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Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

While communities nationwide continue to grapple with what he calls the “grumpy cloud” of COVID-19, Westfield Mayor Donald Humason is looking to project a little sunshine.

“A lot of it has to do with the attitude in Westfield,” the mayor said. “We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.” 

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, agreed, and wants everyone to know Westfield is open for business.

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon says the Greater Westfield Chamber remains strong and active, and has even welcomed some new members.

While the chamber remains strong with more than 5,000 members, two new businesses have recently joined. Play Now, a new toy store on Silver Street, and Results in Wellness, a health and wellness clinic on Springfield Road, were both planning ribbon-cutting ceremonies at press time. Also scheduled to open is a Five Below store, where everything is priced between $1 and $5.

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody,” Phelon said.

After many months of not being able to hold any chamber events, she’s also excited about hosting the annual chamber golf tournament, scheduled for Aug. 31 at East Mountain Country Club. “We will, of course, be following all the guidelines for masks and distancing. It certainly helps that this is an outdoor event.”

Speaking of outdoor events, the Westfield Starfires began their Futures Collegiate Baseball League season on July 8. The team modified Bullens Field to provide a safe experience for fans and staff by following state guidelines for COVID-19 safety. Phelon attended as part of a contingent of chamber members and reported that fans simply wore their masks and were able to enjoy refreshments at properly distanced picnic tables.

“We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.”

Considering what’s already been lost in this unprecedented year, the shout of ‘play ball!’ was certainly welcome — and city and chamber officials hope it heralds the start of a back half of 2020 that’s far more promising than the first half.

Full Power

While it was uncertain if the Starfires would be able to play this season, the crew at Westfield Gas & Electric never stopped.

General Manager Anthony Contrino said his crews have consistently provided essential services for customers of the municipal utility. After a crash course on handling COVID-19 in the workplace that kept people safe and followed state guidelines, G & E crews have handled only emergency situations for the last several months. More recently, the utility has been able to handle non-emergency work like in-home gas and electric installations.

Contrino said the many disaster-recovery drills he and his colleagues have done in the past helped prepare them well for COVID-19.

“We’ve had a lot of remote-workforce capabilities in place, but they’ve never been tested to this degree,” he said, calling it a “blessing in disguise” as the last several months confirmed that the processes they had set up work when they are most needed.

Administrative staff returned to their offices at the end of June after the building was reconfigured with the latest pandemic protocols in place.

“I commend my co-workers, who have done a very good job during this time for their service to the city and all of our customers,” Contrino said, adding that Westfield G & E received the Reliable Public Power Provider Award for excellence in operating efficiently, reliably, and safely.

Westfield

Westfield Mayor Don Humason says he has heard from business, both downtown and elsewhere, looking to expand once they feel they can.

Whip City Fiber, a separate business that provides fiber-optic internet service, is also run by Westfield G & E. Contrino said 70% of Westfield now has access to the utility’s fiber-optic network. “In 2020, we have continued to add customers to areas that have access to fiber optics in their neighborhood.”

The plan going forward is to expand the network to the remaining 30% of the city. “Customer demand will determine where we build out the remainder of the network,” he noted.

In addition to serving Westfield, Whip City Fiber is working with 19 towns in Western Mass. to establish their internet service, Contrino added. “We are working in places like the hilltowns that were underserved with internet service, so they are appreciative that we can help them get up and running.”

Once established, customers in the hilltowns will have access to gigabit service, or 1,000 megabits coming into their homes. By installing fiber optics, Contrino said, these towns are “future-proofing” their internet systems. “We already had the competencies in place to build fiber-optic networks, so by expanding our services to other towns, we become more cost-effective for Westfield residents.”

Getting Around

On the recreation front, the Greenway Rail Trail, an elevated bike path, is expanding across the city. By the end of next year, bike paths and five bridges will be added to the trail.

“The completion of the bike trail will be a real economic driver for Westfield,” Humason said. “I think it will attract cyclists from other parts of the country, as well as the state.”

Phelon added that serious cyclists will be able to ride continuously from Westfield to New Haven, Conn., and the trail is a valuable asset for casual cyclists as well.

“Bike riders will now have a way to quickly get across town because the trail goes through the center of Westfield,” she noted. “Because it’s elevated and above all the traffic, they will be able to go from one end of town to the other, complete with off-ramps into different neighborhoods.” 

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody.”

The mayor is hopeful that enterprising businesses will locate near the bike trail to serve the bikers, walkers, and others who use it.

“The bike trail fits in nicely with the flavor of old Westfield and our history of industry and agriculture,” he said. “Even if you’re not interested in all that, it’s an easy way to get across town.”

Humason said he’s pleased to see that a number of road improvements over the years now connect the downtown area from the south side of the city all the way to the Mass Pike exit.

The latest road project near completion involves widening and adding sidewalks along Western Avenue. The project also improves traffic flow with turning lanes into Westfield State University, as well as pull-off areas for PVTA buses.

“Western Avenue is one of the longest streets in the city, and it deserved to get this treatment,” the mayor said, adding that certain parts of the road also have traffic islands to separate the east and west lanes. “It’s an easier road to drive now, and it looks really nice.” 

The mayor said the city completed a similar project on East Mountain Road, another long street. “If we continually work on the longer streets and keep them in good order when we have the revenue, we can work on the smaller streets in the neighborhoods and the downtown corridor, so we can keep the city in good shape.” 

Future projects coming to Westfield include a new entry gate to the military side of Barnes Airport to service the both the Army Aviation facility and the Air National Guard base. The new entrance will allow the base to modernize function and security for everyone entering the base.

A public park is also planned just outside the gate that will feature one of the F-15 fighter jets that flew over New York City on 9/11. A plaque to tell the story of the jet’s mission on Sept. 11, 2001 will also be part of the display.

Moving On

Also in the near future, Phelon will be retiring from the Greater Westfield Chamber. Before she leaves on Sept. 25, her plan is to work with the new executive director to ensure continuity in the many chamber projects.

“I want to make sure the next director understands our community, as well as our members, and can work with our public and private partners at the local and state level,” she said.

Despite the tough economic times of the last six months, prospects for Westfield look strong, she told BusinessWest, adding that she’s encouraged by the fact that no businesses have decided to not reopen. Meanwhile, Contrino said his crews have not been asked to shut off any business customers because they are permanently closing. Humason said he’s heard only from businesses looking forward to expanding once they can.

“Like many towns, we’re going through the COVID economy, but that’s not going to last forever,” the mayor said. “We’ll be ready to grow when the restraints have finally been taken off because the people in Westfield have put a lot of time, attention, and money into its city and its downtown.”

Health Care

Improved State

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the state’s slow, cautious reopening has effectively blocked some of the paths COVID-19 might take, thus slowing transmission of the disease.

In many respects, Dr. Andy Artenstein says, the COVID-19 virus acts like water in the home in that, if there are leaks, it can go where you don’t necessarily want it to go and cause major problems.

“Water will always find a path,” Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health, told BusinessWest. “But if you block off all the paths, you have a chance; it’s the same with the virus.”

With that, he worked to explain why it is that Massachusetts, more than most of the other 50 states at this particular moment in time, is seeing the number of hospitalizations and deaths stemming from the virus decline sharply. In short, and in his view, the residents of the Commonwealth are essentially, and somewhat effectively, blocking off the paths the virus might take.

“We live in a society where there’s free mobility — that’s one of the things we love about our society. But it’s also one of the things that puts us at risk when there’s a transmissible agent rooted in this society,” he explained. “And this one is clearly here; it’s clearly transmitted in our community. It has not gone away; it’s just that, if viruses don’t get transmitted from person to person … if the virus has nowhere to go, it puts a wall from that root of transmission. You start to block off transmission paths.”

This was Artenstein’s way of explaining why, as one looks at a map of the country charting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic, Massachusetts is colored or tan or pink, while so many other states, especially in the South and Southwest, are dark shades of red, indicating they are hot spots.

Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, gave essentially the same account.

“Massachusetts, along with a few of the other states here in New England, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a few others, seem to be solid, if not shining, examples of how a state encompassing multiple different communities can effectively slow down the rate of transmission of the coronavirus,” he said. “More than 40 other states are seeing significant increases in numbers of new infections, while here, over the past several weeks, we have not seen that increase; rather, we’ve seen a plateauing at a very low level.”

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections.”

He punctuated those comments with some statistics from his facility. Indeed, he noted that hospitalizations stemming from COVID-19, which numbered in the 50s daily on average in April, the height of the surge in this region, were down in the 20s in May, then the single digits in June. Starting in early July, there were several days when there were no hospitalizations.

Clearly, the state is doing something right, or several things right, when it comes to blocking paths for the virus, and we’ll get to those. But this begs a number of questions — especially, ‘is this sustainable?’

The quick answer, said Roose and Artenstein, is ‘yes.’ But there are a number of caveats, especially as more segments of the economy reopen in more cities, including Boston, and as the new school year is poised to begin. In their view, the Commonwealth has acted prudently in not opening too much of the economy too quickly. Staying that course is essential, they said, adding that it appears the state is committed to the slow, steady, and safe method.

Meanwhile, travel is another key factor in this equation, both people from this state traveling to others and people from other states coming here — actions that create paths for the virus, rather than block them.

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections,” Roose said. “To me, that is likely to be the most significant factor going forward, because of the rates of infection in other parts of the country; interstate travel represents one of our most significant risks in terms of keeping our rates of transmission is this local community low.”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose says caution regarding travel will be one of many factors that will determine if the Bay State can continue its pattern of falling hospitalizations as a result of the pandemic.

But the biggest factor might be fatigue.

“It’s exhausting — for all of us; I’m not just talking about the healthcare side, I’m talking about life,” said Artenstein. “There are certain things that you just miss having as social human beings. But the longer you can sort of wait this out and stretch this out, the better off we’ll be.”

In other words, people can’t relax or think for a moment that maybe it’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense.

As they talked about the state’s current status as a … let’s call it a cold spot for the virus, both Roose and Artenstein praised the Commonwealth’s approach to reopening, which has been described by both those supporting and criticizing it as slow and careful.

Pain Threshold

Artenstein had another word for it.

“It’s painful, because we all want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he explained. “It’s exhausting that you can’t do what you like to do the way you used to do it, and eventually we will be able to. But this approach has paid dividends; you get used to a little bit of a new normal, but you also know that you’re moving toward something.”

Roose agreed.

“What I think Gov. Baker and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services have done very well is be cautious, rely very clearly and directly on the key data points, and move slowly but consistently through a phased reopening,” he explained. “In other states, governors had moved much more quickly, and we’re seeing the effects of that now; in many states, they’re seeing such significant increases that they’re moving backward and rolling back some aspects of their reopenings.

“It’s not to say that this same type of thing couldn’t happen here,” he added quickly. “But relying consistently on key data and reinforcing consistently the important public-health and safety strategies that we know are effective in reducing transmission — that has not wavered, and I think that has sent a very consistent and strong message to residents to continue to wear masks, be cautious with increasing your social circle, practice hand hygiene, and quarantine when you’re sick.”

As a result of the slow reopening plan and diligence with things like mask wearing, contact tracing, social distancing, and testing, the Commonwealth has effectively moved past the first wave of the pandemic — while other states have clearly not, said those we spoke with. It is now in what Artenstein called a “window,” where, he said, residents must be diligent about not backsliding when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, keeping one’s distance, and other preventive measures, while also preparing for the second wave that most say is almost certain to come in the fall or winter.

“That’s just historically what pandemics do,” he explained. “They don’t all do that, but statistics will tell you that there will be at least a second wave if not more waves.”

What will those waves be like? It’s difficult to say at this point, said Roose and Artenstein, adding that a number of factors will dictate the level of infections and how well the healthcare community can respond to the next surge.

But in the meantime, and while still in this window, the state’s residents and business owners alike must continue to stay the course, the experts said.

“We still could do better in terms of how often people wear masks in pubic and follow the public-health recommendations,” said Roose, adding that state leadership must continue to reinforce those messages. “We know that when we give those recommendations and that guidance and it’s clear and connected to science, it helps, and it’s certainly important to be consistent about it, or people will have less inclination to follow them.”

Meanwhile, as the state proceeds with phase 3 of its reopening plan and eyes phase 4, testing will be another critical key to closing off paths the virus might take.

