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Opinion

Opinion

By Valerie Boudreau

 

It seems like people are talking at each other more than listening to each other these days. Think about how many emails, text messages, voice mails, and other interruptive, one-way communications we send and receive — there’s a lot more talking than active listening going on.

The ability to listen effectively is not only a critical communication skill, but also a strong leadership skill. Active listening allows employees, customers, and co-workers to feel that their ideas, thoughts and perspectives are heard, accepted, and understood.

To become a better listener, you need to understand what is involved in effective communication and develop the techniques to sit quietly and listen — a feat of true discipline and self-control! You must ignore your own needs and focus solely on the person speaking. Here are a few keys to active listening:

• Focus on the person and the message. Focus your entire attention on the speaker, and listen without judging or trying to come back with a response before they’re halfway through speaking. Look at the speaker’s body language in addition to their words.

• Communicate your attention. Use your body language and gestures to let the speaker know you are locked into what they’re saying. Face them directly and make eye contact. Sit or stand in an open position. Smile and nod occasionally.

• Acknowledge what the person is saying. From time to time, use “uh-huh” or “I see” to indicate you are following what the person is saying. This indicates that you are actively listening and following them, not necessarily that you agree with them.

• Don’t interrupt. Interrupting shows impatience and disrespect, especially if you interrupt with an argument rather than a question. It frustrates the speaker and limits your understanding of the message. Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.

• Build rapport. Engage with the speaker by asking questions or reflecting back what you have heard. For example, say, “what I’m hearing you say is…” or “I’m not sure I understand…” This demonstrates that you are paying attention and will allow you to gain more information.

• Be authentic in your response. Your job as the listener is to gain information, perspective, and understanding. Be candid, open, and honest when responding to the speaker, but do so in a respectful manner. If there is conflict or disagreement, focus your response on the issue rather than the person.

As leaders, to make the best decisions for our organizations, we need as much information and as many different perspectives as possible. Active listening encourages people to proactively share information, ideas, thoughts, and perspectives because they know they will be heard and respected.

 

Valerie Boudreau leads the Learning & Development team at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mark Adams

 

When it comes to dress codes and attire, companies for years have developed policy standards rooted in conveying a clean, conservative, and/or professional look. In so doing, employees had to conform to a singular vision or appearance. Whether defined expressly or otherwise, hairstyles have been a part of such stereotypes and visions, which has consequently left many minority applicants and/or employees on the sidelines when it came to being hired or promoted into certain positions despite being otherwise qualified to perform those roles.

Enter the CROWN Act legislation. CROWN is short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and is designed to break down some of the stereotypical barriers that certain minority groups were facing when being considered for employment.

To date, 17 states have adopted CROWN Act legislation, with Massachusetts being the latest to sign such measures into law. Other states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington. Federally, Congress has contemplated a CROWN Act measure; this measure has been referred to the Senate for further consideration.

What is its significance? For states that have adopted these measures, it makes it unlawful to discriminate based on “natural or protective hairstyles.” Examples of these hairstyles include hair that is tightly coiled or curled, or worn in locks, cornrows, twists, braids, bantu knots, or afros.

For employers that are operating in a state that has enacted CROWN Act legislation, what should you do?

First, review your company policies to see if there is any express language prohibiting such hairstyles in the workplace. Policies that I have seen in handbooks that I have reviewed where the topic of hairstyles has been addressed have included such policies as dress code, hygiene, personal appearance, and professionalism.

If you are a multi-state employer that operates in states where CROWN Act legislation both has and has not been adopted, be careful with your handbook policy and structure. If your handbook is distributed across all your locations, it may be easier administratively to adjust your policy across the board to ensure compliance. (While, conceivably, another path could be to carve out your dress code or other policies and treat them as state-specific addenda or supplements that coincide with the different state requirements, such a practice may prove to be more cumbersome to sustain over time.)

Then there is the subject of managerial and supervisory actions and practices. For instance, have managers and supervisors chosen not to hire an applicant in the past over concerns about hairstyles? Passed over an employee for a promotion? Is it a topic of conversation addressed in interviews? Has the topic been broached in performance reviews or in disciplinary writeups? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then further discussion with management is advised to change practices (whether attributable to express or unconscious bias) moving forward.

As CROWN Act legislation continues to get adopted nationwide, companies may need to change their ways and let their hair down. Choosing otherwise could lead to discriminatory consequences and litigation down the road.

 

Mark Adams is director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Daily News

From the day he took the helm with the fledgling Springfield Thunderbirds hockey team, Nate Costa, now the president of the franchise, talked about the importance of winning to the ultimate success of a team.

Opinion

Indeed, Costa, who came to Springfield following management roles with several minor league sports operations, often spoke about the importance of presentation and the overall experience when it came to how well a team could capture the hearts and minds of a region or community — and thrive financially. But ultimately, he said there is no real substitute for winning. A team can have endless promotions, bring in big names as guests, and offer special prices on hot dogs and beer, he implied, but in the end, it would have to win to really break through.

The events of the past few several months, and especially the past few weeks, have proven Costa right.

As the Thunderbirds made their way to the Calder Cup finals against the Chicago Wolves, the team moved to a new and much higher level in terms of visibility and presence, for lack of a better term, in the Greater Springfield area. While T-Birds ultimately lost the series, four games to one, including the last three at home, it was a clear winner on every other level.

Let’s start with the games themselves. The downtown area was electric on game nights. Some fans would arrive an hour or two before the game started. There was some tailgating in some of the parking lots and larger crowds in many of the area restaurants.

The weekend games that closed out the series were sell-outs, and there were high levels of energy in the MassMutual Center.

Overall, the Thunderbirds were front of mind for the past month or so as they progressed in the playoffs to the finals. They were the lead story on local sports pages and the local news shows, but there was more than that.

People were talking about them — at the office, in coffee shops, and at the many events that have been staged in the region over the past several months as the long-awaited return to normalcy from the pandemic has moved to a different level. And they are still talking about them.

And while people were talking about this team, they were reminiscing about championship teams from 30 and 50 years ago. Hockey, for at least a little while, became king.

The best news is that interest in the T-Birds has moved well beyond talk. Season-ticket sales are far ahead of the pace for previous years, and they, as everyone knows, are one of the key cornerstones to success. More corporate support is certain to follow.

While the Thunderbirds have always had a presence in Springfield and the region, they have now officially arrived. And this bodes extremely well for a city that will need this team to play a big role in its full recovery from the pandemic and ongoing efforts to make downtown a place to not only work, but live.

The T-Birds did not bring home the Calder Cup in 2022. But they may have succeeded in an even bigger game, if one can call it that.

They have broken through and truly captured the attention of the region. That makes them big winners.

Opinion

Opinion

By Alane Burgess

 

Social media platforms have become an essential part of life for the estimated 3 billion people around the world who log on daily. They keep us connected with family and friends, provide access to all types of information and the opportunity to build professional contacts to name a few of their popular usages.

Their presence in our lives is something that has been celebrated annually on World Social Media Day, June 30, since 2010. This represents a time period during which social media platforms have expanded in use across the globe as well as in this country. According to the Pew Research Center, such platforms are now used by seven in 10 Americans. In 2005, only 5% of Americans did, a figure that grew to 50% by 2011, and stands today at 72% of the public, according to the center’s research.

The use of social media can have a downside as well, as other surveys of users have reported.

Ongoing studies across the globe indicate that these platforms impact some users negatively, lowering self-esteem, disrupting sleep patterns, and raising issues of addictive behavior in their compulsive use.

It’s no secret that people bully and harass others online or that how one sees oneself can take a hit when viewing what others post — or boast — online about how they look or what they have.

We are all vulnerable to disappointment that can put us at risk for mental health concerns when it comes to social media and expectations. Are we seeking validation for our feelings and comments, supportive comparisons for our lifestyle and new friends? Are we using it as a substitute for in-person engagement or even professional behavioral health counseling?

What I suggest to my clients is to consider how much time they spend daily on social media platforms and how it impacts their mood. Studies suggest links between increased symptoms of general anxiety and depression among users of multiple social media platforms.

I also stress that visiting social media is not a fix for loneliness, but an indication it is time for more focus on off-line activities for the benefit of our emotional wellness and physical health.

The Pew Research Center data shows YouTube and Facebook as the most widely-used online platforms with Americans across age, educational and income levels, with Instagram, Pinterest and Linkedin also popular.

Visiting and posting on them and others can be both fun and helpful as part of our daily or weekly routines. It is, however, as we celebrate this World Social Media Day June 30, important to be aware of their role and impact in our lives and to know when it is time for a digital detox. It is good to step away from such interaction for a day or two to know that we can and, if not, evaluate why.

 

Alane Burgess is the Clinic Director of the Mental Health Association’s BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center in Springfield; [email protected].

Opinion

Opinion

By Mark Adams

 

For many employers, arbitration agreements have been a valuable tool for resolving employment disputes. They allow cases to be handled outside the court system without the costs associated with prolonged discovery schedules and complex procedural rules, and, most importantly, without a public record that would allow for public access to those proceedings. All told, arbitration cases are cheaper and faster for all concerned.

Not just employers appreciate the value of arbitration agreements. Congress recognized their benefit when it enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), recognizing the right of parties to be able to freely enter into contracts to resolve their disagreements. In Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Construction Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court stated “as a matter of federal law, any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration.” Title VII claims, Age Discrimination in Employment Act claims, and Fair Labor Standards Act claims are just some of the many forms of disputes that can be compelled to be resolved through an arbitration agreement.

Yet, despite this long-standing national policy, arbitration agreements can have their limits. Some state fair-employment-practice agencies do not recognize their enforcement when it comes to cases that can come within their jurisdiction. For example, when it comes to discrimination claims arising under its Massachusetts General Law Chapter 151B, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has the wherewithal to move forward with a discrimination complaint on its own accord in the public’s interest.

Now, Congress has passed and President Biden has signed into law the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021” to prohibit employers from compelling employees to resolve sexual-harassment and sexual-assault disputes through the use of an pre-dispute arbitration agreement. While the act takes effect immediately and applies to such agreements that exist, it does not apply to cases that are already pending. Rather, the act applies to claims that accrue on or after the law’s enactment.

While the motivations for the law’s passage are fairly clear (the rise of the #MeToo movement and the need for greater awareness on such cases), it does raise the question of whether future legislative initiatives may be forthcoming to create additional carveouts in the interest of workplace transparency. In fact, there is an interim final rule that has been promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in implementing procedures for the handling of retaliation complaints under the Taxpayer First Act (TFA), which does exactly that. The rule (which is currently under comment until May 6) states that “no pre-dispute arbitration agreement is valid or enforceable if the agreement requires arbitration of a dispute arising under the TFA anti-retaliation provision.”

