Home Posts tagged pandemic
Women in Businesss

Beyond the Numbers

 

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat says the factors holding women back in the workforce must be fully understood in order to shift the tide.

The numbers speak for themselves. But more importantly, they demand a response.

According to a global study published in the Lancet, between March 2020 and September 2021, women were more likely to report employment loss than men during the pandemic (26.0% to 20.4%), as well as more likely to drop out of school or forgo work to care for others.

“The most significant gender gaps identified in our study show intensified levels of pre-existing, widespread inequalities between women and men during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report reads. “Political and social leaders should prioritize policies that enable and encourage women to participate in the labor force and continue their education, thereby equipping and enabling them with greater ability to overcome the barriers they face.”

That’s exactly what the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts — and a broad network of like-minded partners — have in mind through an effort they’re calling the Greater Springfield Women’s Economic Security Hub.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens,” said Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund. “So we created our own framework, where we considered the factors that affect some women’s economic security as more expansive than what other people might think.”

That includes a lack of unpaid caregiving. During the pandemic, that issue was the dominant factor in women dropping out of the workforce at an uprecendeted rate. The numbers have recovered somewhat, but not all the way, and the factors causing the workforce exodus remain problematic.

“We felt as though the many ways society was looking at women’s economic security was too narrow of a lens. So we created our own framework.”

“Women weren’t dropping out of the workforce because they wanted to stay at home and eat bon-bons, but because schools were closed or childcare centers were closed, and someone needs to be home with the children,” Haghighat said. “Oftentimes, because of pay differentials and so forth, it made more sense for women to drop out of the workforce.”

Then there are issues around transportation and internet access. “Prior to the pandemic, people didn’t realize how critical that was,” she went on, whether the problem was lack of online access altogether or having difficulty sharing devices or WiFi with other family members.

To create the research and action project it called the Women’s Economic Security Hub, the Women’s Fund began collaborating with key area partners, including Arise for Social Justice, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield WORKS, and the Western New England University School of Law Social Justice Center.

This work will focus on women, mostly of color and living at or below the poverty line, to understand the myriad factors that make or break an individual woman’s ‘economic engine,’ thereby affecting family prosperity.

The UMass Donahue Institute developed a survey instrument that will be refined, implemented, and analyzed by the UMass Amherst Center for Research on Families, and the survey will delve into 12 interconnected determinants, to form a framework which will be used to survey women in communities that have historically faced disproportionate challenges to economic growth.

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears,” Haghighat said. “Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

 

Obstacles to Success

Luisa Sorio Flor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington and lead author of the Lancet study, noted that “the pandemic has exacerbated gender disparities across several indicators related to health and other areas of well-being. Women were, for example, more likely than men to report loss of employment, an increase in uncompensated care work, and an increase in perceived gender-based violence during the pandemic, even in high-income countries.”

By partnering with the UMass Donahue Institute and surveying 200 area women, Haghighat hopes to localize those global trends to determine where the economic engine is jamming.

“Is it child and dependent care or job preparation or lack of a supportive network?” she asked. “We added ‘supportive network’ as one of the determinants we use, understanding that, when something goes wrong in a woman’s life, she might have a supportive network she can reach out to when things are going wrong, like a grandmother who can watch a child. But we realize that, oftentimes, women will lack that supportive network, which will obviously deter them from achieving economic security.”

“We’ve portrayed a women’s economic engine as a bunch of interlocking gears. Each of these things can have an effect on the other things.”

Another determinant is identification, which can be a serious barrier not only for undocumented women, but women emerging from incarceration.

“When you come out of incarceration, you don’t just get handed your ID. You have to re-establish your identification, which is mindblowing to me,” Haghighat said. “So many things these days require identification, so that’s a huge barrier to getting housing, getting paid to work, all those things.”

A report from UMass Amherst School of Public Policy (SPP), released last month, revealed some of the impacts that the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic had on Massachusetts households. Led by UMass Amherst economist Marta Vicarelli, the team from SPP’s Sustainable Policy Lab surveyed more than 2,600 Massachusetts residents from October 2020 to February 2021 to gather information about the challenges households faced due to the public-health crisis and its socioeconomic fallout, and the strategies adopted to address these challenges.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including employment and financial strains, childcare and education, physical and mental health, substance use, and food security. Vicarelli said the team’s analysis devoted particular attention to women, children, and minority populations.

“Our results shed light on the socioeconomic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts households across different socioeconomic groups,” she wrote. “Many of these impacts have been persisting throughout the pandemic. Special focus is devoted to delays in children’s academic and emotional development, negative mental-health outcomes, and negative effects on women’s employment. If not addressed quickly, these socioeconomic impacts will have lasting, and possibly irreversible, implications for the United States. We hope that our results will inform the design of policies that address these impacts and support vulnerable groups.”

Notably, the survey found that 31% of respondents saw a decrease in overall income and savings, and women were more likely than men to report having become financially dependent on their partner due to pandemic disruptions. Echoing the global Lancet study, female respondents were also more likely to indicate substantial changes in their professional life to support the needs of their households, such as keeping their jobs but working fewer hours, taking unpaid leave, leaving their job, or changing jobs.

“There’s a real concern about lost stability for retirement purposes,” Haghighat told BusinessWest. “And who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth. Over time, we’ll see how that plays out.”

 

An Ongoing Conversation

A 2019 Women’s Fund report called “Key Findings on the Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts” highlighted the fact that women in Hampden County were underemployed and experiencing high rates of poverty. Since then, COVID-19 has complicated the issue, and the impact on women in Greater Springfield has disproportionately affected black and Hispanic women — often women concentrated in low-wage employment who were shut down for extended periods or were laid off entirely.

The 2019 report also emphasized barriers for formerly incarcerated women, positing that resources like affordable housing, debt relief, financial assistance, access to sober housing — especially for women — quick reunification with children and other family members, and continuity of therapy and recovery are greatly needed.

The next report will be a tale of how COVID impacted everything. That and the Women’s Economic Security Hub survey are necessary next steps in closing troubling gaps for women when it comes to economic security, Haghighat said.

“Who knows what’s going on with the Great Resignation? Hopefully, women who have more flexibility are taking advantage of a better labor market to make up ground in terms of their jobs and so forth.”

“And not just for us, but for area policy makers,” she added. “It’s important for them to take this lens to things — people quitting or not taking positions, not just because of pay, but because of hours, transportation, getting there. We want this framework for thinking about all the things affecting women. Then, employers can be more visionary about making sure the workplace or compensation package they’re creating really responds to the realities women are facing.”

She noted that federal lawmakers can get behind supporting physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, but often balk at other forms of support, like a national early-childcare program that has come up for discussion in Congress before, but never went anywhere.

“I look at that as a huge missed opportunity,” Haghighat said — one of many that may one day be remedied as decision makers get a grip on the hard data that’s forcing too many women into hard decisions they shouldn’t have to make.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

Building Momentum

By Mark Morris

River Valley Co-op

The outdoor seating area at River Valley Co-op before it opened last spring.

Curtis Edgin says his business is all about flexibility and constantly making adjustments. This is the case when times are ‘normal,’ he noting, adding that the pandemic and its many side-effects have only added new dimensions to this equation.

Edgin is a principal at Caolo & Bieniek Associates architecture firm in Springfield, and he appreciates that his firm has stayed busy for the last two years, a time when adjusting and remaining flexible became the norm for everyone, not just architects.

“We were fortunate to have a backlog going into the pandemic; because projects were at different phases, we’ve continued to stay busy throughout,” said Edgin said, noting that municipal projects such as schools, libraries and public safety facilities make up more than two-thirds of Caolo & Bieniek’s portfolio.

Much of the design work handled by Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst involves colleges and universities. When campuses switched to online learning during the height of the pandemic, they also put many of their building projects on pause, said Aelan Tierney, president of Kuhn Riddle, adding that this began to change this past fall and her firm has been extremely busy since then.

“Colleges felt more confident about the future in terms of bringing students back to campus, so all the on-hold projects came back to life,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s been a complete turnaround from where we were in 2020.”

Meanwhile, it was two years ago that daily headlines generated speculation about if and how area restaurants, pummeled by the pandemic and draconian restrictions, would survive. They have survived — and many are thriving — by adapting to changing times, said Thomas Douglas, principal of Thomas Douglas Architects in Northampton, a firm that specializes in the restaurant and hospitality sectors.

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

Kuhn Riddle Architects President Aelan Tierney

“Our restaurateur clients put their focus on refiguring their spaces with less seating and shifted to a different type of service model geared more toward takeout,” said Douglas, adding that these adjustments kept this sector — and his firm — busy at a time when such vibrancy seemed unlikely.

Together these stories convey a time of challenge and opportunity for area architecture firms — a time when some projects were scrapped or delayed, but when others came onto and then off the drawing board as different types of clients adjusted to what the pandemic brought to their doorsteps.

And for many, what it brought was a pressing need to improve the air circulation.

Indeed, design plans for the River Valley Co-op in Easthampton were drawn up long before COVID was on anyone’s radar, said Douglas. From its inception, the plan was for the co-op to run nearly net zero, with most of its heating and air conditioning provided by an array of solar panels covering a large portion of the parking lot. With much of the actual construction of River Valley occurring during the height of the pandemic, he noted that the firm made several changes on the fly. The original plan called for a grab-and-go food area that was nixed after contemplating the idea of people touching food in an open area. At the same time, air quality, took on a new urgency.