“I believe strongly that adequate capacity and widespread testing are critical for us to continue to move forward into phase 4 and into a state where the community is engaging as fully as it can,” Roose said. “That allows us to ensure that, if we do identify infections, we can mitigate the spread; widespread testing is really critical, and we’re not yet where we need to be, as state and as a country. We still could be doing more, and I think the ways we do testing will continue to get easier and more readily available, and that will help quite a bit.”

Artenstein agreed, but quickly noted that all the steps people have been taking — and hopefully will continue to take — only serve to slow or inhibit the spread of the virus. The virus is still there, and it will remain there until a vaccine is developed.

“You can temporarily shut down or limit transmission,” he said, “and then you have the chance for other things to kick in, such as therapies and better approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Those things take time, but they can get a chance to take root once you’ve already established those public-health principles.

“It’s pretty obvious that limiting public gatherings and staying the course has helped,” he went on, returning to the thought that, however painful and exhausting the last few months have been, the strategy moving forward for the state and all its residents has to be to continue to wait it out and, as he said, “stretch it out.”

Bottom Line

Turning the clock back 100 years, to the so-called Spanish flu, Artenstein said the second wave of that pandemic was more severe than the first in many parts of the country simply because communities eased off on restrictions and returned to what life was like before it struck.

“A lot has changed in 100 years — science, technology, people, etc.,” he told BusinessWest. “But one thing that hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion, is behavior. We may be able to further mitigate any future surge, just as we mitigated this surge, by adhering to public-health guidelines. If we can keep that up, and then get some help with testing, better contract tracing, better therapies, which will happen, and maybe a vaccine…”

He didn’t completely finish the thought and instead stressed that this ‘if’ is a very large one, and there are really no certainties when it comes to this strategy.

But the very best strategy at the moment, he stressed, is to string this out and close off those pathways the virus can take.

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

Baby Steps

After more than two months of a widespread economic shutdown, Massachusetts is opening its economy again — sort of. The plan, announced by Gov. Charlie Baker on May 18, allows some businesses to open their doors under tight health restrictions, while others — including restaurants, spas, and most retail — have to wait longer to invite the public inside. What’s got businesses frustrated is not knowing exactly when their turn will come — and the financial impact they continue to endure every week they have to wait.

Massachusetts is the 15th-most populous state in the U.S., yet, the day Gov. Charlie Baker released his economic reopening report, it had reported the fourth-most total COVID-19 cases in the country.

So, the reopening was never going to be a free-for-all.

“We were all very aware that, no matter what we went forward with, there will be more infection and more deaths,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, one of 17 members of the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. “While the public-health metrics are numbers, statistics, they’re also people — they’re your neighbors, maybe your mother or father.

“People want to open,” she told BusinessWest, “but they don’t want to put people at risk — themselves, their customers, their parents. The compassion is remarkable.”

That’s why it was no surprise that Massachusetts is reopening slowly and cautiously. Last week, manufacturing facilities, construction sites, and places of worship were allowed to return under strict guidelines (more on those later), and on May 25, the list will expand to offices (except in Boston) and labs; hair salons, pet grooming, and car washes; retail, with remote fulfillment and curbside pickup only; beaches, parks, drive-in movies, and some athletic fields and courts; fishing, hunting, and boating; and outdoor gardens, zoos, reserves, and public installations.

That covers what Baker is calling phase 1, with three more reopening phases to follow. Conspicuously not on the phase-1 list? Restaurants, spas, daycare centers, in-store retail … it’s a long list. And, for many business leaders, a frustrating one.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says businesses in phase 1 got the clarity they were seeking, but those in phase 2 are still waiting.

“There’s certainly an appreciation for public health, but there also needs to be some common sense, and I think it’s very hard to explain why it’s OK for 200 people to be in line at Home Depot, but a small, downtown store can’t have two or three people in it,” Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, told BusinessWest.

“Certainly everyone has to be smart,” he added, “but I think there needs to be more common sense brought into the reopening. I appreciate where the governor is — the balancing act — and I think the reopening committee did a great job with outreach, but there needs to be clear guidance and some common sense.”

Others were less diplomatic.

“While protecting public health is important and something we all support, it defies logic to declare that the opening of barbershops and hair salons is safe, while claiming opening small retail businesses is not,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

“The same is true for the opening of churches and large office buildings,” he went on. “Having two or three people in a retail shop is every bit as safe, if not safer, than the allowable businesses in phase 1. The Baker administration has consistently picked winners and losers during this crisis, and it is disappointing to see that trend continue in the reopening plan.”

As president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, Nancy Creed has been in touch with her members for almost three months now on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. She, like Sullivan, understands the delicate balance the state is walking.

“When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again.”

“Certain sectors thought they’d be in phase 1, so there’s always that frustration,” she told BusinessWest. “When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again. So we need to be smart about it and make sure we’re doing everything we can so the reopening is successful, and this doesn’t happen again.’”

She knows that’s not easy for many small businesses to hear, particularly ones with no revenue stream at all during this time.

“This is different for everyone, but businesses are muddling through it, pivoting, doing the things they need to do for basic economic survival,” she added. “But if it happens again, I don’t think we’ll survive the second round.”

Hence, baby steps, and a multi-phase reopening that offers real hope for many sectors, but continues to draw no small amount of criticism as well.

Guidance — and Lack Thereof

According to Baker’s plan, each phase of the reopening will be guided by public-health data that will be continually monitored and used to determine advancement to future phases. The goal of a phased plan is to methodically allow businesses, services, and activities to resume, while avoiding a resurgence of COVID-19 that could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system and erase the progress made so far.

Each phase will last a minimum of three weeks and could last longer before moving to the next phase. If public-health data trends are negative, specific industries, regions, or even the entire Commonwealth may need to return to an earlier phase.

Nicole LaChapelle

Nicole LaChapelle

“When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

In addition, success in earlier phases will refine criteria for future phases, including travel, gathering sizes, as well as additional openings in retail, restaurants, lodging, arts, entertainment, fitness centers, museums, youth sports, and other activities.

“Going in, the goals were, how do we safely and slowly open the Massachusetts economy?” LaChapelle said. “And that is directly tied to public-health metrics. When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

It was helpful, she explained, to seek input from myriad sectors and businesses — those deemed essential and never forced to shutter; those that had to pivot, such as retailers boosting their online presence and manufacturers shifting to making masks and face shields; and businesses that have been effectively sidelined.

“The board, at no point, even at the beginning, was like, ‘let’s get this thing going and roll it out immediately,’” she added, noting that she understands the need for companies to start ramping back up. “They may be a little disappointed, but they’ve been very understanding. There’s some education we have to do, but nobody is really upside-down about it.”

In order to reopen, businesses must develop a written COVID-19 control plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of the virus. They must also create and display posters and signs describing rules for maintaining social distancing, hygiene protocols, as well as cleaning and disinfecting.

“I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately.”

Sullivan appreciates the attention to public-health concerns, but said it offers little comfort for businesses stuck in an as-yet-undefined phase 2 — or beyond. While the reopening plan gives clear guidance for businesses in phase 1, those in phase 2 don’t even get a target date they can work toward or a set of protocols they can begin to develop. And that lack of clarity has led to frustration.

“I do think many businesses, especially smaller businesses, were kind of expecting more things to open up,” he said. “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately. They’ll need to plan, order some equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight. Many businesses are just looking at lead time — they want to open sooner than later, but they want lead time so they can be ready to go.”

Creed agreed.

“I think what businesses wanted, at least in the beginning, was some clarity about the guidelines, about the timelines, about the standards, about the checklists, all those things, so they can create their own plan — and that was achieved, at least for phase 1,” she explained. “But I am hearing the phase-2 people saying, ‘well, I wanted to be able to plan, but I don’t have enough guidance right now,’ so there’s some frustration.”

The Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc. said as much in a statement following the plan’s release.

“Obviously, every restaurateur is disappointed with the lack of a defined reopening date in today’s announcement,” it noted. “Massachusetts restaurants need their suppliers to have time to restock perishable inventory before it can be delivered to them. They need to notify employees about returning to work and conduct other due diligence to ensure restaurants can open effectively.”

Safety and Numbers

Across Massachusetts, the reopening plan sparked a spectrum of reactions, all acknowledging the competing health and economic interests in play, but expressing different levels of understanding and frustration — and often both.

“We realize that every employer in Massachusetts would love to hear that they can reopen immediately. But we also acknowledge that a phased reopening balances the need to restart the economy with the need to manage a public-health crisis that continues to claim 100 lives a day in Massachusetts,” John Regan, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, noted in a statement.

Even as some businesses start to reopen and others plan to do so, the state Department of Public Health updated its stay-at-home advisory, replacing it with a new “Safer at Home” advisory, which instructs everyone to stay home unless they are headed to a newly opened facility or activity. It also advises those over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions to stay home, with the exception of trips required for healthcare, groceries, or that are otherwise absolutely necessary. All residents must continue to wear a face covering in public when social distancing is not possible, and individuals are advised to wash their hands frequently and be vigilant in monitoring for symptoms. Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people remain in effect.

The state also encourages working from home when possible, and Baker’s office released a list of 54 large companies — employing about 150,000 workers among them — that have issued statements extending work-from-home policies for the remainder of the spring, with numerous reporting intentions to extend into the summer and, in some cases, for the remainder of 2020.

“As MassMutual develops our plan to gradually return to the office, the health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” said Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual, noting that his employees will return to the office no sooner than the beginning of September.

“We expect to come back in a slow, phased manner,” he added. “We will continue to monitor and reassess and will be factoring in a number of considerations — from federal, state, and local government and health officials’ guidance to a sustained reduction in cases in our operating locations, to broader available testing and our employees’ personal circumstances and comfort.”

Patrick Sullivan, Massachusetts President of People’s United Bank, is also promoting continued work from home where possible.

“People’s United Bank is assessing re-entry conditions and protocols to ensure the safety of our team members and our customers,” he said. “Our approach will balance the needs of employees with the needs of the business. As we have been successful in pivoting and adjusting to working from home, we will continue to encourage this behavior.”

Still, those are businesses that can at least operate in most aspects. Retail stores can’t so easily adjust — and have been devastated by the inability to invite shoppers into their stores.

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers.”

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers,” said Hurst, noting that Massachusetts stores are losing Memorial Day weekend at a time when other states have let them open up shop by now. “Retail businesses are ready and able to open safely now with a limited number of people in stores and for appointment shopping. By not allowing that until late June, many small, Main Street businesses will close forever.”

That’s not hyperbole for small businesses of many kinds. Matt Haskins, who operates the popular Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, said a recent grant from the Downtown Amherst Foundation has helped him stay afloat at a time when he doesn’t know when college business will return.

“Just five minutes before [receiving word of the grant], I was on a phone call discussing if Matt’s Barber Shop was going to make it or break it,” he told foundation officials. “The grant helps me think we’re going to make it.”

So will being able to open his doors again on May 25. And that’s all most business owners want right now — a target. Creed hears that, but at the same time, she’s encouraged by recent chamber polling suggesting the percentage of business owners who feel they’ll survive this crisis is rising.

“What that says to me is people are finding a way to make sure it doesn’t put them out of business,” she said, “which shows the resilience of the businesses we have here.”

Yes, they have resilience, in spades. Now, they want clarity — and some hard dates.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced $2 million in Urban Agenda grant program funding to 23 projects, the largest award round since fiscal year 2016. The program is focused on promoting economic vitality in urban neighborhoods by fostering partnerships for growth that capitalize on unique local assets and community-driven responses to challenges.

The awards will fund projects supporting workforce development, small businesses, and entrepreneurship initiatives across 21 communities: Attleboro, Barnstable, Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Fitchburg, Greenfield, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, North Adams, Pittsfield, Revere, Salem, Springfield, and Worcester.

“Our administration is committed to partnering with local leaders and community organizations that are on the ground in urban neighborhoods to encourage collaborative, high-impact projects that directly impact the quality of life and access to opportunity of residents,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “The flexibility of the Urban Agenda program enables investments in a wide range of initiatives that train unemployed individuals for jobs, assist local entrepreneurs, and prepare small businesses for success.”

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito added that “Urban Agenda grants are one of the tools that allow our administration to tackle local challenges around workforce training and provide support to urban small businesses and entrepreneurs that have the potential to create strong and vibrant downtowns. Our administration has always emphasized collaboration and homegrown solutions, and today’s awards embrace innovative projects that will expand access to economic prosperity.”