That is not to say pre-dispute arbitration agreements are dead. Far from it. After all, they also serve to resolve other disputes that may not have legal consequences at all. However, what may be next? Pay equity and transparency claims? Other forms of federal discrimination? Only time will tell. However, with the growing demand for greater transparency comes the potential for additional erosion of the longstanding policy favoring arbitration agreements in the future.

 

Mark Adams is director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared at eane.org.

Opinion

Putting MassSave Changes in Perspective

By Robert Rio

Massachusetts recently updated its flagship Mass Save energy efficiency program. The changes will affect businesses in areas served by an investor-owned electric or gas utility — companies such as Eversource, National Grid and UNITIL.

The changes took effect on Jan. 1. Massachusetts reviews its energy efficiency programs every three years. 

What will the changes mean to your company? Many commercial and industrial (C&I) programs will continue, some with modifications.   

Greenhouse-gas reductions are now counted in the calculations to determine energy savings 

A 2021 Massachusetts law mandated economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions beginning 2030. As a result, the new energy efficiency programs include the social value of carbon in the cost-effectiveness analysis calculations for most measures.

The result is that previously marginally cost-effective programs may now be eligible for programs when the benefits of greenhouse-gas reductions are included. The new three-year plan is expected to reduce the equivalent of 845,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas by 2030, equal to the emissions from about 180,000 cars. 

New emphasis on heat-pump technology 

Reducing greenhouse gases will eventually require a switch from fossil fuels to electric options for building heating, water heating and some industrial processes. The new plan will emphasize electric heat-pump technology for commercial and industrial customers, particularly for smaller businesses where residential-sized options may work.

Larger companies may have a tougher time electrifying, but electrification may still make sense in areas of your facility, particularly if you are served by delivered fossil fuels such as oil and propane.  

Most lighting rebates are eliminated

Since its inception, Mass Save has offered rebates for energy efficient lighting. Now that such lighting is often required by code and ubiquitous, rebates are not allowed, except when new lighting is paired with controllable technologies.  

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is no longer eligible for rebates  

Combined Heat and Power systems produce electricity and recover the exhaust heat to produce heating, cooling, and process steam for manufacturing and other uses.

Many businesses have installed combined heat and power to manage their energy costs and ensure reliability. AIM has long supported this effort. The new greenhouse-gas law makes natural gas and other fossil fuels ineligible for rebates. AIM has long supported CHP and disagrees with the elimination of incentives for Combined Heat and Power.

Electricity and natural-gas costs will rise 

The Mass Save program is primarily funded by a surcharge on a customer’s electric and gas bills.

In the previous three-year plan (2019-2021), the total costs (gas and electric) were about $1.1 billion for commercial and industrial customers, representing about 40% of the total program costs. Rebates are generally sector specific, so money collected from commercial and industrial customers is mostly returned to those customers.

The new program will see commercial and industrial sector costs rise to about $1.56 billion dollars over three years. The impact on company energy bills will vary, but the increase will have a measurable impact on overall energy costs. More information will be available as programs are rolled out.

 

Robert Rio is senior vice president and counsel of Government Affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts; [email protected] 

Opinion

Opinion

By Kimberley Lee

 

The death of Peter Robbins resonated with me. He was tapped to be the first voice of Charlie Brown as a child actor in the early 1960s when Charles Schultz began to adapt his popular “Peanuts” cartoon strip for TV and movies.

I grew up with these shows, and so did my children, but it was not just nostalgia that made me take notice of Robbins’s death. His family announced on Jan. 25 that the 65-year-old Robbins had died the week before by suicide. He had long struggled with both mental-health and substance-use disorders.

MHA, the Mental Health Assoc., is the organization I work for, whose behavioral-health outreach clinic and residential programs have long offered support and treatment to individuals with such dual diagnoses. It was especially disheartening to read how the life of Robbins, associated through the 1970s with a character that brought much entertainment to the screen, ended.

The cartoon strip itself was sometimes subtitled “Good ol’ Charlie Brown,” and the world Schultz created was a self-contained one about childhood. Its ups, downs, and misplaced crushes were depicted by characters who were very animated, even in print. No adults are featured, but the characters struggle with plenty of personal issues that often follow into adulthood. Some, like Lucy, can be bossy; some are a bit vain, like curly-haired Freida; and some are self-absorbed, like Schroeder on his piano. Everyone is just trying to fit in or fit into who they are, including Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beagle, who often retreats into his own world on top of his doghouse or into his imagination, where he fights the Red Baron as the Flying Ace. There is also Pig-Pen, who tells Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, he doesn’t appreciate that name he has been tagged with because of his appearance, but neither does he like the rain to wash away that appearance from a day of playing in the dirt.

They are a complicated bunch, defying stereotypes in their own ways of being and thinking and friendships across neighborhoods and interests.

Schultz, who died in 2000, wondered if his characters would resonate through time, and they do, as Charlie Brown embodies a little bit of all of us emotionally as he navigates this world of personalities. And, of course, should he need advice, there is Lucy, who sets up a Psychiatric Help booth, where she gives her version of professional help for five cents. It is a world in which the timeless troubles and alienations of childhood are on display, but also one in which the characters cope and carry on with their pursuits and come together.

I grew up with all the animated specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and, again, so did my children. Each time these classic movies aired, those 30 minutes provided an opportunity for us to be together as a family, to make a connection, to embrace each other emotionally.

In our house, emotional connectedness happens in other ways as well. For example, once a week, my husband and I pull our girls together (now that they are in college, this is done remotely), we all unplug, and we just simply and sincerely ask them, “how are you?” And not just physically, but emotionally. Their answers have been honest and transparent and emotional at times.

It gave them, at an early age, a green light to talk openly about how they feel from a mental-health perspective, and there was no stigma, no shame, no hesitancy in doing this.

We all know that challenges to mental health start young, and the sooner we address them, the better the outcome.

 

Kimberley Lee is vice president of Resource Development & Branding for the Mental Health Assoc.

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Michelle Desaulniers

 

Most everyone has been a passenger on an airplane and heard the safety talk. Very often, the ‘put your own mask on first before helping others’ analogy is used to remind people, in myriad situations, that it is OK — in fact, it is preferable — to practice self-care.

Most of us push self-care and everything that goes along with that notion to the bottom of our to-do list — and we just keep on flying. But what if, at the beginning of 2022, you decided to put yourself and your career first? Start this new year on a different note by taking a personal learning inventory.

At the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE), we are challenging our members to bring their personal development to the number-one position on their to-do list for 2022 by asking themselves these questions:

• How will you make next year count?

• What will you do to take your career to a new level?

• How will you challenge yourself in 2022?

What will it take to get you into a personal growth mindset? Start by thinking about the last time you took a class, attended a training session, or went to a conference. Remember that feeling of accomplishment, the renewed sense of purpose and engagement that you felt afterwards? It was great connecting with peers outside of your organization and sharing ideas, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to feel that again and really get into that forward-thinking growth mindset?

EANE offers a variety of formal opportunities and options to refresh your attitude and to add substance to your learning inventory. The coming year should be punctuated with your own personal learning events that will enable you to return to your daily challenges feeling refreshed, re-energized, and ready to tackle those challenges with a new outlook and armed with freshly minted skills. Not only do you owe it to yourself, but you owe it to your co-workers. They will see your example, and they will follow it.

No doubt everyone is feeling the weight of the world lately, and no one wants to poke their head up for fear of flying objects. But allowing your professional growth to stagnate for yet another year is like putting someone else’s mask on before your own. On an airplane — and in your career — that could lead to disaster.

 

Michelle Desaulniers is a member of the Learning & Development team at EANE.

Opinion

Editorial

 

When you talk with people in business about COVID-19, and especially those early days, in March 2020, when the state and the country were shutting down, many will share a similar story that goes something like this:

“When we packed up our computers and went home, we thought it would be for a few weeks or maybe a few months, and then we’d be back — it would be over, and we’d be back to normal.”

Such thinking was certainly understandable. None of us had been through a pandemic before, and this is what we thought: we’ll stay home for a few weeks, hunker down, and then this will pass.

It didn’t take long to realize that those thoughts were unrealistic and perhaps naive. We soon came to grips with the fact that we had a longer wait for ‘normal.’ Much longer.

Nearly two years later, we’re still waiting, and the unfortunate truth is that this is still a long way from being over. Unfortunate, because we all desperately want and need for it to be over, and it isn’t.

“When we packed up our computers and went home, we thought it would be for a few weeks or maybe a few months, and then we’d be back — it would be over, and we’d be back to normal.”

These days, quite a few conversations begin with “I can’t believe we’re still talking about this,” or “I can’t believe we’re talking about this again.”

What we’re talking about are COVID cases rising, long lines for testing, and hospitals being pushed to and then beyond their limits. And in the business world, what we’re talking about, again, are postponed events, canceled business meetings, people avoiding restaurants and movie theaters, colleges not sure if they’ll be able to open their doors when the semester break ends in a few weeks, and area school systems not sure if they’re going to be able to open their doors and stay open, leaving parents wondering what they will do if they don’t.

Yes, we’re still talking about these things, or talking about them again. The COVID fight continues, and the end is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, a workforce crisis continues, inflation is no longer talked about as ‘transitory,’ production and supply-chain issues persist, and the many businesses that stayed afloat with the help of government lifelines like PPP and the employee-retention credit will not have that net underneath them in 2022.

So why is there is so much optimism about the year ahead, as revealed in our special Economic Outlook section, starting on page 15? Maybe people are thinking that things simply must get better in 2022. Or that COVID has to finally run its course and will now cease controlling our lives.

Perhaps, but there are other reasons. We especially feel a sense that the region did, indeed, catch a glimpse of a post-COVID world in 2021, and it was a very encouraging experience.

It was a brief window, to be sure, and it came roughly between Memorial Day and just before Labor Day. The state had lifted virtually all of its restrictions on businesses, and people started doing things they hadn’t done in a while — like put their masks aside, go to a restaurant, gather as a family, go on a summer vacation, stage a Chamber After 5, or gather for a retirement party.

As noted, it was a brief window, and by the time the Big E staged its return and BusinessWest feted its 40 Under Forty class at the Log Cabin (both in late September), there was plenty of apprehension about a variant called Delta.

Now, there’s far more apprehension about another variant called Omicron, and there are serious questions, and trepidation, about what the first few weeks, or even the first few quarters, of 2022 will be like.

But amidst all that, there is a prevailing sense of optimism that we can finally see a lot more of what we saw during that brief window in the year ahead. We sense that the ingredients may finally in place for actually getting to that proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic.

We’re not there yet, and there are some rough weeks and perhaps months ahead, but the signs are there.