“In the middle of the project we needed to shift gears and upgrade the HVAC system with more-robust filtering capacities,” Douglas said. “We made these changes to better address the effects of the pandemic.”

The pandemic has brought other changes and adjustments, especially when it comes to needed materials, said those we spoke with, adding that supply chain shortages combined with steady price hikes for building materials and mechanical equipment have become a constant challenge.

Because architects plan projects that won’t break ground until months later, figuring out what materials will be available and what they will cost has become a big ongoing concern. Tierney said right now mechanical equipment such as generators are delayed up to 12 months before they are available.

“It’s very unsettling for clients and contractors to not know how long it will take to do a project,” Tierney said. “No one feels confident about cost estimates that are put together today because you don’t know if they will be relevant in three to six months when you actually start construction.”

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment.”

For this issue and its focus on architecture and engineering, BusinessWest talked with several area architects about the many ways the pandemic has impacted business — and how this sector has responded as it always has, by making adjustments and positioning itself effectively for the day when the storm clouds move out.

 

Blueprint for Success

It’s called a ‘Zoom booth’ — by some people, anyway.

Like the name suggests, it’s a small space, like a phone booth, only instead of phone calls, it’s for the Zoom meetings that have now become part of day-today life in the modern workplace.

“It’s a place where someone in an open office setting can pop into a quieter space to take part in a remote online meeting,” said Tierney, adding that while her firm has included such spaces in many of its plans, it has also converted several conference rooms to accommodate meetings where some people attend in-person while others take part virtually.

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan

Curtis Edgin (left) and James Hanifan say the pandemic has thrown extra layers of complexity into renovations, particularly with HVAC.

Zoom booths and altered conference rooms would be among the more subtle changes to the landscape resulting from the pandemic, said those we spoke with, adding that the more dramatic adjustments, as noted, involve air flow and a recognized need to improve it.

And the amount of work — and redesign — needed generally depends on the age and condition of the building.

Indeed, unlike making a design change in new construction, planning a retrofit with existing buildings brings another level of challenge, said Edgin, citing, as one example, a school client looking to replace its old rooftop heating unit with an upgraded unit that would add cooling to the system.

“First we look at structural considerations, such as whether the building support the new unit if it weighs more than the old one,” Edgin said.

The next step according to James Hanifan, also a principal at Caolo & Bieniek, concerns the duct work in the building.

“Many older facilities don’t have the ventilation systems that are required by today’s building codes,” he explained, adding that older buildings often depend on operational windows for ventilation which cannot be relied on in cold weather and can invite mold into the building during rainy times of the year.

Schools may opt to purchase stand-alone air filtering units to install in every classroom but that can be complicated, too.

“Sometimes they find out the electrical system can’t support all that additional equipment,” said Hanifan. “Now they’ve got a different issue.”

Recent funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has certainly helped municipalities in budgeting for these projects. Edgin anticipated that many will use their ARPA funds for improved HVAC and energy projects in their schools and other public buildings.

Overall, energy efficiency and sustainability are built into architecture plans. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification is one standard that has provided what Tierney called a great baseline for architects when considering sustainability standards.

Last year Gov. Charlie Baker signed Executive Order 594 which requires all state buildings to meet strict energy efficiency and emission standards going forward.

“Any new project plan has to evaluate how it will impact the environment,” Tierney said. “The goal is to reach carbon-neutral and net-zero emissions by 2050.” Independently, organizations are increasingly focused on reducing energy consumption and on the types of materials they use when constructing their buildings.

“It’s great to see Massachusetts as one of the strongest states in terms of energy code,” Tierney said. “They are aggressively increasing energy requirements every three years when they update state building codes, which is fantastic.”

Thomas Douglas

Thomas Douglas says River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from the start.

While the River Valley Co-op had a strong emphasis on sustainability from its inception, Douglas suggested a creative addition to the plan that maintained the spirit of the project.

“My first college degree was in landscape architecture, so I worked with the coop to create a large outdoor patio that has a view of Mt. Tom,” Douglas said. With easy access from inside the building as well as outside, the layout can also accommodate a food truck next to the patio.

“We wanted to create a vibrant, exciting, and yet cozy outdoor atmosphere for the patio.”

 

Drawing on Experience

Meanwhile, both public and private spaces are being adjusted to provide employees and visitors with larger and, in many ways, different spaces.

Indeed, a few years ago, companies had begun planning office layouts that were open and airy to encourage more collaborative workspaces. The arrival of COVID caused a change to some of those plans.

“After designing for an open-office concept, the pandemic came along, and we had clients who wanted to go back to individual cubicles,” Edgin said.

Kuhn Riddle is still creating collaborative areas, while at the same time staying conscious about air exchange and filtration.

“As we begin opening back up and taking off our masks people remain concerned about air quality,” Tierney said. “The last two years have definitely influenced how we think about design.”

When the Westfield Boys and Girls Club was planning a childcare wing, it increased the size of the project from 11,000 to 15,000 square feet because the state had increased minimum space standards per child from 35 to 42 square feet after COVID hit, said Tierney, adding that her firm was brought in as the schematic design architect to work on this part of the project with Chris Carey, the architect of record on the building expansion.

“We don’t know if the state will ever go back to a smaller square-foot-per-child standard, but we wanted to be ready in the future for another pandemic or other event that requires keeping children spaced apart,” she explained.

Add to these challenges and adjustments the ongoing supply-chain issues and escalating prices of materials, which together bring new levels of complexity — and stress — to designing projects and seeing them to completion

As part of a dormitory renovation at Elms College, Hanifan was planning for a certain type of carpet only to be told that, if it even gets produced (and that’s a big if), there will be a 16-24 week lead time. He has already begun adjusting the plan because the project must be completed before the fall semester in September.

“We will look at other colors and if we can’t get those, we will have to look at other manufacturers.”

This constant uncertainty often puts his municipal clients in a tough spot.

“No one wants to hear that prices have spiked and everyone knows prices don’t tend to go down,” Hanifan said. “So, there is a lot of indecision on whether to go ahead with the project or wait to see if prices come back down at some point.”

While supply chain delays and rising costs are still part of daily life, a sense of optimism creeps in as the weather becomes warmer and COVID mandates get relaxed.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I think we’ve turned the corner,” Tierney said.

Hanifan acknowledged that in the immediate short-term, supply chain issues will continue because manufacturers are under pressure to get materials out as fast as they can.

“Eventually they will be able to re-stock and fill their warehouses once again,” Hanifan said. “It may be a few years out but I’m optimistic it will happen.”

All it takes is remaining flexible and making adjustments when necessary.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Flash back exactly two years ago, to a time when employees of companies across the region — from banks to nonprofits; hospitals to health plans — packed up their computers and whatever else they needed and went home to work.

Initially, we thought two things that never really happened the way we expected. The first was that these workers wouldn’t be gone for long — maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, depending on how things went. The second was that, just as everyone left en masse, so would everyone return en masse.

Indeed, two years later, many still haven’t returned. And they certainly haven’t returned all at once.

And most importantly, most of those who have returned — and will return in the coming weeks and months — won’t be going to the office five days a week.

Suffice it to say the world of work has changed considerably since COVID-19 entered our lives — and there is simply no way things will go back to the way they were. The genie is out of the bottle, if you will, and there is no getting it back in.

But except for the long-term implications of this new world order on office properties, the restaurants and bars located around them that count these workers as patrons, and cities like Boston, New York, and even Springfield — and that’s another story — these developments are mostly positive.

In many ways, the move to flexible schedules and greater concern for the needs of employees is something businesses should have been thinking about long ago — and a few of the more progressive ones certainly were.

What the pandemic did, among other things, was show the business community that it could be done — that employees could work remotely and be just as effective as they were in the office, if not more effective — and that it should be done.

Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer at Ware-based Country Bank, probably said it best when she told BusinessWest, “one of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore.”

For the 200 or so years leading up to the pandemic, one size did fit all — at least in most cases. Almost everyone worked at the office. Almost everyone worked Monday through Friday. Almost everyone worked roughly 9 to 5.

One-size-fits-all worked for employers before the pandemic, and it worked for most employees, although they learned over the past two years that flexible schedules work better.

And what employers are learning now is that flexible schedules work better for them as well. They work because employees are generally happier. They work because, in some cases, productivity actually improves when people work remotely or in hybrid schedules. And they work because the biggest challenge facing all employers right now is attracting and retaining talent, and they’ve already found that they fare much better with those challenges if they can be accommodating to their employees.

Six months into the pandemic, most workers were still looking forward to the day when they could return to the office full-time. Not long after that, most were looking forward to perhaps not returning at all.

That’s how much the world of work has changed. And while we can’t say definitively what the future will bring, it seems almost certain that these changes are here to stay.

Education

Remote Possibilities

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Internships have always been known to take different shapes and forms, from a student teacher eagerly helping to prepare classroom activities to the stereotypical unpaid intern making copies and bringing coffee to co-workers while carefully shadowing how the different jobs at their company work.

Now, a new type of internship has been added to the mix: a student sitting at home in front of their laptop. For many students, this has become the new normal.

With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the leaders of internship programs at universities in Western Mass. feared that students would not be able to have as many internship opportunities. George Layng, an internship coordinator at Westfield State University, recalled feelings of uncertainty when the fall 2020 semester approached.