Launched by the Baker-Polito administration in 2015, Urban Agenda program grants are competitive, one-year grants that offer flexible funding for local partnerships to implement programming and projects that are based on creative collaborative work models with the goal of urban communities achieving economic progress. These projects leverage existing economic assets to respond to and deliver on defined economic development and quality-of-life goals. Awards prioritize collaboration, shared accountability, and building leadership capacity at the local level.

In this round of the Urban Agenda program, the administration prioritized funding to applications that proposed the implementation of projects or initiatives that directly address any of the recommendations issued by the Black Advisory Commission and the Latino Advisory Commission, established by Baker in 2017. Applicants were encouraged to enhance partnerships from within the African-American and Latino communities and to prioritize changes that would enhance community partnerships, strengthen small businesses, increase workforce participation, and expand opportunity in ways that drive diversity and inclusiveness.

“Our new economic-development plan, Partnerships for Growth, aims to ensure that everyone has a chance to be on the playing field when it comes to economic success, and the Urban Agenda program is one way our administration can connect more residents to the prosperity that has been generated in Massachusetts,” Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said. “Over the next four years, our administration will continue our outreach to small businesses across the Commonwealth, including those in urban downtowns, to ensure we align programming with their needs for space, capital, employees, and technical assistance.”

Cover Story

Turning the Corner

Joao Alves, Chapter 74 Vocational Director at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy

It wasn’t so long ago that young people — and their parents — perceived technical schools as a last resort of sorts. But a profoundly changed labor market, a workforce crisis, and a series of investments on the part of the Commonwealth have changed all that. Today, these are increasingly seen as schools of choice because of their blend of academic and vocational programs, and their students are certainly in demand.

Joao Alves has been in and around what is now known as Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy for the better part of 40 years.

He attended the school, known then as Putnam Vocational High School, in the late ’70s. He started teaching there in the early ’90s, and has been there ever since, now taking the title of Chapter 74 vocational director, which means he’s in charge of making sure the school’s many programs meet established state standards. Over all those years, he has seen what amounts to serious pendulum swings when it comes to vocational education, from his days as a student, when the school’s enrollment was at its zenith and jobs in manufacturing and the trades were plentiful, to those days when he started teaching there, when such jobs were in sharp decline and interest in vocational programs was plummeting.

To … today, when, by all accounts, vocational schools are enjoying a resurgence of sorts — as evidenced by a lengthy waiting list for valuable slots at Putnam and similar situations at other area schools.

Indeed, fueled by a number of factors, from the retirement of Baby Boomers and the resulting infusion of jobs to a huge commitment from the state to meet workforce needs and address a widely recognized skills gap, vocational/technical schools — many of them now called ‘academies’ thanks to rebranding efforts undertaken years ago — are seeing heightened and what appears to be sustainable interest in programs ranging from machine tooling to allied health; from criminal justice to culinary arts.

“What we provide today is opportunity,” Alves said. “Whether the student is going to go out and work tomorrow, as soon as they graduate, or whether they go into the military, or whether they go on to college — they’re better prepared for those options.”

Joe Langone, principal of Westfield Technical Academy, formerly Westfield Vocational High School, agreed.

“There’s been a change in perception about technical schools and the students who attend them,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his school, with nearly 600 students, is at what he called max capacity. “I’m pleased that this has come about, but, sadly, it took a skills gap for people to become aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in a situation where people with trade skills are a commodity.

“We’re experiencing great shortages in a number of areas in our region, including healthcare, manufacturing, information technology, and education,” he went on, adding that these shortages result in part from the retirement or Baby Boomers, a trend that will only accelerate as more members of that generation reach their mid-to late ’60s.

David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, concurred, and said a variety of forces — from those job opportunities to a stronger alignment of the academic and vocational programs at the area’s technical schools — have increasingly made them what he called the “schools of choice.”

Joe Langone says that, in today’s challenged workforce climate, technical-school graduates have become what he called a commodity.

“Over the past several years, both employers and parents have come to understand the importance of both college and career,” he explained. “And they find that the vocational/technical high schools offer a pretty robust academic program, but also prepare students with skills they either take to the labor market after graduation or pursue two- or four-year degrees. And with today’s labor market, where supply is in relative short supply across most industries, the value of a vocational/technical high-school education, which was always valuable, is now even more so.”

Langone said his school, like others, is responding to needs and concerns within the workforce with curriculum changes, new and updated equipment — often funded with help from community partners, including businesses that hire graduates — and new programs designed to help create a pipeline of workers for specific industry sectors.

“There’s been a change in perception about technical schools and the students who attend them. I’m pleased that this has come about, but, sadly, it took a skills gap for people to become aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. All of the sudden, we find ourselves in a situation where people with trade skills are a commodity.”

As an example, he cited his school’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, created specifically to address the needs of companies like Gulfstream and Rectrix Aerodrome Center, located near Westfield’s Barnes Municipal Airport (more on that later).

And there may be more new programs and expansion of existing ones through a new line item in the state budget called the Career Technical Initiative. Proposed by the Baker administration, it calls for leveraging current vocational assets across the state to expand to three shifts of training per day — many currently have two, with night programs for adults looking to be trained or retrained in a vocational skill.

Cruise said the initiative would allow traditional high-school students, including many now on those aforementioned waiting lists, the opportunity to access vocational programs after school, between 2 and 5 p.m.

The goal is to add an additional 20,000 skilled technical workers to the workforce over the next four years, said Cruise, adding that such initiatives are certainly needed as companies search, often in vain, for workers, and the so-called ‘gray wave’ of retiring Baby Boomers gains intensity.

For this issue and its focus on Manufacturing and the Trades, BusinessWest takes an in-depth and how and why these institutions became the schools of choice and also at how they are helping to address the state’s workforce needs at this critical juncture.

Current Events

It’s called “Tiger Talk: In the Flow with Rob and Joe,” with Joe being Joe Langone and Rob being Rob Ollari, Student Services director at Westfield Technical Academy.

Students are seen in the Allied Health program at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, one of 22 programs at the school.

This is a weekly, hour-long show on Westfield Community Radio (WSBK) that features the two in studio talking about all things at the school — from the sports teams, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, to recent and upcoming events. But a good deal of that hour is spent taking to students about the programs they’ve chosen and why. On the Jan. 23 show, for example, they had several guests, including 10th-grader Caitlyn Carter, enrolled in the Electrical Wiring program. That’s not where she thought she’d be, as she told them candidly.

“I did not want to go into electrical wiring at all — I came here for either for culinary or automotive,” she explained, adding that she eventually chose the technical school over Westfield High, even though all her friends went to the latter, because she considered it the better option considering her ultimate goal — to become a Marine. “I was going to join automotive, because my grandfather knows everything in automotive. Then I thought, ‘electrical sounds pretty cool; let’s try that.’”

She also talked about the technical school being the better ticket to a good-paying job and how she was attracted to several of the non-traditional, or ‘non-trad,’ programs, as Langone called them, meaning those that have been traditionally (hence the term) dominated by men, or, in the case of Allied Health, women.

The program is one of several initiatives undertaken to build interest in technical programs and Westfield Technical Academy in particular, said Langone, and collectively they seem to be working.

“I remember my parents speaking about it, saying, ‘you have to go to college, you have to go to college, you have to go to college.’ I don’t recall anyone saying why were supposed to go to college, but that was sort of the golden rule.”

Indeed, the traditional period for applying for Westfield Vocational Academy — early spring — hasn’t really begun, but already the school has received more than 120 applications; it will only admit roughly 150.

That is one sign, amid many others, of the growing popularity of vocational programs, said those we spoke with, all noting that this represents a sea change from the way things were years ago.

For some perspective, Alves turned the clock back to 1993, when he came back to Putnam to teach, specifically in Metal Fabrication, Sheet Metal, and Welding. Actually, he went back further to when he was a student.

“When you came to this school, you knew there was work out there,” he recalled. “The connection was great; from school to industry was a good pathway, a clear pathway.”

Joe Langone, seen here with students and instructors in Westfield Technical Academy’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, says it is now one of the most popular programs at the school.

Things were much different when he returned. “A lot of the bigger manufacturers had left, and the construction economy was very slow,” he told BusinessWest. “What I found was that the students were still focused on coming here for a trade — that was still the buzzword; you came to Putnam to work with your hands — but what I found was that, on the flip side, the jobs just weren’t there, so the numbers started to go down. We weren’t getting the same numbers of students, and some of the ones who were coming were not as focused because they didn’t think they were going to be able to get a job.”

Langone has similar recollections from when he attended Cathedral High School back in the mid-’80s.

“Back in those days, the perception, and I’m not sure how true it was, was that the highest-performing kids in Springfield went to Cathedral or Classical,” he said. “Things started to scale down from there, and Putnam was always viewed by my peers and from my parents’ generation as the point of no return; that’s where you went as a last resort. The perception was that if someone wasn’t going to be successful anywhere else, they at least might have a shot if they had a trade.”

Those sentiments were fueled by the common presumption by his parents — and by most in that generation — that, to get ahead, one had to go to college.

“I remember my parents speaking about it, saying, ‘you have to go to college, you have to go to college, you have to go to college,’” Langone recalled. “I don’t recall anyone saying why were supposed to go to college, but that was sort of the golden rule.”

Building Momentum

Back in the ’90s, Putnam struggled, Alves recalled, noting that it was the first of the state’s vocational schools to be labeled as ‘non-performing,’ thus requiring a turnaround plan, which was drafted — and executed.

“With a lot of hard work, a lot of good planning, and a lot of good people, we were able to change the image of the school,” he said, adding that these efforts were aided greatly by both a changing job market and the construction of a new Putnam.

“Parents and students started believing in the school again, and students started to come back,” he recalled. “And now, they’re performing at a higher level; they’re going on to be engineers, and if they’re in the health track, where traditionally they would go on to be RNs and LPNs, now they’re saying, ‘I can go on to be a doctor.’ And this helped attract more students.”

Today, Putnam, with 22 technical programs, ranging from Auto Tech to HVAC; Robotics to Graphics; Carpentry to Machining, is well-positioned to train people for a technology-driven economy, said Alves, and students (and their parents) are responding.

Indeed, enrollment is now roughly 1,200, not what it was when Alves was a student himself, but much higher than it was only a decade ago. And there are probably 300 to 400 people on the waiting list, a number that grows larger each year.

A somewhat similar pattern was followed at other vocational schools, and today, converging trends have the schools at or approaching capacity and looking for ways they can accommodate more students.

For starters, with the ever-rising cost of a college education and the often-crippling burden of college loans — Langone said he’s 53 and still paying off loans from his advanced-degree work — some are rethinking that golden rule. Meanwhile, as Cruise said, and others hinted strongly, the technical schools are now often considered a first, best option for many as they look to enter or re-enter the workforce.

This change, as noted, didn’t come overnight, but rather over the past 20 years or so, said Alves, adding that Putnam and other technical schools took a number of proactive steps to change perceptions and boost enrollment, including new programs and, in some cases, some rebranding and use of that word ‘Academy.’

But, as Langone noted with some regret, it took the skills gap and its very visible impact on the state’s economy, and especially its manufacturing and healthcare sectors, for these schools to gain the full appreciation they now enjoy.

Meanwhile, investments made by the Commonwealth have certainly helped these schools enhance existing programs and add new ones.

Langone said Westfield Voke has received more than $500,000 in grants over the past few years for its Aviation Maintenance Technician and Manufacturing programs, and more than $100,000 for that aforementioned Electrical Wiring program, in part to offer training to adults in the evening. It has applied for additional grants for its Culinary and Allied Health programs and is currently awaiting word.

The State of Things

As noted earlier, the state, recognizing the demographic patterns and hearing employers’ desperate pleas for qualified help, has made significant investments to counter those trends. The so-called Workforce Skills Cabinet (WSC) and its seven regional teams have worked together to design and implement a number of strategic initiatives that include:

• $67 million in capital skills grants awarded to the state’s technical schools covering some 230 training programs, supporting an additional 12,500 students;

• The Career Pathways Initiative, which aligns high-school curriculum to priority industries; the program has created 170 new pathways and attracted $4 million in philanthropic funding to complement state funding;

• The Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, which has awarded $12 million in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to retrain more than 1,560 individuals for employment in careers prioritized by WSC blueprints; and

• The Workforce Training Fund (WTF), which has awarded $10.7 million to upskill nearly 7,000 workers at 119 companies in priority sectors.

These investments have helped create a number of new programs, such as the Aviation Maintenance Technician program in Westfield, now among the most popular programs at that school, said Langone, adding that the first cohort of seniors from that program graduated last spring.

