted the importance of starting a conversation on mental-health concerns.

“Sometimes, when we just start talking to someone we trust — or, for some people, it may be a stranger they feel most comfortable talking to — when we start having a dialogue, we see how many things start coming up,” Burgess said, adding that holding these feelings in often causes them to fester and build, compounding anxiety and depression in the long run.

“People ask every day, ‘how are you?’” Navarro noted. “But when do you actually have the opportunity to tell someone how you really are? What do we usually say? ‘I’m good. Things are fine.’ But are they really?”

Most people have no problem talking about their physical pain — an aching back, for example — but feel stigmatized when it comes to discussing their emotional wellness, Burgess added. But if there was ever a time to push past that barrier, the era of COVID-19 is it.

“Every single person in the world is being impacted by this on some level. This is something we’re all collaboratively experiencing and going through — at different degrees for different people, of course. So, how do we manage a continuation of something many of us thought would end in April?”

Talking about it, she said, is a good place to begin.

With social-distancing regulations in place, telehealth has been a tremendous help for providers and clients in her field, she added, as it has helped clients continue critical conversations. One patient even kept an appointment while on vacation in Aruba because she didn’t want to miss one.

“I’m grateful for the ability to provide services this way,” Navarro added. “If we weren’t, it would be a very difficult world.”

 

Journey to Wellness

Many clients at Be Vital Wellness are folks who deal with crisis every day — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, EMTs — and who have grappled with their own rising anxiety and depression during an unprecedented year.

“PTSD is definitely a thing for anyone in crisis care. They often don’t realize there are other options besides pharmaceuticals, and that they can increase their quality of life, decrease their stress, and decrease their anxiety,” Wilburn said, although she and Nascimento encourage clients to see their primary-care doctors regularly too, as part of a network of treatment.

“I feel like, in America, most people have depression or anxiety or both, and COVID has only upped the ante on all those things,” Wilburn noted. “People who previously didn’t struggle with those things are struggling with those things. I just saw a woman this morning — she’s dealing with severe depression, and we’re talking about getting into therapy.

“We’re not a one-stop shop,” she added. “People come to us and say, ‘help me with my weight loss,’ but then they realize there are a lot of other things they can get support around, and it becomes truly wellness.”

In this unsettled time, that’s a goal worth striving for — and talking about.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

They’re Still Goal-oriented

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Michael Rouette says he keeps a copy of the 36-year-old news story in his office. He’ll take it out and read it on occasion, and will proudly show it others, usually without much prompting.

“Moriarty-Rouette Team Buys Ticket to Finals” is the headline over that item in the Palmer Journal Register from November 1984, which goes on to note how goals by Rouette, then a junior, and Dan Moriarty, a freshman, along with a “tenacious defense,” propelled the Monson High School soccer team to a 2-1 win over Monument Mountain, giving the Mustangs, as that headline noted, a ticket to the regional finals in Chicopee a few days later.

Today, the Moriarty-Rouette team is still focused on goals, but now as president and executive vice president and chief operating officer (a new position), respectively, at Monson Savings Bank. They are the leaders writing the next chapter in the bank’s history after the retirement of long-term president Steve Lowell.

As the two talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, just weeks before Moriarty was to add the title CEO to his business card (Lowell is still acting in that capacity until mid-February), they talked often about their time on various fields together — they were both three-sport stars — and made frequent use of sports terms and phrases.

Indeed, when talking about the transition in leadership at the top and work to make it seamless, Moriarty said he will try to act as a good referee would — “you don’t know he’s on the field during the game.” And the two of them made early and very frequent references to the importance of teamwork at this (and any) institution.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the pandemic and this transition in leadership, both said there is no playbook for a such a challenging passing of the baton, so they will essentially write their own.

“We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance.”

“As far as meeting with customers and being out in the community more, Mike and I haven’t had the opportunity to really do that, for safety reasons,” Moriarty said. “And that makes things more difficult, but we’re adjusting and preparing for that day when this is over.”

As for that article, both men say it conveys more than coincidence that two high-school soccer teammates, now in their 50s, are leading the bank headquartered in the town where they grew up. Much more. They say it conveys other ‘C’ words, including commitment to the community and continuity.

“That article reminds me of who we are and where we’re from, and not to ever forget that,” Rouette said. “But it also speaks to how we’ve grown as individuals, as friends, as co-workers, as partners, and as leaders. That article symbolizes how our lives have changed but really haven’t changed, and how success can be built on people who have the same vision, the same mindset, and the same family values.”

Moriarty concurred. “We’ve known each other for so long, but the values are the same, even though we’re a long way from the soccer field. “We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance; we try to bring that culture to the bank and to our employees, and we try to lead by example. But we also understand that each individual in the bank is a contributor, and we want them to be part of the team and the success of the bank. We did that before we became leaders of the bank, and we’re just going to continue that and build on that culture of teamwork.”

The two take on their new roles at an intriguing time for the bank — and all banks. The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities — certainly more of the former than the latter, and made some aspects of being a bank leader more difficult. Meanwhile, there is immense competition in a region described by most in the industry as ‘overbanked.’

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, was opened at the height of the pandemic last year, but it is nonetheless off to a solid start.

Both Moriarity and Rouette said that Monson Savings, now with more than $508 million in assets, has been on a steady growth trajectory and they are committed to moving the bank toward further expansion, geographically and otherwise.

 

They’re on the Ball

As noted earlier, Moriarty and Rouette were both three-sport athletes. While most noted for their exploits on their soccer field — both would go to play in college; Moriarty at Providence College and Rouette at Old Dominion — they were also teammates in baseball and basketball.

And as they recalled those days, they often leaned on some self-deprecating humor to make their points.

Indeed, when discussing their time as starting guards (and captains) on the hardwood, they made it clear they were not exactly go-to options when the Mustangs were looking for points.

“I was the point guard, and I couldn’t shoot,” said Moriarty, as he looked at Rouette, who nodded energetically, but said his front-court mate was ultimately the better alternative.

“I was pretty fast … I could steal the ball, but I could only dribble left-handed,” Rouette recalled. “I would have a breakaway, and our coach, Bill Devine, would essentially tell me to stop, hand the ball to Moriarty, and let him shoot it, because it would be like throwing a brick against the backboard when I let it go. I couldn’t put the ball in the ocean.”

Despite those references, the two were much-heralded for their exploits on various fields, and for their work together, even if it was only for two years.

Indeed, while Moriarty continued to make headlines at Monson High in the mid-’80s, Rouette was playing soccer at Old Dominion, majoring in Economics, and, when home from school in the summer and winter, working as a teller at Monson Savings Bank. During those short stints, he impressed those at the bank enough to get a job offer of sorts — specifically an invitation to become part of the lending team when he graduated.

“When I was a junior at Old Dominion, I already knew where I was heading,” he said, adding that he did join the bank and has been there ever since.

Moriarty, who would take a far more circuitous route to his hometown bank, has memories of seeing Rouette heading for a work in a suit while he was toiling for the town’s Highway Department while he was home from college for the summer. “It’s 95 degrees out, Michael’s going to work in a tie, and I’m thinking, ‘I want to work in air conditioning.’”

He would, first at Coopers & Lybrand in Hartford, and later at Aetna, HealthSouth, and then Unicare.

“But the attraction to Monson Savings was always in the back of my mind,” he recalled, adding that, during some conversations with Rouette, he brought up the possibility of joining the bank, and eventually did so in 1998 as an accounting manager.

The two have risen in the ranks over the years, with Rouette rising to senior vice president and chief lending officer, and Moriarty eventually climbing to senior vice president and chief financial officer in 2011.

When Lowell announced his intentions to retire not quite a year ago, both men sought to succeed him as president and CEO. Those titles would eventually go to Moriarty, but the two essentially form a new leadership team, one that brings complementary strengths and shared values.

Moriarty noted that, through his career at the bank, he’s been focused on the finance side of the equation, while Rouette has concentrated on lending and customer relationships, and, in his new role, will add retail to his list of responsibilities.

“Mike is very customer-focused, while I have somewhat different responsibilities — strategy, human resources, finance, marketing, compliance, and technology,” said Moriarty. “I think the bank is positioned to use our strengths in a proper way.”

 

Net Results

All this prompts more flashbacks, and the inevitable analogies, to 1984 and that soccer semifinal against Monument Mountain, where Moriarty notched the first goal of the game, and Rouette, then the all-time scoring leader for the Mustangs, recorded the game clincher.

As for the finals game … that did not go as well — a loss to an undefeated Wahconah team that still stings three and half decades later. (Moriarty wasn’t able to play in that contest due to a broken ankle he suffered in the semifinal.)

But while they do like to look back, Moriarty and Rouette are obviously far more focused on the present and the future.

As for the former, that means everything from coping with the many aspects of COVID-19 to growing the bank’s latest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, which opened last summer, in the middle of the pandemic.

That timing wasn’t perfect — many branch lobbies were still closed — but the new facility is off to a solid start.

“We had a good core group of customers in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow,” Moriarty said. “We transitioned them internally to the East Longmeadow branch, so we had a good start, and we’re looking to have that branch in a good position in a shorter period than you normally would in a new market.”

As for the pandemic itself, it’s been a time for the bank to play to its strengths — yes, that’s still another sports phrase — and use its focus on customer service to not only take care of (and retain) existing customers, but also gain some new ones. This has been the case on all fronts, but especially with the commercial lending portfolio and the bank’s strong track record handling applications for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans.

“We basically got out in front of it,” said Rouette as he explained the bank’s basic strategy with the PPP program and its commercial customers in general. “We knew that that they [customers] couldn’t be chasing us. We had a great team effort to reach out to all our business customers; we said, ‘we know there’s an issue, we know PPP is coming down the road, and when the spigot opens, we’ll be there for you.’ And we did it.

“People needed to hear your voice,” he went on, adding that every commercial customer was called in an effort to gauge their needs and concerns and update them on the status of their application. “And that calmed people, that they weren’t on voice mail or weren’t able to get through.”

This high level of customer service enabled the bank to handle PPP loans for non-customers, gains that both Moriarty and Rouette chalked up to word-of-mouth referrals that should have some long-term benefits for the institution as a new round of the program begins later this month.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator between their soccer squad from the ‘80s and the staff at Monson Savings — the importance of solid teamwork.

Looking back, and ahead, Moriarty said he was mentored by his two immediate predecessors, Lowell and Roland Desrochers, and he understands what has made the bank successful — especially its employees and community-bank look, feel, and operating values — and has no intention of altering the game plan.

“The vision for the bank is to continue to be the community bank that these communities need,” he told BusinessWest. “From a business side, commercial customers as well as retail customers, we want to stay competitive in our delivery systems — digital, mobile … we can have people bank with us from Monson to the Cape and into Connecticut. We want to be relevant in the communities we serve for not just today, but for years to come.

“The culture will remain the same,” he went on. “And we’re just going to leverage the talent we have inside the bank.”

Meanwhile, both men intend to continue their active involvement in the community, which mirrors the work of Lowell, Desrochers, and others that came before them. This work comes in many forms, with Moriarty devoting time and energy to several groups, including the East of the River Chamber of Commerce (he’s a board member), the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Brightside Golf Classic, and Monson High School, where he’s the assistant varsity soccer coach.

As for Rouette, he is similarly involved, but focuses most of his time on the YMCA of Greater Springfield, with which the bank has long enjoyed close ties. “Everyone has a passion, and that’s mine,” he said, adding that he’s been a long-time board member and supporter on many levels.

 

Bottom Line

Summoning still another sports analogy of sorts, Moriarty said it is customary, at least with good teams, to look ahead, not back, when a season ends.

“Because it’s January, we say, ‘last season’s over … we finished December, we did well, but now it’s 0-0, and we’ve got a new season ahead of us,’” he noted, adding that, given the many variables confronting banks — and all businesses, for that matter — it’s impossible to know how this new season will go.

What these two do know is that Monson Savings Bank will, as noted, continue to play to its strengths, honed over many years and under leaders that these two have learned from.

In short, there’s a winning formula at the bank, and their only real plans for the future are to continue using it.

 

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

 

Construction Special Coverage

Space Jam

By Mark Morris

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says he had to reschedule in-home jobs at the start of the pandemic until he could figure out how to do them safely.

For home builders in Western Mass., 2020 brought opportunity and challenge in equal measure.

For example, Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction, said 2020 was his best year based on the number of projects, but COVID-19 posed obstacles to nearly all facets of the job. In fact, when the pandemic first arrived, he rescheduled all his in-home projects until he could learn how to safely do those jobs.

“We were fortunate that we had several new construction projects that kept us working until we could figure out the right way to get our in-home jobs done,” Riley said.

Other home builders shared similar stories of adjusting to a new reality on the fly.

When many industries were mandated to stop working back in March, home builders were deemed an essential business by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. That was the right call, said Bill Laplante, president of Laplante Construction. “We had projects with critical work that needed to be completed so people, in some cases, could get back into their homes.”

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on.”

The builders who spoke with BusinessWest all construct new houses as well as additions and renovations to existing homes. On balance, they say, renovations and additions account for more business than new home construction.

“Most of the calls we get are from people who want to stay where they are, so many of them are looking to build additions or do a renovation,” said A.J. Crane, partner at A. Crane Construction.

Of course, staying put became nearly universal as COVID-19 mandates resulted in many people working from home. Even those who continued to work at their place of business found themselves at home more often because so many recreational activities and destinations had been curtailed or shut down.

And that posed opportunity for builders. As Laplante observed, the more time people spend at home, the more looking around they do. “They start thinking about adding a room or renovating part of the house to make their space more comfortable.”