Opinion

Opinion

By Olivia Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Olivia Bernstein is clinical director of Homeless Services at MHA.

Opinion

Opinion

By Allison Ebner

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Thornton

 

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

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

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

• I know what is expected of me at work;

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

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

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

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

• There is someone at work that encourages my development;

• At work, my opinions seem to count;

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

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

• I have a best friend at work;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

The proposal to create a data center on aggregated land in the northwest corner of Westfield is big in every respect.

Big as in the pricetag — $2.7 billion, almost three times larger than the MGM Springfield project — and also big in terms of the number of buildings (10), the number of square feet (upward of 2 million), the amount of energy that will be used, the number of total jobs it will create … the list goes on.

Where this project (see story on page 6) also comes up big is in the realm of opportunity. Just how big an opportunity we don’t know yet, but there is certainly potential for this project to be perhaps merely the first such facility to serve the needs of the sector known as Big Data.

Granted, sites like the one in Westfield, which can check a wide array of boxes pertaining to everything from power to fiber to highway access, are extremely rare. But this region does hold the potential to be more of a player in the world’s quest for data and ways to store and provide it, and this project might be a catalyst for more development down the road.

Before we get to that, let’s address the Westfield project itself. In many ways, it seems like the perfect development initiative for the city and the region. It is proposed for industrially zoned land that is difficult to develop and has gone begging for a new use for decades now.

Most of the other proposed uses involve large amounts of truck traffic (warehouses) or power production, neither of which sit well with residents. The data center would be almost invisible to the community and would provide needed jobs, tax revenue, and potential support businesses.

It would be like the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke on a much, much larger scale.

This is the kind of development the region has been looking for. Granted, the number of jobs involved is not as high as some would like, especially when we’re talking about a development that will be spread out over about 90 acres of a 155-acre parcel. But these are the proverbial good jobs at good wages — starting salaries will be in the $85,000 to $100,000 range — that all communities have been looking for, those that are better in most all ways than those in distribution, retail, and tourism and hospitality.

And the best part about all this is that the jobs will be in a relatively new and emerging sector, one with almost unlimited growth potential. Not every region or every community has a chance to break into this sector, but the 413 now does.

There aren’t enough suitable parcels to create several centers like the one proposed for Westfield. In fact, this could be one of a kind — and would be one of the largest such facilities in the country. But there is potential for smaller-scale facilities given this region’s abundance of land, relatively inexpensive power (especially communities with their own utilities, such as Holyoke and Westfield), comparatively low cost of living, and many institutions of higher learning, several of which offer cybersecurity and related programs.

The Westfield project still has a number of hurdles to clear. While it has some momentum and many likable qualities, projects on this scale do not come together easily.

But if it does come to fruition, it could open the door to more. Maybe much more.

It might be the start of something big.

Opinion

Editorial

 

As the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, another battle — yes, we can call it that — is emerging on just how the state should spend more than $5 billion in federal stimulus money coming it’s way.

Actually, there are different fronts to this conflict, the first being a large disagreement over who should control this windfall, with both Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature believing that they know, better than the other, how this money should be allocated.

We’re not sure either is fully qualified, but that’s another matter.

Let’s get back to the money — $5.3 billion of it, to be exact. This is the state’s share of the proceeds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). It is, indeed, a windfall, a rare opportunity to take money with no real strings attached to it and put it to some good.

So, naturally, there has to be disagreement over who should control the money and how it should be spent — should we really expect anything else? We hope these differences of opinion can be worked out quickly (probably not, but we can hope), and that the state can commence allocating this money in ways that will create opportunity and address long-standing problems. It appears likely that the proceeds will be divided in some way, with the governor controlling a large portion and the Legislature deciding how to spend what’s left.

Already, the governor has indicated several priorities, including everything from the housing crisis to battling opioid addiction; from infrastructure work to funding the state’s announced vaccine lottery sweepstakes.

While these are worthy causes, to be sure (although we certainly believe there are better ways to spend $6.5 million than a lottery), money needs to be set aside to help the businesses of this state, many of which are still battling to fully recover from the pandemic. While many business sectors are starting to rebound, especially the hospitality industry after a brutal 15 months of stagnancy and then several levels of reopening, many individual businesses are struggling to get all the way back.

One big obstacle is workforce. Companies across all sectors are struggling to find good help, and an infusion of funds into training programs would certainly help address the ongoing labor shortages. As economic-development leaders have said for years, the problem isn’t necessarily with the numbers of people in the workforce, but the skills they possess.

Meanwhile, we share the business community’s disappointment that the governor remains opposed to allocating some of the money from the American Rescue Plan to pay for the huge deficit in the state’s unemployment insurance fund caused by the deep and very sudden job losses during the pandemic; more than 30 states have already committed to using some ARP funds for this purpose.

Baker has instead signed legislation that spreads the hike in the so-called solvency assessment over 20 years and covers $7 billion in unemployment payments tied to pandemic-related job losses.

We don’t believe that simply spreading the payments over 20 years is a real solution to this problem. The pain remains — it’s just dispersed over two decades instead of all at once. While the payments will be smaller, they will still be a burden to businesses that are, as we noted, still struggling to fully recover from the pandemic and don’t need to pay for a problem that was not of their doing.

When it comes to the ARP windfall, the phrase ‘good problem to have’ certainly comes to mind. Indeed, deciding how to allocate $5.3 billion is a test for which there are few truly wrong answers.

But it is incumbent on the governor and the Legislature to come up with the best answers, and some of these involve a business community that is far from out of the woods when it comes to this pandemic and the many challenges that remain.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

 

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

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

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

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

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

Employers plan to mark Juneteenth in various ways.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

By George O’Brien

 

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

Andy Yee, who passed away late last month, was the true definition of a serial entrepreneur. Even though he had a number of businesses, especially restaurants within the Bean Group, he was always looking for that next challenge, that next opportunity.

He took on each project with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm that was as inspiring as it was contagious. And many of his undertakings were not just business ventures — they were game changers in our local communities, difficult yet successful efforts to save institutions such as the Student Prince in downtown Springfield and the White Hut in West Springfield from being relegated to the past tense.

In 2015, BusinessWest named Yee and several of his business partners, including Peter Pan Chairman and CEO Peter Picknelly and Kevin and Michael Vann, as Difference Makers for their efforts to save the Student Prince. And that title certainly fit him. He was a difference maker as a business owner and entrepreneur, as a family man, and as a leader in the community.

“He was a difference maker as a business owner and entrepreneur, as a family man, and as a leader in the community.”

The Student Prince was struggling when Yee and Picknelly stepped forward. Theirs was a business proposition, to be sure, but it was much more than that. It was an effort to save something that had become a part of the fabric of the city and of the region. It was more about community than it was about dollars and cents — although Yee, a very smart businessperson, was also focused on the dollars and cents as well.

The same was true with the White Hut in West Springfield — a different kind of restaurant, to be sure, but with a very similar brand of emotional attachment. Today, both establishments live on, and Yee is a huge reason why.

As a business writer who interviewed him dozens of times over the past two decades, I was always struck by how energetic he was, how hands-on he was in every endeavor he became involved with, and how he always had one eye on the present and the other on the future, trying to anticipate what was to come and be ready for it.

That is the essence of a leader, and that’s another word that fits Yee like a glove.

His latest endeavor is a restaurant project in Court Square in Springfield, another landmark that needed someone to step forward and give it a new direction, a new future. Yee was part of a large team doing just that.

We sincerely hope this project moves forward. It will be difficult without his leadership, his enthusiasm, and his ability to get the tough projects done. It will be a fitting tribute — yet another one — to how he had the ability to not only open a business, but change a community for the better — and make a huge difference.

He will be missed.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sandra Doran

Work has always been a women’s issue. Whether we work or not, the types of jobs we do, how much we are paid, and how far we can advance, it’s all shaped by our experiences as women, and this, in turn, shapes the central mission at Bay Path University. Therefore, it has been hard to see how deeply the pandemic has thwarted working women. In January, the National Women’s Law Center calculated the percentage of women working at 57%, the lowest it has been since 1988.

As the conversation grows louder, and the issues more pressing, this is our moment to seize, for making changes that are long overdue. At Bay Path, we’re doubling down on our commitment to preparing women for the career world, but the pandemic has confirmed it’s high time that businesses, organizations, and policymakers get on board with preparing the career world for women. Here are a few places to start.

• Support mothers. Over the last 30 years, childcare costs have increased by 70%, while real median wages have increased by a scant 7%. The cost of childcare in the U.S. and the allegiance to traditional gender roles still forces women into the slow lane of career growth and pushes many to take the off-ramp. Taking time away from one’s career puts women at risk of re-entering the labor market at a lower entry point than when they left, a scenario that underlies our persistent wage gap. The experiences of mothers during the pandemic has led to renewed calls for subsidized childcare, something every other industrialized country in the world offers. At the same time, the nearly universal pivot to remote work arrangements should inspire us all to develop schedules and create resources that expand the flexibility we can offer.

• Expand access to degrees for more women. It’s never been more important for women to get their degrees. It still holds true that women with bachelor’s degrees will earn $630,000 more over the course of their careers than high-school graduates. Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more. Most women who left the workforce exited the hospitality, health-services, and retail sectors, where the majority of jobs do not require a degree and the majority of workers don’t have one. Due to their disproportionate representation in these sectors, fewer black and Hispanic women are working now than any other demographic. Creating access to degrees and providing the support to help women complete them can have a transformational impact on the types of jobs women fill and the amount of money they earn.

• Put more women in charge of more companies. Today, there are actually fewer women in rising management roles than there were in 2019, even though having more women in leadership roles isn’t just good for women, it’s better for business. Although men and women start in roughly the same positions, by age 30 to 44, 36% of men become supervisors or managers, compared to 30% of women. By age 45 and older, 12% of men ascend to an executive-level role, while only 6% of women do. A Harvard Business School study found that having women represent 30% of corporate leadership leads to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm. Researchers attributed this to “increased skill diversity within top management,” which translates to an ability to encourage better employee performance and stronger recruitment, promotion, and retention of talent (the women who otherwise would have left due to gender discrimination).

• Shift the ways we define ‘women’s work’ and what it’s worth. In 2017, 64.2% of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinners for their families. Our jobs are central to supporting our families and ourselves, yet they are routinely undervalued and underpaid (see teachers, 76% women; social workers, 83% women; and healthcare workers, 85% women). Questions to consider: if more men entered these fields, as they did with computer programming, a skill once tied to women’s secretarial roles, would wages go up? If they did, would more men opt to enter these fields? This chicken-egg scenario inevitably leads to the same takeaway: these critical roles need higher pay to truly represent their value to our society.