“School was back in session, but it was all virtual … would internship sites be as receptive to having interns as they were in the past? Usually, we have more places that are willing to have interns than we have interns for, but our fear was that we’d be in the reverse, that we’d have more interns than we have places for,” Layng said.

“I think, actually, students are better able to manage that shift now because their classes are online and they are working more independently.”

However, despite the copious amounts of instability in many areas of academic life brought on by the pandemic, internship programs at colleges in the Western Mass. region have been running strongly with abundant student success. Layng said the number of students participating in his internship program has remained steady over the course of the pandemic, even when compared to pre-pandemic years.

“I think, actually, students are better able to manage that shift now because their classes are online and they are working more independently,” he told BusinessWest. “One of the silver linings is that they are more able and more prepared to work somewhat independently, somewhat virtually, and it not being a big issue.”

A large part of this success was credited to the ability of students, professors, and employers to remain adaptable during the continuously changing protocols throughout the pandemic. The willingness of employers to take on interns remotely and overcome that boundary, along with the determination of students to work through uncertain conditions, has proven to be a winning combination for successfully running internship programs during the pandemic.

 

New Normal

This is not to say internship programs have been running without their fair share of challenges.

Alan Bloomgarden, director of Experiential Learning at Elms College, spoke of how, even though his students have shown remarkable success at obtaining placements at various internship sites, constantly evolving safety concerns impacted some student internships and experiential-learning experiences.

Alan Bloomgarden

Alan Bloomgarden says students have done well with internship placements during the pandemic, but safety concerns have impacted some experiences.

“The employers themselves are, I think, not necessarily prioritizing construction of internships, where their employees are really required to do an additional amount of work to supervise students,” he said. “That is difficult under normal circumstances, and it may be a bridge too far for some employers under the current pressures of staffing and adapting to changing health and safety conditions.”

Bloomgarden noted that students in the social sciences and humanities have been encountering a greater degree of difficulty in internship placements because of changing circumstances. Even though the internship program at large is functioning well, some students have still found themselves in a place where the pandemic caused certain internships to fall short, when they might have been successful in a normal year.

Layng echoed this sentiment, remembering a particular instance with a student seeking an internship that highlights the recent limitations of certain internship placements caused by the pandemic.

“I had a student who I was trying to place at Baystate [Health] in the public relations department, and he had experience in healthcare public relations and marketing,” Layng noted. “He would have been an excellent candidate to take the next step … but the person at Baystate said they were just so busy, there’s so many cases, they just can’t really work with interns in the way that would really help them. That’s one clear way the pandemic lessened the opportunities for interns.”

On the other hand, one perhaps unexpected benefit of the recent shift to online internships has been the newfound ability for students to be placed at sites whose far-away locations would have typically eliminated them from being realistic options. The normalization of remote work has opened up opportunities for students in Western Mass. to intern at businesses in larger cities like Boston and New York without having to spend an entire semester away from their university.

“I have seen students develop some creative adaptations to the circumstances that we’re all facing,” Bloomgarden said. “Just as we’re seeing a changing workplace as a society, we’re seeing changes in the face of what internships look like.”

He spoke of how Elms College’s teacher-licensure students had been conducting their experiential learning in a hybrid format but are now being placed at schools in-person. The students in the college’s social-work program have also found themselves returning to in-person internship sites, Bloomgarden said.

“Just as we’re seeing a changing workplace as a society, we’re seeing changes in the face of what internships look like.”

While most students have been gradually returning to in-person internships, some students have been doing internships in this fashion throughout the course of the pandemic. This has been especially true for students who are looking to enter the medical field.

Bloomgarden described the experiences of students in the nursing program at the Elms, and how they have been continuing with clinical placements even with the pandemic.

“They are, in many ways, frontline workers,” he said. “Our students are conducting experiential learning in the same way that the permanent, full-time employees of the organizations hosting them are asking of their employees.”

Internship programs in Western Mass. colleges and universities have found that both students and employers now expect a conversation about the possibility of a virtually formatted internship. The high level of adaptability shown by employers has positively impacted students by allowing them internship opportunities even during very uncertain times.

“Employers are seeing the value of interns and the value of internships as an education practice,” Bloomgarden said. “Internships help with career readiness… they deepen one’s understanding of one’s discipline, having a chance to apply the methods, whatever the field is.”

 

Community Impact

Whether in-person, hybrid, or fully remote, leaders of internship programs still assert that internships in any format are substantially beneficial to students — and for a variety of reasons. Both Layng and Bloomgarden enthusiastically emphasized the importance of internships and the value they provide for a student’s future career.

“It’s a really good stepping stone to a career,” Layng said. “They are going to prepare you for what it’s like, getting ready for the professional world.”

He added that student feedback has been mostly satisfactory, with students expressing that they feel like they are still getting a quality internship even if a fair percentage of them are partially or completely remote.

“Internships and experiential learning can enable active citizenship and the advancement of social action.”

Bloomgarden spoke of the numerous ways that internships are beneficial not only to the students themselves, but also to the businesses they work at and the communities they are a part of.

“Internships and experiential learning can enable active citizenship and the advancement of social action,” he said. “Our job is to encourage and support the development of those pathways to making positive impact on the world. We want to encourage them in becoming meaningful contributors to their communities.”

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Seeking a Return

Paul Scully says customers are feeling more optimistic about the future.

Paul Scully says customers are feeling more optimistic about the future.

While year one of the pandemic taught banks how to constantly pivot — to remote work, new modes of serving customers, and multiple phases of PPP loans — year two has brought more stability, even normalcy, but also new challenges, particularly inflation and supply-chain disruption that has made it more difficult for customers to save, borrow, and invest. That they’re doing all these things, to some degree, lends a healthy sense of optimism to 2022.

 

There’s nothing wrong with normalcy, Paul Scully said.

And if nothing else, the business of banking in 2021 was more stable than in 2020. That doesn’t mean all the economic issues individuals and businesses are dealing with have gone away, just that banks, and businesses in general, had to do less pivoting. Or at least have learned to roll with the punches.

“With vaccination rates increasing — or at least the availability of vaccinations up — we saw business picking up and customers feeling more confident coming into the banking centers,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank. “And with commercial business picking up, people were feeling a little more optimistic with what the future has in store for them — where 2020 was all about trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

What was going on last year were the early throes of a pandemic with no vaccines available, widespread shutdowns of economic activity, and banks more involved in PPP loans than normal commercial activity. “But we started to see, probably by the second quarter of this year, a normalizing, with customers feeling more confident and feeling more optimistic about the future and for their business.”

“With commercial business picking up, people were feeling a little more optimistic with what the future has in store for them — where 2020 was all about trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

That’s a positive trend for commercial lending. Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, was on an economic-outlook call with Visa recently, which projected a 7% uptick in 2022 in business investments in fixed assets, which means more borrowing. “That’s pretty healthy growth,” he told BusinessWest. “People are looking to borrow out there. Corporations’ financial statements are looking pretty strong the last couple of years, and a lot of consumers are sitting in pretty good financial shape; we’ll see whether they want to pull the trigger or not.”

On the consumer side, they have, with 2021 being the second straight year of double-digit growth on the mortgage-lending side at Freedom, along with healthy business in auto and home-equity loans. “And last year, deposits were up over 20%; this year, it was 10%. Our balance sheet, like many institutions, has grown pretty significantly since COVID hit.”

Tony Liberopoulos, Liberty Bank’s senior vice president and regional manager for Commercial Banking, said the bank’s new commercial-lending push in Western Mass. — it opened a loan-production office in East Longmeadow in June and has added three more employees since then — has gone well.

“We’ve been very happy. We had a very strong year; we’ve been very busy,” he told BusinessWest, noting that much of that success can be attributed to customers craving normalcy — in this case, face-to-face dealings with a stable team.

“With the amount of market disruption between mergers, community lenders leaving their jobs for other opportunities, and, in many instances, competitors still working from home, we’ve had opportunities to meet prospects and clients to grow our business,” he explained.

Tony Liberopoulos

Tony Liberopoulos says borrowers want access to digital tools, but mainly prefer face-to-face interactions.

“We’re firm believers that, while businesses have been struggling with things like COVID and supply chains, things will bounce back,” he went on. “And we’re seeing a lot of opportunities just by being in front of the clients. They want to see familiar faces; they don’t want to deal with just Webex and phone calls.”

Liberty’s lending numbers have borne that out, with 2021 figures close to what they were pre-COVID, Liberopoulos added. “That’s all we can ask for at this point. We’ve found customers and prospects still want face-to-face meetings; they want a normal relationship with banks.”

With that in mind, “I think the trend is toward more confidence in 2022 than there was in 2021,” he went on. “I think companies have seen their business come back since late May, early June, when a lot of COVID restrictions were lifted. We’re seeing businesses thrive again, and now they’re starting to invest in 2022. That’s what we’re counting on.”

 

Into the Digital Age

While many customers do, indeed, prefer to bank in person, Scully said, one of the big industry stories of the pandemic was how customers who had avoided digital banking options embraced them when they had to — and then stuck with them.

“More and more people developed a comfort level with technology,” he explained. “Many had a fear of the unknown — ‘will my money be safe?’ But the last 20 months allowed people to recalibrate a little bit, and we’re seeing more and more reliance on technology, which is great.”