It was created specifically to address the workforce needs of the aerospace-related companies at Barnes, specifically for airframe and power-plant mechanics — “the outide and the inside of the airplane,” as Langone called it — and, thus, it is a good example of how the area technical schools are responding to emerging needs.

Interestingly, many of the recent graduates didn’t go to work at Gulfstream or Rectrix. Indeed, most went on to attend college.

“Only half of those 11 kids are interested on going to work as air-frame or power-plant mechanics,” he explained. “The other half are using it as a springboard to other aviation-related career clusters; I have a graduate who’s attending the University of Kansas at Wichita for Aviation Engineering. I have some others going to Bridgewater State for Airport Management.

These are examples, and there are myriad others, of how going to technical high school no longer means not going to college, said Langone.

Alves agreed, noting that many of Putnam’s graduates, perhaps half by his estimate, go on to attend two- or four-year colleges that will enable them to broaden their career opportunities in their chosen field.

“A lot of our students come here with a bigger picture in mind,” he said. “They come here for health, but not just to be a nurse — maybe, as I said, to be a doctor. Some come here for the HVAC program, but not necessarily to be a HVAC technician; they may aspire to be a mechanical engineer. A good portion of our students have that in mind from the get-go.”

If there is one challenge for area tech schools, and it’s one they couldn’t have foreseen 20 or even five years ago, involves infrastructure and capacity. Indeed, many industry sectors — again, manufacturing and healthcare are at the top of the list, but there are others as well — are calling for more skilled graduates, but the schools are at capacity.

“I wish I could take more, but our facility is maxed out for space and also maxed out when it comes to my ability to add more programs,” said Langone. “There are some technical programs I’d love to add, but I have no place to put them.”

Cruise said the Career Technical Initiative, as proposed by the Baker administration, will help address this problem by giving more individuals, including adults looking to be trained and students on those waiting lists, an opportunity to receive some training in a specific field.

Work in Progress

Returning to that Jan. 23 episode of “Tiger Talk: In the Flow with Rob and Joe,” Carter talked about she has some job interviews coming up — several of them, in fact — with companies she hopes to work for over the summer and perhaps land a co-op opportunity with later.

Those co-ops, traditionally for students in their junior years, often lead to permanent, well-paying jobs after graduation.

This is what Alves and Langone meant by ‘opportunity.’ And it’s what they meant when they talked about preparing students for whatever they wanted to do after graduation.

And it goes a long way toward explaining why there has been an attitude adjustment when it comes to the region’s technical high schools. u

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Gretchen Harrison

Massachusetts employers project lower wage and salary increases, a consistent level of recruitment activity, and moderating health-insurance premium increases for 2020 after navigating a solid but volatile economy during 2019.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) recently published its 2020 HR Practices Report, showing that companies project a 2.77% salary-increase budget for 2020, consistent with the 2.71% actual increase reported for 2019 but down from the 2.86% reported in the 2018 HR Practices Report.

Meanwhile, national salary-increase projections for 2020 have risen slightly from the prior year to 3.3%. Salary-increase trends in Massachusetts have tended to lag national numbers in recent years, and the gap has begun to widen.

How does a state with a 2.9% unemployment rate, a persistent shortage of skilled workers, and an impending demographic cliff show slower wage growth than the rest of the nation? Survey data suggest several reasons.

First, escalating regulatory costs (minimum wage) and non-wage compensation costs (health insurance and paid family and medical leave) are making employers cautious about increasing pay. Companies generally have a set compensation budget, so increases in these ancillary costs may put downward pressure on wages. In addition, the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act may be limiting the degree to which employers are able to offer compensation incentives to ‘superstar’ job candidates.

Members of the AIM Board of Economic Advisers offer additional explanations:

• Wages are already much higher than the national average in Massachusetts, meaning increases represent a smaller percentage of total wages.

• Massachusetts is aging quickly. Older workers are at a steadier place in their careers and see slower wage growth. As they retire, they are replaced by less expensive younger workers. This is a natural drag on overall wage growth.

• The higher-skill workers who dominate the Massachusetts economy get a significant portion of their compensation in non-wage forms like bonuses, commissions, and stock options. Projected recruitment activity for 2020 is expected to be comparable with actual recruitment experienced in 2019, which saw a significant increase over 2018 volumes.

The wage and salary increase projections come as unemployment in Massachusetts remains at record low levels. And while the state economy contracted by 0.2% during the third quarter, analysts say the downturn does not appear to indicate the beginning of a recession, but rather the capacity limits against which the state is bumping.

These include the barriers to labor-force growth presented by an aging population as the departure of Baby Boomers from the regional workforce continues.

Gretchen Harrison is director of AIM HR Solutions.

Features

Another Step Forward?

By Jodi K. Miller, Esq.

Jodi K. Miller, Esq

Massachusetts has been a leader in healthcare system reform.

In 2006, Massachusetts passed a first-in-the-nation, comprehensive healthcare-reform law that sought to achieve near-universal coverage for all individuals in the Commonwealth. The 2006 reforms became a model for the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. In 2012, after making significant gains in healthcare coverage, Massachusetts enacted additional reforms, with a key aim of controlling healthcare costs.

Among other things, the 2012 reforms set statewide benchmarks to limit the growth of healthcare costs and created a new agency, the Health Policy Commission, which is responsible for monitoring increases in healthcare spending and market activity.

Last month, seeking to further overhaul the healthcare-delivery system in Massachusetts and build upon past reforms, Gov. Charlie Baker introduced new healthcare-reform legislation, titled “An Act to Improve Health Care by Investing in Value.” The legislation seeks to tackle challenges in the current healthcare system by improving access and care delivery, further containing costs, and protecting consumers from high out-of-pocket costs.

As a former healthcare executive and former Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services, Gov. Baker has a particular interest in healthcare. According to the governor, his “legislation supports holistic approaches to care, provides consumers and employers with affordable care options, promotes behavioral-health parity, and ensures everyone has access to the services they need.”

Preventive Measure

The governor’s proposal prioritizes investment in primary care and behavioral-health services with the goal of keeping patients healthier and avoiding more expensive services, like emergency-department visits. Specifically, the legislation requires that providers and insurers increase spending on primary care and behavioral-health services by 30%, while at the same time staying within spending-growth limits required by the 2012 healthcare-reform law. The new legislation introduces new penalties for failure to stay within those limits.

As a means to increase access to primary care, the legislation reforms the requirements for mid-level practitioners, such as nurse practitioners. States like California that have expanded the scope of practice for nurse practitioners have seen an increase in the use of, and access to, primary-care services. The new legislation would allow nurse practitioners and psychiatric nurse mental-health specialists to prescribe medications without a supervising physician.

“The governor’s proposal prioritizes investment in primary care and behavioral-health services with the goal of keeping patients healthier and avoiding more expensive services, like emergency-department visits.”

Similarly, the bill creates a mid-level dental-provider position to provide basic dental services, and expands the scope of practice for optometrists and podiatrists. To address the shortage of nurses in Massachusetts, the legislation makes it easier for nurses to move to the Commonwealth by allowing nurses licensed in another state to practice in Massachusetts without having to obtain a new license.

The bill also seeks to expand access to, and coverage of, mental and behavioral-health services through various measures, including provisions to encourage behavioral-health providers to accept insurance and to develop and grow the number of providers. The legislation establishes a Board of Registration of Recovery Coaches — a recommendation of the Recovery Coach Commission formed as part of the opioid legislation enacted in Massachusetts last year — which will credential recovery coaches who provide addiction-recovery services.

The legislation includes new consumer protections to manage healthcare spending and reduce consumers’ out-of-pocket costs. For example, it seeks to curb the practice of ‘surprise billing’ that consumers receive for emergency and unplanned services from out-of-network providers by establishing a default, out-of-network rate for such services. The bill also imposes limits on when a hospital can charge a fee for services delivered at an outpatient or satellite site and prohibits such fees for certain types of evaluative and diagnostic services.

The legislation also seeks to contain healthcare costs by addressing the high costs of prescription drugs. In addition to requiring pharmacists to inform consumers about the lowest cost options for the drugs they purchase, the legislation creates a review process for certain high-cost drugs and imposes financial penalties on manufacturers for increases in drug prices that exceed certain set percentages. Drug manufacturers also would be required to participate in annual cost-trend hearings before the Health Policy Commission.

Relatedly, the legislation imposes new oversight authority over pharmacy benefit managers, companies that negotiate contracts with drug manufacturers and manage pharmacy benefits and payments for health plans. Pharmacy benefit managers would be required to be certified with the Mass. Division of Insurance and report financial data to the Massachusetts Center for Health Information and Analysis.

In addition to cost controls, the legislation includes provisions aimed at improving access to appropriate, coordinated healthcare, including access to urgent-care centers and telemedicine services. According to a 2018 analysis by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, there has been a sharp increase in the use of urgent-care centers, where services are less expensive than those provided at hospital emergency departments.

The governor’s proposal seeks to improve access to, and to eliminate confusion regarding, urgent-care centers. For example, the names of clinics operating as urgent-care centers would have to include the term ‘urgent care’ or otherwise suggest that urgent-care services are provided. The bill also requires urgent-care centers to be licensed by the state Department of Public Health, and, as requirements of licensure, such centers must accept MassHealth (the Massachusetts Medicaid program), provide behavioral-health services, and meet standards for coordinating with patients’ primary-care providers.

The legislation also seeks to expand access to care by improving and increasing the use of telemedicine (healthcare services provided via telecommunication services such as videoconferencing). Telemedicine can be a cost-effective form of care, and it eliminates the requirement of travel, which can be significant for individuals living in rural areas. In an attempt to increase the use of telemedicine in the Commonwealth, the legislation creates a regulatory framework for such services and requires insurance-coverage parity for such services (i.e., if there is coverage for the services if provided in person, there must be coverage if the services are provided via telemedicine).

The legislation seeks to support community health centers and hospitals by investing in the Health Safety Net Trust Fund, which pays hospitals and community health centers for services provided to low-income residents who are uninsured or underinsured. The governor’s proposed investment – $15 million – constitutes less than 5% of the total amount paid out by that trust fund to hospitals and community health centers in 2018. The legislation also provides for additional funding to the Community Hospital and Health Center Investment Trust Fund through the penalties that the legislation imposes on drug manufacturers and providers for failing to meet cost-containment requirements.

Along with efforts to control healthcare spending, the legislation also seeks to control the price of insurance premiums, particularly those paid by small and mid-size employers and their employees. An October 2019 report from the Massachusetts Center for Health Information and Analysis found that premiums and cost-sharing obligations for private-sector employees in Massachusetts are continuing to increase at a faster rate than wages and inflation. Among other things, the legislation includes provisions which are designed to give small employers (50 employees or fewer) greater access to health-plan options.

Finally, on Oct. 18, the same day he filed his healthcare-reform bill, Gov. Baker issued an executive order to create a commission to study the combined individual and small-employer group health-insurance market. This unique market — known in Massachusetts as the ‘merged market’ — was established in 2007 with “the intention of increasing and stabilizing its risk pool to provide greater access to affordable health-insurance coverage,” according to the governor’s executive order.

The commission is tasked with analyzing the merged market in light of the legislative reforms and changes to the healthcare market that have occurred over the past 12 years and reporting recommendations to the governor by April 30, 2020, with the objective of “ensuring that all residents have access to affordable health-insurance coverage.”

Bottom Line

Gov. Baker’s proposed reforms are just that — proposals. Lawmakers at the State House are working on their own healthcare-reform legislation, including bills supporting a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system. What will follow are negotiations among legislators and the Baker administration, with the goal of passing comprehensive healthcare-reform legislation in Massachusetts before the Legislature’s formal session ends on July 31, 2020.

Jodi K. Miller, Esq. is a partner at Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP, in Springfield, where she represents clients in commercial and other civil-litigation and regulatory matters, with a focus on health law.

Manufacturing

Tight Squeeze

President Trump has made no secret of his hope that a series of tariffs on goods from China and other countries will eventually force a more favorable balance of trade for the U.S. But in the meantime, the escalating trade war has posed very real, often negative impacts for manufacturers, particularly in the form of higher costs and a general sense of uncertainty that makes it difficult to pursue growth. And no one seems to have any idea when the situation will ease up.

A trade war can hurt business in more ways than one, Kristin Carlson says.