We’re living in remarkable times, when we’re not just dreaming of change, we’re demanding it — for our daughters, sisters, friends, co-workers, and, obviously, our students. Women’s employment isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic rates until 2024 (men will get there in 2023), and the road back can’t be paved only with good intentions. A recovery won’t do — what we really need is a reimagining.

Sandra Doran is president of Bay Path University.

Opinion

Opinion

By Nancy Creed

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the state of emergency in Massachusetts, we continue to take steps on our path forward.

Last week, legislators reached agreement on a COVID-19 package to support our business community as it begins to recover from the pandemic. The package would include two items that the Springfield Regional Chamber has been aggressively advocating for: unemployment-insurance rate relief and tax relief from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan proceeds.

The agreement calls for a freeze in the unemployment insurance (UI) rate at the current Schedule E rate for 2021 and 2022, limiting the increases employers will see. Without passage, employers could see the unemployment insurance rates increase from an average of $539 to $866 per employee. This legislation would hold the average UI rates to $635 per employee in 2021 and $665 per employee in 2022.

The agreement would also exclude PPP loan amounts forgiven in 2020 from taxable gross income for those small businesses that are organized as pass-through entities. While Congress excluded these loans from federal taxation, without legislative action, these loans would have been taxed as income at the state level.

The agreement would also guarantee paid leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19, required to quarantine, or need to take time off to get the vaccine. As well, it will allow for state borrowing, through a temporary employer assessment, to ensure the solvency of the UI trust fund, which is projected to have a $5 billion deficit by the end of 2022, triggering higher increases in unemployment-insurance rates to remain solvent.

We applaud the Legislature for recognizing the long-term economic impact this pandemic has had on our employer community and to take these steps to support its recovery.

The federal government also recently took action, with the Senate approving a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. One item your chamber supports in this package is the state and local aid to help our region’s cities and towns as they deal with their own economic hardships resulting from the pandemic. As specific details around this aid remain to be seen, we will continue to watch this closely, as we believe this funding is critical to the fiscal health and stability of our communities.

The CDC has also issued much anticipated guidance for individuals who are fully vaccinated. As of last week, more than 715,000 people in Massachusetts have been fully vaccinated, ranking Massachusetts first among states with 5 million people or more for total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered. Massachusetts is currently in phase 2 of its vaccination plan, with teachers becoming eligible last week.

We have been through the wringer, and we know we have a ways to go, but these are all significant steps on our road to recovery and, we hope, the first of many more to come.

Stay safe and stay well. We can — and will — get through this together.

 

Nancy Creed is president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Opinion

An Appreciation for Chris Thibault

Filmmakers are storytellers. That’s what they do. They tell stories, and they help others tell their stories.

That’s what Chris Thibault did, and he was very good at it. He started Chris Teebo Films, and he worked with businesses and institutions across this area — from Spirit of Springfield to BusinessWest and its many award recipients and program sponsors Mercedes-Benz of Springfield — to help them communicate and get their messages across.

In recent years, though, the most compelling story Chris told was his own — specifically his long and difficult battle with cancer, which ended this week when he died at age 38. Starting from when he was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Chris used his talents and his desire to help others to take his battle public, through short films, blog posts — including one titled “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer” — and more.

In the course of doing so, he became an inspiration to many, and in a number of ways. It was more than Jim Valvano’s famous ‘don’t give up, don’t ever give up’ messaging — although there was some of that. His message was more along the lines of never letting cancer run his life or tell him what he could or couldn’t do.

And there was still more to this story. Indeed, even though he was dealt a very bad hand and had every reason to say ‘why me?’ or bemoan his fate, he didn’t. He accepted what was happening to his body, and he never stopped trying to be upbeat, optimistic, and even humorous.

Indeed, when he talked with BusinessWest about that aforementioned blog post and the subject matter involved, he said simply, “I haven’t figured that one out yet … and to be honest, I wrote the title to get your attention so you would actually start reading the thing.”

Like all good filmmakers, he did grab your attention, and he held it.

His story certainly did not end the way he or all those who loved and admired him wanted, but it was one that left us even more thankful for the time we had with him — and more appreciative of the time we have on this planet. Period.

We thank him for that, and we thank him for the way he inspired us to live life to the fullest, even when serious roadblocks are put in front of us.

The best story he told was his own.

Opinion

Editorial

The story of restaurants during the pandemic has not been a good one.

While that may be the most obvious of observations, it’s still important to keep at the forefront of any discussion of this industry — because restaurateurs will spin the past year as positively as they can. “We discovered a strong market for takeout.” “Outdoor dining was an unexpected success we’ll stick with.” “Our loyal customers tell us they can’t wait to dine out again.”

But don’t confuse those sentiments — which testify to the grit and resourcefulness of the region’s many dining establishments — with good news. There is no good news. Among the restaurant owners we spoke with for this issue, total sales over the past year have been significantly curtailed — in some cases halved, or worse.

Yes, they’ve done what they could to hang onto their dedicated staffs, with much-appreciated help from Paycheck Protection Program loans and state and local grants. And the pivots they made — one told us it was like opening a new restaurant every week — are admirable, as they were willing to change menus on the fly, install takeout and delivery, set up outdoor dining, and take any number of other steps to survive.

Some have not. And even among those that have, no one had a good year, and some are hanging by a thread. That 25% indoor capacity restriction, however needed to keep people safe, is just not going to cut it through a New England winter. That 9:30 p.m. curfew, only recently lifted, might pose an inconvenience to customers, but for a restaurant owner, those extra hours could be the difference between paying their bills and … well, not.

The economic impact on the region is massive; according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc., the Bay State’s restaurants generated $18.7 billion in sales in 2018, while employing almost 350,000 workers. Meanwhile, every dollar spent on table-service dining contributes $1.87 to the state economy. And in a place like Hampshire County, where restaurants are such a key part of the culture and economy of Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, and other communities, the damage of 2020 — which is clearly extending into 2021 — is even more dire.

A Pioneer Institute report lists a few steps local and state governments can make to ease the strain a little, from allowing alcoholic-beverage takeout and delivery on a permanent basis to allowing restaurants to sell fresh produce, meats, and other whole foods during the pandemic to compete with grocery stores; from prioritizing local permitting for food trucks owned by restaurants to allowing outdoor seating in parking lots and on sidewalks, as happened last summer in downtown Northampton.

But none of these steps, or the pivots restaurants have already made, will solve the main issue — that, even at reduced capacity, diners aren’t filling tables right now, and might not until they feel it’s safe, and that gets into vaccine distribution, a whole other story.

In the meantime, why not do what you can? Order more takeout. Buy more gift cards. Sit down for a meal if you feel safe doing so; area restaurants have been transparent about their sanitization procedures. And, once the COVID fog lifts and restaurants can open more fully, support them as much as possible.

The loss of more restaurants in Western Mass. would be a blow to our economy and a culture that values good food. But mostly, it would be a blow to some good, smart people who are tired of pivoting — but continue to do so, just to stay alive.

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Chris Geehern

The unprecedented upheaval of 2020 will change the way we live and work for years to come, says John Regan, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM).

Regan punctuated his annual State of Massachusetts Business Address with a call for state policymakers to support the recovery of an economy that remains fragile in the wake of the ongoing public-health crisis.

“Hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors in Massachusetts remain out of work because of the pandemic. Many have left the workforce altogether,” Regan said during a virtual speech to the AIM Executive Forum. “Addressing the COVID crisis by shutting down the economy again and impeding the ability of people to support their families is not a solution. Neither is imposing Draconian tax increases to address the state’s fiscal issues on the backs of businesspeople trying to keep people employed amid permanent, structural changes to the way we live and work.”

Regan noted that the unprecedented convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cataclysmic recession, and a reckoning on racial equity combined to alter the economy, the workplace, healthcare, manufacturing supply chains, and transportation. It affected schools, government, family life, shopping patterns, the housing market, race relations, and social interactions.

The upheaval has accelerated ongoing seismic shifts in the nature of the workplace, Regan noted. “What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment. Some of the repercussions are positive — less traffic in major urban areas, more flexibility for workers, and expanded opportunities for employers to hire talented people virtually anywhere.”

The bad news? “Cities like Boston that have thrived on proximity-driven innovation and community intellectual energy could see that energy dissipate as companies accelerate the move toward virtual operations,” he said. “Given the OK to go remote, workers may use their freedom to move to cheaper metros where they can afford more space, inside and outside.”

“What the e-commerce revolution did for physical stores, the telepresence revolution could do for office-adjacent employment. Some of the repercussions are positive — less traffic in major urban areas, more flexibility for workers, and expanded opportunities for employers to hire talented people virtually anywhere.”

Four distinguished economic experts offered commentary about which changes generated by the pandemic might be lasting. Pamela Everhart of Fidelity Investments, Edward Glaeser of Harvard University, Dr. Lee Schwamm of Mass General Brigham, and Nada Sanders of Northeastern University said the nature of any long-term structural economic shifts will become evident only after governments moderate the spread of the pandemic.

Regan said AIM and its 3,300 members look forward to working with state and federal leaders to craft a long-term economic recovery for the Commonwealth.

“Massachusetts businesses have responded responsibly to the pandemic by prioritizing their employees and customers, investing in workplace-safety protocols, adapting operations to ensure compliance with business-specific requirements, and finding creative ways to offer services and goods while remaining operational,” Regan said. “Businesses prioritized these things because this is what our businesses do. They invest, they change, and they adapt. These are the qualities that have made Massachusetts an economic leader for decades.” v

 

Chris Geehern is executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sandra Doran

We’re just days away from watching the accomplished, inspiring Kamala Harris become the next vice president, and it doesn’t escape me that this thrilling milestone comes at the same time the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 1.1 million American workers have left the pandemic-challenged labor force — and 865,000 (80%) of them are women. The contrasts of this moment provide some context for understanding the significance of women’s colleges, and for championing the important place they hold in our world.

The Women’s College Coalition counts just 36 American women’s colleges, down from 46 six years ago and about 230 in 1960. Our numbers have dwindled against a backdrop of social, political, and economic shifts for women, shifts that have resulted in more options and opportunities across the board, but especially in the realm of higher education, where women students have outnumbered men for five decades, prompting many to ask: what purpose do today’s women’s colleges serve?

A recent study by Kathryn A. E. Enke, published by the Women’s College Coalition, looked at access, opportunity, and outcomes at today’s American women’s colleges and compared them with coed liberal-arts colleges and public universities. Her findings reveal a modern profile of women’s college students that may surprise those who still view these schools as places where America’s elite daughters are groomed to uphold the professional, and personal, status of their forebears.