Country even converted a small branch in the Ware Walmart to an interactive banking office with two interactive teller machines (ITMs). “They can absolutely do anything on the machine. The customer response has been really positive.”

Technology has helped banks in other ways — including combating a workforce shortage that has affected every industry and has not spared banks and credit unions.

“The fact that there aren’t a lot of employable people out there is taking its toll on businesses. Anyone in a customer-service business is looking for people; it doesn’t matter whether if you’re running a bank or a local coffee shop.”

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in these days, the fact that there aren’t a lot of employable people out there is taking its toll on businesses. Anyone in a customer-service business is looking for people; it doesn’t matter whether if you’re running a bank or a local coffee shop.

“But that customer expectation still exists for us, so technology has helped quite a bit,” Scully went on. “Customers during the pandemic became more familiar with doing their banking through technology, and their reduced reliance on coming into the branch reduced some of our traffic.”

At Country, while the banking centers operate five or six days a week with in-person staff, in the back-office areas, employees remain on a hybrid schedule, three days in the office, two remote — with Wednesdays mandatory for everyone to come in. “That’s more of a cultural thing for us, so folks would still be connected to one another.”

And the hybrid model has worked well, he noted. “We recognized early on, as we started to look at the reopening process, there are a lot of benefits to having a hybrid workforce. It’s like 2020 allowed us all to recalibrate, and ask why you’re spending an hour twice a day commuting to the office just to do work you were able to do at home for a year. We decided, ‘let’s rethink this.’”

Staffing has also been a challenge for Freedom, Welch said, which had to close down a branch or revert to drive-up only on occasion to deal with it.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says workforce issues have not only affected staffing for banks and credit unions, but have begun to put pressure on wages.

“We’ve seen other institutions have the same issue. We’re certainly trying to hire people, but it’s been difficult. People leave, and it’s hard to get people interested in coming in and working. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a retail environment — that’s where most of our openings are, in branches — or it’s just people retiring or finding other things they want to do.”

The crunch has started to put pressure on wages, Welch added, which not only affects the banks themselves, but often doesn’t do enough to balance surging inflation for those earning the paychecks.

Liberopoulos said the shift toward digital banking options is a good one, and even though many of his commercial clients have wanted to do business in person, they, too, also want to be able to access the same digital experience — with its speed, flexibility, and personalization — that consumer clients have.

“Innovation is always the key to growth and sustainability. To survive, you need to invest not only in talent, but in products and services,” he said, noting that there’s certainly a need for both online options and a bricks-and-mortar presence.

 

Back to the Street

Communities and nonprofits saw their needs soar during the pandemic, too, and that’s one area community banks and credit unions continued to focus on in 2021. For example, over the summer, Country Bank — which has traditionally focused its giving on basic needs like food insecurity, homelessness, and healthcare — donated a total of $1 million to two regional food banks.

“To be a healthy community, residents in the community need to be in good health. Nutrition should be a right and not a privilege,” Scully said, noting that needs became more dire due to the pandemic, job losses, inflation, and an increase in addiction.

“If you have a heartbeat, you enjoy giving back, and it doesn’t have to be a certain size,” he said, turning the topic around as a challenge to others. “You may be able to donate only a dozen boxes of pasta, but that’s a dozen more boxes of pasta available for someone in need. What we like to do is partner with organizations and get their stories out there, so other people can jump on the bandwagon and be a part of it too.”

That speaks to Liberty’s priorities as well, Liberopoulos said. “We’re very in tune with our community and helping out the non-for-profits; we’ve done a lot of good things so far and continue to do that. That’s very important to us. We live, work, and lend in this area, and we want to support this area as well.”

Welch said Freedom has not only supported nonprofits, but gotten others involved by choosing a charity each month — A Bed for Every Child, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and Unify Against Bullying are just three recent examples — and involving members in the giving.

“We have been advertising that on our website and trying to get donations not only from the credit union, but from members who find the causes worthwhile and have the ability to donate,” he explained.

As for member business in the coming year, Welch knows inflation remains a drain on savings and assumes interest rates will rise at some point in an attempt to slow it down. “That could have an impact on people being able to borrow. Student-loan payments are starting up again, too, so people will have $300 or $400 coming out of their pocket for that in addition to increased prices and increased rates.”

These are problems that affect businesses, too, Scully said.

“With inflation and the cost of goods going up, and so many businesses looking at inflated utility expenses, now, with the shortage of qualified, available help, payroll tends to go up as well,” he noted. “Clearly there are a lot of challenges for folks in the business arena — which is why you really want to encourage people to shop local and keep Main Street storefronts occupied.”

Many businesses struggling with higher costs are still looking to borrow and invest, he added. While the PPP loans of 2020 were about keeping the lights on and keeping employees paid, for more traditional loans going forward, borrowers need to show a continuation of revenue streams without the PPP revenue to bolster them.

“For the most part, that’s exactly what happened. Businesses have returned to a good level,” Scully said. “Certainly, some are still taking their hits — hospitality was one of the hardest-hit, whether it’s food services, hotels, or entertainment venues. They had tough restrictions put on them last year. Those restrictions were lifted for the most part, but now they can’t rehire enough workers.”

These are all factors that might cause individuals and businesses to pull back from borrowing, he added.

“What will the impact of inflation be? When will interest rates start to rise a little? The big piece that looms for me is employment: where is the workforce going to be? Will there be enough employable people for all of the jobs? We’ve heard about this Great Resignation. It’s real.”

Still, like other financial leaders we’ve spoken with recently, Scully remains optimistic. “All indications suggest 2022 should be an OK year from a business perspective.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

A Stern Test Continues

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

 

For the area community’s colleges, the enrollment numbers continue to fall, with annual declines recently in the double digits. There are many reasons for these declines, which actually started well before COVID but were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. With many students and potential students now in a state of what one college president called “paralysis,” there are hard-to-answer questions about what ‘normal’ will be like moving forward.

 

It’s been a while since anyone has talked about parking at Springfield Technical Community College — or the lack thereof.

John Cook, the school’s president, sometimes yearns for the days when they did.

And that was most days. Indeed, going back decades, parking was a problem at this urban campus that sits on the site of the Springfield Armory, despite numerous efforts to add more. By the time Cook arrived in 2017, the school was still parking cars on the commons (the old parade grounds converted by the school into athletic fields) the first few days of classes to make sure all students had a space. That practice was no longer necessary after a new lot was built near the Pearl Street entrance in 2019.

These days, there’s plenty of space in that lot and all the others as enrollment at the school continues a downward trajectory, a pattern seen at the other community colleges in the area — one that is defying many of the patterns concerning these schools and the economy, but one that was already in evidence before the pandemic and only accelerated by it.

“People are in a state of paralysis. And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

Indeed, since STCC saw enrollment hit its high-water mark just after the Great Recession of 2008, roughly 7,000 students, the numbers have been declining steadily to the present 4,000 or so.

“We were down 16 or 17% last year, and this fall, we were down another 10%,” said Cook, adding that this pattern has been seen at other schools as well, with COVID-19 adding an exclamation point to the problem. At Holyoke Community College, for example, enrollment saw another double-digit decline in 2021, and President Christina Royal said that, with just six weeks to the start of the spring semester, the numbers are down another 7% or so from this time last year.

While most all colleges are seeing enrollment declines at this time, community colleges are being especially hard-hit, in large part because the students who attend these schools, especially older, non-traditional students, are those most impacted by the pandemic and its many side effects, from unemployment to issues with childcare to overall problems balancing life, work, and school.

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says some students and potential students are stuck in state of what she called ‘paralysis,’ not knowing exactly what kind of career to prepare for.

While many have returned to the classroom, others have remained on the sidelines, and they are in a state of what Royal likened to paralysis, not knowing exactly what to do with their lives or even what course of study to embark upon. And this distinguishes what’s happening now in the economy from almost anything that has happened before.

“A recession, as difficult as it is, is a predictable circumstance — and it has been up to this point,” she noted. “People are familiar with the ebbs and flows of the economy. What we’re dealing with now is fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

“Now people are in a state of paralysis,” she went on. “And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

She said these factors help explain why enrollment continues to decline at a time when logic says they should be rising based on previous performance. Indeed, community-college enrollment would normally rise when the country is in recession or something close to it, when unemployment is still higher than average, and, especially, when businesses in every sector, from manufacturing to IT to healthcare, are facing a workforce crisis unlike anything seen before. And it would also be expected to rise when the cost of four-year schools continue to soar and many parents are looking to community colleges as a sound alternative for those first two years.

“A two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

Michelle Coach, campus CEO at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, agreed. She said enrollment at ACC (one of 12 schools currently being merged into something called the Connecticut State Community College), which hit its peak of just under 1,000 a few years ago, is now in the mid-700s for full-time equivalents, up from a low of 650. The numbers are down for several reasons, including restrictions due to COVID that kept inmates from four prisons within just a few miles of the school from attending.

Even enrollment in the school’s popular manufacturing program, which has been supplying graduates to area plants in desperate need of workers, is down, she said, adding that many who would be applying are cautious and hesitant for all those reasons mentioned above.

Overall, many factors are contributing to the falling numbers, from COVID to smaller high-school graduating classes. The ongoing challenge for schools, Coach said, is to tap into new pools of students and consistently stress the value — in the many ways it can be defined — of a community-college education.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with area community-college leaders about the present and, to the extent they can project, the future as well. In short, these administrators don’t know when, or to what to extent, things will return to normal.