In the age of COVID, that means builders must approach job sites differently than in the past. For starters, more people — both adults and children — are likely to be at home while the work is getting done. While workers follow screening protocols before going into the home and wear PPE once there, Laplante instructs his crews to isolate the work area from the residents as much as possible. That’s easy to do for additions and outside renovations, but some work is just more intrusive.

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on,” he said, adding that other projects were pushed off because customers were simply not yet comfortable with outside workers in their homes during the pandemic.

But enough homeowners were OK with their presence to generate a successful, if unusual, year for the home-building and renovation industry.

 

Slow-building Issues

Keeping work crews and homeowners safe was only one challenge builders faced due to COVID-19. In a normal year, the process of getting a permit for a new home or addition is fairly straightforward. Builders bring plans to the appropriate municipal office and pick up the permit a week or two later. As COVID-19 shifted city and town business to e-mails and Zoom calls, it delayed the permitting process — in some cases, for months.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop.”

Meanwhile, supply-chain shortages of common consumer goods such as toilet paper and cleaning products marked the early days of the pandemic. The manufacturing supply chain around the world was disrupted for many building products as well. Riley said appliances and electrical components such as circuit breakers were often delayed by as much as three or four months. As another example, Crane learned that window companies were having trouble getting glass.

“As a result, we were only getting three-fourths of the windows we ordered for a job,” he said. “This created a delay that frustrates the homeowner and puts a big dent into our profit margin.”

In short, COVID-19 kept people at home, they wanted to improve their space, creating high demand for building materials at a time when many manufacturers were already experiencing delays due to the coronavirus, resulting in shortages. And in the wake of those delays, price increases followed.

Andy Crane

Andy Crane says he wants to present a home show this year, but only if he can do so safely.

“We saw a 45% spike in the cost of building materials,” Laplante said. “That was difficult to deal with because we had jobs that were already under contract.”

Shortages of special-order or custom materials were no surprise to the builders, but everyday items were affected, too.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop,” Crane said.

While they acknowledge that delays, shortages, and price hikes will be here for the near term, all three builders are optimistic about 2021. Because mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, Riley does not expect a slowdown anytime soon. “For 2021, our company is operating full steam ahead for both new construction and remodeling projects.”

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office. I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

One challenge going forward, he noted, is finding property in Western Mass. to purchase at a reasonable price where he can make a profit on new construction.

For 2021, Laplante has plenty of new construction and renovation projects in the pipeline both in Western Mass. and on Cape Cod, where he recently opened a satellite office.

“We’ve always done work on the Cape, but this is the first year we made it official with an office,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity and opportunity there.”

Expanding to Cape Cod is a bet Laplante is willing to make because he believes that the pandemic has severely shifted consumer trends. As he sees it, the people who would have sought out exotic travel to places like Europe are now spending their money on their home or investing in a vacation home close to where they live.

 

On with the Show?

For 66 years, hundreds of home projects started with a tour of the Western Mass Home and Garden Show held in late March on the Big E fairgrounds. In 2020, the show was canceled for the first time in its history as the initial wave of COVID-19 swept across Massachusetts just before the event.

Will there be a show in 2021? Andrew Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, faces a common dilemma in this time of COVID-19: there is plenty of interest in holding the show, but no one knows if conditions will allow it to take place.

“When things clear up and people can safely go out and stay healthy, we will run a home show, and not until then,” he said. At the same time, his organization, which runs the home show, has nearly sold out all available booths.

“We don’t even have dates for when the home show will happen, but I sold two booths this week,” Crane said, noting that his members are involved in nearly all areas of home improvements. As most of them had success in 2020, they would like to keep the momentum going this year.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says the more time people spend at home, the more they think about how to improve their homes.

When BusinessWest spoke with vendors in preparation for last year’s event, several said a key strength of the home show was the opportunity for people and contractors to speak with each other, as well as the ability to see and touch the latest products in home improvements.

Plexiglass dividers, one-way aisles, and mandatory mask wearing are among the different ways Crane and his staff are looking to configure this year’s show. He doesn’t want a situation, however, in which a member pays for an expensive booth only to allow one person at a time to visit.

“That’s not fair to the vendor or the people attending the show,” he said. “It’s not even fair to the folks who just drop by a booth to take the candy.”

Because planning events is so difficult these days, Crane continues to move forward in planning the home show, but understands that nothing is certain. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know if it’s a freight train or if it’s the vaccine coming to solve our problems.”

Even with an effective vaccination rollout, Laplante predicts the home-building industry will continue to thrive locally. In addition to new construction, he has several whole-house renovations in the works — projects in which an existing house is torn down and a new one is built on the same lot. With many projects in the pipeline, Laplante believes people have changed their behavior long-term, and the home will continue to be a focal point long after COVID-19 is under control.

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office,” he said. “I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 48: Jan. 18, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council

Rick Sullivan

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. The two discuss the state of the economy and the outlook for the balance of 2021. The two also discuss the pandemic, its impact on the local business community, and the possibility that it might provide some opportunities for the region in terms of attracting new businesses — and new residents — who might view Western Mass. as a viable option to higher-cost urban centers like Boston and New York. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 47: Jan. 11, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Andy Yee, president of the Bean Restaurant Group

Andy Yee

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Andy Yee, president of the Bean Restaurant Group. The two discuss the ongoing plight of area restaurants as they battle the pandemic, ever-tighter restrictions on their operations, and the onset of winter. They also discuss the various forms of relief restaurants are receiving and whether they will be enough to help them withstand the many challenges they are facing. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Features Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

Over the years, Paul Mina says, the name over the door and on the stationery has changed many times — previous incarnations include Community Chest, Red Feather, and United Fund — but the basic mission of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) certainly hasn’t.

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same,” said Mina, who serves as administrator of both the United Way of Pioneer Valley and the United Way of Tri County in Framingham in an arrangement that speaks to the many fiscal challenges the organization has confronted in recent years and the need to consolidate and achieve economies of scale. “And that is, very simply, to improve the quality of life for people living in the Pioneer Valley area.”

As he talked with BusinessWest about this mission, on the occasion of the agency’s centennial (the actual birthday is Jan. 10), Mina was looking through some old news clippings, brochures, and assorted memorabilia that had been gathered to help with various efforts to mark this milestone. Together, these pieces help tell the story, he said, adding that the United Way has certainly evolved, as its name has, over the years.

But, as he noted, the underlying mission hasn’t.

“I look for a golden thread throughout the narrative,” he said as he thumbed through a large scrapbook and collections of news stories and promotional material. “And through all of that narrative, all of that archival material … the golden thread that links 1921 to 2021 is helping to improve people’s lives; that’s the endgame.

Paul Mina

Paul Mina

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same.”

“And it’s very significant to note that it was never about giving a handout — it was always about giving a helping hand — and to do it with as much dignity and respect as possible,” he continued. “Whether it’s 1921 or 2021, there are still people who need a helping hand so they can move from dependence to independence and self-sufficiency. That has been the goal, it is the goal, and it will always be the goal.”

 

It is somewhat fitting, said Mina, that the agency’s milestone celebration comes in the midst of a crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — because, while the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been there to serve those in need every month of every year since January 1921, it has always come forward and stepped up at especially challenging times to meet greater and often different needs.

With that, Mina offered some history lessons. During World War II, for example, the agency, historically linked very closely with the Red Cross, worked to provide a number of services to returning veterans, and in the case of the local chapter, there was a specific focus on helping to reunite families broken apart by the war, and then help them assimilate to a very changed landscape.

“There was a lot of upheaval back home,” he said. “The men were off fighting overseas, the women were in factory jobs … there was a very different kind of assimilation. When a lot of these men came home, their wives, who were basically homemakers prior to them leaving, many of them had good jobs and careers in factories. This wasn’t something that any of them were used to seeing.

“When the men came back, there was a great amount of adjustment that had to take place,” he went on. “The women had to go back to their previous domestic role because the men had to get their jobs back to go back to work. There was a lot of assimilating, and that’s when philanthropy really took off because, now that women had been outside the home, they were involved in many, many things they hadn’t been involved in before, charity being one of them.”

 

That’s just one example, he said, noting that the agency has stepped up during other periods of turbulence, change, and need, providing help with everything from administering the polio vaccine in the 1950s to supplying food to the many who needed it during the Great Depression.

Bringing things right up to the present, Mina noted that, in recent years, the agency has added new services and new ways to help those in need, with everything from prescription savings to financial-literacy efforts to a Mass 211 hotline and its companion suicide-prevention ‘call-to-talk’ line.

And during this pandemic, UWPV, which serves Hampden County, Granby, and South Hadley, has continued that pattern of stepping up.

Indeed, it created a COVID-19 relief fund that including the awarding of grants to roughly 40 organizations, bringing a truckload of 5,000 hot meals to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, delivering another truckload of food-relief boxes (20 pounds per box) to the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club for distribution throughout the city, an initiative called Project Toybox that brought 15,000 new toys to affiliated agencies across the region for distribution to young people, and even a drive-up Halloween event at the TD Banknorth building in downtown Springfield, which served to fill a void left by formal and informal bans on trick-or-treating (more on some of these later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Mina about the many things being celebrated as this agency celebrates this milestone, and how the work being carried out during the pandemic is in many ways simply the latest chapter in a century-old story of meeting needs within the community.

 

Past Is Prologue

To emphasize his repeated points about how things have changed over the past century or so — and how they haven’t — Mina pulled a clipping from the pile he had collected, an advertisement of sorts for something called the ‘Charity Chest,’ and pointed to the date, 1918, and then the headline over the piece:

“Charity is not a pocket for the shiftless to dip into,” it read, with the subhead “Far from it. Charity is a long ways from being a lazy man’s paradise.”

Mina noted that this was a reference to how many looked upon those seeking help in those days. He also noted that the language regarding charitable efforts has long since changed, with those involved no longer making any references to the ‘shiftless’ or the ‘lazy,’ for obvious reasons.

But the rest of the ad could almost run today, he said, noting phrases like these with regard to charity: “Its prime function is to relieve distress. Always has been and always will be. Yet, while giving relief in deserving cases, it does far more than that.” And also: “Its main object is to prevent the cause, thereby vitally affecting you and me and everybody. Distress does not always mean poverty. It may mean misfortune, sickness, or the suffering of innocents from wrongdoing of others. All of these charity tries to prevent.”

Again, some of the language has obviously changed over the years, but those sentiments expressed back at the height of World War I are those that still define the United Way today. As Mina noted, it’s not a handout, but a helping hand, and it has been this way through a host of name changes, affiliations, and partnerships.

Tracing the history of all those names the agency has used, Mina said the organization got its start as the Springfield Community Chest. Later, it became the Springfield Community Chest Red Feather Drive (he still has a red feather mounted in a large frame), with the feather being a symbol of charitable giving for more than 150 years. In fact, he noted, the Red Cross and the Red Feather ran an annual appeal together, before the two organizations separated.

Later, the organization was known under the names United Appeal and United Fund, before United Way came into use in the late 1960s.

Regardless of the name on the door, the organization has been carrying out the same essential mission, said Mina, adding that the agency’s programmatic niche, if that’s the proper phrase for it, can be summed up with three simple words: basic human needs.

Elaborating, he said these include food, clothing, shelter, and programs for children and seniors. “These are the things we focus on for a reason, because these are the things that resonate with people. These are the things, whether people are black, white, no matter what ethnicity or color, people in need are in need. Period. That’s the way it’s always been here, and I’m proud to say that it continues to be that way.”

To put the mission and its importance in perspective, Mina rewound the tape on a phone call he received only a half-hour before he talked with BusinessWest from a woman now living in New Mexico after relocating from this region.

“We helped her and her family when they were very much in need about 10 years ago,” he said. “And she called me to say, ‘I don’t know if you remember me or not … but I’m so and so, and I moved from the Pioneer Valley down to New Mexico, and a friend of mine who still lives there needs a helping hand right now — she’s got it very tough, she’s unemployed. I told her that I would call you because I was treated so well by the United Way back then that I wanted her to know that there was someone they could call that would treat them with dignity and respect and do the best they can for you. They’re not going to promise you the moon, but they’ll do the best to help you.’

“That’s a nice compliment she paid us there,” he went on, “because that’s the goal; that’s the whole goal.”

 

Where There’s a Will …

Carrying out these goals has never been anything approaching easy, but in recent years, it has become much more difficult, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the way individuals undertake charitable giving has changed, with many now choosing to give directly to specific groups, rather than to larger umbrella agencies like the United Way that funnel money to other nonprofits, said Mina. Meanwhile, the business landscape has changed dramatically through mergers and consolidations, especially in the financial-services sector, and with many small, family businesses simply disappearing from the landscape.

Also, some major corporations have created their own charitable foundations or giving arms, as was the case with MassMutual in Springfield, which had long been one of the primary supporters of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, he said, noting that all these factors have contributed to making the organization itself much smaller — as well as the level of donations it makes annually. Indeed, while this was a $5 million United Way years ago, in terms of total donations, it is now closer to $2 million.

It was these challenges that prompted the UWPV board to explore a number of options when it came to creating efficiencies and reducing the cost of doing business, for lack of a better phrase, while still carrying out its mission. One of those options was a partnership with the United Way of Tri County whereby that agency would share an administrator and also handle backroom operations — bookkeeping, marketing, and others — for this region’s United Way for a percentage of the funds raised during its annual campaign.

The partnership, which came after several years of unsettledness at the UWPV, one that included two CEOs and two interim CEOs between 2016 and 2018, has brought what the board desired most — stability and continued autonomy.