Rather than resembling the student population at private liberal-arts colleges, women’s college students are demographically akin to students at public colleges and universities, meaning they’re older, more diverse, and less economically advantaged. While we still imagine that the average college student is 18 to 24 years old, that age bracket includes only 50.6% of students at women’s colleges; at private liberal-arts colleges, it’s 90.9%, and at public universities, 77.5%.

More than half of students at women’s colleges identify as students of color (51.2%), compared to 38.5% at private liberal-arts colleges and 43.6% at public universities. Enke also found that full-time, first-time undergraduates at women’s colleges are more likely to have been awarded a Pell Grant than students at liberal-arts colleges (43.2% vs. 32.6%), meaning they are more likely to come from families with limited financial means. At Bay Path, 56% of our students are Pell-eligible.

Why is this significant? According to an analysis published by the Pell Institute, low-income, first-generation students disproportionately come from ethnic and racial minority backgrounds, and they tend to be older, less likely to receive financial support from parents, and more likely to have multiple obligations outside college, all factors that require a more intentional and supportive college experience.

One real power of women’s colleges exists in the influence of academic and social experiences, which the Pell Institute describes as “studying in groups, interacting with faculty and other students, participating in extracurricular activities, and using support services.” These experiences are shown to foster success in college, and intentionally, repeatedly, and enthusiastically creating a learning environment and culture that embeds these experiences into the educational model is what defines women’s colleges.

Our schools don’t just shepherd women to their diplomas; we create a distinct and dedicated space for women to build intellectual confidence, enduring community, and unwavering tenacity — because we know they’re going to need every last bit of it as they pursue their ambitions.

Enke’s research also measured retention and completion rates at women’s colleges at 62.2%, private liberal-arts colleges (which tend to serve the most economically privileged students) at 68.9%, and public schools at 54%. We’re proud to note that the retention rate of all traditional undergraduates at Bay Path is 77%.

The past year has laid bare the persistent circumstances that continue to disrupt women’s ambitions, impede our incomes, and restrict our potential. With women’s colleges up against the financial and demographic headwinds shaking the entire higher-ed sector, we must dig deeper, hold faster, and aim higher, while keeping the initial mission of women’s education at the center of all we do: to expand access, create space, and nurture the intellect for women who deserve to realize their dreams.

 

Sandra Doran is president of Bay Path University.

Opinion

Editorial

The calendar no longer says 2020.

And that’s a really good thing. Over the past 10 months or so, those four numbers became synonymous with pandemic, challenge, uncertainty, and more challenge. Turning the calendar over helps psychologically, but it doesn’t change the equation. Not yet, anyway.

In fact, as the experts interviewed for our Economic Outlook section indicated, while there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, there is still quite a bit of tunnel to get through. If this is the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), the end is still a ways off.

And, in some ways, there’s a good chance things will actually get worse before they get better, because, as some experts noted, the relief that many companies received through stimulus initiatives will not be there, or there to the same extent, like they were in 2020. So many businesses will be facing a reality check, and a scary one at that.

But if 2021 looks daunting in many respects, we can look back at 2020, not for painful memories, or only painful memories, but also for inspiration.

Indeed, as we’ve written on several occasions, the best thing about 2020, from our respective, was the manner in which the business community responded to a crisis truly without precedent. Going back to the middle of last March, we wrote about how business owners in this region had been through a lot over the past few decades — recessions, including a ‘great’ one; a tornado; the sudden quiet after 9/11; Springfield’s fiscal meltdown; and so much more. We wrote that this pandemic would be unlike any of those and would test the mettle of this region in ways we could not have imagined.

We were right about that, but we were also right when we said this region was up for the fight. It was, and it is, and a look back at 2020 proves this.

Yes, some businesses have been lost, mostly in the retail and hospitality sectors, and the losses have not been insignificant. Meanwhile, a number of mainstay businesses have been battered and bloodied — MGM Springfield, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Symphony, the Thunderbirds, Union Station, UMass Amherst and all the colleges and universities, every restaurant and performance venue in the region … the list goes on.

But they are still standing, and, in the meantime, a large army of small businesses have responded with imagination, perseverance, and the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined the region for more than 250 years.

We’re told many of these stories over the past nine months, and they have been inspirational. Businesses that found themselves struggling, through no fault of their own, discovered ways to pivot, find new revenue streams, and, in some rare cases, actually expand and grow their businesses.

If there was any bright spot to 2020 — and there were not many — watching this collective display of courage and determination was it.

And now that the calendar has turned to 2021, nothing has really changed. The operating environment is as challenging as ever, and even moreso for most hospitality businesses, now that winter has set in.

The next few months may be the most difficult yet, but we are confident that those same qualities that helped businesses ride out 2020 will enable them to continue the ride — until the day when ‘normal’ returns and the predicted pent-up demand will provide a much-needed lift to ventures across all sectors.

As the new year begins, the light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways off. But at least we can see it.

Opinion

Opinion

By Brooke Thomson

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) has worked tirelessly with elected officials on both the state and federal levels to moderate a potentially disastrous 60% increase in unemployment insurance rates next year and to keep the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund on sound financial footing.

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker took a major step toward addressing that issue by filing timely legislation to ensure a two-year schedule freeze and provide the ability to bond the remaining trust-fund deficit and allow it to be rebuilt over time.

Meanwhile, AIM continues to support efforts by the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to persuade Congress to provide additional resources for the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The $900 billion economic stimulus bill recently approved in the U.S. Congress does not provide money for state UI systems, though it does revive the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion to cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses.

Massachusetts businesses now need elected officials to stabilize the state’s unemployment-insurance system by freezing the statutory rate and allowing Massachusetts to authorize bonding.

A day before Baker filed his rate-freeze bill, AIM provided a statement to the entire Massachusetts Legislature calling for a freeze on employer UI tax-rate schedules to shield Massachusetts employers from the upcoming rate spike, which is tied by statute to the overall condition of state UI Trust Fund.

Given the unforeseen economic shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance projects that the fund, primarily financed by direct and reimbursing employer contributions, will be in the red by $5 billion at the end of 2022 and remain insolvent by about $3 billion as far out as 2024.

These initial numbers, left unchecked, would trigger an increase from the current 2020 employer tax rate of Schedule E, or $539 per employee, to Schedule G, about $866 per employee, reflecting an almost 60% increase.

Baker’s bill would freeze the employer tax rate at Schedule E for the next two years, slowing annual employer contribution growth to $635 in 2021 and $665 in 2022.

AIM thanks Gov. Baker for filing this legislation, and we appreciate the speedy action that the House and Senate have taken throughout this pandemic with legislation to stabilize the unemployment-insurance system for employers and employees.

We urge the House and Senate to take urgent action on this proposed legislation to freeze rates and fund the system through bonding, which will ensure that all claims are paid to individuals, that the trust fund is stabilized with a low-interest loan, and the Commonwealth is able to avoid a statutorily triggered unemployment-insurance tax-rate hike in first months of 2021.

 

Brooke Thomson is executive vice president for Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stuart Anfang, M.D.

The holidays are supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ as one song notes. But for some, it may be the most difficult time of the year after the loss of a loved one.

The holiday season can be especially difficult for those who are preparing to spend these joyous occasions for the first time without a spouse, child, or other beloved family member or friend by their side. These feelings of grief are only exacerbated this year by COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many, plus the general stress of dealing with the pandemic.

It’s only natural to experience a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and even helplessness and hopelessness while navigating the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But you don’t have to suffer alone. Recognize that you are not alone, and that mixed or sad feelings during the holidays are not uncommon. Do not suffer in silence, and watch for the tendency to isolate or withdraw from others. Denying or bottling up your feelings — or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs — are worrisome signs.

As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them. Remember, it’s OK and not a sign of weakness to ask for help.

It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you — for example, serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them.

Together, you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums or making and displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased. Given the current COVID-19 circumstances, make sure to follow public-health recommendations about masking, social distancing, and gathering in limited numbers.

Many people also find solace in generosity, as this is the ‘season of giving.’ Many people also volunteer during the holidays, such as serving meals at a local shelter or distributing toys to needy children.

For some, the holidays may offer a reprieve from sad feelings, and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you. But if you are noticing more significant symptoms causing impairment at work, school, or home — problems with sleep, low energy, dramatic change in appetite or weight, inability to concentrate, frequent crying, easy irritability, thoughts of hurting yourself, or wanting to die — that may be time to seek some professional evaluation. A good place to start can be your primary-care provider or a trusted clergy.

The bottom line is, help is available. Do not suffer in silence.

 

Dr. Stuart Anfang is vice chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

Opinion

How to Handle Unemployment Fraud

By Chris Geehern

State officials and Massachusetts employers continue to deal with a surge of fraudulent unemployment-insurance claims generated as part of a national scheme using stolen personal information to attempt to access jobless benefits.

Criminal enterprises with access to stolen personal information from prior national data breaches have been taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by attempting to file large numbers of unemployment-benefit claims through the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) system.

DUA revealed in July that 58,000 fraudulent claims had been detected, preventing the loss of $158 million. At the time, the Department of Labor said it was working with the state and federal law enforcement to investigate the fraud and hired a private accounting firm to perform a forensic audit. Now, fake unemployment claims are on the rise once again as scammers appear to be targeting public employees.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) has also continued to receive reports from member companies about fraudulent unemployment claims. Companies report in some cases that employees have been unaware that a fraudulent claim has been filed in their names and are thus unable to bring the scam to the attention of their employers.

Employees and employers should work together to address the scam by reviewing a set of online identity-fraud tools developed by DUA. Meanwhile, state officials are providing guidance to employers on how each of the following situations where there is a questionable claim should be handled.

If an employer has received a ‘Confirmation of Employment’ letter, complete the form online. If the person still works for you, select ‘still employed part-time,’ even if the person is a full-time employee. If the person never worked for you, select ‘The claimant did not work for me during the time period stated.” The employer should encourage the employee to file a fraud report and follow the guidance at www.mass.gov/info-details/report-unemployment-benefits-fraud.

If an employer has received a ‘Lack of Work’ letter for an employee who either has never worked for the company or is employed by the company without any break in service for the past year, follow the same instructions as for a ‘Confirmation of Employment’ letter.

If the employer or employee is responding to a ‘Fact Finding Letter,’ complete the form as provided. Employers should inform employees who had a claim filed without their permission to visit the website noted above to report the fraudulent claim and find information and advice on other things they should do to protect their identity.

If an employer has received a ‘Monetary Determination’ with which they disagree, encourage the employee to file a fraud report and follow the guidance at the website.