 

Unsteady Course

As she talked about enrollment and the state of community colleges today, Royal, like the others we spoke with, reiterated that the declines in the numbers started well before COVID.

Indeed, if one were to chart the numbers from the past 15 years or so, she explained, there would be a bell curve, or something approximating it, with the numbers slowly rising until they hit their peak just after the Great Recession and then beginning a gradual tumble after that.

“When I came in in 2017, we had already seen seven consecutive years of declining enrollment — this is certainly a long-term trend,” she said, adding that she believes there is some artificiality in comparing today’s numbers to the high-water marks of a decade or so ago. “If you take out the effect of the recession, both the ramp-up and the decline afterwards, it doesn’t look as extreme and bumpy.” 

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism that enrollment numbers at ACC and elsewhere in Connecticut will start to move higher, especially with the many incentives being offered.

But ‘gradual’ turned into something much more pronounced during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that enrollment is off 20% or more from a few years ago, and for a host of reasons.

The declines have become the most pressing topic — after ever-changing COVID protocols — at the regular meetings of the state’s 15 community-college presidents, said Cook, adding that, collectively, the schools are looking for answers, a path forward, and perhaps an understanding of what ‘normal’ will look like in the short and long term.

The answers won’t come easily because COVID has created a situation without precedent, and the current trends, as noted earlier, defy historical patterns, he explained, adding that the overarching question now is “where are the people who would be our students? What are they doing?”

And at the moment, many of them are still trying to simply cope with the pandemic.
“They’re still trying to figure out childcare in many cases,” he went on. “Or they may be reconsidering what their own career process might be. And there’s a lot of people who are standing pat and taking stock of what’s important.”

Cook said there has been growth in some numbers, especially those involving students of color and especially the Hispanic population, and there has been growth in some individual programs, such as health science, which the school didn’t have four years ago.

But numbers are down in many areas, including nursing — at least from a retention standpoint — at a time when demand for people in that profession has perhaps never been greater. It’s another sign that these are certainly not normal times.

Royal agreed. “When we have a typical recession, people don’t like the fact that they can’t find jobs or that they’re laid off,” she noted. “But they know that they have to retool, they go back to college, so that they can be prepared for when the jobs come back and the wages start to go up. Now, people are stuck.

“When you have such a global event as COVID-19 has been for our world, then it has put a lot of people in this state of ‘I don’t even know what a couple of months is going to look like — I might not even know what next week is going to look like. How can I think about going to college and starting a future when I’m not even sure what we’re here for anymore, what my purpose is, and what I want to do?’ All of this is causing people to stay still.”

And it’s prompting those running community colleges to do what they can to get them moving again, understanding this may be difficult given those factors that Royal described and fresh uncertainty in the wake of the Omicron variant and rising COVID cases as the winter months approach.

Indeed, most of the colleges are doing some targeted marketing and putting some of the federal-assistance funds to work helping students with the financial aspects of a community-college education.

“We certainly have used every tool available to us to help us with recruitment and retention,” Cook explained, adding that STCC has issued checks of up to $1,500 to help them defray the costs of their education.

“These are not loans … it’s $1,500 to use as you as you decide,” he said. “We’ve done things like that, and we’ve done it for three semesters. This is a real shot in the arm for people.”

Some are taking advantage of the unique opportunity, but many others remain on the sidelines because of COVID-related issues such as childcare, matters that $1,500 checks cannot fix.

At Asnuntuck, the school is being equally aggressive, especially when it comes to recruiting students from the Bay State. Through its Dare to Cross the Line program, Massachusetts residents can attend ACC for the same price as those in Connecticut.

“Currently, 10% of our students are from Massachusetts, and that has stayed fairly consistent,” Coach explained, adding that many enroll in the manufacturing program and a good number in cosmetology, but there is interest across the board. “We’re trying to get the word out, and we’ve done some additional outreach to Massachusetts high-school students.”

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, ACC was able to place ‘smart classrooms’ in each of the nearby prisons to allow inmates to take classes, bringing enrollment numbers up somewhat.

Moving forward, with high-school graduating classes getting consistently smaller, there will be greater outreach to non-traditional students, but also a focus on high-school and even middle-school students — and their parents — with the goal of stressing the many advantages presented by the two-year schools.

“For the high schools, we’re trying to change the perception of community colleges,” Coach explained. “In the past, they’ve always said, ‘this is how many students are going to a four-year university.’ Well, a two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

 

Learning Curves

Overall, Royal and others said it’s clear that community colleges will have to make continual adjustments to bring more people to their schools and see them through to completion of their program. Changes and priorities will likely include everything from a greater emphasis on early college — enabling high-school students to earn credits for college in hopes that this might change their overall career trajectory — to greater flexibility with semester schedules and length of same, to efforts to address the many work/life/school issues challenging students, especially older, non-traditional students.

Royal noted that those who will graduate next spring will have spent their entire time at HCC coping with a global pandemic and everything that has come with it.

These students hung in and persevered, received their degrees, and, in many cases, will be moving on to a four-year school. 

“These are the students that have embraced that uncertainty, and say, ‘I’m going to do something with my life; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but I’m going to further myself and be prepared for when we get to the other side of that.’ That’s who you’re going to see in our graduating class.”

What you won’t see are those who became stuck, as she called it, those who didn’t have the inclination or the ability to plow forward during the pandemic.

Just when people can and will move out of this state of paralysis is still a question mark. Until then, parking will remain a non-issue at STCC — and other schools as well — and the region’s community colleges will remain tested by a situation that is defying trends and their own history.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Changing the Script

Jordan Hart

As part of a broad rebranding and rebuilding effort at the Greater Holyoke Chamber, Jordan Hart is working to build a stronger relationship with the Hispanic business community.

 

Area chambers of commerce, like businesses in all sectors, have suffered during the pandemic and faced a number of stern challenges. For the most part, they have come through these tough times — smaller in many cases, with many chambers now one-person shows — having proven their value and relevance after helping their members survive upheaval without precedence. The challenge moving forward is to rebuild their memberships, their financial foundations, and, yes, their staffs, while also creating new and different ways to maintain that relevance they found during the pandemic.

 

Jordan Hart admits to sometimes getting lonely at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s spacious offices on High Street.

There are still monthly board meetings in the large conference room and an occasional visitor. And the entrepreneur leasing a small office toward the back of the space comes in now and then.

But mostly, it’s just Hart.

Indeed, this chamber is now essentially a one-person operation, the culmination of a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“I am the chamber,” said Hart, one several relatively new chamber leaders in the region — she became executive director almost a year ago after more than nine years with the agency in various roles, adding that there were five people working in the same space when she first started there.

And Holyoke’s is not the only area chamber to be run by a staff of one. That’s the model now in place at several agencies, including the Springfield Regional Chamber (SRC), which had five staff members just prior to COVID, but now there’s just one computer humming at its suite of offices at the TD Bank Building, a downsizing that happened over time.

“Part of it was attrition, part of its was budgetary as a result of COVID,” said Nancy Creed, president of the SRC, who announced earlier this month that she will be stepping down from her position no later than next spring to care for her elderly mother.

Coping with smaller staffs — and, in some cases, some loneliness — has been just one of the adjustments area chambers have had to make over the last few years, and especially since COVID. There have been some changes in the services they provide and how they are provided, and there has been somewhat of a change in role as well.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline. We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Indeed, where once chambers existed to help promote members and connect them to one another and the community, while also providing needed information on matters ranging from new legislation to changes in tax laws, the mission escalated during COVID — up to and including simply helping members survive an unprecedented disruption to their business and their life.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Overall, the chamber members we spoke with summarized what’s happened over the past 21 months or so by saying chambers became more relevant during the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that membership didn’t decrease for many of them at a time of extreme financial duress for many of their members. In some cases, it actually increased.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance,” Creed said. “It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Now, the challenge is to remain relevant, they said with one voice, noting that they’re going about this assignment in many different ways.

At the Holyoke Chamber, for example, there has been a rebranding — a new logo and a new website, for starters — but also some strong outreach to Hispanic business owners, said Hart, adding that, historically, that population hasn’t felt as if the chamber represented them.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she considers 2021 to be a comeback year for a beleaguered chamber. “I don’t want to continue to segregate the two different business communities, but instead find ways to become more unified and be the business community of Holyoke.”

Grace Barone

Grace Barone says the East of the River Five Town Chamber has brought back many of its events, but with adjustments due to COVID.

At the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, which includes Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and other communities south and east of Springfield, there has been a return to many of the gatherings staged before COVID, including the popular breakfasts, an important value-added service for members.

“There’s definitely a need for these kinds of networking events,” said Grace Barone, who came on as executive director of the chamber in June. “Everyone needed to know how folks were doing, how to adjust sales, and how to move forward in this world, so we set out to do that, to bring people together again.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several chamber leaders about this process of ‘moving forward,’ and all that this phrase entails. As with businesses in every sector of the economy, it means pivoting when necessary and finding new and sometimes different ways to be relevant and present value to members.

 

Meeting Expectations

As she talked about her chamber’s recent trade show and fundraising event, the ERC5 Talkin’ Turkey Table Top 2021, Barone said she took a page from the playbook BusinessWest used at its 40 Under Forty gala in September — the one that called for spreading people out to help reduce risks during a surge in COVID.