Those qualities have been needed during a pandemic that has further tested the agency, forcing staff to work remotely for a lengthy stretch because its services were not deemed essential, and further impacting its ability to raise money because of the way it has impacted businesses and families alike.

Indeed, this 100th year for the UWPV has been very different, and also very challenging. Need within the communities has obviously increased, but raising funds to meet those needs has been made much more difficult during the pandemic, especially when it comes to the United Way’s time-honored, preferred method of soliciting donations — via payroll deduction.

“Many of the [annual] campaigns are going to be hurting this year because companies are not going back to work in the time frame we need them to,” Mina said earlier this year. “You can’t ask for people to make contributions through payroll deduction if they’re working, and it’s very hard to ask people for support when they themselves are hurting for the first time maybe in many years.

“We’ve found that a very significant number of people in the hospitality industry, restaurants, and food and beverage operations are only a shadow of what they once were,” he went on. “And some of them are never going to recover; a lot of support isn’t there.”

Yet, amid these challenges, the UWPV has found new and different ways to meet its mission during this difficult year, and new and different ways to remind people of the importance of its basic mission.

Through efforts ranging from the food-distribution efforts to the Halloween gathering, the agency was able to meet growing need within the community and address the many ways in which the pandemic impacted day-to-day living and overall quality of life.

Mina was especially proud of Project Toybox.

“It was a wonderful thing,” he said of that initiative. “A lot of the kids that live in the urban area don’t have a backyard, they couldn’t go to the park, they weren’t allowed to congregate … so we figured this was a great opportunity to give them something they could do indoors.”

All this came on top of the annual Stuff the Bus program, which, as that name suggests, fills a school bus each August with age-appropriate backpacks with all the school supplies kids need.

This year, the agency filled 2,600 such backpacks, but in this era of COVID, the exercise was quite bit a different than it has been in previous years.

“It was difficult to come by this stuff because it’s usually donated by the public,” said Mina. “People come to Six Flags, and they get a free roller-coaster ride when they bring items for the backbacks. There’s also a huge collection point at the Holyoke Mall. All those things were not allowed this year.”

So the agency relied instead on a large donation from the MassMutual Foundation as well as some money from the COVID-19 Relief Fund to purchase the needed items at a discounted price.

Overall, these various efforts have been a continuation of that golden thread Mina mentioned earlier, a concerted effort to enable individual donors to collectively make a huge difference in the lives of countless people.

“It’s about empowering the masses to do things that they can’t do alone,” said Mina in summing it all up. “That’s why payroll deduction, which has been the hallmark of the United Way since its inception, is so important. It allows people who don’t have money in the bank, who aren’t necessarily individuals of high net worth, to be able to take a little money out of their paycheck every week, so, at the end of the year, they might have a $52 donation. That $52 donation, added together with the other folks at their company who do the same thing and give a dollar a week, ends up being an enormous amount of money. But they could never do that on their own if they had to give a lump sum.”

 

Finding a Way

Looking to the future, though, payroll deduction is becoming a less-effective way to raise money, for those reasons mentioned earlier, he said. Meanwhile, instead of channeling funds to other agencies, the United Way will be looking to provide more direct services to the residents of this region.

“We just finished a needs assessment, and 90% of the respondents were donors, and of those 90%, 82% thought that the model we had of funding agencies to do good work, to be a middleman of sorts, was not a model that is modern; it’s not a model that they’re willing to continue to support at the levels that they have in the past.

“They want to know that their contribution is directly impacting things,” he went on. “So we looked at the areas that these donors were identifying as gaps, and we put that together with some intelligence work we did on our own, plus what other agencies were telling us, and we identified three huge gaps that we’re going to fill: food insecurity, continuation and expansion of the call-to-talk and Mass 211 lines, and youth-development programs.

“These are our core areas,” he explained. “The survey only reinforced what we already knew — that our niche is basic human needs and helping people improve their quality of life.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Mina said it will be a milestone year for the United Way, and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways.

But for many of the region’s residents, there won’t be much to celebrate. Indeed, while 2020 was the roughest year in memory for many, the coming months are projected to be in some ways even worse as those basic human needs he mentioned continue to mount, healthcare issues multiply because of the many effects of the pandemic, and resources become more scarce.

“There’s going to be a major shortfall in resources in the next year because COVID is having devastating effects on our economy as well as our health,” he said. “But we’ll figure out a way to deal with it; we’ll figure out a way to continue doing our job. We’ve faced tough times before — we’ve faced World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, the ’60s … we’ve been there through all these things, and we’ll be there through this, too.”

Figuring out a way and doing its job. This is what the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been doing for a century now. And as its second century starts, this track record of success is certainly worth celebrating.

 

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

Special Coverage Women of Impact

With so many individuals doing so much throughout our community, we want to add an additional award this year. We’re accepting nominations for our Young Woman of Impact to be named the night of the event.

**Nominations MUST be submitted by January 14, 2021 at 5:30pm**

Nomination Eligibility:

  • Young women who are:
    • Creating a positive impact through their strong, inspiring, and motivation driven actions to problem solve in their community.
    • Addressing issues that impact more than just themselves.
    • Aspiring to be a Woman of Impact.
  • Female residents of, in school, or employed in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire county.
  • Submitting duplicate identical nominations for a nominee does not increase the chances of the nominee being selected.
  • Nominations must be submitted through the online nomination form ONLY.

Notification & Recognition:

  • BusinessWest will announce the winners at the 2020 Women of Impact virtual event on January 28, 2021.
 

Judging Process:

  • Nominations can be submitted from January 7, 2021 to January 14, 2021.
  • After nominations have been compiled, five nominees that embody strength, intelligence, and courage will be announced on social media (Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter) on January 19th.
  • From January 19th through the 26th, we ask our community to select on social media, through likes and impressions, which nominee most ignites inspiration and passion within!

Young Woman of Impact Nomination Form

  • Nominated by

  • Nominee Contact Information

  • Questions

    Please complete the questions below to finalize the nomination.
  • Drop files here or

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Law Special Coverage

Ringing Out the Old

By Amy B. Royal, Esq.

Most of us are happy to leave 2020 behind.

It was a year wrought with struggles both at home and in the workplace. Many companies faced closures, near-closures, reduced capacities, and reduced business all because of the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Companies were also hit with several new, COVID-related laws, such as paid emergency leaves of absence, furthering the burdens they were facing during an already-difficult time.

It isn’t surprising that we are ready to ring in and embrace this new year. And, with the new year here, v is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practices. With that said, the new year provides an opportunity to proactively take a look at your company’s current employment-law practices to ensure compliance with the myriad evolving employment laws affecting your company.

 

Paid Family and Medical Leave and Minimum Wage

Two noteworthy laws take effect in Massachusetts this January: the Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law and the revised minimum-wage law.

PFML law takes effect in the Bay State this January. While employer obligations under PFML commenced on Oct. 1, 2019, as of Jan. 1, 2021, employees can begin to apply for and receive paid leave for most medical and family leaves of absence. The remaining leave provisions will take effect on July 1, 2021. Under PFML, employees can take paid leaves for their own serious health condition, to bond with a newborn child, to bond with a child after adoption or foster-care placement, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or to manage family affairs when a family member is on active duty in the armed forces.

All private Massachusetts employers are covered under the law regardless of their size. Leave entitlements range from 12 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the type of leave needed, and employees can take leave intermittently, if medically necessary, for medical leave for an employee’s own serious health condition or take family leave to care for a covered service member or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Amy B. Royal

Amy B. Royal

“With the new year here, it is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practice.”

Intermittent leave cannot be used to bond with a child. PFML and federal FMLA run concurrently. The same is true for the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Employees can choose to use but may not be required to use other forms of paid time off. PFML provides job protection and restoration rights akin to the federal FMLA. Employers are required to restore employees who take leave to their previous position, or to an equivalent position, with the same status, pay, benefits, length-of-service credit, and seniority as of the date of leave.

On Jan. 1, 2021, the Massachusetts minimum wage increased from $12.75 to $13.50 per hour. The service rate also increased from $4.95 to $5.55 per hour. Premium pay for Sunday retailer workers decreased. The next step in our minimum-wage rise is to $15 per hou, slated to take effect in 2023.

 

Proactive Employment Steps

The new year can serve as a good reminder and placeholder for reviewing and auditing your employment practices. Doing so will enable you to be strategic about that piece of your business and move toward creating a detailed and updated personnel plan going forward.

A good plan starts with an annual review of employment policies and manuals, written job descriptions, and employee-training programs to ensure that your company is compliant with state and federal laws and that your employees are properly trained in your processes and procedures.

Well-crafted employment policies are important because they communicate expectations to employees and help insulate your company from certain legal liabilities. When crafting employment policies, know that certain ones are legally required, while others are good business practice. Depending on your company’s size, required employment policies may include anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, parental leave, paid family and medical leave, and sick time. The implementation of other policies may be a good idea, such as codes of conduct, discipline and termination, workplace safety, off-duty conduct and the use of social media, drug and alcohol use and testing, use of cell phones, and use of company computer equipment and other electronic resources.

Written job descriptions are also a good practice. While not legally mandated, they can be a good tool to assess and evaluate prospective and current employees and also can reduce your company’s exposure to certain lawsuits. Accurate job descriptions that set forth the essential functions of a position can minimize liability when your company is faced with either internal requests for accommodations or external disability claims. Providing an accurate job description to an employee’s medical provider can also help determine whether an employee can perform their job with or without an accommodation or qualify for a leave of absence.

Another good business practice is employee training. Training managers and supervisors is especially important. Indeed, such trainings can help them understand company policies and their roles and responsibilities under these policies. Particularly important trainings for managers include anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, employee disabilities and recognizing requests for reasonable accommodations, and effective employee discipline and documentation.

Many employment issues that eventually evolve into litigation stem from actions or inactions of managers or supervisors. Employers should regularly conduct trainings to give these key employees the knowledge and skills required to enable them to properly handle situations as they arise.

The cost of defending expensive litigation far exceeds the investment in taking proactive, preventive steps to reduce the risk of litigation. Therefore, employers should consider conducting an internal audit at the beginning of each and every new year.

 

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 that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

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.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 46: Jan. 4, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Amy Royal, a principal with The Royal Law Firm and an employment law specialist

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Amy Royal, a principal with The Royal Law Firm and an employment law specialist. The two discuss the pandemic, vaccines, what employers can mandate, and what they can’t. They also discuss changes in employment law and new measures that take effect in 2021, and what employers should know as they turn the calendar. They also dive into in the matter of employee handbooks and how and why these important documents need to be on point and completely up to date. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Special Coverage

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.

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.

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 Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 44: Dec. 21, 2020

George O’Brien talks with Sheila Coon, co-owner, with her husband, Dan, of Hot Oven Cookies

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Sheila Coon, co-owner, with her husband, Dan, of Hot Oven Cookies, one of the more intriguing stories of entrepreneurship playing out in the region.  The two discuss how, in the middle of a pandemic, the company has greatly expanded its footprint and has even more ambitious plans for the future. They also talk about the constant challenges confronting entrepreneurs, and how they have multiplied during these difficult times. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 43: Dec. 14, 2020

George O’Brien talks with Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank

Paul Scully

George O’Brien talks with Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank. The two have a lively discussion about everything from the bank’s sponsorship of the Worcester Red Sox and what it means for both institutions, to the outlook for 2021 for small businesses in this region, to how banks, and specifically Country Bank, are coping with the many pandemic-related challenges they are now facing. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

Also Available On

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.

 

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.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 42: Dec. 7, 2020

George talks with Nick Morin, founder and president of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Nick Morin, founder and president of Iron Duke Brewing about the intriguing turn of events involving his brewery and landlord Westmass Development Corp. A year or so ago, this company was brewing Eviction Notice IPA and seemingly bound for Wilbraham. Now, it’s staying in Ludlow Mills and has plans for expansion. Hear how it all happened and what’s next for this growing company. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 41: Nov. 30, 2020

George Interviews Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce

Nancy F. Creed

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce. The two discuss the pandemic, the recent surge in cases, its impact on the local business community, and what might come next. They also discuss the lingering impact of the pandemic  on area chambers of commerce as well as the growing notion that changes brought about by the pandemic may position this region as a home for businesses currently headquartered in major urban areas. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

 

Also Available On

COVID-19 Special Coverage

Survival Mode

Gene Cassidy with the ‘golden tickets’

Gene Cassidy with the ‘golden tickets’ that have generated excitement for the Big E — but also raised money at a time revenue is badly needed.

When the Big E recently announced the sale of 100 ‘golden tickets’ — lifetime passes for the holder and a guest, plus parking and other perks — for $1,000 each, it was an exciting promotion for fans of the annual fair and a way to keep the event top of mind during a year when it was called off because of the pandemic.

But it was also a way to raise money — just like other recent efforts at the Eastern States Exposition (ESE), from drive-up concession events to the opening of a cream-puff bakery over the summer.

“We’ve been busy trying to survive,” ESE President and CEO Gene Cassidy told BusinessWest. “We’re just trying to figure out ways to generate resources and pay some bills. When you’re in this business, you need people, and at this particular moment, society has had to pivot in such a way that you can’t have gatherings.”

That $100,000 infusion from the golden-ticket promotion won’t come close to making up for this year’s loss of the actual fair, but it’s not insignificant, either.

“Large fairs, by and large, are supported by taxpayers. We’re not. We have to pay our own way,” Cassidy said, citing what he calls “toxic positivity” — basically a false sense of security — by many in the fair business. “Folks have this positive outlook; they know their doors are not going to close because the state government is going to support them. Here at Eastern States, if we don’t bring people to our events, there’s no income, and there’s no Eastern States.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin, the Delaney House, and D. Hotel & Suites in Holyoke, has a hand in several types of hospitality businesses — and he’s optimistic about all of them for 2021. The challenge is getting through 2020.