If an employer is protesting a claim a result of a ‘Benefit Charge Statement’ they are in disagreement with, protests can only be filed online and not by any other mechanisms. On the online form, enter a comment saying ‘fraudulent claim’ and then provide information why you believe the claim was fraudulent (for example, the claimant still works for our company, and when we spoke to the claimant, they said they never filed a claim).

In a case where both the employer and the employee acknowledge the claim was not filed by the employee, the employer should fill in the protest form using their UI Online account, and the employee should file a fraud report and follow the guidance at the website noted above.

 

Chris Geehern is executive vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

 

Opinion

Opinion

The numbers are stark no matter how they’re viewed. When 617,000 women leave the U.S. workforce in one month — about eight women for every man who dropped out — it’s reason for short-term worry.

But the long-term impact may be more concerning.

Viewed through the narrow lens of the present, it’s not hard to understand what happened (see story on page 30). Unlike most recessions, the one wrought by COVID-19 battered some of the most female-dominant economic sectors in the country, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. Unfortunately for many women who would rather be working than laid off, some of those jobs will be slow to come back — and some never will.

But the other factor in September’s mass exodus from the workforce is evident from the month itself — the month, specifically, when kids go back to school. Only, most schools never physically opened, leaving kids to grapple with remote learning at home. For most high-schoolers and even many middle-schoolers, that’s fine; it’s not the same as in-person instruction surrounded by their friends, but they can make it work without any supervision.

That’s not true for most elementary-school kids, who tend to need the presence and support, if not the actual help, of a parent to make it through six hours of navigating technology and absorbing information from a screen. And many of those parents have jobs.

It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families.

Now, fewer of them do, because someone has to stay home with the kids. And that someone, the vast majority of time, is the woman, who more often than not makes less income than her male partner.

There’s been plenty of handwringing about the gender pay gap in America. It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families. Why more men don’t choose to stay home so their partners are able to continue working is a discussion for another day, but the fact is, the pay gap, for myriad reasons, is real.

And hundreds of thousands of women leaving their careers at once, even temporarily, will absolutely increase that gap, because any pause in employment, especially one that leads to a company change or even career change, tends to have ripple effects on one’s earnings down the road and over a lifetime. With about half the women who stopped working last month in the prime working age of 35 to 44, the long-term ripples could be staggering.

What’s the answer? On the issue of the pay gap in general, many solutions have been proposed, from raising minimum wage (women make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers) to promoting schedule flexibility and work-from-home options for mothers; from state- and federal-level actions to improve family-leave laws and invest in childcare to a commitment by employers to ensure their own pay practices are fair.

COVID-19 has laid bare some of those gaps in stark terms, as well as exposing not only how women are being impacted by this economy, but how women of color are being hit even harder. A reopening of schools at some point will no doubt ease these disparities. But it certainly won’t make them go away.

Opinion

Editorial

Over the years, we’ve written a number of times about the importance of promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring those trying to start and grow their own businesses.

This component of economic development, one that is often overlooked amid efforts to attract large businesses, open new industrial parks, and grow new business sectors like biotech, is vital because small businesses have always been the key to the growth and vitality of individual communities and regions like Western Mass.

Just as important, these small businesses — everything from restaurants to dry-cleaning establishments; from dance studios to clothing stores — help give these communities their identity and make them more livable.

And that’s why we’ve been a strong supporter of what has become a movement of sorts in this region to encourage entrepreneurship and help those who have made the decision to put their name over the door — figuratively if not, in many cases, literally. Within this movement has been the creation and development of what’s been called the entrepreneurship ecosystem, which has many moving parts, from agencies that support entrepreneurs to colleges with programs in this subject, to venture-capital firms that provide the vital fuel to help businesses get to the next stage.

This ecosystem has always been important, but it’s perhaps even more important now in the middle of this pandemic. That’s because — and you know this already, but we need to remind you — a large number of small businesses are imperiled by this crisis. Their survival is not assured by any means, and as the calendar turns to fall — with winter not far behind and no relief in sight from this pandemic — uncertainty about the fate of many businesses only grows.

As the story on page 6 reveals, agencies and individuals that are part of the ecosystem have been working to help businesses navigate their way through this whitewater, be it with help securing a grant from the local chamber of commerce or a Paycheck Protection Program loan, or making a successful pivot to a different kind of service or a new twist on an old one that would help with all-important cash flow.

Meanwhile, the work of mentoring those in business or trying to get into business goes on, often with powerful results, as that same story recounts. Initiatives such as WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) creates matches that provide rewards to both parties, but especially the young (and, in some cases, not so young) women working to turn ideas into businesses and smaller businesses into larger, more established ventures.

It would have been easy to put such initiatives on the shelf for several months until the pandemic passes, but we don’t know when it’s going to pass, and the business, if we want to call it that, of supporting people like Nicole Ortiz, who recently put her food truck on the road in Holyoke, and Leah Kent, who wants to grow her business that supports writers and helps them get works published, must go on.

And it does, because, as we said, the creation and development of small businesses isn’t just one component of economic-development activity in this region; it is perhaps the most important component of all. v

Opinion

Opinion

By Dr. Armando Paez

While experts cannot predict the severity of one flu season from another, this upcoming season will be unprecedented and can pose a severe threat due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The very protection advice we have been stressing for COVID-19 — wearing a mask, frequent hand washing, social distancing — is what is going to protect many people from the flu this year. But the best protection of all is to get your flu shot each year.

Flu season usually begins in the fall around October, but doesn’t peak until December through February. It can sometimes last until May. Because there could be a possible second wave of COVID-19 coinciding with the flu, getting your flu shot this year is more important than ever before.

For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S.

Already in advance of the onset of the 2020-21 flu season, the CDC is reminding people to get vaccinated sooner than later, with October being a good time to get vaccinated. It’s important to realize it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up antibodies to protect you from the flu.

Once again, the CDC recommends all people be vaccinated against the flu, especially pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions. For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S. The CDC has stated that providers may administer any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine with no preference for any one vaccine over another, including the shot or nasal spray.

People who should not get the flu vaccine include children younger than 6 months and those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine and any of its ingredients.

In addition to the elderly, vaccination is particularly important for younger children who are also at high risk for serious flu complications, as well as those with heart disease, and pregnant women. The most important complication that can affect both high-risk adults and children is pneumonia. The flu can also aggravate and worsen chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.

Also, if you have a weakened immune system after contracting COVID-19, it can leave you at risk for getting a more severe case of the flu, or vice versa.

I’m always asked by those skeptical about getting vaccinated, “can the flu shot give you the flu?” The answer is no. This year, I’m also being asked, “can the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?” Unfortunately, the answer is also no, but we’re hopeful for a vaccine against COVID-19 early next year or sooner.

While the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, the CDC noted that recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

Remember, it’s never too late to get your flu shot, preferably before flu viruses begin spreading in the community around the end of October.

Dr. Armando Paez is chief of Infectious Diseases at Baystate Medical Center.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stacey Lennard

The Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) hosts its 24th annual Source to Sea Cleanup throughout September. CRC is asking you to sign up and help spread the word about our plastic problem and the impact on our rivers. In addition to annually coordinating thousands of volunteers to clean up trash in our rivers, CRC continues to work toward solutions to the persistent problem of trash pollution. Plastic bags, bottles, and polystyrene (Styrofoam) are consistently the most-found items during the Source to Sea Cleanup, and these items never fully break down in the environment.

You can help show the problem to help solve the problem. Take a photo, video, or make art inspired by river beauty or river pollution. Get creative, use #RiverWitness, #PurgeThePlastic, and tag CRC on social media. CRC will add your images to an online mosaic photo display and video. Select images will be used to call on decision makers to enact trash solutions to keep trash out of our rivers. Show them this is important to you. Speak up for your rivers.

According to CRC, the solution to this problem is to redesign our economy so there isn’t waste in the first place. “It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options,” said Andrew Fisk, CRC’s executive director. “Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

Other solutions are to make recycling easy, effective, and widely accessible; to increase the use of effective incentives like ‘bottle bills’ for recycling aluminum, plastic, and glass containers; and to disincentivize Styrofoam, especially foam dock floats in favor of enclosed foam or non-foam dock materials that won’t send plastic chunks into rivers.

“It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options. Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

We all have a responsibility to solve this problem,” Fisk said. “We are responsible as consumers to make good choices in how we purchase and dispose of products. Manufacturers, businesses, and government are also responsible, and it’s time they do their part. By working together, we can make a real difference for our rivers. These ideas are going to take time, decades even. And we’ll keep at it as long as it takes. But our rivers need change now.”

Over the past 23 years, Source to Sea Cleanup volunteers have removed more than 1,167 tons of trash from our rivers. The Source to Sea Cleanup is a river cleanup coordinated by CRC in all four states of the 410-mile Connecticut River basin. Each fall, thousands of volunteers remove tons of trash along rivers, streams, parks, boat launches, trails, and more. Eversource, USA Waste & Recycling, and All American Waste are the lead Source to Sea Cleanup sponsors.
For more information or to register for the event, visit www.ctriver.org/cleanup.

 

Stacey Lennard is Source to Sea Cleanup coordinator for the Connecticut River Conservancy.

Opinion

Opinion

By Suzanne Parker

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote. This historic moment provides an important opportunity to emphasize that full gender equity requires racial justice and equity as well.

While the women’s suffrage movement benefited tremendously from the leadership of black women, it did not advance or include their right to vote. In fact, it took more than a half-century later for women of color to access the ballot with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The U.S. has a long history of denying its citizens the right to vote. ​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system. Many of our most heavily debated issues — the economy, healthcare, education, and public safety — carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power.

That’s why it’s so important for girls, particularly girls of color, to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through our She Votes initiative, Girls Inc. helps girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and even be inspired to run for elected office one day. Girls are innately powerful and, with the right opportunities and support, can grow up to be leaders and change agents in the world.

​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system.

Often overlooked in the pages of history, women of color have played an instrumental role in advancing civic engagement, voting rights, and social movements for centuries. From abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman to suffragettes and activists like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells, black women bravely fought for the rights of women and men long before they themselves were seen as equal citizens under the law or had the right to vote. They endured racial prejudice, discrimination, and even violence to advance justice and freedom for all. As ​educator and civil rights activist ​Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote​, “to struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.”

When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed — making racial discrimination in voting illegal — it marked more than a century of work by black suffragists to secure voting rights for all people, which finally would include them. To this day, however, obstacles to voting still persist for black Americans and communities of color, including voter suppression, ​photo-ID requirements, early-voting cutbacks, under-resourced polls, and inadequate funding for elections.

Young people of color face additional barriers. ​Mail-in ballots, which many young people complete (as well as first-time ​voters and people of color), have been found to be rejected at a higher rate than in-person ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Tougher voting rules, difficult absentee-ballot procedures, and irregular school and work schedules serve as additional obstacles to young people exercising their right to vote.