For example, as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, her manufacturing company, Westfield-based Peerless Precision, doesn’t buy a lot of foreign materials, like steel and aluminum — in fact, she buys about 95% domestic — so she hasn’t been subject to the direct cost increases on imported goods resulting from the volley of back-and-forth tariffs posed by President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“As a result of tariffs and increased pressure on domestic supply, we’ve had supply and demand issues. We’ve been seeing pricing going up 25% to 40% from what we have historically paid.”

But those increased costs of Chinese products have pressured the domestic supply chain, so she is, indeed, paying more.

“As a result of tariffs and increased pressure on domestic supply, we’ve had supply and demand issues. We’ve been seeing pricing going up 25% to 40% from what we have historically paid,” she said. “Costs are a big issue.”

Peerless Precision, which makes parts for the aerospace and defense industries, employs 32 people and has generated strong revenue in recent years, but profits are being squeezed by the trade war.

Kristin Carlson says manufacturers are dealing with price increases and supply-chain disruptions due to the recent tariffs.

Lead times are also affected, she added. “Because of this supply and demand issue on the domestic supply chain, companies are stocking up to make sure they’re getting the prices they need. When times are normal, we’ll get material in one to three business days, and that’s turned into one to four weeks.”

Trump’s trade war, now about 18 months old, has had a ripple effect on the global supply chain of many products, driving up the price of imported raw materials and finished goods. It’s not just manufacturers feeling the heat — for example, farmers have lost lucrative markets as well.

NPR recently reported that cranberry growers worked for years to develop a market in China, and sales of dried cranberries to China increased by more than 1,000% between 2013 and 2018. But after the White House approved tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods in July, China immediately retaliated with tariffs on dozens of U.S. goods, including dried cranberries, and now growers — many of them in Massachusetts — are faced with a serious glut of product.

That’s just one example of the impact of tariffs, but for manufacturers, the equation can have even more moving parts (pun intended). Many shop owners say the uncertainty of the situation is causing them to hold off on hiring and expansion because they’re not sure how or when a deal will take shape.

“The imposition of 15% tariffs on $112 billion worth of Chinese goods on Sept. 1 underscores the uncertainty facing employers, particularly manufacturers, who do business in overseas markets,” Raymond Torto, chair of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Board of Economic Advisors, wrote last month. “At the same time, employers are beginning to see evidence from both customers and suppliers of a slowdown in the U.S. economy.”

Stirring the Pot

Robert Lawrence, professor of International Trade and Investment at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, recently told the Boston Globe that, while U.S. strategy over the past century has been to use protectionist measures like tariffs sparingly, Trump has a more aggressive outlook.

“This is at odds with the entire thrust of our policies over the post-war period,” he said. “We’re acting unilaterally. We’re bullying the Chinese by putting these tariffs on them.”

The Trump administration has taken aim at China for a variety of economic reasons, from the nations’ trade imbalance to accusations that Chinese companies steal intellectual property from American companies. But, as Carlson noted, China isn’t the only affected supplier.

“When we submit a quote for a customer purchase, we’re locked into the price we quote them. If our cost changes, we have to suck it up. We can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘oops, materials went up 50%, so we have to raise the price.’ We don’t do that.”

“Tariffs weren’t just slapped onto China, but onto Canada, Mexico … maybe three to five countries in the entire world don’t have tariffs on them.”

Not all manufacturers see the impact the same way. Eric Hagopian, who owns Pilot Precision Products in South Deerfield, told the Globe that, while the price of domestic steel he buys has gone up 43% this year, the tariffs are boosting American industry as many companies are moving to American products as a result of tariffs on products from Pilot Precision’s Chinese competitors. “It actually helps our business,” he said.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., said he has heard from members with differing perspectives on the impact of the trade war.

“Some people, I think, are really impacted; they feel there are some pretty serious impacts on cost and competitiveness,” he told BusinessWest. “Then, if you go to someone like Eric Hagopian, he’s a little less adamant that it’s a big issue.”

MassBenchmarks, an initiative of the UMass Donahue Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, reported on economic trends in Massachusetts this week, pointing out that the economy is doing well overall, with low unemployment, but employment and output growth are decelerating.

“Growth in the global economy is slowing, and labor-supply constraints, softening demand, and rising international geopolitical uncertainty all signal concerns for the economy going forward,” the report notes.

Rick Sullivan says manufacturers — and other businesses — have differing takes on the pros and cons of a trade war, but no one likes the uncertainty it generates.

Board members focused on a number of broad sources of uncertainty in the economic and geopolitical environment and what they could mean for the Massachusetts economy. One board member said the current environment is characterized by “considerable internal and external disharmony,” which includes ongoing trade conflicts, as well as continued tension around Brexit, the apparent impacts of climate change, particularly as it relates to agricultural production in various places around the world, and increasing instability in global markets among advanced economies. Against that backdrop, Trump’s ongoing impeachment inquiry is yet another wild card.

But there’s a reason MassBenchmarks placed trade conflicts at the top of that list.

“I think they create an uncertainty, and they increase costs,” Sullivan said. “Certainly, costs are a concern, and competitiveness is a concern.”

Cost and Effect

Those costs aren’t easily passed on to customers, Carlson said, and manufacturers, by and large, would rather not do that.

“When we submit a quote for a customer purchase, we’re locked into the price we quote them,” she explained. “If our cost changes, we have to suck it up. We can’t go back to the customer and say, ‘oops, materials went up 50%, so we have to raise the price.’ We don’t do that.”

AIM releases its Business Confidence Index every month, gauging exactly that — how member businesses are feeling about the economic outlook of the state and their own businesses. The overall Index, which is scored on a 100-point scale, has lost 3.7 points since a year ago but remains within optimistic territory.

“For a long time, a lot of us have been eating the material cost increases. Everything I hear is there’s not really an end date. We’ll see what happens.”

However, September’s reading was weighed down by weakening sentiment among Bay State manufacturers. The Index’s manufacturing component dropped 2.4 points in September and has lost 7.9 points for the year. Non-manufacturers were more confident than manufacturers by a 6.5-point margin.

The results mirrored the national Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index, which fell to its lowest level since 2009 last month. A separate report by IHS Markit showed that the manufacturing sector suffered its worst quarter since 2009, though activity increased during September.

“Manufacturers are bearing the brunt of both actual and threatened tariffs against goods imported from China,” Torto wrote. “Many Massachusetts companies have also become caught in retaliatory tariffs and are seeing significant weakening of their overseas business.”

Michael Tyler, chief investment officer at Eastern Bank Wealth Management and a BEA member, noted that the gaps in confidence between manufacturing companies and other businesses appear to be growing.

“Manufacturing has been hit by the steady increase in tariffs imposed by the United States, China, and other nations since 2018,” he noted. “The World Trade Organization estimates that the flow of goods across borders will increase by just 1.2% this year, and manufacturing companies are feeling that downdraft.”

Carlson is feeling it, for sure, and as president of the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc., she knows others are, too.

“For a long time, a lot of us have been eating the material cost increases,” she told BusinessWest, conceding that the uncertainty around the trade war has been equally vexing. “Everything I hear is there’s not really an end date. We’ll see what happens.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

State governments are, by and large, clunky and inefficient bodies known for their slow pace, general indecisiveness, and tendency to study rather than act decisively.

Those are generalities, to be sure, but they’re also truisms.

While most all state legislatures share those qualities, the Bay State’s leadership seems to stand out from the rest. There are many recent examples of this — everything from east-west rail to the education bill currently being debated.

And then, there’s casino gambling, and most recently, sports gambling.

For reasons we’ve never fully understood, this state lost a great many years — at least a decade by most accounts — when it came to legalizing casino gambling.

While legislators were debating the relative merits of gaming — and debating them some more — a host of other states were moving forward with facilities and establishing a solid foundation that has made it more difficult for the casinos now operating in the Bay State to achieve the kinds of revenues that were originally projected.

And now, the Legislature, which has shown a propensity in recent years for letting the voters make some of the most difficult decisions through referendum questions, is repeating, and compounding, its mistake on gaming by dragging its feet on sports gambling.

Legislative leaders have expressed interest in the concept, and some project a vote might — that’s might — come before the end of this legislative session. If and when it is approved, by next July, it will be another six to 12 months before someone can actually place a bet on a sports team in Massachusetts.

By then, the state will have lost tens of millions of dollars in needed tax revenues to Rhode Island, New Hampshire (set to launch its own program), and other states that saw the light and decided to take action.

We’re not sure why our Legislature couldn’t do the same thing. Waiting and watching and learning doesn’t seem to make any sense at this point.

Sports gambling is a fact of life in this country. Legalizing it and taking advantage of the revenues would seem to be a no-brainer, especially given the heightened degree of competition within the gaming industry and the need for the state’s casinos to be able to keep pace with its neighbors on every level.

Indeed, the state’s two resort casinos, Encore Boston and MGM Springfield, while off to decent starts, are both turning in gross gaming revenue (GGR) numbers below what they projected, primarily because of lagging slots revenues.

These casinos need a shot in the arm; they need another arrow in the quiver when it comes to bringing people to the doors and giving them more to do when they arrive.

Sports gambling seems like a very attractive ‘something more.’

It should have happened by now. Maybe it will happen soon. The state’s Legislature has a history of waiting, studying, procrastinating — and losing out on opportunities.

It looks like history is repeating itself on sports gambling, and the state is almost certain to lose out again.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Woodlawn Shopping Plaza

An architect’s rendering of the housing project planned for the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

Rocco Falcone acknowledged that, when he and fellow partners Andy Yee and Peter Picknelly acquired the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza on Newton Street in South Hadley in 2016, they were making that sizable investment at a time when the world of retail was changing — and shrinking.

And they knew then that the plaza, dominated by a closed Big Y supermarket, might not look like it did years down the road — not that they didn’t try to find a strong retail anchor to fill the role that Big Y played.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international,” said Falcone, manager of South Hadley Plaza LLC, the entity created to acquire the property, and perhaps better known as president and CEO of the Rocky’s Ace Hardware chain. “When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

And the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza will, indeed, take on a new look — and role that goes beyond shopping — with the announcement of plans to build 72 mixed-income apartments on a three-acre portion of the plaza where the Big Y once stood; a public hearing is slated on the proposal for June 26 at the South Hadley library.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan, former mayor of Holyoke, sees the proposed housing project as an opportunity for the community, one that could change the face of an underperforming property (the plaza), perhaps spur new business development at the site and elsewhere, and even boost enrollment at the town’s schools, which have seen their numbers declining in recent years.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international. When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

The announced plans for the plaza comprise one of a number of intriguing developments in South Hadley, a community of nearly 18,000 people that has always been an attractive place to live and has been working for decades to balance its strong neighborhoods with new business opportunities.

Others include progress toward an update of the community’s master plan; introduction of a new option for ultra-high-speed internet service, called FiberSonic, to town residents; efforts to work with neighboring Granby to bring more order to a hodgepodge of zoning on the Route 202 corridor; apparent progress in bringing the town’s long-underperforming municipal golf course, the Ledges, to self-sustainability; and even a new dog park on the Ledges property.

“Dog parks have become somewhat of a recreational amenity in many communities, including Northampton, Granby, and many other cities and towns,” said Sullivan. “It’s surprising how many people are really into their dogs; this is a quality-of-life issue, and at least this will put another 100 to 200 South Hadley residents onto property that they’re paying for. They don’t golf, but they have a dog.”

For the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at these various developments in South Hadley and how they are part of ongoing efforts to make the community a better place to work, live, and start a business.

Getting out of the Rough

Golf courses, especially municipal golf courses, usually don’t generate many headlines.

The Ledges has been a notable exception to that rule. Since it opened at the start of this century, it has been in the news often — and for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, conceived and built as Tiger Woods was rocketing to stardom and golf was booming as a sport and a business, the picturesque Ledges, with breathtaking views of the Holyoke Range, was projected to a be a strong revenue generator for the community.

Suffice it to say things haven’t worked out that way. In fact, the course has been a financial drain, racking up deficits of more than $1 million some years, and into six figures most years.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan says new high-speed Internet service, called FiberSonic might spur more young professionals to move to South Hadley.

Sullivan, who inherited this problem, took the aggressive step of outsourcing not only maintenance of the course, but overall management of the facility, with the goal of turning things around and making the Ledges self-sustaining.