“I’m not worried about the restaurant business — for restaurants that survive this,” he said, adding a sobering caveat to that first thought, and citing oft-repeated projections that one in five restaurants in the U.S. might not survive COVID-19.

“I feel the government is taking way too much time right now helping the hospitality industry. People are running out of money, and no help is coming from the federal level,” he went on. “People will go out and eat. The trick is to survive.”

Rosskothen has been creative in his operations, offering getaway packages at the adjoining Delaney House and D. Hotel where hotel guests can have a fancy dinner set up in their room, with tables, chairs, candles, and menus, and end their stay with a spa treatment. “It’s a nice, safe, romantic getaway.”

The way tourism and hospitality businesses rely on each other in Western Mass. has also come into starker relief, he added.

“ I feel the government is taking way too much time right now helping the hospitality industry. People are running out of money, and no help is coming from the federal level.”

“A lot of my peers are working hard to develop a vacation concept and attracting people from nearby, meaning Boston, Worcester, and Vermont,” he noted, adding that a family might drive in for Bright Nights and stay overnight at a hotel, eat at restaurants, and do some shopping. “Even stopping at a gas station is an economic multiplier.”

That said, Rosskothen’s hotel occupancy is running between 45% and 50% — not quite the 60% level needed to turn a profit, but a strong number during the pandemic. In fact, Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), said the region’s hotel-occupancy rate closely tracks what D. Hotel is seeing.

“We’ve had a beautiful autumn, people have come to explore, and the hotel occupancy reflects that,” she noted. “Last September, we ran about 70%, but we also had a Big E. Taking that out, this year was still 44%. Boston was in the teens. They’re nowhere near climbing out of this. We’ve been hit, but not as hard as some metropolitan areas.”

Rosskothen said he’s encouraged by the numbers, but part of that success is due to the efforts hotels are making to keep guests safe — in his case, fogging rooms, changing every sheet and towel, and disinfecting every surface between guests — and to let visitors know that. “Staying in a hotel is, for me, a very safe thing as long as it’s a responsible hotel. If people want a break in their routine, there it is.”

 

Keeping the Lights On

In a typical year, Greater Springfield’s hotel-occupancy rate is around 64%, just a tick or two below the national average, but well below a city like Boston, which hovers around 79% occupancy. This year’s reversal represents one welcome trend this year — a perception, by families from metro areas, of Western Mass. as, well, a nice place to get away.

That phenomenon also happened when tourism and hospitality were badly dented following 9/11, Wydra said. “We’re more of a rural location, and we kind of pulled up a little sooner.”

That said, the region relies on its tourist attractions, which are “demand drivers,” she told BusinessWest. “How the hotels and restaurants do is a byproduct of those attractions — it’s the whole package. We’re trying to build on what we can and give people a reason to come to Western Mass.”

That’s why the announcement that Bright Nights would take place at Forest Park in Springfield this holiday season “is the best news we’ve had in the last 30 to 60 days.”

Other winter attractions will be open as well, albeit altered in some ways by the pandemic. At Yankee Candle Village in South Deerfield, families can still walk through the facility’s classic winter wonderland, but the visit with Santa at the end will be a video chat, followed by a photo with St. Nick taken using green-screen technology. Reservations will be required, and no walk-ins will be accepted.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Bousquet Mountain in Pittsfield will also require reservations for anyone who doesn’t have a season ski pass. The lodge will primarily be used for operational staging and employee use, and the resort will add outdoor features such as firepits and seating areas while offering outdoor food and beverage service via hot-beverage huts, a walk-up bar, and a pavilion area.

As winter gives way to spring — a time when everyone is hoping a widespread vaccine program begins to put the pandemic in the rear view — “I think there will be pent-up demand” for things to do, Wydra said. “We have quarantine fatigue right now; people want to gather, they want to be with people, and that’s our business. I’m encouraged by news of a vaccine and the progress made on that front. And people are still looking for safety protocols. We’ve got to lead with the fact that they can have a safe visit in our region.”

In the meantime, virtually everyone in the tourism and hospitality world has had to pivot, sometimes dramatically. “I’m proud of our attractions and hotels and restaurants, all of whom had to break from traditional business models and alter the way they do business during the pandemic,” she said. “We really pivoted from being destination marketers in the region to destination managers.”

Explaining that thought, she said communication was ramped up among the region’s businesses and attractions, with a lot of give and take and learning from each other’s experiences.

“For a period of time, we pulled back on the marketing because it made no sense — people weren’t traveling, and they didn’t know where they could go or what to do during the summer,” Wydra went on. “All things considered, we are holding our own. We’re nowhere near where we were in previous years, but when you look around the rest of the state and the rest of the country, we don’t look as bad as many regions. We’re coping.”

John Doleva was certainly hoping for a different sort of 2020 than the one he experienced as president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Hall unveiled a $23 million renovation this year, and the class of 2020 was one of the most star-studded in memory, headlined by the late Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. The pandemic certainly cut into the crowds that might be expected after such a renovation, and the 2020 induction was moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

The class of 2021 induction ceremony will be back in Springfield, he noted. But, perhaps more notably, after the Hall reopened on July 8 following a forced closure due to the state’s economic shutdown, visitorship has been about 55% of the prior year’s rate — a decent number, all things considered.

“Moms and dads who are at home want something to do with the kids on an afternoon when it’s raining,” he said. “And the NBA season going through the summer kept basketball top of mind.”

Despite the dueling travel advisories between the two states, the Hall has actually seen more visitors from Connecticut than Massachusetts this year. “People know they can come for a few hours, be safe, and go home,” Doleva said. “I thought 35% to 40% of the prior year would be a good year, so we are pleased with where we are right now.”

It helps that the Hall, whose revenues were nearly 100% admissions-driven when its current building first opened in 2002, operates under a much different model today, with visitorship accounting for about 16% of revenue. That’s good, Doleva added, because visitor numbers can fluctuate with something as minor as a jump in gas prices, let alone a global pandemic.

“We have forecasted we can survive in COVID mode all the way through 2021. I call that a glide path in terms of cash flow,” he told BusinessWest. “But we expect we’ll be out of this by April or May, which positions us for a great summer season.”

 

Measurable Impact

The Big E, on the other hand, can’t sustain its current level of business — meaning, if the fair gets called off next fall … well, it’s not a scenario anyone wants to think about, for myriad reasons, starting with the Big E’s annual economic impact on the region, estimated at close to three-quarters of a billion dollars, all on an operating budget just over $20 million.

“That’s what makes Eastern States so important to so many people, whether you’re somebody who loves the exposition or a neighbor providing parking or a local business providing laundry services or printing services, or a hotel,” Cassidy said. “The breadth of the impact of the fair is very profound, and when it’s been compromised, like it was in 2020 … well, it really can’t sustain much more than what it’s experienced to date.”

News on a vaccine is welcome in the fair world, he added — “it can’t get here soon enough” — but he wonders how quickly people will want to gather en masse, even after a vaccine is widely distributed.

“People’s sensibilities are clearly going to be influenced by COVID. They say if you do something for two weeks, you can create a habit. Now, add up the number of weeks we’ve been sequestered or people haven’t gone out to dinner. There will clearly be changes in people’s sensibilities. But humans are social animals, and we like being with each other. I take some comfort in that.”

Rosskothen, who hosted a Big E event at the Delaney House recently, featuring fair food and craft vendors, has pivoted in other ways as well, from letting people reserve entire small rooms at that restaurant to planning to keep the outdoor tent up — with heaters running, of course — well into the cold months.

His restaurant business is around 75% to 80% of a normal year, in fact, with the biggest change coming in the volume of takeout and delivery, which currently account for about one-third of sales. He’s also bullish on next year’s events slate at the Log Cabin, assuming crowds are able to gather once again.

“Next year could be the best year we’ve ever had, if we can do all those events. They’re social events — weddings, showers,” he said. “I feel like the social-event business will boom next year.

He’s more reserved about corporate events, feeling that companies will be more timid and want to stick with remote and hybrid events for a while. “But I feel like, when social events are allowed, people will do it. I’m optimistic that the event business will be very good next year.”

Wydra is similarly optimistic, although the region is entering a winter season bereft of large-scale events like the AHL All-Star Classic in 2019 and Red Sox Winter Weekend at the start of 2020.

Even so, she said, “we have tried to be mindful of the phases that our state is going through, and I think our attractions and hotels and restaurants have done everything they can to keep guests top of mind, in terms of offering a safe environment for them.”

Those tourist attractions have come to rely on the GSCVB more than ever for regional destination marketing, she added, because their own budgets have been stretched to the limit this year, and marketing efforts are easily cut when a business is struggling just to cover the mortgage and payroll.

“So many attractions are working so hard to make sure we’re in good shape,” said Doleva, who serves as the bureau’s board chair. “We have an aggressive plan to market and promote the region.”

Wydra agreed. “We’re trying to get the message out there, what these attractions have to offer. Our role as been heightened,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot throughout this pandemic. We’re a resilient industry, and we will come back.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 40: Nov. 23, 2020

George Interviews Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition

Eugene Cassidy

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition. The two discuss the pandemic and its impact not only on the Big E, but the region’s large and very important tourism and hospitality sector. They also discuss ways businesses like the Big E have pivoted and created new revenue streams, such as the Big E’s hugely successful Golden Ticket campaign. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

 

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Special Coverage

Things May Change, But for Now, Expenses Are Non-deductible

By James T. Krupienski, CPA

For many of us, 2020 has been nothing but a new four-letter word. Unemployment has run rampant, long-standing businesses have shuttered their doors, people have gotten sick, and many have lost loved ones. Those businesses remaining open have had to deal with shutdowns, employees on medical leave, and, ultimately, having to create a whole new way of doing business.

To help businesses from a financial standpoint, the U.S. Congress intervened with the CARES Act back in March. A significant component of this act was the creation of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a series of government loans overseen by the Small Business Administration. The most important provision of this program was the premise that, assuming the loan proceeds were used for certain qualified purposes, 100% of the loan proceeds could be forgiven, and would not be considered taxable income.

Since that time, we have seen loan applications come with revisions that quickly followed, clarifications on allowable expenses have been issued, and now many businesses are now starting the process of loan forgiveness. One significant wrinkle was thrown into the process on May 2, when the Department of Treasury issued Notice 2020-32. stating that otherwise-allowed business deductions would be disallowed for tax purposes if the forgiven loan was used to cover those specific costs.

We have all been waiting for further clarification regarding whether this provision would hold and, if it does, when the non-deductible expenses would need to be taken into income. On Nov. 18, this was clarified for all taxpayers, and this article will cover these recent updates.

Will Non-deductibility Be Overturned?

Many taxpayers were in an uproar when the Treasury Department clarified that expenses would not be deductible. In essence, this would lead to an increase in taxable income, which was not the intent of Congress when the CARES Act was passed. There has been some hope that this provision would be overturned.

However, like many other promised stimulus extensions, there has been no forward movement on this in Washington to overturn the Treasury Department’s decision. Therefore, as this article is being written, we can only hope some decision will be made. As of now, we need to proceed as guidance currently stands — that the expenses are non-deductible.

When Do the Non-deductible Expenses Hit the P&L?

There has been lively discussion within the accounting community for months about when the non-deductible expenses would have an impact on each company’s bottom line. One camp was adamant that it would not become income until the loan was forgiven, because what if it wasn’t? The other camp argued that the expenses would be non-deductible as the expense was incurred, assuming a belief that the loan would be forgiven in the future. This can all be put to rest now, as the Department of Treasury ruled on this debate.

Revenue Ruling 2020-27 clarifies that the expenses are disallowed when incurred, assuming that there is ‘reasonable expectation of reimbursement.’ This holds true regardless of whether the taxpayer plans to apply for forgiveness in 2020 or 2021.

With its ruling, the Treasury Department provided two examples. In each, the taxpayer incurred and paid expenses that were qualified expenses per the PPP loan program, and in each, the taxpayers believed they had basis to achieve forgiveness of the loans. In the first example, forgiveness was applied for during November 2020. In the second example, the taxpayer does not expect to apply for forgiveness until 2021.

Given that all expenses were eligible expenses, and given that each taxpayer believes forgiveness is expected, then the deduction as incurred would not be allowed. This would then have an impact on their current-year tax filing. It is critical for all businesses to note that the impact of non-deductibility of their PPP loan expenses will need to be considered when engaged in tax planning for 2020 year-end, which is presently upon us.

What If the Loan Is Subsequently Not Forgiven?

For those taxpayers who either do not have their loan forgiven, or those who do not plan to apply for forgiveness, these expenses will then become deductible. This was addressed by the Treasury Department in a safe harbor under Revenue Procedure 2020-51, issued concurrently with Revenue Ruling 2020-27.

This guidance clarifies that a taxpayer will be able to claim as a deduction, on either their current or subsequent tax return, any expenses now deemed deductible by not achieving forgiveness of the loan, depending on the circumstances. This would occur if forgiveness is declined or not requested.

To request the safe harbor and be able to deduct these expenses, a statement must be attached to the tax return, with a series of required inclusions, along with a heading of “Revenue Procedure 2020-51.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

At this time, everyone who received a PPP loan should be reaching out to their accountant to discuss the impact on their 2020 business return. Strategies will need to be discussed regarding how to handle and best address this increased taxable ‘income’ that will be reported on your business tax return.