Increasing voter participation is critical for democracy. With Nov. 3 just two short months away, we must do everything we can to ensure safe, fair, and accessible elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have begun preparations to educate people about the health risks, make polling places as safe as possible, and also encourage voting by mail. We must also urge Congress to appropriate emergency funding to support such efforts, as the funds provided in the CARES Act fall tremendously short of what is necessary.

Millions of eligible voters, many of them women and people of color, are not active in our political decision making — and we need them to be. During this year’s centennial celebration, we remember the women who paved the way for future female voters and political leaders, and the work that remains to ensure ​all​ girls and young people grow up in an equitable and just society.

Suzanne Parker is executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley; (413) 532-6247.

Opinion

Opinion

The recent news that two small businesses located in the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — will be closing permanently due to a sharp decline in business from the pandemic provides more direct evidence of the damage being done to the business community from this crisis.

A number of small businesses have already closed over the past four and a half months, and those numbers will surely rise as the pandemic continues to keep people in their homes. Many of these closings are seemingly unavoidable — they involve businesses, such as event venues, bars, and restaurants, where people gather in large numbers indoors, something the pandemic has made all but impossible if people want to stay safe.

But some could be avoided if the residents of this area find ways to provide needed support. Many are already doing that, but these numbers need to grow if the Western Mass. business community is to avoid losing more of its valued members.

And we say valued, because that’s exactly what they are. Businesses are not simply establishments that occupy space in buildings and provide goods and services. They are part of the community, and often a big part.

They employ people. They pay taxes. They support organizations like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. Their employees often serve on boards and commissions and lend their support to local causes.

When a business closes, we lose a lot more than a place to buy shoes. When a restaurant closes, we lose more than our favorite pizza joint. When a tourist attraction shuts its doors, we lose more than a place to take the kids on a Saturday.

Supporting local businesses has always been important, but it is even more so during this crisis because so many of them are imperiled. As we have chronicled over the past several months, ventures in every sector of the economy have been rocked by this pandemic.

Indeed, companies recording sales of 60% or 70% of last year’s totals are having a good year. And most are not in that category, with declines of 70%, 80%, or even 90% over last year. Many of these businesses have been helped by assistance from the federal government in the form of PPP loans, SBA loans, and small grants from individual cities and towns. But many have exhausted those funds, and the pandemic shows no signs of letting up.

It doesn’t take someone with a degree in accounting to understand that most businesses simply cannot sustain losses like this for much longer. And some have already concluded that they can’t sustain them any longer.

With each headline like the one about Serendipity and Alchemy closing, there is regret about what we’ve lost. And as mentioned earlier, we lose more than a shop that sells an item or makes good Italian food. We lose tax dollars, and we lose a piece of our community.

There are many ways to support a business even if you can’t visit it in person — from buying a gift certificate to getting takeout to buying online. And by exercising these options, we can perhaps avoid losing some of the businesses that still call Western Mass. home.

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.

Opinion

Moving Beyond the Blame Game

Family members of veterans living at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home didn’t need a 174-page review by a former federal prosecutor to tell them that something went terribly wrong at that facility in March and April, leading to the deaths of 75 residents.

But the report did what it was commissioned to do — analyze the facts concerning what happened at the home and come to a conclusion as to how this tragedy was allowed to play itself out and answer what was, for a time, the most pressing question about all this: ‘who is to blame?’

Indeed, in the wake of the deaths and hospitalizations at the Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature both used the phrase ‘get to the bottom of this’ (unofficially or unofficially) as the scope of the tragedy grew, as did the thirst for answers. And the report has certainly identified some people to blame.

Starting with state officials for not only giving the job of running the home to a veteran (Bennett Walsh) who had no experience leading a long-term-care facility, but then failing to provide adequate amounts of oversight to Walsh and others charged with the care of veterans. But Walsh is also singled out for triggering a series of decisions that allowed COVID-19 to race through the home, affecting residents and staff members alike.

With language that can only be described as heartbreaking, the report recounts the thoughts of one staff member after management merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe: “[I] will never get those images out of my mind — what we did, what was done to those veterans … my God, where is the respect and dignity for these men?” Other staff members were quoted as saying, “all in this room will be dead by tomorrow.”

While the report is certainly a valuable document, the veterans who died, their families, and staff members who lived through this horrible tragedy want so much more than a document that chronicles what happened and assigns blame. They want and need for this catastrophe to lead to meaningful and permanent changes that will ensure that no one will ever say, ‘where is the respect and dignity for these men?’ again.

That is our hope as well, and while the governor and legislators sound sincere when they say this is their overriding concern with the regard to the Soldiers’ Home, we know from history that when stories disappear from the front pages of newspapers, the will to implement meaningful change dissipates.

We can’t allow that to happen in this case.

Changes proposed by the governor, including several not in the report, include creation of a consistent policy at Holyoke and its sister facility in Chelsea for the hiring of a superintendent; creating more oversight by hiring an assistant secretary within the state Department of Veterans’ Services who would serve as an executive director for the state’s two soldiers’ homes and report directly to the secretary of Veterans’ Services; expanding the board of trustees at both the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities from seven to nine and requiring that the two additions each have either a clinical or administrative background in healthcare; and, most importantly, perhaps, making immediate and long-term capital improvements to modernize residential units and furnishings to address infection control — renovations are currently underway on one floor, but a more comprehensive plan of modernization and improvements is certainly needed.

History also shows us that, following some of the worst tragedies in history — the Triangle fire in New York City, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and even the Titanic’s sinking — reviews that initially focused on laying blame eventually led to serious, and often historic, reforms.

If that can happen with the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, then perhaps those veterans who bravely served their country will not have died in vain.

Opinion

Opinion

A quick look around downtown Springfield and other area communities would reveal that the economy, which had been in a kind of deep freeze for the better part of three months, is showing signs of coming back to life.

Let’s start with the tents. Indeed, they’re an interesting symbol of how the restaurant industry is emerging from a state-forced hibernation of sorts that saw them relegated to takeout service only. Such tents are now to be found in a number of parking lots, alleyways, and even closed streets as restaurants try to claw back with outdoor dining.

Perhaps the most visible sign of all this is Fort Street in downtown Springfield, where the owners of the iconic Student Prince restaurant have placed several tents and created an atmosphere that not only speaks of Europe — where outdoor dining is far more commonplace — but prompts one to wonder why it took a pandemic to create something like this. It’s a wonderful atmosphere that will be in place until the fall, and could become a yearly addition to the downtown landscape. Let’s hope it does.

And there are other signs of life as well, including the pending reopening of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums, and other attractions. Tourism has become a huge part of this region’s economy, and this economic engine, if you will, won’t be firing on anything approaching all its cylinders until this sector roars back to life.

And that’s the sobering news amid the positive signs we’ve seen lately. Indeed, while these businesses are reopening, they are not roaring back — yet, anyway. As the story on page 10 reveals, hotels and tourist attractions have had a miserable spring, and the summer is dominated by question marks about whether the tourists will come back, and how many of them.

There is optimism that concern about traveling in anything but an automobile will spark a surge of interest in so-called staycations that might benefit the region and its many tourist attractions. The theory goes that, instead of traveling across the country or to other countries — or even Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, for that matter — residents of this state and neighboring states might take in the attractions of Western Mass.

We have to hope some of this happens.

But matters are complicated by several factors, starting with the MGM casino and the many restrictions likely to be placed upon it. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is still discussing a number of guidelines, but at the moment, craps, poker, and roulette will not be allowed, and overall capacity might be set at perhaps 25% of previous levels. These restrictions will make it difficult for MGM to operate in anything approaching a profitable manner, and they will also limit the number of visitors who might come to the casino and then take in more of the region.

Then there’s the matter of the Big E. Huge questions surround what the 2020 fair might look like and whether there will even be a 2020 fair. No Big E, or even a much smaller Big E, would be a huge blow to the hospitality industry that depends on it.

So, while there are some signs of life in the region when it comes to the economy and tourism, we still have a long way to go. v

Opinion

Riots Reflect Deeper Issue of Racism

Editor’s Note: In the wake of recent incidents in Minneapolis and other communities, MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO Roger Crandall issued the following letter to employees.

In response to the racist acts that have come to light over the past several weeks, I wanted to directly address the deep frustration, anger, and sadness weighing heavily on all of us, especially the African-American and black community. The tragic and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the delays in bringing justice against those responsible, as well as the ugly confrontation in Central Park, have been vivid reminders of the prejudice and bigotry that continue to exist in our country.

Importantly, while we mourn for each of these victims, our hearts ache for many others previously killed under similar circumstances, including those whose names we don’t know, simply because there was no video or witness. These losses of human lives are staggering, unjust, and incomprehensible — and are taking a painful, emotional toll on our country.

The violence and riots of the past weekend are symptoms of the deeper issues of racism, inequality, and hopelessness that continue to exist in America today, and reflect the expressions of a community that feels its voice is not being heard. These issues have shaped everything from where people live to the healthcare they receive, to their access to education, to their treatment by the justice system. We see the results of this today during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people of color have shouldered a far greater impact, with the African-American and black community accounting for a higher proportion of deaths compared to other racial groups.

This is a vast, systemic problem, and I wish I was writing to you today with a crisp, detailed plan for how we will fix it. I don’t have this plan, and frankly no one does. But I can tell you instead what MassMutual is doing and what is on my mind.

First and foremost, I want to voice my — and the executive leadership team’s — support for our colleagues in the African-American and black community. Your voices, perspectives, and feelings matter to us. While I can’t begin to understand the full extent of your pain and hurt — how fear and discrimination are part of your everyday activities, or how you may worry as a parent when your child goes for a jog or enters a store — I want you to know we firmly stand with you as allies and advocates. Each of us can make a difference simply by asking how others are doing and spending time listening to their experiences, fears, and concerns, so we can learn more about what we can do as allies to take meaningful action and offer our support.

Secondly, at the heart of who we are and who we have been since our founding nearly 170 years ago is a company of people helping people. I want to reiterate that MassMutual’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is non-negotiable, and part of our core values and our promise to Live Mutual to make our world better. We will honor the memories of the victims of these senseless acts by influencing real change, and we are working with a cross-functional team, including representatives from our Passages Business Resource Group, to identify the best way to engage and act as an organization to advance how we address these complex issues.

Most immediately, Passages hosted a ‘Brave Space’ discussion recently to talk about these recent events and consider ways we can work together to build a sustainable, lasting effort to fight inequality and recognize and value the differences among us. While outside our walls, we are also actively working to unify business leaders to use our collective voices to drive change in our communities and workplaces.