“We utilized all the different spaces at Twin Hills Country Club that we could,” she explained. “We had some vendors outside and in the lobby — we provided people with more room. People had to do a little more traveling through Twin Hills, but it happened, and it was a success, and everyone was very happy.”

It was the same at an earlier networking event, staged outdoors in another nod to COVID, at the Apple Place in East Longmeadow, which boasts a creamery and a number of farm animals. It wasn’t your typical networking event setting, but it worked, serving as an example of thinking outside the box and making needed adjustments to how things are normally done, Barone said.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance. It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Making adjustments at events — and conducting fewer events overall — while also making due with smaller staffs, and often one person, are just some of the changes area chambers have been making since COVID changed the landscape.

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now,” Creed said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Overall, most chambers have handled the adjustments they’ve had to make. There have been cutbacks in staffing for many of the agencies — again, through attrition and some cuts — and other forms of downsizing. But while chambers have closed and merged in other parts of the country and even other parts of this state, all of the chambers in the 413 have kept their names and their identities.

That’s not to say there weren’t some precarious times. Indeed, when Kate Phelon, the long-time executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, announced she would retire at the end of 2020, a search for a successor commenced that September. It was halted a few months later amid some concerns about the chamber’s future — and fiscal concerns stemming from the pandemic — but then started again as arrangements were made to collect past-due membership fees and take other steps to put the agency on solid financial footing.

“Dues started coming in, and people started getting creative about getting businesses into the chamber,” said Eric Oulette, who would eventually become that successor, adding that, today, membership is solid, at nearly 240 members, or roughly where things stood before the pandemic, with the ambitious goal of getting to 300 in the months to come.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says area chambers certainly proved their relevance during COVID, and the challenge now is to maintain that relevance.

He’s confident the chamber can continue adding members and perhaps reach that lofty goal because of the value it has put on display during the pandemic, especially as a resource to members looking for needed information and guidance on relief programs.

Barone agreed. “We’ve been climbing higher and adding new members since I’ve come onboard,” she said, adding that the numbers have been steady and the chamber is on solid ground moving forward.

At the Holyoke Chamber, amid several changes in leadership, the agency fell out of view of many business owners and needed to not only rebrand but reintroduce itself to the business community and in some ways even reinvent itself. And Hart, because of her long tenure with the organization and familiarity with many of the business owners, thought she was in a position to orchestrate what could be called a turnaround.

“I thought I was in a position to really rebrand us and make it known that we’re here to help the community, because there was talk that the chamber was idle,” she told BusinessWest. “We were administering grants, but other than that, we had a very idle pandemic, so I took that opportunity last spring to rebrand us, with a new logo, new website, and new dues structure.”

The more significant aspect of what she is calling a ‘renaissance’ for this chamber is its efforts to promote inclusion and broaden the membership base by putting out a proverbial welcome mat to Hispanic business owners. It is doing this through a number of vehicles, including everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion seminars to complementary Spanish classes (Hart is taking one herself) and English classes as well.

“What I’ve noticed from working here almost a decade is that there are a lot of roadblocks preventing unification within our business community,” she said. “So if can we cross-pollinate and promote one another and highlight one another, using the power of the chamber to become an ally with everyone in our community, we can see tremendous growth. The potential is really endless, in my opinion.”

 

Getting Down to Business

As he talked with BusinessWest, Oulette was just returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of many he’s been part of over the past few months.

The giant scissors have been given a workout, he said, thanks in part to a surge in entrepreneurship fueled in some ways by the pandemic and the time it gave people to think about, and act on, their dreams of owning their own business.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses.”

“More than 20 businesses have opened up in the Greater Westfield area this year alone,” he said, adding that, from what he can gather, most area chambers are equally busy with those ribbon cuttings, and they represent just one of many ways chambers are showing up during these still-challenging times.

Indeed, with federal PPP money and other sources of funding, such as a large grant the Holyoke chamber has secured through its partnership with EforAll Holyoke, area chambers have been able to carry on — in somewhat different fashion, in some cases, and with a somewhat different mentality in others. And, yes, with fewer people at many agencies.

“We’ve transitioned to be more of a mission-driven organization than an events-driven organization,” said Creed, noting quickly that spending less time on events, such as those monthly or quarterly breakfasts that so many area chambers are known for, has freed up time for “things that truly matter.”

Using different words and phrases, all those we spoke with said essentially the same thing — although, for many, those events are still critical as ways to serve members and raise needed operating revenue.

But the pandemic has inspired all the chambers to look beyond those events and at different ways to help members, especially as they continue to battle not only the pandemic, but also a workforce crisis that is without precedent, and now new challenges to their existence, such as inflation and supply-chain woes.

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings, one of the many ways the Greater Westfield Chamber has been visible and involved.

While the pandemic has eased in some ways, said Pazmany, area chambers are still working to not only serve but save area businesses. And this work takes many forms, from supporting the Amherst BID’s proposal to build a new parking garage downtown to more global efforts to inspire people to buy local.

But the biggest issues, one that chambers are struggling to help with, are the supply-chain woes and the workforce crisis. And they have Pazmany worried because they are preventing businesses from fully bouncing back from the pandemic, and in some ways still threatening their existence.

“I’m worried that, though our business are performing and they’re still open … they’re often just hanging on because of staffing and because of supply-chain issues,” she said. “Look at restaurants; they can’t stay open and serve the same number of people they used to. Most restaurants are busy, but they have to close two days a week, and if a restaurant has to close two days a week, they’re not doing what they were doing before the pandemic.”

And because a chamber’s fortunes are tied to the relative health of the business community it serves, there is understandable cause for concern, she went on.

“I’m a chamber, I’m a member-driven organization, all my support comes from my members and dues and sponsorships,” she explained. “I certainly have a right to worry; we’ve certainly proven ourselves in terms of our value, but if you’re not making the money, you’re going to cut somewhere. And what we don’t know is how long this staffing shortage and these other issues are going to go on.”

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Barone agreed, but noted that one of the enduring lessons from the pandemic is that challenges can be met if groups and individuals work together and think outside the box.

“If we learned anything from this, it’s that the community comes together; if it weren’t for the residents in our small towns, a lot of businesses, a lot of restaurants, would not have survived,” she said. “But the community rallied, and that’s the piece that we’ve got to take forward — not that we didn’t before, but we need to focus on that with chambers. If our businesses are doing well and they’re successful, they give back to the communities they’re in, and everyone thrives.”

Bottom Line

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest during a visit to the space on High Street, Hart pointed to the desk positioned in the front lobby, the one she occupied when she started with the agency a decade or so ago.

When she became executive director, she recalled, she sat at that desk for some time, partly because of the familiarity, but also, as a one-person show, she wanted to be out front, greeting whoever came through the front door.

She has since settled into her office located behind the conference room, her “zen space,” as she called it. The broad goal for 2022 is to rebuild the chamber’s finances and, hopefully, place another employee at that desk out front — or one of the other unoccupied workstations.

Getting Hart some company is just one of the many challenges to address, and hopefully overcome, as chambers — like the businesses they serve — move on from surviving the pandemic to life after it.

 

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

Cover Story Health Care

Critical Condition

Workforce challenges are common to virtually every industry these days — in fact, it’s the dominant economic story of our time, affecting everything from wages to employee relations to damaged supply chains. In healthcare, the pandemic has only exacerbated workforce issues that were already present. Hospitals, nursing homes, and other providers have to keep providing their services, of course, but the stress, burnout, and soaring costs resulting from the talent crunch have many saying the current environment is simply unsustainable.

While workforce shortages in healthcare are not a new story, Spiros Hatiras said, COVID-19 certainly didn’t help the situation. Far from it.

“We had some challenges even before, but really, the pandemic has created a sort of crisis situation,” said Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center and Valley Health Systems, noting that industry estimates peg current healthcare vacancies around a half-million jobs nationally. “There’s a mixture of reasons why they left, and a lot of them had to do with the pandemic.”

Essentially, he explained, many nurses and specialists have re-evaluated what they want to do for a living, while others who were close to retirement anyway decided to make that transition earlier than they might have. Others who had been part of a double-income household stayed home with the kids during the pandemic and decided they wanted to continue to do so.

“You have people who got burned out dealing with acute illness and decided to stay in the profession, but looked for a setting where they weren’t dealing with acute illness,” he went on. “Then you had some people with an existential crisis, saying ‘healthcare is not for me.’ We certainly had some of those. Put it all together, and we had a lot of folks leave the profession on the clinical side.”

Entry-level, non-licensed jobs in healthcare, like housekeeping and dietary services, have been a struggle to fill as well, Hatiras said, but nowhere near as difficult as on the clinical side.

Adam Berman also recognizes that these issues predate COVID. Well before the pandemic — for several years before, actually — Berman, president and CEO of Legacy Lifecare, would attend trade-association panels and conferences and speak with state and national colleagues, and one topic would always be at the forefront.

“It was always workforce, workforce, workforce,” he said. “This was pre-COVID, and it’s what kept providers up at night.”

However, at Legacy’s two partner companies, JGS Lifecare and Chelsea Jewish Lifecare, Berman agrees with Hatiras that the pandemic took an already-worrisome problem and worsened it.

“We had some challenges even before, but really, the pandemic has created a sort of crisis situation.”

“When COVID came, many individuals who may have been considering careers in healthcare went for it, but for others, COVID gave them pause. And some people elected to retire earlier than they were otherwise going to. For many people, there was the calculus of determining whether they’d stay at home taking care of somebody versus re-entering the workforce.