For those who were hopeful that the non-deductibility provision would be overturned, all we can do is wait and see if Washington makes any further changes down the road. Stay tuned!

James T. Krupienski, CPA is partner and Auditing, Accounting, Healthcare Services leader at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka; (413) 536-8510.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 39: Nov. 16, 2020

George O’Brien talks with Tony Cignoli, president of the A.L. Cignoli Company

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Tony Cignoli, president of the A.L. Cignoli Company, a political consulting firm. The two discuss what happened at the national election earlier this month — and what didn’t happen. They also discuss what the country, and specifically the business community, might expect from a Biden administration and how the president-elect and his team might address the pandemic and the significant damage it has already done to the economy.  It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

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Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Tightening the Safety Net

 

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

As Andrew Morehouse conducted his tour of the facilities at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the sights and sounds helped tell the story that is emerging at this agency — and within this region — at a critical time.

The first thing to notice was the copious amounts of food of all kinds — from sweet potatoes in huge bins to hundreds of cases of canned tuna — now stored at the complex in Hatfield and in other locations as well, destined for local meal sites and food pantries. Indeed, the Food Bank is “over capacity,” as Morehouse, its executive director, put it, because of the soaring numbers of people who are now facing food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, and the way government agencies, businesses, and individuals have responded to those numbers.

This capacity issue was clearly in evidence, with pallets of food stacked not only on the shelves and the floor space of the warehouse, but in the hallways leading to it as well.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster,” he explained. “We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

As for the sounds … well, the Food Bank was mostly quiet at the hour of this visit — late morning, approaching noon — but the few workers on the floor were talking about what they witnessed in the parking lot of Central High School in Springfield, where a drive-thru food-distribution site, supported in part by the Food Bank, has been established. The staffers were talking about long lines of vehicles, and how this has become a constant, or a new norm, with this initiative.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster. We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

Meanwhile, fewer people are working at the Hatfield facility, with many more working remotely because of the pandemic, and a host of safety protocols in place to keep those who do come in — and the public in general — safe.

In many ways, the Food Bank — and the hundreds of sites it serves — has become one of the enduring symbols of this pandemic locally. Indeed, just as the bread lines of the mid-1930s became an indelible image that came to represent the Great Depression, the long lines of motorists picking up food — it can no longer be distributed indoors — have come to symbolize this pandemic.

And as fall continues and winter approaches, need is only expected to grow, said Morehouse, who cited projections from Feeding America showing that, by year’s end, an estimated one in six residents in Western Mass. (perhaps 127,000 people) will be experiencing food insecurity, as opposed to one in 10 before the pandemic began, and one in four children. That would be a 40% increase in the number of people overall, and a more than 60% increase in the number of children.

In many ways, such numbers help tell this story. During the fiscal year that just ended Sept. 30, the Food Bank distributed 14.8 million pounds, or the equivalent of 12 million meals — a 23% increase over the previous year, compared to an average 6% increase year over year. Meanwhile, over the past seven months, the increase has been roughly 30% (from 7.3 million pounds to 9.5 million), much higher than the annual increase, obviously, because of the direct impact of the pandemic, and the highest seven-month spike in the agency’s 38-year history.

Behind the numbers, though, is the inspiring story of how the region and its business community have responded to the crisis, said Morehouse, adding that this response was quick and profound, and it is ongoing.

Sweet potatoes from local farms

Sweet potatoes from local farms are among the many items jamming the shelves and floor space at the Food Bank, which is over capacity due to spiking need.

The biggest question concerns what comes next, and it’s one that’s hard to answer, he noted, adding that many factors will go into determining where these numbers go in the weeks and months to come.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Morehouse about the mounting problem of food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic and how his agency has responded. Overall, he said this response “is how the safety net is supposed to work.”

Elaborating, he noted that the Food Bank has been able to meet soaring need because federal and state agencies have stepped up and put more food into the system, but also because the region has stepped up as well.

 

Food for Thought

As he talked about what has transpired since March, when the pandemic arrived in Western Mass., Morehouse said it’s been a period of adjustment — for area residents, for his agency, and even for area farms.

For many, the pandemic left them unemployed or in a position where they were earning less — although generous unemployment benefits certainly helped large numbers of people impacted by the downturn in the economy. But those unemployment benefits also had the unintended consequence of leaving individuals ineligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, creating a different kind of problem.

For the Food Bank, the first several weeks of the pandemic were chaotic, he said, as the agency mounted a response to what was happening — but had to do so in the middle of a health crisis.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about how to protect oneself from COVID-19, and suddenly, so many people lost their jobs or were furloughed,” he explained. “There was an outpouring of concern, of wanting to help, from people who don’t know that an emergency food network exists. So we were fielding calls from community groups from all across Western Massachusetts, saying, ‘we want to bring food to the Food Bank,’ or ‘how can we support you?’

“And it took a while for us to connect people to the pantries and meal sites in their communities as a way to support households that were at risk of hunger, because that’s who we work with,” he went on. “We don’t receive individuals who are in need of food assistance at our warehouse, and we don’t deliver food to households; we work through the existing network of about 165 independent pantries and meal sites, plus our own distribution programs to 51 senior centers every month, and on our mobile food bank, which has 26 distribution sites across all four counties on a biweekly or monthly basis.”

When asked how the Food Bank responded to that 30% spike over the past seven months, Morehouse replied with a quick “it wasn’t easy,” before elaborating.

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries spills out into the hallways at the Food Bank, clear evidence of soaring need in the region.

“It took us a while to catch up, I’ll be honest,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there were a number of challenges to overcome, starting with disruption to what he called the “supply chain,” meaning donations of food to the agency from individuals and also, and especially, area supermarkets.

“There was a run on those supermarkets, so it was a significant hit,” he recalled, adding that roughly half the food distributed by the agency comes from the private food industry in the form of dry goods, produce, and close to 1 million pounds of meats frozen on the sell-by date.

Beyond this disruption to the supply chain, the Food Bank was impacted by shortages of staff and a loss of many of its distribution sites; several of them closed, including all brown-bag sites for elders and many mobile locations.

Slowly, over time, those sites reopened, while also changing how food was distributed, he noted, adding that as, the spring progressed, the Food Bank adapted to what became a new normal, both in terms of how it operated and with the numbers of people now facing food insecurity.

Indeed, over the period from March to August, the latest information available, the average number of individuals served each month grew to 107,000, Morehouse said, adding that 20,000 of those, or 19%, are people who have never come to a pantry or meal site.

And that percentage of new visitors was much higher, perhaps 40%, in the early weeks of the pandemic, when the layoffs and furloughs started climbing, and before those generous unemployment benefits kicked in. The numbers then leveled off for a time, but they started climbing again, he went on, adding that, when the new six-month numbers come out, the total people being served should far surpass that 107,000 figure.

 

Numbers to Chew On

Behind the numbers is the story of how this rising demand has been met with the help of a number of contributing sources — that safety net Morehouse described earlier.

These include the federal government, state agencies, area businesses, and philanthropic efforts like Jeff Bezos’ $100 million gift to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

“The federal government has stepped up — we’ve received considerably more federal food,” he explained, referring specifically to CARES Act appropriations that enable such agencies to buy more food. “And there was an outpouring of support from individuals, businesses, and regional and state foundations, as well as from Feeding America, the national network of food banks.”

The agency has also received more than $400,000, with another $123,000 coming, from the Massachusetts COVID Relief Fund, he went on, adding that a number of individual businesses, including Big Y and the Antonocci Family Foundation, have made sizable donations as well.

Part of the federal government’s response has come in the form of Farmers to Families Food Boxes, a new program through which the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is partnering with national, regional, and local distributors, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and other food-service businesses, to purchase up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers of all sizes.

Mapleline Farm in Hadley is one of several local farms in the region that have adjusted with the pandemic, now supplying the Food Bank with milk in family-sized packaging.

This program supplies boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products, which distributors package into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.

The program has benefited several area farms, said Morehouse, noting that those supplying the boxes are purchasing products from many area farmers who were severely impacted by their inability to sell to restaurants, colleges, and universities closed by the pandemic.

“It took a while for some of these farms to adapt, but many of them have,” he said, citing, as one example, Mapleline Farm in Hadley, a dairy farm whose name and logo were on countless boxes of quart containers of milk in the Food Bank’s warehouse.

As for the future, Morehouse said the contributions that have poured in from individuals and businesses have left the organization in a solid position financially for this current fiscal year, one in which overall need is expected to continue growing, while the economy is projected to continue struggling.

Meanwhile, question marks remain about the ongoing level of support from state and federal governments, as well as from individual contributors, he said, citing the potential for donor fatigue as the pandemic wears on.

“The state is operating on a month-to-month budget, so we’re not even sure if we’re going to be level-funded for a program that we’ve come to rely on for 30% of our food since 1992,” he told BusinessWest. “And the federal government has not passed another stimulus package, so we’re anticipating a decline in federal support.

“We have a jigsaw puzzle of public and private emergency food resources that rely of federal and state funding and private charitable support,” he went on. “We rely on all those sources of support to get the food we need and the resources we need to keep operations afloat.”

One of the important pieces of that puzzle is Monte’s March, the fundraising walk from Springfield to Greenfield that was launched by radio personality Monte Belmonte to benefit the Food Bank. Belmonte has seen the ranks of people joining him on his late-November trek grow steadily over the years, as well as the amount raised for the agency, but that first trend won’t continue this year, as the pandemic is forcing organizers to encourage individuals to support the march remotely — although the top-performing teams when it comes to generating donations will be able to march.

But, given the urgent need for support, they are hoping the second trend will continue. The goal for this year has been raised from the $333,000 mark set last year — each dollar donated buys three meals, so the goal was to fund 1 million meals — to $365,000, or $1,000 a day, or 4,000 meals a day (one dollar now buys four meals, due to greater efficiency).

 

Hard to Digest

Looking at the projections from Feeding America for the next several months, the ones predicting that one in six area residents will be food-insecure, Morehouse had his doubts initially about whether things would really get that bad here.

But now, he’s thinking they may be realistic — painfully realistic, to be more precise — especially when one ponders the unanswerable questions concerning when the pandemic will subside and to what degree the federal government will keep on printing money.

One thing Morehouse does know is that the Food Bank will continue to pivot and respond proactively to the ongoing crisis — right down to finding more warehouse space.

 

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

Holiday Gift Guide Special Coverage

Shopping Local

Do you have Amazon fatigue, or just want to support some great local shops? Thankfully, Western Mass. provides myriad gift-giving options this holiday season, all of which support the region’s business owners during an especially difficult year. On the following pages are just a few suggestions. COVID-19 has altered the experience at many businesses, so check the websites for hours, operations, and how to purchase and enjoy their products and experiences. Gift cards are available from most. Happy holidays!

 

The Artisan Gallery

162 Main St., Northampton

(413) 586-1942; www.theartisangallery.com

After 36 years in business, the Artisan Gallery is closing in January, but should have plenty of eclectic items in stock before the holidays. Its collection includes handmade ceramics, creative clothing, a fun children’s section, unique accessories, and jewelry, and features artists who reside and work in the Pioneer Valley and the hills that surround it.

Black Birch Vineyard

155 Glendale Road, Southampton

(413) 527-0164; blackbirchvineyard.com

One of several wineries in Western Mass. that offer vineyard tours, Black Birch — whose owners call the vineyard “a family that moves wine and the nuanced process of creating it” — provides a number of gift-giving opportunities, from wine-tasting events to enrollment in a wine club that includes 12 seasonal bottles throughout the year at a 15% discount.

 

Catamount Mountain Resort

78 Catamount Road, Hillsdale, N.Y.

(518) 325-3200; www.catamountski.com

Catamount offers some of the most varied ski terrain in Southern New England. Family-oriented, close to both Great Barrington and the Hudson Valley, Catamount is oriented towards all skier types, and has expanded its menu of year-round offerings with the 2019 addition of the Catamount Zip Tour, featuring the longest zipline in the U.S. at 5,523 feet.

 

Cooper’s Gifts

161 Main St., Agawam

(413) 786-7760; coopersgifts.com

Cooper’s is not just a store — it’s a destination,” shopkeeper Kate Gourde has said, calling her facility a shopper’s oasis featuring trendy clothing, window fashions, distinctive home furnishings, and exquisite gifts. “We are serious about style, yet you will find this shop unpredictable, quirky, and alluring. We want to be something exciting and new every time you visit.”

 

Front Porch Charcuterie

29 Evergreen Road, Vernon, Conn.

(860) 916-1658; www.frontporchcharcuterie.com

Front Porch gathers cheeses, produce, and honey from local farms, farmers’ markets and shops to provide customers with fresh local specialties, including charcuterie boards, trays, and boxes of different sizes for myriad occasions. “I hope we take what we have learned from this pandemic and make family and friends our priority,” its owner, Michele Martinez, says. “I am here to help you make your gatherings special.”

 

Granny’s Baking Table

309 Bridge St., Springfield

(413) 333-4828; www.grannysbakingtable.com

Proprietors Sonya Yelder and Todd Crosset say their mission is to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation. The bakery combines two baking traditions: American South and Northen European, with a singular commitment to authentic small-batch baking.

 

Hope & Olive

44 Hope St., Greenfield

(413) 774-3150; hopeandolive.com

Hope & Olive’s owners, siblings Jim and Maggie Zaccara and Evelyn Wulfkuhle, call their establishment an “everyday-special restaurant” that sources much of its menu with nearby farm products. “We serve inspired cocktails, have an eclectic by-the-glass wine menu, and 12 great beers on tap. We invite you to come and have lunch, brunch, dinner, or maybe just drinks, snacks, or a housemade dessert.”