In the meantime, I promise you this: MassMutual will stand with the victims of racism and hate crimes of any kind, with the people fighting oppression, and with everyone seeking to turn their sadness at recent events into actions that will build a better world. This is not the country I want to leave to my children and grandchildren. We can — and must — do better.

Opinion

Editorial

If you watched Gov. Charlie Baker at his highly anticipated press conference to announce the state’s reopening plan last week, you may have been very disappointed.

The governor said he is trying to create a balance between keeping people safe and attempting to resurrect an economy that was seen by many as being one of the strongest in the country — although not anymore, thanks in part to the governor.

If balance is the goal, this plan — if we can really call it a plan — falls way short. It doesn’t move quickly or profoundly enough, and it leaves far too many of the small businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy without any real chance to weather this storm.

In short, Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside (if they can); a situation where a yoga school with eight students is put in the same category as a Planet Fitness with thousands of members.

As most everyone knows by now, the Baker administration’s reopening plan has four phases — named ‘start,’ ‘cautious,’ ‘vigilant,’ and ‘new normal.’ On May 18, a day every business owner had circled on his or her calendar, the governor gave some details on phase 1. Manufacturing and construction could restart immediately, with restrictions, as could places of worship, while hospitals and community health centers can now provide high-priority preventive care, pediatric care, and treatment for high-risk patients and conditions. On May 25, laboratory and life-sciences facilities can open; offices can reopen, except in Boston; and recreational-marijuana shops can reopen, as can salons, barber shops, and pet groomers. Retail facilities can open for remote fulfillment and curbside pickup.

Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside.

But there are no details on phase 2, which includes restaurants and lodging, some healthcare facilities, and playgrounds and pools, or phase 3, which includes bars, casinos, gyms, and museums. All that’s known is that each phase will last at least three weeks and could be extended before moving on to the next stage, depending on factors like COVID rates, testing, and healthcare-system readiness.

For small businesses, this slow, plodding pace and lack of details makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan and — more importantly — stay alive. The governor’s plan is anything but a plan, and it will spell the demise of many small businesses.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, put things in perspective when he told BusinessWest, “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 those protocols. They’ll need to plan, order 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.”

The reopening panel could have recognized the needs of small businesses and implemented common-sense protocols to allow them to open. Instead, it chose not to. Clearly, there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation for just how endangered our state’s small businesses are, or what will become of our cities and towns if they are allowed to die on the vine.

These businesses need more than a belated plan with cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) named stages. They need a common-sense blueprint for effectively reopening an economy that’s been shut down for two tortuously long months.

The governor’s ‘plan’ is anything but that.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mary Flahive-Dickson

Seemingly, there is very little time for reflection these days. As we move from one news report, one Zoom meeting, one emergency to another, it is not lost on us that this is now our norm; life has changed. Restlessness is nationwide. Our communities are apprehensive at best, and our seniors are even more isolated now than any other historical time.

Social isolation, while defined as a lack of relationships and meaningful contact with society, needs to be further contemplated and gauged in our elder population as COVID-19 continues to force us to shelter in place, while begging for social and physical distance.

Caregivers, as catechized members of the front line, are being asked to rise to the challenge of defense against physical and social isolation of seniors.

Our elders are seemingly the target of so many evil pathogens and infections as their immunologic response has slowed and their physicality is compromised. Add life-changing risk factors such as retirement, death of loved ones, and the global nature of our society to the geriatric mix, and oftentimes the result assumes the form of social and physical isolation and loneliness.

Isolated and lonely seniors are at an increased risk for additional physical and emotional health conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and cognitive decline. With the loss of a sense of connectivity to the outside world and specifically their community, our elders run the risk of a decrease in wellness and a general decline in health.

Additionally, and especially in the current COVID-19 theatre, physical and emotional needs such as activities of daily living (ADL), companionship, and personal care may not be satisfied or executed. This situation is yet another nail in the proverbial coffin of enabling an immunologic response to infections, therefore rendering individuals less able to fight off disease, while increasing their risk of mortality.

Conversely, elders who engage with society, continue to be active and cognitively stimulated, have conversations, and have their ADLs satiated oftentimes experience increased positive influential health opportunities and many times are able to maintain the state of wellness longer.

Our role as caregivers is to facilitate an improvement or at least a maintenance of independence, health, and well-being of our elders. By providing for and assisting them with activities of daily living, promoting self-care, and reinforcing social support and a sense of community, caregivers continue to promote and disseminate multiple dimensions of physical and emotional health and wellness among this population.

As society continues to seesaw under the cloud of COVID-19, the senior population is not exempt from partaking in groups, programs, and activities which can help in thwarting physical and social isolation and loneliness. In fact, for the seniors, it is just the opposite. No populace has seen a furthering of isolation more than the seniors.

And, with home care widely accepted as a significant player in promotion of health and wellness, staving off mortality and reduction of admissions to institutional care such as hospitals and skilled-nursing facilities, caregivers’ roles should be touted as the front-line essential necessity they have always been, albeit unpronounced.

Mary Flahive-Dickson is chief operating officer for Golden Years Home Care Services.

Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

If one were to take a walk down Main Street — and I just did — it would be tempting to say that, if Springfield had any luck at all, it would be bad.

Yes, the pandemic is hitting every country, every state, every city and town, hard. As in very hard. But in Springfield, it seems worse, because things were — and I hope I don’t have to keep using the past tense — so much better. And the outlook was certainly bright and quite intriguing.

Now?

Now, we’re left to hope that, when this state gradually turns the economy back on again, the city can maybe pick up where it left off. That might be the best we can hope for at this point, but let’s stay optimistic.

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

And it’s momentum that we’ve lost most of all.

Let’s start at MGM Springfield. It’s eerily quiet there, almost as if things are frozen in time. The doors that were never supposed to be locked are now locked. And who can say when they will open again? Likewise, who can say what business will be like when the doors do open again?

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

Casino floors are — in the best of times — crowded places with people sitting around blackjack tables, positioned just a few feet from each other at the rows of slot machines, jammed into the food court, and generally milling about, taking it all in. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, it’s difficult to find elbow room. When are people going to want to be in such a place again — especially the older population that makes up such a large part of this casino’s clientele? Indeed, the casino’s best customers are those most at risk.

But that’s just the casino floor. Perhaps the bigger contribution the casino has made has been to vibrancy in the downtown, the nightlife, through events in its ballrooms and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and other venues. Who can say when there will be another concert, another convention, or even a fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit agency?

People are optimistically eyeing late summer or perhaps the fall as a time when we can return to something approaching ‘normal.’ But how realistic are those projections?

Walk around Springfield, and most of the signs of progress, the indicators that this was a city on the rise, are now as silent as the casino.

There’s the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which was bringing families from every corner of the country to Springfield. It is now closed. So too is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has undergone extensive renovations and was looking forward to a huge year as it inducts one of its most prestigious classes of honorees this fall.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently moved into Tower Square amid considerable fanfare as it started an intriguing chapter in its life, has seen both its fitness center and daycare center, its two largest revenue producers, shut down within just a month or two of opening.

At Union Station, the rail service that was starting to pick up steam has suffered a tremendous setback. People are now reluctant to get on trains, and even if they weren’t reluctant, there are really no places the train can take them — most workplaces are shut down, and so is every cultural attraction in New York.

Meanwhile, the restaurants that were such a big part of the city’s rebirth are now quiet, except for takeout, and many of the new businesses that had moved onto Bridge Street and other locations are locked down with their employees working from home — if they’re still working.

The lockdown, or shutdown, or whatever one wants to call it, isn’t even a month old yet. But it seems like an eternity. And for Springfield, it could not have come at a worse time — not that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic.

The pieces were starting to fall into the place, and the outlook was generally quite positive.

And now?

We have to hope that momentum is all we’ve lost, and that we haven’t lost too much of that precious commodity.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

 

Remember that classic scene in Young Frankenstein (even you Millennials have seen it, I’m sure) when Gene Wilder (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced Frankensteeen), and Marty Feldman (Igor) are in the graveyard digging up the corpse that will become the monster. Wilder says, “what a filthy job!” Feldman says, “it could be worse.” Wilder asks, “how could it possibly be worse?” Feldman says, “could be raining.”

And then it starts pouring.

Life has felt like that these past few weeks. Someone will say, ‘how could it be worse?’ And it starts raining, in a proverbial sense. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have lost some, most, or all of their revenue streams. People are running out of toilet paper — or they’re really, really afraid that they will. We lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! (The who?) People stuck at home are losing their patience, if not their minds, and we’re just really getting started with this pandemic. And then it snowed on Monday!

There are no sports! How many times can we watch the Patriots beat the Falcons in replays of Super Bowl LII? We know how it ends! The Masters has been postponed if not cancelled. Golf courses are apparently not on the ‘essential’ businesses list put out by the governor’s office. How can golf courses not be on the essential businesses list?

If anyone says ‘it could be worse,’ our immediate temptation is to say, ‘no, it can’t.’

To borrow from Dickens, these really are the worst of times. This is worse than any downturn in the economy, worse than 9/11, worse than the Great Recession. It’s worse because there is so much uncertainty — about today, tomorrow, three months from now, and a year from now.

Not only that, but life is different now. Everything is weird. If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger. If we’re out at the store, we look at everyone as if they might have the virus, and the look isn’t a good one.

Everyone is on edge about their jobs, their life savings, their 401(k), their health, the health of their loved ones. You can see it in their faces, and if you’re talking to them on the phone (which we all are), you can hear in their voices. You can also hear them yawn, because people are not sleeping, by and large. Who could sleep with all this going on?

If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger.

And yet, there is something else, something far more powerful and positive going on, and it’s worth noting.

Yes, there are now security guards and even off-duty police in the toilet-paper aisle in many supermarkets. And yes, sales of guns and ammo are skyrocketing. And yes, we’re already starting to see a rise in reported instances of domestic violence. But despite all this, it’s abundantly clear to me that people are caring more about each other.

And it’s about time.

People don’t just put their initials at the end of an e-mail anymore. They say ‘be well,’ ‘stay well,’ or ‘take care of yourself.’ And they mean it. People are bringing food and coffee to those who are shut in (and that’s most people now). Co-workers are being nicer to each other. When I dropped off the golf cart at a club in Connecticut last Saturday, I walked over to the attendant who was parking it — someone who would likely be unemployed in about 27 hours — and said (from six feet away), “good luck to you — hope you get through this OK.” And I meant it.

You’re seeing a lot more of that these days, and this, more than anything else, will get us to the other side — whenever and whatever that happens to be.

Yes, it could be worse. It could be raining. It seems like it’s already raining — pouring, in fact. But there’s a little sunlight trickling in.

And it might be just enough.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

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