Mike Fontaine, the course’s general manager and an employee of Lakeland, Fla.-based International Golf Maintenance (IGM), which manages more than 30 courses across the country, is optimistic that some kind of corner has been turned at the Ledges. He noted that the shortfall was smaller last year (Sullivan pegged it at roughly $35,000) — despite unrelenting rains that made 2018 a difficult year for every golf course — and that, even with more rain early this year, the course is on track to improve on last year’s numbers and continue on an upward trajectory.

He said IGM’s efforts comprise work in progress, but added that a number of steps have been taken to improve the visitor experience and, thus, generate more revenue for the town. Work has been done to build a management team, place more emphasis on customer service, and give the 19th hole, an important revenue stream for all golf operations, a new look and feel. And even a new name.

“We gave the whole place a facelift, especially the restaurant,” he explained. “It was time for a fresh coat of paint, work behind the bar, new pictures of the golf course on the walls, moving the TVs, changing the name from Valley View restaurant to the Sunset Grille, and going with a whole new brand and marketing campaign.”

The new name highlights one of the course’s hallmarks — dramatic sunsets — and attempts to capitalize on that asset, said Fontaine, who said was inspired by what he saw in Key West, which is famous for its sunsets and people turning out to watch them.

He said the course has generally done well with visitation — 25,000 rounds last year — but needs a break from Mother Nature as well as a break from the negative publicity that hasn’t been good for business.

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $20.15 (Fire District 1); $20.55 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

“We’re beating the numbers from last year, and we’re hitting our revenue goals despite losing three weekends in a row, including Mother’s Day weekend, due to rain — money we’ll never get back,” he said. “We’ll have a much better understanding of where we’re at when this year is over.”

While the picture seems to be improving at the Ledges, the picture is changing on Newton Street, especially at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

While there is still significant retail there — the plaza is home to a Rocky’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dollar General, the Egg & I restaurant (a recent addition), the Parthenon restaurant, Mandarin Gourmet, and more — the former Big Y site was proving difficult to redevelop, said Falcone, noting that, after efforts to find a replacement supermarket were exhausted, the building was razed in 2018 with the goal of bringing more options to the fore, including residential.

The proposed 72-unit apartment complex will fill a need within the community for both affordable and market-rate housing, said Falcone, adding that this reuse is consistent with how many malls and shopping plazas are being repurposed at a time when stores are closing at an alarming rate and malls — and communities — are forced to be imaginative in a changing retail landscape.

“We looked at options to possibly subdivide the Big Y property, but we couldn’t get any junior anchors,” said Falcone, adding that the owners spent roughly the past year and half looking for smaller tenants, but to no avail.

“Retail is changing — people are getting away from retail and putting more focus on service and entertainment,” he said, adding that the town created an overlay district within the Newton Street area that allows for mixed-use development and residential space, which brings us to the plans currently on the table.

“We thought this would be a good option and a good opportunity,” said Falcone, adding that research revealed demand for such housing. “If you look at Village Commons, those apartments are always full, and my understanding is there’s a waiting list to get in there. So we think South Hadley is a great community for some additional housing.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’re a vibrant community for condominium development, and there’s considerable demand for them — we have condominiums on the riverfront selling for more than $400,000,” he noted. “But we think this proposed development balances things out; it provides another option for housing.”

The Gig-speed Economy

They’re called ‘fiberhoods.’

That’s the name the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) has given to areas, or neighborhoods, in the community that will be provided with FiberSonic, which will make gigabit-speed internet available to residential homes; the service is already available to South Hadley businesses.

SHELD is starting in the Ridge Road area — the service will be available there in July — and will proceed to the Old Lyman Road fiberhood in August, and the Hollywood Street area in September. By year’s end, 700 homes should be covered by the project, and the 32 identified fiberhoods will be added in phases over the next five years, said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager.

“Establishing fiber-optic internet service throughout the town will bring added convenience and, more importantly, will accommodate the ever-growing bandwidth need for South Hadley customers,” said Fitzgerald, who described FiberSonic as “home-grown, gig-speed Internet.”

This service should help make South Hadley a more attractive option for a growing number of professionals who essentially call the office home, even as they work for companies in Boston, New York, and Seattle, said Sullivan.

“When you can access a high-paying job in New York City, Boston, Montreal, or even Los Angeles, and you might have to only go to the home office once a month or once a week and the rest of the day work at home, your housing costs are lower and quality of life is higher in Western Mass.,” he explained. “We’re seeing more of this in South Hadley, and the new internet service will make this community even more attractive.”

As the overall pace of change accelerates, the town looks to anticipate what the future might bring — and be prepared for it — with an update to a master plan drafted roughly a decade ago.

That document, the town’s first master plan in more than three decades, included no less than 200 recommended actions, said Town Planner Richard Harris, noting that this represents an obviously unachievable number, although many have been implemented, especially in the realms of housing, recreation, and creation of growth districts.

He expects that the updated plan, to be completed by year’s end, will be more strategic in nature.

“While it will still be broad, because the nature of a master plan is broad, we’re expecting it to be more strategic in focus and more related to the current organizational structure and long-term needs of the community,” he told BusinessWest. “I wouldn’t expect as much focus on zoning and land use as the last plan, and instead more on how to capitalize on what we have done.”

There have been a number of community forums staged to solicit commentary and input about the plan and what it should include, as well as smaller, more informal sessions within neighborhoods called “meetings in a box,” said Harris, adding that a draft of a new plan should be ready for additional review by the fall and a final document in place by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the town isn’t waiting for the new plan to address a long-term concern and probable hindrance to growth — the hodgepodge of zoning along the Route 202 corridor, roughly from Route 33 into Granby Town Commons.

“Both towns have the leftover remnants of a ’60s regional road,” he explained, noting that there are homes next to dinosaur-track stops next to other forms of business. “It’s not very well-organized; there’s a weird mix, and we think there is a real need for conformity.

“If we could get that conformity, there’s enough business traffic going into Belchertown, Ware, and, beyond that, Amherst — and we can harness that traffic,” he went on, adding there have been discussions with officials in Granby about zoning and also infrastructure and perhaps tying properties along that corridor into South Hadley’s sewer system, a development that would benefit both communities.

“We hope this will bring more investment to those commercial properties along 202 in South Hadley,” Harris explained. “That will result in more tax dollars — and it would be great to have more people to share the tax burden with.”

Bottom Line

Those last sentiments accurately reflect a goal, and an ongoing challenge, spanning decades: creating more opportunities to share the tax burden.

South Hadley has always been a great place to live — and now also play golf and walk your dog. Greater balance in the form of new businesses and better use of existing and potential commercial property has always been a goal and priority.

And between the proposed new housing project, faster internet service, and progress along the Route 202 corridor, the community is making more headway toward realizing that goal.

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

Daily News

BOSTON The state’s May total unemployment rate is up one-tenth of a percentage point at 3.0%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Friday.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts lost 3,600 jobs in May. Over the month, the private sector lost 4,000 jobs, although gains occurred in professional, scientific, and business services; information; and manufacturing sectors. The jobs level in ‘other services’ remained unchanged over the month. Government added jobs over the month.

From May 2018 to May 2019, BLS estimates Massachusetts added 26,700 jobs. 

The May unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 3.6 percent reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Massachusetts continues to experience a strong economy with a low unemployment rate of 3.0% percent and over 60,000 more employed residents and 17,500 fewer unemployed residents in the last year. Also, the Commonwealth’s labor force participation rate remains at a near 15 year high and is 5 points above the US rate.”  Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said.

The labor force increased by 600 from 3,840,400 in April, as 1,100 fewer residents were employed and 1,700 more residents were unemployed over the month.

Features

Hopes Are High

After recreational marijuana use became legal in Massachusetts in 2016, the expectation was that retail stores would pop up quickly within a couple of years. That hasn’t happened, as the state — and host communities — have taken a deliberately measured approach to permitting. But with early returns strong from a few shops, and towns reporting solid tax benefits and no real community disruption, the pace of openings should begin to increase — and so will the economic benefits of this new industry.

If Western Mass. was full of people who thought the sky was falling when recreational marijuana was legalized, well, Mark Zatyrka thinks fewer of them are saying the same thing now.

“I knew it would change. But I feel like it’s changed at a more rapid pace than I would have expected,” he said of public perceptions about the new access to cannabis products in the Bay State. “When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Take the location of INSA, the cannabis dispensary he owns in Easthampton, which has sold marijuana for medical purposes since February 2018, but began selling for recreational, or adult, use in December. Tucked beside Eastworks at the rear of the Keystone Mills building on Pleasant Street, he said some may have worried about INSA’s proximity to a nearby park where people hike.

“But, really, we bring more people to the area, we have cameras all over the place, it’s well-lit, so it’s actually a safer place to be,” Zatyrka said. “If the perception was that customers are hoodlums who come in, go out back, and get high and do crime, well, look around — we serve almost every demographic you can imagine, from seniors to millennials, rich and poor, and they’re not violent criminals. They’re not here to cause trouble. Yeah, the perception has changed pretty rapidly.”

Perceptions — pro and con — of this new industry have undoubtedly shaped a permitting process, on both the state and local levels, that has moved more slowly than first expected when recreational use became legal in 2016. The state’s first adult-use retail shops were expected to be open last July, but instead, the first two opened in November, and the pace of new shops since then has been leisurely at best.

But they’re coming. And the ones that are open are changing those worst-case perceptions.

Mark  Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers

Mark Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers since starting recreational sales in December.

Take New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton, the Bay State’s first retailer of cannabis products for recreational use.

“For us, it’s been a positive experience,” Northampton Mayor David Narcewicz told BusinessWest. “We’re starting to see some of the economic benefits in terms of taxes, and I know our local businesses have been creative in embracing the new industry. Businesses back in November were offering specials to people who came into town and showed a receipt for shopping at NETA. If anything, I think the business community has been receptive.”

He noted that Northampton’s voters were among the most enthusiastic in their support of legal cannabis, both during the 2012 statewide vote to legalize medicinal marijuana, then for adult use in 2016. As mayor, he said, his approach has been to respect the community’s voice.

“So we’ve been very open and proactive; we created zoning regulations that essentially treat this new industry like any other business, and we did not impose caps on the number of retailers like many communities did.

“We also had the experience of having one of the first medical dispensaries in the state,” he added, speaking of NETA’s original business plan. “We had a track record of seeing how they had operated and had the chance to see what the potential impacts were. They’ve been a good member of our business community; they worked with us to make sure their opening went smoothly, and have been working with surrounding businesses to make sure there’s no disruption.”

Stories like this are why, despite the slow rollout of pot shops so far — and state tax revenue well under early projections — proponents are confident that the trends toward greater public acceptance of this industry, and tax revenues to match, will soon accelerate.

“As an industry, we’ve done a good job to ensure that things are done correctly, and the state’s done a good job putting measures in place to help ensure it is a safe industry and people are getting a safe product and it’s dispensed in a safe way,” Zatyrka said. “The state did a lot of things right, which is why we’re seeing a successful rollout. I know some people wish it moved quicker, but I understand why it didn’t. There are thousands of applications, a lot of inspections, a lot to oversee. It takes time. It’s a new industry for everybody.”

Green Growth

As part of its new marijuana laws, Massachusetts imposes a 17% tax — a 6.25% sales tax plus a 10.75% excise tax — on cannabis businesses, while cites and towns take another 3%, plus whatever else they may choose to impose as part of their host-community agreements.

In Northampton’s case, that’s an additional 3%, called a ‘community-impact fee.’ The city received two checks recently: $449,825 from the Department of Revenue representing the 3% tax rate for recreational marijuana sales in November, December, and January, and $287,506 from NETA itself, reflecting the 3% community-impact fee on recreational sales for December and January.

“When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Other towns are seeing their coffers benefit as well. Theory Wellness opened in Great Barrington in December, paying $90,000 in taxes to the town in its first month.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the town’s Select Board, told BusinessWest last month. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems.”

Southern Berkshire County communities that embrace the cannabis trade are sure to benefit from the continued illegality of the drug in both Connecticut and New York, though leaders in both states have been talking about whether that should remain the case. Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, told the New York Post last week that about 15,000 New Yorkers have made purchases there since its Jan. 11 opening.

“I’d say we get dozens, if not hundreds, a day from the greater New York City area,” he noted. “We get people coming up in Zipcars, people carpooling, people who say they hardly ever drive at all — but will drive to purchase cannabis.”

That sort of consumer response is intriguing to towns that see this industry as a new economic driver.

“Some cities have been great to work with, some a little more difficult to work with,” Zatyrka said. “Easthampton is very progressive city, and early on it was very obvious they wanted us here.”