 

Michael Szwed Jewelers

807 Williams St., Longmeadow

(413) 567-7977; michaelszwedjewelers.com

As a master IJO (Independent Jewelers Organization) jeweler, Michael Szwed Jewelers keeps up with the latest fashions and trends in fine jewelry and every other aspect of the industry, including innovative technologies. As a result, the owner notes, “we are able to offer the finest diamonds in the world at the best value.” The website features a searchable catalog.

 

Jackson & Connor

150 Main St., Northampton

(413) 586-4636; www.jacksonandconnor.com

This small, unique menswear specialty shop offers a selection of eye-catching goods, from stylish suits to cozy sweatpants, ties, T-shirts, socks, vests, sport coats, accessories, shoes, hats, jewelry, care products, colognes, and more. The store also provides full tailoring services, and frequently tracks down hard-to-find items for customers through special and custom orders.

 

Odyssey Bookshop

9 College St, South Hadley

(413) 534-7307; odysseybks.com

Over its 57-year history, Odyssey Bookshop has earned a reputation as an eclectic spot to look for books, and also also features a full-service website for ordering. In addition, according to its website, “we strive to provide a hospitable and nurturing environment to encourage the healthy exchange of ideas by hosting numerous readings, book groups, panel presentations, and online discussions.”

 

Off the Beam Woodworking

www.offthebeamwoodworking.com

Local artist (and full-time nurse) Sheri Lee handcrafts unique woodworking pieces, including cheese and serving boards, picture frames, cribbage boards, knife racks, and lanterns from domestic and exotic woods — and all proceeds are donated to a number of nonprofit organizations on Cape Cod that work to preserve, educate, and foster conservation.

 

Pioneer Valley Food Tours

www.pioneervalleyfoodtours.com

This enterprise creates walking food tours that explore local flavors from Northampton and around the region. It also creates gift boxes sourced from the unique natural resources of the region’s fields and farms, as well as Pioneer Valley picnic baskets of selections ready to bring on an outdoor adventure. Choose a pre-set tour itinerary, or create a custom tour to suit your tastes.

 

Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting

10 West St., West Hatfield

(413) 446-7845; pioneervalleykarting.com

The 1,000-foot track at Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting is capable of racing up to eight karts at once, with the fastest on-track speeds in Massachusetts, featuring a combination of straightaways designed for speed and sweeping corners for technical driving that will challenge everyone from beginners to experts. The track is equipped with a state-of-the-art timing system to record the individual lap times of each kart.

 

Renew.Calm

160 Baldwin St., West Springfield

(413) 737-6223; renewcalm.com

For the past two decades, Renew.Calm has offered an array of both medically based and luxurious spa treatments, with services including skin care, therapeutic massage, nail care, body treatments, yoga, hair removal, makeup, and lashes. The 4,000-square-foot facility also hosts educational events, fitness classes, and more. Multi-treatment packages make great gifts.

 

Ski Butternut

380 State Road, Great Barrington

(413) 528-2000; www.skibutternut.com

Skiing and snowboarding definitely make those New England winters more tolerable. This family-oriented ski area in Great Barrington provides 110 acres of skiing spread across 22 trails. If you are shopping for someone who loves the outdoors, a gift certificate to Ski Butternut may open the doors to a new passion. If they’re already hooked on skiing, a lift ticket may be most appreciated.

 

SkinCatering

1500 Main St., Suite 220, Springfield

(413) 282-8772; skincatering.com

SkinCatering offers a release from the hectic holidays — and, let’s be honest, from the stress of 2020 in general — so an extra-special, very personal gift may be just what the doctor ordered. Pamper someone special with a massage, facial treatment, spa and sauna package, or any number of other options. Membership packages are available at several different levels.

 

Tea Guys

110 Christian Lane, Whately

(413) 303-0137; www.teaguys.com

It all begins with hand-blended tea recipes, crafted in small batches daily in the humble tea factory built out of an old train station in Whately. This local success story offers loose tea, 100% plant-based tea bags, matcha (both pure and flavored, mixed in house), tea concentrates, and now sparkling teas — more than 100 tea varieties in all.

 

The Toy Box

201 North Pleasant St., Amherst

(413) 256-8697; www.facebook.com/thetoyboxamherst

The Toy Box is “the family fun store of Amherst,” encouraging kids and adults to play and explore. “Parents are being required to stay home and work and be parents at the same time,” owner Liz Rosenberg recently said about doing business during a pandemic. “That’s a challenge beyond all challenges. To be able to assist with that … that’s my job. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can bring some joy.”

 

WEBS

75 Service Center Road, Northampton

(800) 367-9327; yarn.com

A second-generation, family-owned business, WEBS, has been a destination for knitters, weavers, and spinners for more than 40 years. This Western Mass. mainstay with a national reach is known as America’s Yarn Store for a reason, with a 21,000-square-foot retail store, a robust online presence, as well as comprehensive classes and events for all skill levels.

 

Westfield Homeless Cat Project

1124 East Mountain Road, Westfield

(413) 568-6964; www.facebook.com/westfieldhomelesscatprojectadoptions

The Foundation for TJO Animals

66 Industry Ave., Suite 3, Springfield, MA 01104

(413) 306-5161; www.tjofoundation.org

 

Instead of buying someone a gift, why not make a donation in their name to an animal-welfare nonprofit? The Westfield Homeless Cat Project is a no-kill cat rescue completely staffed by volunteers. It does not discriminate against age or illness provided that vet care is manageable. Meanwhile, the Foundation for TJO Animals provides financial assistance and veterinary care for the animals at the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center, which serves the cities of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee.

Coronavirus Health Care Special Coverage

Forward Thinking

A rundown of the big issues facing healthcare 20 years ago would, in some ways, be similar to the same list today, encompassing persistent challenges like hospital finances, staffing shortages in certain specialties, strategies to tackle substance abuse, and diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Yet, the solutions to those issues have certainly evolved. For example, hospitals have seen a dramatic shift to accountable care, a model in which disparate providers work together and are paid for patient outcomes, not how many procedures they order up. And patients are increasingly active participants in their own care, as are senior-living residents and their families.

Technology has exploded as well over the past two decades, from robotic and minimally invasive surgery to increasingly targeted cancer treatments and rapid advances in prosthetics — not to mention the IT revolution, and the shift to electronic health records, patient portals, and, of course, everyone’s favorite pandemic-driven technology, telemedicine, which, most doctors agree, will continue to play a key role post-COVID-19.

Education has expanded as well. Stroke survival rates are higher these days, partly because people better understand the signs, and so are cancer survival rates, with the public more aware of the importance of screening. In fact, one huge story over the past 20 years has been the rise of preventive wellness and patient education — and keeping people out of the hospital as much as possible.

So, yes, many decades-old concerns of patients remain key concerns in 2020 (along with that whole pandemic thing that has dominated this unusual year). But the way we tackle those issues — with new ideas, new technology, and new facilities — is dramatically different.

To better paint that picture, we asked area health leaders what the next 20 years might hold in the areas of hospital administration, behavioral health, cancer care, and health education. On the following pages are their intriguing perspectives.

What’s Next for Hospitals

What’s Next in Behavioral Health

What’s Next in Cancer Care

What’s Next in Health Education


Features Special Coverage

A ‘Family Business’

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

The story sounds like some of the fiction that Tom Hebert now devotes much of his non-working time to writing.

But it’s not.

Flashing back to when he was in high school, Hebert said he and his father, William, were having a talk about what he might do with his life, career-wise. The elder Hebert had just used his last match to light a cigarette, and after doing so, he noticed the ad on the back of the matchbook: ‘Become a CPA.’

“He handed me the matchbook cover, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll look into it,’ said Hebert, who would earn a degree in accounting at American International College. Eventually, he would join what was then one of the ‘Big 8’ accounting firms, Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery, and subsequently work in a number of other settings in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Cambridge Credit Counseling, which he currently serves as chief financial officer.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines. It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

But while the saga of how he wound up in financial services is intriguing and makes for good reading, Herbert’s story is largely about what else he’s done with his life, starting with his time in the Marine Corps, which included a stint in Vietnam in 1970, as that conflict was beginning to wind down in many ways (much more on that later).

More recently, a second career has emerged: writing fiction, specifically about Marines. His first book, The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, which he authored under the pseudonym Will Remain (with Remain being an anagram of Marine), came out early this year.

Covering the period from 1899 to 1917, several months before the U.S. entered World War I, it tells the story of Kenneth Remain (Will’s grandfather, who was born in Worcester and educated at Harvard), and the love triangle he enters along with Harvard classmate Lawrence Blakeslee and the “beautiful KatyKay Mulcahy.” The reader is also introduced to the 57 enlisted men of the fictional Fourth Platoon of the 87th Company of the true-to-life Third Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment.

“These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen .”

“When Kenneth takes KatyKay away from Lawrence, it creates problems between the two families that last for decades,” Hebert said, describing the plotline for the first book and those that will follow. “There’s this interaction between the two families that will last right up ’til the Vietnam War.”

The book is selling fairly well, but Hebert admits to not yet reaching the ‘break-even’ point that all self-publishers aspire to. Originally in hardcover, there’s now a paperback version of Remains of the Corps, as well as an e-book, and an audiobook will soon follow.

A second book is in progress, one that will take the story into the battlefields of France in World War I, with subsequent volumes covering the 1920s and ’30s. Eventually, his fictional characters will fight in World War II, which his father did, having taken part in the epic battle on Iwo Jima.

His father’s service — and his own — helped inspire the books, said Hebert, who told BusinessWest his writing is a way to give back to the Marine Corps, which he said gave him so much.

When asked what, specifically, he said the Corps gave him discipline, something he’s called on in all facets of his intriguing life, as well as some moments he won’t forget.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines,” he explained. “It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

Thus, Hebert’s saga represents the perfect Veteran’s Day story for this business publication: it’s a tale of military service and a family’s devotion to the Marine Corps, but also one about business — the one Hebert joined with some help from that matchbook cover, as well as the one he’s in now — and the challenging world of publishing.

 

The Write Stuff

“That’s the final straw!” Kenneth Remain said angrily, as he sat down heavily at a table in Jimmy’s Lunch. The melting snow on the brim of his boater and the shoulders of his benny testified to the fact that a sockdologer of a storm had clobbered Boston, an affront to the spring solstice of two days hence; though waning, the storm had not breathed its last.

Those are the first lines of The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, and they provide not only a glimpse of Hebert’s mostly self-taught writing style, but also the immense amount of research that goes into writing a book set more than a century ago.

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written. He plans six volumes in all to tell the story of the Remains.

Indeed, before he could pen a story set in 1917, Hebert said he needed to know the vocabulary of 1917 — specifically the vocabulary used by people attending Harvard, hence words like ‘boater,’ a type of straw hat; ‘benny,’ a greatcoat; and ‘sockdologer,’ a synonym for any word connoting ‘whopper’ or ‘defining.’

“People talked much more formally back then — they used the king’s English,” he explained. “These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen.

“Any time my wife and I were out at bookstores and flea markets, I would pick up books on vocabulary, idioms, and more,” he went on. “And as part of my training, I went through those books and selected words, phrases, thoughts, and philosophies, and I would say, ‘I could use this in one of my books.’”

Several years of research and work learning how to write fiction went into The Remains of the Corps, Volume 1, said Herbert, noting, again, that his decision to dive into what he expects will become a six-book set was inspired by the service of his own family and a firm desire to give something back to the Corps.

With that, we’ll do what fiction writers often do: we’ll flash back — first to 1945, when William Hebert was ending his lengthy tour of duty with the Marines. He enlisted just after Pearl Harbor and served throughout the war — and even after it ended, as part of the peacekeeping force in Japan. Upon returning home, he built a house in Chicopee and went to work as a pressman for Springfield Newspapers, retiring at age 62.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here. But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

Hebert said his father, like many who fought in World War II, didn’t talk much about his service. “But he was always singing the Marine Corps hymn when I was a boy,” Tom recalled, adding that, while his father never pushed him to join the service or that specific branch, he found himself signing up.

That was in May 1968, just a few months after the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnam War was in some ways at its height. Hebert had just earned that accounting degree at AIC, and attended Office Training School for 10 weeks, and then another five months at a specialty school for officers.

His military occupational specialty was to be a tank officer, so he then went to Camp Pendleton in California for two months. Around that same time, he got married and was told he could spend another 18 months in California.

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the conflict was at its height.

But there was a quick change in plans, as he and several other tank officers were told there was an urgent need for their services in Vietnam.

“When we arrived at First Marine Division and met with the personnel officer, he said, ‘I don’t know why they sent you all here — I have three times as many tank officers as I need,’” he recalled. “That’s typical of the military, and my father had warned me about the bureaucratic aspects of being in the service.”

With his background in accounting, Hebert was eventually sent to the Central Service Agency, essentially a supply position — and wasn’t too happy with that assignment.

“After being there a short time, I went to the personnel officer and said, ‘I can’t do this — my father was in the Marines, he served at Iwo Jima … this is not why I joined,” he recalled. “He kicked me out of his office and said, ‘you’ll go where you’re told.’”

So he spent a year in Da Nang as — in the language of that time — an REMF, which stands for rear echelon mother… well, you can fill in the rest. Or, as they also said, ‘in the rear with the gear.’

Still, that time gave him a deep appreciation of the Corps and some valuable life lessons about leadership and teamwork.

When he came back home, he had a case of what was and still is known as ‘survivor guilt,’ which prompted him to publish a Vietnam War newsletter and also sell books through what was known as the Vietnam Book Store, a mostly mail-order operation.