“That’s not just in healthcare; that’s in general,” Berman added. “You see it across every industry. There are fewer people overall than were previously in the workforce.”

The growing labor shortage in healthcare is starting to have serious bottom-line effects, as organizations boost wages to compete for scarce talent and swallow skyrocketing rates being demanded by travel-nurse agencies.

A recent study conducted by Premier, a national healthcare-improvement company, found that U.S. hospitals and health systems are paying $24 billion more per year for qualified clinical labor than they did pre-pandemic, and approximately two-thirds of hospitals’ current costs are from wages and salary.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says hospitals like Holyoke Medical Center are feeling the bottom-line impact of soaring workforce costs.

As reported by the Massachusetts Hospital Assoc., Premier found that “overtime hours are up 52% as of September of 2021 when compared to a pre-pandemic baseline. At the same time, use of agency and temporary labor is up 132% for full-time and 131% for part-time workers. Use of contingency labor (or positions created to complete a temporary project or work function) is up nearly 126%.”

The Premier study follows a September study from Kaufman Hall projecting that hospitals nationwide will lose an estimated $54 billion in net income over the course of 2021, even taking into account the funding they received from the federal CARES Act.

Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Services also predicted hospital margins will continue to fall. “Over the next year, we expect margins to decline given wage inflation, use of expensive nursing agencies, increased recruitment and retention efforts, and expanded benefit packages that include more behavioral-health services and offerings such as childcare. Even after the pandemic, competition for labor is likely to continue as the population ages — a key social risk — and demand for services increases.”

All of this results in what healthcare leaders are increasingly calling an unsustainable situation — one that’s necessitating a great deal of flexibility, creativity, and, yes, anxiety.

 

Heightened Competition

In the world of home care, COVID posed some very specific issues, said Mary Flahive-Dickson, chief development officer and chief medical officer at Golden Years Homecare Services and Golden Years Staffing Agency.

“We already had an ongoing issue with a shortage of healthcare providers, but with COVID, people were moving loved ones out of facilities and into their homes — getting them out of skilled nursing and assisted living, keeping them out of hospitals. But now they needed home care, and a lot of it — not just an hour here and an hour there. These were people with 24-hour needs.”

The government’s generous unemployment policies didn’t help, she added.

“When the government pays you to stay home, why the hell would you go to work? If you’re getting paid $15 or $16 an hour to potentially expose yourself to COVID by entering someone’s home, why not stay home and get paid $25 an hour to stay home? We had the same issues every other industry had: the government simply made it way too easy to stay home.”

All that became what Flahive-Dickson called a “perfect storm” of increased home-care needs when the worker pool was dramatically shrinking — a simple matter of supply and demand, really. She understands the reluctance to work last year — not just because of the unemployment benefits, but because it was unclear, especially early on, how COVID spread and how serious the risk was. But almost two years after the pandemic began, the workforce disruption still resonates.

Adam Berman

Adam Berman

“When COVID came, many individuals who may have been considering careers in healthcare went for it, but for others, COVID gave them pause. And some people elected to retire earlier than they were otherwise going to.”

This past year did bring some relief, she noted, from the end of the extra-large unemployment checks to the expedited vaccine rollout to healthcare workers in February and March. However, the tight labor market has also created a competitive situation in which nurses, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), home health aides, and others are willing to jump from job to job for a pay bump — and companies are, indeed, offering those bumps.

“If I work for company A and company B offers me a quarter more an hour, I’m going to company B,” she said in explaining the mindset. “Then, if company C offers more than company B, I’m going to company C. Competition for home-care workers and other healthcare workers is through the roof.

“The reimbursements haven’t gone up, but payouts have gone up,” she went on. “A lot of companies are just not able to do that; if you don’t have a certain volume, you’re out of business.”

Wearing her staffing-agency hat for a moment, Flahive-Dickson noted that Massachusetts is the only state in the country that puts a cap on what a staffing agency can charge a facility; in fact, it’s illegal to go over the cap.

“If you’re getting paid $15 or $16 an hour to potentially expose yourself to COVID by entering someone’s home, why not stay home and get paid $25 an hour to stay home? We had the same issues every other industry had: the government simply made it way too easy to stay home.”

“Everyone is trying to outbid each other, and these employees find themselves jumping from opportunity to opportunity simply because the opportunity is there. You can’t blame them for doing that, but it’s completely unsustainable.”

Agency nurses are causing financial problems for hospitals because of the pay they command, Hatiras said. As a result, nurses are leaving their employers, signing on with agencies as ‘travelers,’ and then often returning to the same hospitals at two or three times the pay.

“The staff is making significantly more money, and it enriches those agencies, but the hospitals and consumers are footing the bill,” he said. “That’s an additional problem for us, but we’re not alone.”

HMC offers stability of schedule, without the travel, that agencies can’t, he noted, and has been offering incentives — like bonuses for signing up and for staying on for a certain amount of time, as well as tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness. “But we can’t match the $100 an hour agencies are paying.”

What all this means, Berman said, is that “employees have far more power to be very discriminating about their future employment. I think that’s wonderful — it does require employers to think differently than in the past. You can’t take for granted that people will show up at your door. You need to do a better job of messaging: ‘this is a good place to work; everyone is treated fairly.’”

And not just say it, but back it up, he added.

“Competitive providers are raising wages, which is one of the positive impacts. It’s tough on employers, but those employers are becoming more competitive in terms of working conditions and wages, and that should not be minimized.”

 

Priming the Pump

Hatiras said the lack of interstate licensing reciprocity doesn’t help efforts to boost nursing staff, and state-level efforts to create reciprocity have run into union resistance. But he added that any effort to put more workers in the pipeline locally would be welcome.

“I don’t know if the pandemic has discouraged people who ordinarily would want to get into nursing but are staying away from it,” he told BusinessWest.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says many people want to remain in healthcare

Mary Flahive-Dickson says many people want to remain in healthcare, but not in acute-care settings because of stress and burnout.

One step Holyoke Medical Center has taken is to reduce the volume of non-clinical work that its nurses do, like personal hygiene, handling phone calls, and procuring supplies. In that way, the workforce crunch is lessened not by hiring more nurses — which the hospital would do if it could — but giving them more time to do the clinical work they’re uniquely trained to do.

“We decided to go to a model where we add more more staff that acts in a support role — certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists, secretarial help. At times when staffing is down, those support functions will take some of those duties and responsibilities off nurses and give nurses more time to be able to do medication management, care documentation, all that.”

The goal in the past has been one CNA for each two nurses on a shift, but HMC is now shooting for a one-to-one ratio. “The feedback from nurses has been tremendous,” Hatiras said. “Given everything going on, we think this is a good solution.”

It’s a way to reduce the burnout factor, which is real and significant, Flahive-Dickson said. When it’s not chasing healthcare workers toward early retirement, she noted, it’s making others more picky about their work setting. Her staffing agency hears from some clients who want to stay away from high-stress hospital and acute-care settings, and ask instead about shifts in schools, clinics, camps, and the like.

Berman said his industry has long had to stay on message simply because the role of a nurse in a skilled-nursing facility has never been the most glamorous-sounding job. While some people have a passion and calling for it, others need to be persuaded that this is fulfilling work, he noted.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-lived situation. It’s going to take a long time to dig out from under … you can’t refresh the pipeline immediately.”

“Everyone is looking for staff, and everyone is being bombarded with different messages recruiting people. That becomes more challenging for us.”

Some organizations have become creative in building their own talent pipeline. Faced with a shortage of CNAs in the region, Legacy Lifecare created its own school, covering the cost of training for several dozen individuals so far and hiring many of them.

Likewise, Golden Years offers a 75-hour home health aide certification course, a $1,200 to $1,500 value, for free. “We’re giving them an education and certifying them and, in return, ask them to sign on for six months,” Flahive-Dickson said. “It’s one of the ways we try to offset the incredible need that COVID posed.”

Hatiras understands that other industries are facing similar headwinds when it comes to the availability and rising cost of talent. “You’ve seen everyone struggle. Look at the restaurant industry. When I see McDonald’s advertising high pay rates and tuition reimbursement, you know how bad things are.

“I don’t think this is going to be a short-lived situation,” he added. “It’s going to take a long time to dig out from under … you can’t refresh the pipeline immediately.”

Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Assoc., took a similar perspective during a recent meeting of the Health Policy Commission’s advisory council.

“I get that people fully want to go back to some semblance of normal,” he said, “but our healthcare organizations don’t have that option.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

Like all businesses, law firms have had to make adjustments in the wake of the pandemic, which has created both new opportunities and new challenges. Overall, firms have seen obvious changes in where people work and how. But there also may be new dynamics when it comes to recruiting and from where firms can attract new business.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

 

They call it the ‘Zoom room.’ And for obvious reasons.

It’s the office of a retired partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin that’s been converted into a small conference room equipped with a 60-inch screen for, or mostly for, Zoom meetings with clients that involve at least a few of the firm’s attorneys.

“If we have several of us who want to meet with a client or a couple of clients, we can have a multi-person meeting and have a few people in the room,” said Tim Mulhern, the firm’s managing partner, who said that, prior to the pandemic, there was obviously no need for a Zoom room. And the creation of one is just one of the many adjustments — that’s a word he and others we spoke with would use early and often — that law firms have made over the past 20 or so months. And some of them are more permanent in nature than temporary.