That’s important from a competition perspective, he said, because the application process is already time-consuming, and communities that want to make it even more difficult to move through permitting and craft a host-community agreement can tie up a project for years, while other shops in more amenable towns are opening and picking up crucial market share and customer loyalty.

“Easthampton was great,” he went on. “Everyone wants to find a solution instead of putting up roadblocks. They want us to be successful, to get their name on the map, and they saw the benefits early on.”

He’s seeing a gradual shift, too, in where proposed projects will be located, noting that, when INSA started cultivating marijuana for medical use, most such outfits were setting up in old mill buildings or industrial parks. “Now it’s not so restrictive — people can open up on Main Street, and wind up in locations that are made for retail use, for people to come visit.”

That’s certainly the goal in Northampton, which is looking at myriad applications from cannabis manufacturers, cultivators, testing labs, and retail establishments, Narcewicz noted. It welcomes them because it sees value in how NETA, which isn’t even located downtown, has impacted business.

“NETA has created good-paying jobs in the community, and it’s an important way to expand our tax base and grow our local economy,” he said. “We have a local economy focused on retail, dining, entertainment, and a very vibrant cultural economy. And I think this complements it.”

There have been traffic and parking challenges, he added, “but if you talk to most retailers, downtowns having too many visitors is never a bad thing. We’re kind of equipped to handle a lot of visitors. And NETA has been very responsive in terms of renting additional parking from neighboring businesses, which helps them as well by providing an income stream. So far, it’s been a very positive experience, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change.”

Making a Name

BRIGADE has certainly benefited from this new industry. The Hadley-based brand-services company has worked with INSA extensively, including the creation of the designs for all its products and marketing.

“Everyone calls cannabis the wild west, and it is from a branding and design perspective, too,” said Kirsten Modestow, BRIGADE’s owner and executive creative director. “The rules for a whole category are being written overnight. That’s challenging, but it’s also some of the most exciting stuff we’ve ever worked on.”

With some cannabis businesses coming out with 100 or more products, it presents a unique branding challenge, she added, because the goal is not only to create a memorable look, but to help customers, many of whom have little experience with marijuana, navigate the products.

“One of the upsides of this industry is the impact it’s having on our communities, and it’s providing a lot of new opportunities and jobs,” she said. “It’s providing a lot of work for people, even tapping into farmers and other people who have services to offer and know what they’re doing.”

The education aspect Modestow touched on is one that continues in the store, Zatyrka said. The sales associates — he prefers that title to the flip industry term ‘budtenders’ — are the same ones who have worked with medical patients for a long time, and they have the training to dig deep into the science behind the products, so they can effectively explain them.

“We understand it’s a product that needs to be consumed safely, and we take that seriously,” he said. “We don’t want to be liable for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and eats an entire chocolate bar and has to go to the ER. We do all in our power to prevent that from happening.”

The coming months and years will see more education (and more tax revenues) as pot-shop openings pick up the pace — including Evergreen Strategies, LLC, which recently inked a host-community agreement with Belchertown to bring a facility to that town as early as this fall.

The Boston Globe recently cited industry analysts who say Massachusetts has a much slower local approval process and a more complex system to navigate than other states, and the state Cannabis Control Commission has placed a premium on an adult-use regulatory structure that supports public health and public safety. The measured pace ensures that stores pass inspections, sell lab-tested products, hire vetted workers, and track their products.

“It’s a growing industry, and will continue to grow,” said Zatyrka, who plans to open an adult-use dispensary in Springfield and has a cultivating and manufacturing license in Pennsylvania as well. Meanwhile, INSA is doubling its cultivation — located directly above the Easthampton store — and is looking to triple it in the future. “We’re still a few years out before we can meet the demands of the state. So it’s going to be hard work until then to keep up our supply with demand.”

The work is rewarding, though, especially for someone who treated his chronic pain for more than 15 years with oxycontin, oxycodone, morphine, and methadone, and suffered side effects that drastically outweighed the benefits.

“Thanks to cannabis, I was able to stop taking them,” Zatyrka said. “Cannabis helped with the withdrawals, and now I only use cannabis to treat my chronic pain, and it works 100 times better than all the opioids. I know firsthand the power of cannabis versus painkillers.”

He tells that story not because it’s unique, but because it’s representative of many people he comes across, with stories about how cannabis has helped them with seizures, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. And if legal adult use is helping to tear down the last bits of stigma around cannabis, he’s all for it.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to hear the stories and how grateful people are,” he said. “They’re able to get benefits from cannabis, and don’t have to hide it like they once did.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment

Understanding PFML

John Gannon says there are always hot topics within the broad realm of employment law. And sometimes — actually quite often these days — there are what he called “sizzling hot” topics.

The state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law certainly falls in that latter category. Provisions of the bill, specifically the contributions to be paid by employers, go into effect on July 1. The actual law itself doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2021, but the time between now and then will go by quickly, said Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, adding that employers should do whatever they can to be ready. And there are things they can do, which we’ll get to in a minute.

First, the law itself. Gannon used the single word ‘scary’ to describe it, and he was referring to the reaction of employers large and small who simply don’t know how this piece of legislation, which makes the acronym PFML a new and important part of the business lexicon, will affect their business but have a good right to be scared because of how generous it is.

“This is a payroll tax at its core. So I think employers are going to have questions about how and whether they’re going to be billed, what their tax contributions are going to be, and other concerns.”

Gannon is expecting the Paid Family and Medical Leave Law to be among the main focal points of conversation at the firm’s annual Labor and Employment Law Conference, set for May 21 at the Sheraton Springfield. The conference is staged each year to help local businesses stay abreast of laws and regulations relating to labor issues, said Gannon, and this year there will certainly be a number of issues to discuss. Indeed, breakout sessions are slated on a host of topics, including PFML; wage-and-hour mistakes; harassment, discrimination, and why employers get sued; a labor and employment-law update, how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations (there will be a panel discussion on that topic); and how to conduct an internal investigation.

But Gannon told BusinessWest that paid family and medical leave will likely be the focus of much of the discussion and many of the questions, primarily because the law represents a significant change in the landscape, and business owners and human resources personnel have questions about what’s coming at them.

The first of these questions concerns the contributions to start July 1.

“This is a payroll tax at its core,” he explained. “So I think employers are going to have questions about how and whether they’re going to be billed, what their tax contributions are going to be, and other concerns.”

A 30-page set of draft regulations was recently released by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development’s Department of Family and Medical Leave, and that same office has issued a toolkit for employers with information on everything from remitting and paying contributions to notifying their workforce to applying for exemptions.

There’s quite a bit to keep track of, said Gannon, adding that, under the new law, Massachusetts employees will be eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid family leave (up to 26 weeks in certain circumstances) and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. In most cases, leave may be taken intermittently or on a reduced-schedule basis.

Family leave can be taken to bond with a new child, for qualifying exigency related to a family member on (or called to) active duty or to care for a family member who is in the service, or to care for a family member with a “serious health condition.” Medical leave can be taken for the employee’s own “serious health condition.”

 

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“Someone has a medical impairment, and they need a new chair, or someone needs to change their schedule — they can’t work mornings anymore — or whatever the change in job structure they’re requesting … these matters can get complicated. How do companies handle these requests? Do they have to grant them? How do they work with employees? These are all questions this panel will address.”

In most cases, the annual cap for family leave is 12 weeks, 20 weeks for medical leave, and 26 weeks total cap for both, if needed.

The employee must give at least 30 days notice of the need for leave or as much notice as practicable. The weekly benefit amount maximum is $850 to start; in future years, it will be capped at 64% of state average weekly wage. The weekly benefits will be funded by contributions from payroll deductions into a state trust fund. The initial rate will be 0.063% of the employee’s wages. Employers may require employees to contribute up to 40% toward medical leave and up to 100% for family leave. Employers with fewer than 25 employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the contributions.

Employers must continue employee health-insurance benefits and premium contributions during any period of family or medical leave, said Gannon, and they must restore employees who return from leave to their previous, or an equivalent, position, with the same status, pay, benefits, and seniority, barring intervening layoffs or changed operating conditions.

There are many other conditions and bits of fine print, he told BusinessWest, adding that, while Jan. 1, 2021 is a long seven business quarters away, business owners and managers can and should start to prepare themselves for that day.

They can start by asking questions and getting answers, he said, adding that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees have not had to deal with federal family medical leave regulations and thus are treading into uncharted waters.

“They’re going to have to start thinking about how they’re going to manage this from a staffing perspective,” he said, adding that he is expecting a number of queries along these lines at the May 21 conference and the months to follow.

“Employers have to start thinking about this and getting ready for this now because of how generous the leave portion of this is,” he explained. “This is going to be a real challenge for employers.”

But overall, it’s just one of many challenges facing employers in the wake of the #metoo movement and other forces within employment law, all of which can have a significant impact on a business and its relative health and well-being.

Handling requests for reasonable accommodations is another area of concern, he noted, and that’s why the conference will feature a panel of experts addressing what has become a somewhat tricky subject for many business owners and managers.

“Someone has a medical impairment, and they need a new chair, or someone needs to change their schedule — they can’t work mornings anymore — or whatever the change in job structure they’re requesting … these matters can get complicated,” he explained. “How do companies handle these requests? Do they have to grant them? How do they work with employees? These are all questions this panel will address.”

For more information on the conference, visit skoler-abbott.com/training-programs.

— George O’Brien

Insurance

Culture of Coverage

Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the Massachusetts Health Connector completed Open Enrollment with the highest membership in the 13-year history of the state’s health-insurance exchange, covering more than 282,000 people with health insurance.

“The Health Connector just completed its most successful Open Enrollment since the start of the Affordable Care Act, signing up more than 65,000 new people with health insurance coverage,” Baker said. “Massachusetts leads the way with the best insured rate in the country, with over 97% of our residents covered due in part to the Health Connector’s strong efforts to create a culture of coverage in the Commonwealth.”

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito added that “the Health Connector plays an important role in ensuring communities across the Commonwealth have access to affordable, high-quality healthcare. Over the last four years, the Connector has worked tirelessly to transform the exchange into a functional and reliable service, as is evident by its current milestone enrollment figures.”

“Massachusetts shines as a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to getting people enrolled in health insurance — and maintaining coverage. That success is built off outreach and education efforts that effectively and efficiently target the state’s underinsured communities and get more people covered. This year, the Connector made inroads in these tough-to-reach uninsured groups.”

The Health Connector held Open Enrollment from Nov. 1 to Jan. 23, twice as long as the federal government’s Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 open period, to ensure Massachusetts residents had as much time as possible to shop for affordable coverage. Throughout Open Enrollment, Massachusetts residents were encouraged to get covered or stay covered, provide security for their health and financial well-being, and comply with the state’s individual mandate. Assistance was available through community-based health navigators around the state.

“Massachusetts shines as a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to getting people enrolled in health insurance — and maintaining coverage,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, the Connector board chair. “That success is built off outreach and education efforts that effectively and efficiently target the state’s underinsured communities and get more people covered. This year, the Connector made inroads in these tough-to-reach uninsured groups.”

As of March 1, 282,114 people were enrolled in health insurance, including 209,973 people in ConnectorCare, the state’s innovative affordability program, through which state subsidies are made available on top of federal tax credits, resulting in lower premium costs for members — including $0 premiums for the lowest-income enrollees — while also offering no or low co-pays and no deductibles. Overall, Health Connector membership rose 13%, compared to a 4% enrollment decrease through the federal healthcare.gov platform. In addition, 18,000 individuals receive dental insurance through the Connector.

“With stable operations and a clear message to get covered and stay covered, this was our most successful Open Enrollment to date, with high retention rates and strong new enrollment,” said Louis Gutierrez, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector. “We are going to keep working to ensure that everyone in Massachusetts is covered.”

The Health Connector placed extra focus on outreach and public education about affordable coverage options in communities with higher rates of uninsurance and worked to raise public awareness about coverage generally. At the close of Open Enrollment, the Connector had enrolled more than 65,000 people who did not have coverage at the start of Open Enrollment, about 22% more than last year.

Employment

Ready or Not…

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq. and Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

Paid Family and Medical Leave is on the way in Massachusetts.

In order to implement the new program, the newly created Department of Family and Medical Leave has released drafts of the regulations that will govern this new type of leave. Public listening sessions are now being held to allow members of the public to provide input on the draft regulations.