 

Turning the Page

Longing to do more, Hebert eventually settled on the idea of writing about fictional Marines, but with art imitating life in many ways, especially when it comes to the Marine Corps being a generational phenomenon, or what Hebert calls a “family business.” It was that way for his family, and for the one he’s writing about as well, in stories told by the youngest generation.

That would be Will Remain, whose background is similar to Hebert’s, but with some important differences. Remain graduated from Harvard, not AIC, and upon graduation enlisted in the Marines and attended Officer Candidates School and Basic School in Quantico, Va. Instead of serving in the rear with the gear, he fought at Khe Sanh in 1967 and the Battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Hebert said he was inspired in many ways by the war novel Once an Eagle, written by Anton Meyer. A New York Times bestseller, it has been a favorite of American military men and women since it was penned in 1968, he noted.

“That book just fascinated me,” he told BusinessWest. “It was about the Army, and it covered several decades of one officer’s time. That book really inspired me to write.” Indeed, Hebert’s first forays into writing were non-fiction works about Meyer and his books.

He then embarked on the first installment of his novel, which wound up taking him a decade or so to write and prepare for publication. It includes dozens of illustrations by Tara Kaz that help bring the individual stories to life.

As for those stories, or the elements of his novels, he said the process of weaving them together is very much like that of putting together a jigsaw puzzle — which happens to be another of his hobbies; he said he’s put together more than 75 of them, with his favorite (unsurprisingly) being an image of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington.

“I have tons and tons of research material, and it’s all in pieces,” he went on, adding that, as he read books on history and vocabulary, for example, he would tear out the pages and keep them for future reference. “I take all those pieces — and we’re talking about an incredible amount of information — and put it together in a book.”

His second book is 95% researched and about 25% written, he said, adding that this segment details the battles in France during World War I. Book three, meanwhile, covers the period between the wars, and book four will likely take place on a fictional island in the Pacific during World War II.

Hebert writes when he’s not working, which means nights and weekends, and at age 73, he intends to keep on working — for several reasons.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here,” he explained. “But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

As noted, his first book is off to a decent start, with about 300 copies sold and a far less expensive paperback now available. He’s optimistic, and excited, about the audiobook version, which will be read by noted narrator Grover Gardner, who, coincidentally (or not), has also read Once an Eagle.

“My hope, with the audiobook being read by someone so well-known, is that this will bring some attention to it and sell more books in print — that’s my goal, anyway,” he said, adding that this is far more an enjoyable hobby than a money-making enterprise. “I work to write.”

 

The Last Word

Hebert’s life has taken a number of twists and turns since his father glanced down at that matchbook cover and eventually handed it to him.

As noted at the top, some of it, including that episode, does sound like fiction, which is appropriate, said Hebert, because life really does imitate art in many ways.

His art certainly does. It’s a collection of tales about people. But it’s also about a business — a family business.

That’s what the Marine Corps became for him — and for those in the Remain family — and it’s a success story on a number of levels.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 38: Nov. 9, 2020

George Interviews Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House

Peter Rosskothen

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House and other hospitality-related businesses. The two discuss the state of the local events industry, the new restrictions imposed by the state, and how this vital sector of the economy is pivoting and looking for new and viable sources of revenue in these difficult times. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 37: Nov. 2, 2020

George Interviews Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank

Tom Senecal

George talks with Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank. The two discuss the state of the local economy, how the pandemic is impacting the business community specific sectors of the economy, the short and long-term impacts of state and federal stimulus initiatives, and what lies ahead in 2021. They also discuss the impact of the pandemic and falling interest rates on the banking industry. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

A Season on Ice

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

The wall opposite Nate Costa’s desk is covered in a wrap depicting action from the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Classic, played at the MassMutual Center in January 2019 — probably the high point of the five-year re-emergence, and renaissance, of professional hockey in Springfield.

Costa pointed toward that wall several times as he tried to explain just how the Springfield Thunderbirds, which he serves as president, might place spectators so they are at least six feet apart — if, and it’s mighty big if, the governor, the city, and whoever else might need to sign off on such a plan gives the proverbial green light. And he also pointed while talking about the many subtleties and challenges that go into such an exercise.

“It’s almost like a puzzle,” he explained. “We have 6,700 seats, and our season-ticket holders are typically jammed into the best seats. All our center-ice seats are completely taken … so what do you do in a six-foot distancing model? — everyone can’t get the seat they would normally want to have, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

As he talked with BusinessWest on Oct. 15, five days after the 2020-21 season was supposed to start, Costa acknowledged that trying to put together this puzzle is just one of the myriad questions and challenges he and a now considerably smaller staff are working to address.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere. It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

Indeed, Costa admitted he has no real idea if or when he might be able to put such a plan into action. In reality, he has no idea when or under what circumstances hockey might again be played on Main Street. He was told in July by the National Hockey League, parent to the AHL, that games might be able to commence by early December, but he’s very doubtful about that date.

He believes January or even February is a far more likely start time. But beyond that, he cannot say with any degree of certainty how — and how many — games might be played, and how late into 2021 the season might go. Instead, there are only question marks — many of them, involving everything from if and how many fans can sit in the stands to if and how this team can travel to away games in other states, let alone Canada.

All these questions, most of them difficult if not impossible to answer at this juncture, make this a difficult, very frustrating time for Costa and all those involved with a franchise that had become one of the feel-good stories in Springfield over the past several years.

games might be played in early December

While the AHL is expressing hope that games might be played in early December, Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds, believes January or early February is a more likely target for a return to action at the MassMutual Center.

Under Costa’s stewardship and the backing of a large, committed ownership group, Springfield had gone from a city without hockey after the Falcons departed for Arizona more than five years ago, to one with a franchise that was not only filling the MassMutual Center with increasing regularity, but also becoming part of the fabric of the region.

Turning the clock back just seven months or so, although it seems like an eternity, to be sure, Costa said the team was clicking on all or most cylinders, meaning everything from ticket and merchandise sales to creating strong partnerships with a number of area businesses.


Listen to BusinessTalk with Nate Costa Podcast HERE


“We were, fortunately, in a really good position when the season ended last year,” he noted. “We were ahead of budget, we were on track to make a profit, which was three years in the making. We were in great shape — we had nine sellouts through March last year, which was our previous record, and we had three weekends left and were expecting three more sellouts. The business was in great shape.”

In the proverbial blink of an eye, though, everything changed. The season, and the MassMutual Center, were shut down. Initially, the Thunderbirds, like most businesses closed down by the pandemic, thought it might be a matter of several weeks before things went back to something approaching normal. As it became clear this wouldn’t be the case, the team — again, like many other businesses — had to make some hard decisions and eventually furlough several employees; once a staff of 19, it is now down to seven.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point. You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

Those who remain are trying to carry on as they did seven and half months ago — selling season tickets, planning events, working within the community, and building the team’s foundation. But it’s all different. For the most part, the staff is trying to prepare for contingencies, plan what can be planned, and, perhaps above all, work tirelessly to remain relevant while waiting for games to commence and the pandemic to run its course.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere,” Costa said. “It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

 

Setting Goals

When asked about how he’s apportioning his time these days, Costa said he spends much of it on the phone.

Many of those calls are to and from other team executives in the AHL — he knows most of them going back to the days when he worked for the league — who are looking to compare notes and share thoughts on how to deal with a situation unlike anything they’ve encountered.

“I’m seeing what other teams are doing, what they’re hearing from their states, and what the temperature is for us to play in the upcoming year,” he explained. “There’s a lot of conversation going on about how we can pull this off and how we can do it the right way. It’s a challenge that none of us have faced in our careers, and there’s no way to really plan for it.”

In addition to other AHL officials, Costa and others within the league are also talking with leaders from other sports, including the National Football League. From these conversations, they’re learning it’s been difficult to sell even those comparatively few tickets that states like Florida, Texas, and Missouri are allowing teams to sell.

Indeed, while the popular notion might be that there is considerable demand for those few seats, and that teams would struggle to figure out who might be awarded them, that is certainly not the case.

“They’re having a hard time selling the limited inventory that they have because people are just not mentally ready for it yet,” Costa said. “Even the Cowboys are facing challenges; they’ve had to comp a lot of tickets. The Dolphins, the same thing. That’s what we’re seeing.”

2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule

Signage outside the MassMutual Center still displays the 2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule because the slate for this year remains clouded by question marks.

This harsh reality brings yet another layer of intrigue, and questions, to the discussion concerning just when, if, and under what circumstances the AHL might be permitted to carry out its 2020-21 season. Indeed, while the league wants to commence action and get fans back in the arenas, if they start too early, fans will not be eager to come back.

And the harshest reality of all is that this league — and the NHL as well — simply cannot operate for any length of time without fans in the stands.

The AHL is a league with no national television contracts and only some smaller, regional deals. The vast majority of revenues come from sponsorships and sales of tickets, concessions, and merchandise. And without fans in the stands … well, it’s easy to do the math.

Meanwhile, the inability to play in front of fans is also presenting a major challenge to the parent league, the NHL, whose franchises own the bulk of the teams in the AHL, with a dozen or so, including the Thunderbirds, being independently owned.

“Even though the perception is that the NHL is this huge entity that can just sustain losses, with them not having the ability to put fans in the stands, that impacts everything,” he explained. “That’s the trunk to the revenue tree. If you don’t have fans, it’s hard to sell sponsorships, and you can’t sell merchandise and concessions. And at our level, that’s what really drives our business — it’s butts in seats.

“In this league, it’s crucially important to have fans in the arena,” he went on. “And that’s what we spent four years doing — rebuilding the fan base and packing this arena so that our business would be much more financially solvent.”

But playing games without fans in the stands remains one of the options moving forward, said Costa, calling it a last resort, but still a possibility, especially if he can negotiate with one of the local TV stations to televise some of the games. And talks along those lines are ongoing, he told BusinessWest.

The hope, though, is that, by January or February, the state will allow fans in the arenas with a six-foot-distancing model, he said, referring again to that image on his wall.

“It’s not going to be a ton of people, maybe 1,200 to 1,500 people from what we’re doing with our modeling,” Costa continued. “But at least it would get us started, and then the hope would be that, as the spring would move along, we’d be able to bring more bodies into the building.”

That’s the hope. But Costa and his team, as noted, are preparing, as best they can, for a number of contingencies.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point,” he said. “You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

 

Knowing the Score

Next spring will mark the 50th anniversary of the Calder Cup championship run authored by the team known then as the Springfield Kings, the minor-league affiliate of the then-fledgling Los Angeles Kings.

Costa said the team has been making plans to honor that squad and its accomplishment with a throwback game featuring the Kings’ colors and logos, an on-ice ceremony featuring surviving members of that team, and other events.

Now, most of those plans, as well as those to mark the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds themselves, are in limbo, like just about everything else concerning the 2020-21 season.

Indeed, even as Costa and his team try to prepare for the new season, there are still so many things beyond their control, especially the virus itself. By most accounts, a second wave has commenced, with cases on the rise in a number of states. Some of those states, and individual communities, have already put a number of restrictions in place as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus, and there may be even more in the weeks and months to come.

The ones already in place create a number of logistical concerns.

“Rhode Island has a 14-day mandatory quarantine, so if we play Providence, how does that work?” he asked rhetorically. “Meanwhile, the Canadian border is closed; we have Canadian teams, including one in our conference, Toronto. And then, there’s the challenge of air travel — Charlotte is in our division, and we would normally go there once or twice a year. How do you do that, and how do you do it safely?

“There’s a lot of things that we as a league have to work through,” he went on, and while coping with these day-to-day questions and challenges, he stressed the need to think and plan for the long term. He said the pandemic will eventually be something to talk about with the past tense, and he wants to properly position the franchise for that day, even while coping with the present challenges.

This mindset has dominated the team’s actions with regard to everything from refunding tickets sold but not used last season to managing the partnerships that have been developed over the years with corporate sponsors.

“We reached out to every season-ticket holder and gave them a number of options,” he said in reference to the seven games they missed at the end of last season. “They could roll the credit over to the following year, they could donate to our foundation, or, if they didn’t want to do any of those, we would be happy to give them a refund because, at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.

“None of us planned for this, so from a business perspective, we thought that any sort of pushback or anything like that is not the way to be,” he went on. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the people who have supported us from the start, and we’ve been proactive and honest because, at the end of the day, it’s so important for us to be authentic through this process because we’re not the only ones dealing with this — everyone has their own challenges.”

This approach, coupled with the team’s strong track record over the past several years, has helped the organization maintain its strong base of support, said Costa, adding that the Thunderbirds have been able to retain roughly 85% of their season-ticket sales from last year, despite the question marks hovering over the upcoming season.

“It’s been incredible to see the level of support we’ve been given,” he said. “I think people were really seeing what we are able to do in the community and how much of an impact we were having. We’ve been given commitments by people that they’re going to be here when we’re back.”

Looking ahead to the day when the pandemic is over and he can once again focus on selling out the MassMutual Center, Costa is optimistic about his prospects for doing just that.

“I think it’s going to take some time — it might take until the summer for those people who aren’t diehards to come back to our arena, but I think that, by next fall, we’ll be able to pack this place again,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand, and I think we’re positioned well. I think that, when people are ready to get back in the arena again, they’re going to think twice about driving to Boston and paying $300 to $400 for a ticket when they can get the same experience and see really good hockey right here in our area for a fraction of that price.”

 

Taking Their Best Shot

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest while showing off some of the many other wraps adorning the team’s offices on Bruce Landon Way, Costa stopped and reflected on the fact that last year’s schedule is still posted on the wall outside those facilities.

That schedule has become symbolic of how the NHL and the Thunderbirds have become frozen in time in some respects. No one can say when there will be new games on the slate, how the games will be played, or where.

What Costa does know is that, sometime soon — just when, he doesn’t know — there will be a new schedule in that space. Things will be different for some time to come, and the team is certainly not going to pick right up where it left off when the music stopped last March.

But he firmly believes that the solid foundation laid before the pandemic entered everyone’s lives has the team in a good place for when we’re all on the other side of this crisis.

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Impossible Choices

Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program

The Dress for Success Western Massachusetts digital-literacy program has helped numerous women like Carolyn, who was provided with equipment and coaching to start an online business.

It’s a setback that could take years, even decades, to reverse when it comes to economic equality for women.

About 617,000 women left the U.S. workforce in September, compared with only 78,000 men — nearly eight times as many. About half the women who dropped out are in the prime working age of 35 to 44.

“One of our strategic plans centers around economic security for women and girls,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. “Obviously, that’s more important now, because many women are concentrated in low-wage jobs to begin with, and a lot of those jobs — ones traditionally filled by women — have disappeared because of the pandemic.”

According to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the pandemic-fueled recession is tougher for women for two main reasons. First, as Haghighat noted, the crisis has battered industry sectors in which women’s employment is more concentrated, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, and healthcare. This was not the case in past recessions, which tended to hurt male-dominated industry sectors like manufacturing and construction more than other industries.

Second, the COVID-driven economic shutdowns have closed schools and daycare centers around the country, keeping kids at home and making it harder for parents — especially mothers, who tend to provide the majority of childcare — to keep working.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn,” said Margaret Tantillo, executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization that empowers women to achieve economic independence. “It’s frustrating for parents to be sitting at home and trying to do what they need to do as well as help their children learn. A lot of women have several children at home.”

According to the study, among married parents who both work full-time, the mother provides, on average, about 60% of childcare. And when schools started up remotely last month, it further strained parenting demands. That contrast in accepted gender roles has contributed to a mass exodus of women from the work world that could have long-lasting ramifications.

“The pandemic has really impacted women disproportionately in terms of not being able to go to work so they can help their kids learn.”

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “They have to navigate all that. Even if it’s a working couple, women tend to make less money, so if something has to give, and someone has to give up their job for a while, it tends to be the woman because she’s already making less money. That’s what we’re seeing.”

At the same time, according to a study by management-consulting firm McKinsey, while women account for 39% of the global workforce, they are overrepresented in three of the four hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic: accommodation and food services (54%), retail and wholesale trade (43%), and services such as arts, recreation, and public administration (46%). In addition, only 22% of working women have jobs that allow them to telecommute, compared with 28% of male workers.

The numbers get worse for women of color; while the U.S. female jobless rate remained at 8% in September, it’s higher for black and Hispanic women.

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes,” said Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, adding that some individual success stories have been wiped out.

“Some businesses will never open back up because they didn’t survive the pandemic,” she noted. “How many women own those businesses, or work at those businesses? The effect will be long-lasting. When you’ve lost your job and it’s not coming back, how do you pay your bills?”

 

Holding Up the Pillars

Still, last month’s massive decline in female employment is at least partially — and possibly mostly — due to the lack of childcare options, Russel Price, chief economist at Ameriprise, told CNN, noting that employment in child daycare services was still down nearly 18% in September from its pre-pandemic level.

One factor influences the next, Haghighat said, which is why the Women’s Fund has been working on a grant-funded project to create an ‘economic mobility hub’ in the region by identifying and bolstering key pillars — social determinants of either success or pain — that impact one’s ability to navigate the economy. “If one of those pillars is disrupted, like housing or transportation, that can be devastating for women and families.”

Arena agreed, noting the most obvious example — how a lack of daycare can lead to job loss, which can lead to an inability to pay rent or mortgage. “Now we’re talking about a housing issue in the middle of a pandemic — and with the moratorium being lifted, how many people are facing eviction and being homeless? I see the fallout of these economic challenges.”

“Economic inequality was here before COVID-19. The pandemic just showed us how big this gap is and how deep the disparity goes.”

In addition to distributing food to seniors, directing people to housing resources, and other programs, Arise has even paid some individuals’ routine bills. Arena used the example of an auto-insurance bill: an overdue bill can lead to a ticket, impound, or court date, all of which can generate costs far above the original missed payment, or even the loss of a job. Suddenly a life spirals out of control over $100 or less.

“It can derail someone’s life in a way that policymakers can’t grasp,” she added, citing their inability on Capitol Hill to come up with further stimulus — as if a $1,200 check in the spring adequately covered eight months of hardship. “It’s not their life.”

Haghighat said her organization’s work has uncovered some of the cracks in public support systems and how they impact not only employment, but food security, public health, and any number of other factors the pandemic has only exacerbated.

“It’s easy to say, ‘oh, it’s just an employment issue or a social-services issue.’ It’s more complex than that.”

Then there’s the broad issue known as the ‘digital divide,’ or the inability of many people to access the technology needed to function in today’s economy — an issue that’s come down hard on women since they’ve experienced more disruption.

Tantillo recalled that, as soon as Gov. Charlie Baker announced the shutdown in mid-March, “we picked up the phone and called our participants and found a lot of them had issues they didn’t have before. And one thing that came up was connectivity and being able to access and utilize the internet.”

Identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for 25 women, 13 of whom have since enrolled in a local workforce-development program for job training.

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat

“We have folks who are voluntarily dropping out of the job market, particularly women, because of the competing demands in terms of remote learning for children.”

“Everyone has a different starting point,” Tantillo said. “We assess where they are and provide coaching to the point where they can do all the things they need to do for a job search.

“I can’t imagine what their lives would be like right now if they didn’t have access to the Internet and able to do all these things,” she continued, adding that the digital divide was a reality for many long before COVID-19.

“The women we serve, they had to go to the library to go on the computer and do a job search, with maybe a kid in tow. How are they working in the same playing field as everyone else? They’re not. And the majority of women we serve are women of color.”

Then, of course, all the libraries closed, and the pandemic further exacerbated that computer-access divide. While Dress for Success has donated equipment and provided coaching for area women, that’s only a micro-level solution.

“It illustrates what’s needed at the macro level. What we’re doing really highlights what is going on in our communities. When women are trying to get out of poverty, and they’re not able to connect to a job search, it leaves not just them behind, but their families, for generations.”

“If we want an economy that’s going to thrive,” Tantillo went on, “we need to have citizens participating in the new economy, and the new economy is going to be online. Everyone has a vested interest in this. It’s an injustice if we don’t fix it.”

 

Ripple Effect

The National Bureau of Economic Research survey suggests the ramifications of the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on women could be long-lasting. The authors estimate that 15 million single mothers in the U.S. will be the most severely affected, with little potential for receiving other sources of childcare and a smaller likelihood of continuing to work during the crisis.

Even if they do return, leaving the workforce for any amount of time — which, again, 617,000 American women did last month, by either choice or because their job disappeared — will affect their lifetime earning potential, which already lags behind that of men.

All that piles on top of the health impacts — both physical and mental — of this challenging time, an area where the digital divide creeps in as well, Tantillo said.

“It impacts people’s ability to stay engaged through telehealth. We talk about social isolation; it impacts the ability to connect with family and friends. People are now talking about connectivity as if it’s a utility — that’s how important it is.

“We created a pilot for what needs to happen regionally in order for there to be real change and access for everyone,” she added. “It needs to be regional, and people need to put resources into this.”

Arena noted that people often use the term ‘essential worker’ or ‘frontline worker’ to talk about medical professionals, but so many other people who are truly essential and working on the front lines — truck drivers, grocery cashiers, gas-station attendants — have had to make tough choices about whether to work and make needed income or step away and guard their health.

She says the legislators fighting in Washington don’t understand — and don’t seem to care — how this year has taxed individuals, and especially women, in so many ways.

“Now that schools are closed, can you get to your job?” she asked. “Am I going to lose my livelihood because of these economic conditions, or literally lose my life by going to work? People are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

Risky Business

By Amy B. Royal, Esq.

The pandemic has already created a flurry of individual and class-action lawsuits against companies. In fact, according to data collected through a national association for lawyers, it is estimated that approximately 80 COVID-related litigation cases have been filed in Massachusetts alone, and more than 5,000 across the country. These cases are expected to be very costly to defend.

The most common types of cases that have emerged involve health and safety violations, discrimination, and leaves of absence from work. In understanding the trends of lawsuits that have already been filed, businesses can better prepare by assessing risk and perhaps mitigate their exposure to liability in the process.

 

The Safety Suits

Not surprisingly, several COVID-related lawsuits involve health and safety claims. The common theme among them is that a company failed to provide a safe environment either for their employees or for their customers. Some of the lawsuits allege a failure-to-warn component, i.e., that the company knew an individual had exhibited COVID-19 symptoms at the place of business, yet the company failed to inform employees and customers. Other lawsuits involve claims that companies either did not provide adequate PPE or otherwise take necessary precautions to protect people.

Amy B. Royal, Esq

Amy B. Royal, Esq

An offshoot of the safety suits involve whistleblower claims under OSHA, a federal law that addresses standards for workplace health and safety. Employees can blow the whistle on their employer by reporting potential workplace health and safety issues to (and filing complaints with) the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a division of the Department of Labor.

“According to data collected through a national association for lawyers, it is estimated that approximately 80 COVID-related litigation cases have been filed in Massachusetts alone, and more than 5,000 across the country.”

Many of the COVID-related OSHA claims are for retaliation. Specifically, several employees have filed complaints alleging they suffered an adverse employment action after notifying their employer of violations of social-distancing guidelines or failures to maintain proper cleaning of workspaces or PPE.

 

Discrimination

Age, disability, and pregnancy discrimination cases related to COVID-19 have been on the rise since the summer months. These types of cases typically arise under the following general set of circumstances: the employee refuses to return to the physical workspace citing their age, disability, or pregnancy as too much of a risk factor, and their employer terminates them or, in the context of disability and pregnancy, does not accommodate them by allowing them to work at home.

However, these same types of discrimination cases arise in a different way as well, underscoring the fact that no good deed goes unpunished. Believe it or not, good-intentioned employers that have told their older workers or those with known pre-existing conditions to work from home, take a leave of absence, or accept a furlough while bringing back their younger or non-disabled counterparts are getting smacked with age and disability discrimination claims.

Although these employers may have been acting out of concern for their workers that they perceived as high-risk, preventing them from returning to the workplace can give rise to a potentially viable age or disability discrimination claim. Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), our federal enforcement agency for discrimination claims, issued guidance on this specific situation. In a nutshell, the EEOC has taken the position that employers cannot do this unless they can show their employee’s physical presence in the workplace poses a “direct threat,” which is an extremely high standard to meet.

 

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

The FFCRA came into effect in what felt like a nanosecond and, thus, created a quagmire. Businesses suddenly needed to understand the act, implement it, and comply with it.

The act, which included the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act within it, requires covered employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for certain qualifying reasons. The act took effect in April and presently is slated to remain in effect through the end of the year. It applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees.

“Some of the lawsuits allege a failure-to-warn component, i.e., that the company knew an individual had exhibited COVID-19 symptoms at the place of business, yet the company failed to inform employees and customers.”

Now that the act has been in effect for just over six months, lawsuits under it have begun to emerge. The majority of these lawsuits involve the caregiver provisions of the act.

The act mandates that employers provide 80 hours of paid sick leave to employees to care for:

• An individual who is subject to a governmental quarantine or isolation order or is advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine due to COVID concerns; or

• Their child if the child’s school or daycare is closed or the childcare provider is unavailable due to the pandemic.

Further, the Emergency Family Medical Leave Act portion of the FFCRA permits employees to take 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for their child if the child’s school or daycare is closed or the childcare provider is unavailable.

In these FFCRA lawsuits, employees are claiming either that their requests for leave were improperly denied or that they were retaliated against for availing themselves of their rights under the act.

 

The ‘Take Home’ Cases

The ‘take home’ cases are the scariest of them all as they carry the biggest monetary exposure to businesses. The crux of them is this: an employee contracts COVID-19 at his or her workplace. A family member becomes infected and becomes very ill or tragically dies. A claim is then brought by the family member against the employer for negligence under the theory that the employer failed to warn or failed to take reasonable precautions.

Workers’ compensation laws are generally the exclusive remedy to employees for workplace injuries. This means employees cannot bring negligence claims against their employer for workplace injuries. The reason for the workers’ compensation system was to limit employers’ exposure to large, multi-million-dollar damage awards in personal-injury cases, as workers’ compensation laws impose caps on damages. Take-home cases, however, are not capped and could potentially generate a nuclear verdict.

There is precedent for take-home cases in the asbestos litigation space. Indeed, family members have received landslide settlements and verdicts from many companies claiming they developed mesothelioma after their spouse, for example, brought asbestos into their home after work.

The first take-home COVID-19 case was recently filed in Illinois by a daughter who alleged her mother died after her father contracted coronavirus at work and then brought it back into the home, infecting her mother. In this wrongful-death lawsuit, the daughter alleges her father’s employer should be on the hook for the exposure to her mother that her father ‘took home’ to her, which ultimately caused her mother’s death. Other take-home cases have begun to emerge around the country as well.

 

What Can Be Done to Mitigate Risk?

Two words: comprehensive planning. Proper planning includes knowing what laws apply to your company, assessing them and assessing your overall areas of risk, taking proactive steps, and designating a team to help create, implement, manage, and adapt to COVID-related issues. Then, put pen to paper and document your efforts.

 

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 that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]