Timothy M. Netkovick

Timothy M. Netkovick

Daniel C. Carr

Daniel C. Carr

Although there will undoubtedly be changes to the current draft before they are officially adopted, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the draft regulations so they can start planning for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave now.

All employers will be covered by the new Massachusetts law. Although there are some similarities between the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the new Massachusetts law, some provisions of the new Paid Family and Medical Leave will require all employers to modify elements of their current practices. For example, if your company already qualifies for federal FMLA, it will also qualify for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave.

However, you should not assume that your company will automatically be in compliance with the new law just because you already have policies and practices in place to comply with the federal FMLA. You will need to review your policies now because employers required to make contributions must begin doing so on July 1, 2019.

On Jan. 1, 2021, all employees in the Commonwealth will be eligible for Paid Family and Medical Leave. Paid leave will be funded by employee payroll contributions and required contributions from companies with an average of 25 or more employees.

If you are a seasonal business with a fluctuating workforce, how do you know if your company has an average of 25 employees for purposes of this law? The current draft regulations make it clear that the average number of employees is determined by counting the number of full-time, part-time, seasonal, and temporary employees on the payroll during each pay period and then dividing by the number of pay periods. If the resulting average is 25 or greater, your company will need to pay into the Family and Employment Security Trust.

“Although there will undoubtedly be changes to the current draft before they are officially adopted, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the draft regulations so they can start planning for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave now.”

In one major variation from federal FMLA, Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave will be administered by the state, unless an employer applies for an exemption to use a ‘private plan’ to administer the leave themselves or through a third-party vendor. If an employer wants to utilize a private plan, the employer will need to apply, and be granted the exemption, annually.

At this point, the only requirement for a private plan is that it must provide for the same or greater benefits than the employee would have if the program was being administered by the state. The required logistics of implementing a private plan are unclear. The logistics of implementing a private plan will likely be addressed in the final regulations and advisory opinions as the 2021 start date draws closer.

In addition to paid leave, there are also several other major variations from federal FMLA law. One major variation is the amount of leave available to employees. While federal FMLA allows for a total of 12 total weeks of job-protected leave during a 12-month period regardless of the qualifying reason, the Massachusetts law differentiates between types of leave.

For instance, under the Massachusetts law, employees are allowed up to 20 weeks for an employee’s own serious health condition; up to 12 weeks to care for a family member’s serious health condition; up to 12 weeks for the birth, adoption, or foster-care placement of a child; and up to 26 weeks in order to care for a family member who is a covered service member. While an employee is out on leave, the amount of their benefit is based upon the employee’s individual rate of pay, but with a cap of 64% of the state average weekly wage. This cap will initially be $850 per week.

Employers will need to begin assessing their responsibilities under this program as well as the steps necessary to comply with these requirements. Employers that are required to make contributions to the Family and Employment Security Trust will want to start the process of deciding whether they intend to utilize a private plan, and if so, they should consult with employment counsel as they prepare their plan to insure compliance with the unique provisions of the new Massachusetts law.

Paid Family and Medical Leave will continue to be a hot-button topic for the foreseeable future. It is important for employers to continually monitor the progress of the law as it is being implemented to ensure they will be ready to continue business with minimal disruption on Jan. 1, 2021.

Timothy M. Netkovick, an attorney at Royal, P.C., has more than 15 years of litigation experience, and has successfully tried several cases to verdict. In addition to his trial experience, he has specific experience in handling labor and employment matters before a variety of administrative agencies. He also assists employers with unionized workforces during collective bargaining, at arbitrations, and with respect to employee grievances and unfair labor practice charges; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Daniel C. Carr specializes exclusively in management-side labor and employment law at Royal P.C. He has experience handling a number of labor and employment matters in a variety of courts and administrative agencies. He is also a frequent speaker on a number of legal areas such as discrimination law, employee handbook review, investigation strategies, and various employment-law topics; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Features

High Stakes

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

It’s been an eventful six years since voters first approved marijuana sales to treat medical conditions back in 2012. From that vote sprang New England Treatment Access (NETA) three years ago, and last month, the dispensary became one of just two stores in Massachusetts selling cannabis products for adult recreational use as well. NETA’s co-founder says the company has proven itself to be a good neighbor and an economic driver — and promises to be even more so in what is certainly a bold new era for marijuana in the Bay State.

When Kevin Fisher came to Massachusetts to help launch a medical-marijuana dispensary, he was already a veteran of the industry in Colorado, with plenty of passion to boot.

Fisher’s family, like so many others, has been struck by cancer, he said, and the idea — first as owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies in Colorado and then, starting in 2015, as co-founder of New England Treatment Access (NETA) — was always to draw in people with chronic and even terminal illness who may consider cannabis a viable therapy.

By the time NETA opened its doors in Northampton and Brookline, the anecdotal evidence for the drug’s effectiveness had been well-established elsewhere, he noted.

“We knew patients were using these therapies for a broad range of conditions,” Fisher told BusinessWest, before praising the law crafted after voters approved legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

“In Massachusetts, they got it right. Instead of legislators playing physician, the law granted physicians the freedom to make recommendations as they saw fit. It was important to maintain the sanctity of that patient-physician relationship. And we wanted to make sure we would provide quality products for patients to meet that broad range of conversations with physicians.”

Now, another law has significantly altered NETA’s business model. On Nov. 20, the company’s Northampton site, as well as Cultivate Holdings, LLC in Leicester, became the first facilities in the Northeast to sell marijuana to the public for adult recreational use.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘customer service associates.’ We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

At a press event after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission gave the go-ahead, Amanda Rositano, NETA’s director of operational compliance, said the shop is “beyond thrilled to be a part of this historic moment when NETA Northampton finally gets to open its doors to adults over 21 to provide safe, legal, and regulated cannabis to the people of Massachusetts.”

It’s certainly a welcome shift for many in the Valley, but it comes with challenges — concerning consumer safety, public perceptions, even traffic on Conz Street, which backed up significantly at certain times in the days following Nov. 20. But Fisher said NETA has long been preparing to meet them.

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates, with some of the ‘flower’ available for purchase.

Early on, for example, the organization brought in Leslie Laurie, former head of Tapestry Health and a long-time expert in public health in Western Mass., as its regional director. “She had expertise we could benefit from, a perspective on patients’ needs in Western Mass.,” Fisher said.

The founders also assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that the progressive culture in Northampton would prove welcoming to a dispensary that first sold cannabis products to a patients with prescriptions, and, now, to any adult with an ID.

“We felt [Northampton] was the place to go, and the process was pretty smooth,” he added. “I’m thankful for Leslie; she brought a credibility to our organization and the relationships we built with government and law enforcement. And we’ve only continued to build those relationships during the adult-use licensing, because they could appreciate the solid community partners we have been.”

Opening a medical-marijuana dispensary in Brookline, however, was a “whole different beast,” Fisher noted. “There were about 100 meetings required — some open to the media and the public, many with public officials … just meeting after meeting, a lot of hand-holding and reassurance. It was a very rigorous process.”

Despite that tougher road than the Northampton one, NETA felt affirmed when its license with Brookline came up for renewal after the first year. “The town said we didn’t even need to show up for the hearing; it was guaranteed. It made us feel like we had operated in the way we had promised.”

By contrast, Northampton was always a smoother fit, and is currently the only NETA site approved for recreational sales, as the licensing process continues in Brookline.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use,” Fisher said of the Paradise City, adding that NETA has never taken that goodwill for granted. “We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

Time will tell if issues arise, of course, but for now, Fisher is pleased with the business — customers are still waiting in line most days — and NETA’s continued growth as what he calls a true community partner.

The Ayes Have It

In 2016, four years after the similar vote on medical marijuana, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational sales to adults age 21 years and older. If they present a government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license, ID card, or passport) for verification, customers may purchase up to 1 ounce of ‘flower’ or 5 grams of concentrate. Certain potency restrictions, including a 5 mg serving-size limit for ‘edibles,’ apply to non-medical products.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use. We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

However, Fisher was quick to note that, with the introduction of recreational sales, NETA’s medical-marijuana patients will remain the shop’s priority. Patients with prescriptions have their own lines, and at least 35% of each day’s inventory is reserved for patients. In short, the customer experience has not changed for people seeking to fill scripts.

As for those waiting in line for recreational sales, Fisher said it typically takes 20 to 30 minutes to get through, but technology is available to shorten the wait NETA uses a reserve-ahead app to view the daily menu, reserve an order online, and have it ready for pickup at a certain time later that day. In addition, for people looking to gauge the wait at any given time, NETA offers continuous live wait-time updates on its website.

It has also doubled customer service staff and remodeled the stores to offer nearly twice as many service stations.

Also ramped up are efforts to educate customers about cannabis products — a key factor, considering that many users are likely to be inexperienced.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘patient service associates,’” Fisher said, noting that he prefers that over the flip industry term ‘budtenders.’ “We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

That training — about two months worth — includes everything from understanding the core components of cannabis products to encouraging new users to ‘start low and go slow.’

“That’s a message we drive home again and again to our PSAs and our customers. There will always be more cannabis. So find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and start easy so you don’t have negative outcomes.”

In addition to the ‘low and slow’ guidance, NETA’s consumer-education materials emphasize elements like a ‘what product is right for me’ guide; advice against driving or using heavy machinery under the influence, public consumption, and traveling across state lines; a potency and tolerance tutorial, safe storage; and recognizing substance-abuse signs and identifying resources for additional help.

Recognizing that some of the opposition to legalized marijuana came from individuals concerned about products getting into children’s hands, all NETA product packaging is child-resistant and labeled with revised warnings and clear information to ensure that people can identify edible products as marijuana-infused and not safe for children.

In addition to training staff to emphasize responsible consumption when interacting with consumers, NETA has retained a full-time training coordinator to continuously develop and manage retail-staff training.

Understanding dosage levels is is important, Fisher said, as are reminders that the effects differ between smoking marijuana and ingesting edibles. In the latter case, “you could see a delayed onset, so don’t eat that whole bag if you don’t feel it’s working. That sounds like simple advice, but it’s a big deal for us.”

As it is for the Cannabis Control Commission, which encourages prospective customers to know the law and consume responsibly.

“This signal to open retail marijuana establishments marks a major milestone for voters who approved legal, adult-use cannabis in our state,” Chairman Steven Hoffman said last month. “To get  here, licensees underwent thorough background checks, passed multiple inspections, and had their products tested, all to ensure public health and safety as this new industry gets  up and running. As patrons look forward to visiting Massachusetts stores, we hope they will do their part by first familiarizing themselves with the law and understanding what is required of responsible consumers.”

Growing Concerns

Beyond Northampton and Brookline, Fisher said, NETA’s cultivation facility in Franklin — which has nearly doubled its capacity in anticipation of adult use — continues to invest heavily in research and is developing a pipeline of products designed to improve customers’ experiences and address specific medical conditions and symptoms.

And, make no mistake, even though adults can buy cannabis products without a doctor’s prescription, he added, it still makes sense to receive and renew certification as a patient — not just because of the lessened wait to be served, but because patients also avoid the 20% tax on adult-use sales, and can access a yearly voucher program to help offset the cost of being certified.

He’s also excited about the potential in Massachusetts, considering the scientific and medical resources available locally, to continue researching the benefits of marijuana from a medical perspective. “Clearly, we’re going to get more research; we have some of the brightest minds in the world of healthcare here in Western Mass.”

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

Overall, Fisher is a believer in the benefits of this industry, in terms of healthcare, quality of life, and economic benefits, like taxes paid and workers hired. The company employs close to 600 people, more than 100 in Western Mass. alone.

“Billions of dollars are spent yearly in this country [on marijuana], so by regulating it, there’s economic impact that can be realized, taxes to be paid, safety measures put in place … you’re not in someone’s car in an alley.”

And for adults who have no particular health condition but simply want to partake as an escape from life’s stresses, well, he believes there are far worse alternatives for that.

“That’s not to encourage broader consumption of cannabis, but let’s normalize it so parents can talk to their kids about it,” he told BusinessWest. “In Colorado, where it’s a mature industry, the youth rates have gone down. It’s just less cool for kids. There’s more open dialogue. Parents are having more discussions about it.”

And, he was quick to add, that guy selling pot on the corner, in states where it remains illegal, doesn’t check an ID like a responsible dispensary does.

“We’re bringing it from the darkness into the light and realizing a lot of positive outcomes,” he said. “On balance, this is a good thing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]