That can likely be said of the receptionist at Shatz — or the lack thereof, to be more precise. No one sits at that desk any longer, and, in fact, the door that leads to the reception area is now locked; a sign taped to it provides a number to call for people with inquiries.

The biggest change, though, is the number of lawyers to be found on the other side of the door — roughly half that from the days before the pandemic.

The rest are working remotely all or most of the time, something that took some getting used to — lawyers, especially, like the office setting, said Mulhern — but most have gotten over that hump.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now. We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

Ken Albano, managing partner at Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, agreed. He noted that it’s not uncommon to check his phone in the morning and hear from one or more of the firm’s attorneys letting him know they will be working remotely that day. As other firms have, Bacon Wilson has adjusted — there’s that word again — and become more flexible out of necessity, he said, adding quickly that the firm wants its lawyers and paralegals in the office at least some of the time.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I like the idea of being with a young lawyer or a young paralegal who needs mentoring and advice and has questions. It’s better for me to meet with them one-on-one, in person, with a mask on, as opposed to doing it via Zoom.”

In the grander scheme of things, though, where lawyers work, and whether there’s a receptionist or not, may well turn out to be some of the less significant adjustments, or changes, to result from the pandemic. The larger ones could involve recruiting young lawyers and the potential to add business as a result of the changing landscape.

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to hiring lawyers and paralegals.

Starting with the latter, Seth Stratton, managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, summed things up effectively and succinctly when he said “we sell time.” And with some of the changes brought about by the pandemic — including less time commuting to work and less time traveling to meet clients — there is, in theory, at least, more time to sell.

Also, now that clients of all kinds, but especially business clients, have become accustomed to meeting with clients via Zoom and the telephone, there is potential to have such sessions with law firms based in the 413, which charge, on average, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds what lawyers in Boston and New York charge, and less than those in Hartford as well.

“COVID has resulted in more efficiencies, and, generally, efficiencies mean things take less time, and we sell time, so that means we’re selling less per client,” Stratton explained. “But it allows us to potentially work with more clients and work with clients who are more distant — we can expand the footprint of who we’re comfortable working with and who’s comfortable working with us.”

As for recruiting … the pandemic brings both opportunity and challenge, said Betsey Quick, executive director of Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson. She noted, as others have over the years, that it is difficult to recruit young lawyers to Western Mass. law firms, and it often takes a family connection to do so. With the pandemic and the ability to work remotely, there is now the possibility of recruiting lawyers not to Western Mass., necessarily, but to firms based here — and the young lawyers can live where they want.

But — and this is a significant ‘but’ — young lawyers who might want to come to Western Mass. because of the quality of life and comparatively low cost of living can now come here, but not necessarily to work for a firm based here — again, because of the options now available to them.

“Remote working options can help and hurt recruiting efforts,” Quick said. “We are now hearing from attorneys with great résumés who prefer more of a remote schedule. It has opened the doors to new prospects. The concept of urban flight is real, and professionals are considering their options. On the other hand, with remote work, attorneys who once flocked to big-city firms may now have the option to remain at that firm, with the big city salary, and relocated to a rural area.”

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics presented by the pandemic could provide area firms with more opportunities to secure work from clients based outside the 413.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest looks at all of the various ways the pandemic has brought change to a sector that hasn’t seen very much of it over the past several decades.

 

Case in Point

Mulhern remembers when, at the height of the pandemic in mid-2020, he used to carry a small, foldable table in his car. It was for what came to be known as ‘driveway signings,’ among other names — the inking of documents in outdoor settings, including driveways, but also parking lots and parking garages, where each party would bring their own pen and bottle of hand sanitizer.

Those days seem like a long time ago, and in many respects they are, he said, adding that a large degree of normalcy has returned to the practice of law, although things are, in many ways, not at all like they were in February 2020.

As an example, Albano noted the recent end to Springfield’s mask mandate. While the city took that course, Bacon Wilson has decided to still require masks within its offices, a difference of opinion that has resulted in some confusion and even some harsh words for the receptionist from visitors not inclined to mask up.

Overall, changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

Changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

“You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

Going back to that word used earlier, firms have been adjusting to a changed world, and the adjustment process is ongoing, especially when it comes to where and how people work.

At Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, as noted, maybe half the lawyers continue to work remotely, said Mulhern, adding that the firm has not rushed anyone back, and it won’t, at least for the foreseeable future, in large part because the current work policies, if they can be called that, are working.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

And there are variations on the theme, he said, noting that some lawyers work a portion of their day at the office and the rest at home.

At other firms, most if not all lawyers are back in the office. That’s certainly the case at Bulkley Richardson, which implemented a vaccine policy on Oct. 1, said Quick, noting that the firm recognizes the importance of in-person interaction with colleagues and the need for human connection.

That said, Bulkley Richardson and other firms have learned that remote working can and does work, and there is certainly room for — and, even more importantly, a need for — flexibility.

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law”

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law” because of COVID, and she believes there are many positives amid a host of disruptions.

“The transition to remote work was unprecedented, but what we learned by the unexpected lockdown was that flexibility is a viable option,” Quick said. “We have always offered attorneys some degree of flexibility and have worked with them to find an agreeable working model; until the pandemic, most attorneys worked traditional hours within a traditional office setting. But now, with the remote working more acceptable, and sometimes necessary, we have seen no change in productivity or efficiency doing work.”

Stratton agreed, noting that his firm, like most, had a degree of flexibility when it came to working remotely and allowed lawyers to do so; most didn’t, except when they had to (during snowstorms or when they were home sick), because they preferred to be in the office. Now that they’re used to it, and like it, more are taking advantage of the flexibility they have.

Indeed, before COVID, perhaps 10% to 15% of work was done remotely, and now the number is perhaps 25%, said Stratton, adding that this represents a new normal.

And the new ways of doing things have produced greater efficiency, he added, a dynamic that creates the potential for more billable hours in a business that, as he said, sells time.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting changes in how lawyers interact with clients present new opportunities for firms in the 413 to do business with those well outside it, Stratton noted.

Before, to get such business, firms would need a physical office in Worcester or Boston. Now, for many types of business law, where personal interaction is less necessary, services could be secured from lawyers in this market at rates far below those charged in those larger markets.

“With the increased use of remote communication and remote meetings, you can more easily tap those markets,” he said, adding that the firm is starting to market itself to such clients through professional networking.

 

Moving Target

Beyond where and how people work, the pandemic may have changed another important dynamic for local firms — the all-important work to attract and retain young talent.

As noted, it has long been a challenge to bring young lawyers to this market unless there is a connection, said Stratton, who offered himself as an example. He and his wife are both from this area, and it was a desire to return here (especially on his wife’s part) after some time spent in Boston that eventually brought him back to the 413.

Summing up the landscape as it has existed for some time, Stratton said the region has long faced what he called “depth of bench” challenges.

Elaborating, he said this is a “top-heavy” market when it comes to lawyers, with many of the leading players in their 60s or even their 70s. There are some rising stars coming up behind them, but not as many as the firms would like.

The reasons for this are many, said those we spoke with, but largely, it comes down to the fact that this market is not the big city — which means it doesn’t have the big-city lifestyle and, more importantly to most young lawyers, it doesn’t have big-city rates for legal services — or big-city salaries.

“Like many cities, Springfield is a proud community with historic charm and continued growth.  And yet, it is not Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C., and in most circumstances, one major difference may be the salaries,” Quick said. “As a Western Mass. firm, we are able to offer a healthier work/life balance and a unique geographic landscape. The challenge is communicating this value to candidates because, if they are not familiar with the business climate in Western Mass. and all it has to offer, attracting new talent to the area can be difficult.”

Stratton agreed. “If I were to have a job posting tomorrow for a junior lawyer with one to three years of experience that fits our practice and say, ‘you come to East Longmeadow, Mass., Monday through Friday, 9 to 5,’ I would get zero applications of qualified attorneys. That might be an exaggeration, but it would be close to zero.”

Albano agreed. He said the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to attracting lawyers to Western Mass. He told BusinessWest the same thing he told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly when it asked him the same question.

“It’s been very difficult to hire quality lawyers and paralegals during this COVID pandemic,” he explained. “The quality of résumés we’re getting in from people in Western Massachusetts and also outside the area is very weak.”

Moving forward, he noted, the number could be much higher because that lawyer doesn’t need to be in East Longmeadow, at least not Monday through Friday, 9-5, meaning recruiting might become easier — that’s might — because of the pandemic and the manner in which it has changed how people work. It’s also changed some opinions about urban living.

“Many lawyers are growing tired of the city life,” Quick noted. “They want to find a reputable firm where they can advance their career and continue to work with high-level clients. At the same time, they are realizing that work/life balance matters. Western Mass. offers the best of both worlds — a growing, professional city surrounded by the landscape of mountains, rivers, and forests right at your fingertips.”

These qualities may well help attract people to Western Mass., but will it attract them to Western Mass. firms? This is a big question moving forward as remote work becomes plausible and more attractive for those toting law degrees in their briefcases.

“You need to compete with markets that you didn’t have to compete with before for talent,” said Stratton, noting that someone drawn to the Western Mass. lifestyle, or who has family here and wants to stay here, no longer has to limit his or her options to Western Mass. firms. “As a young lawyer, you can, potentially, work out of the Boston or Washington, D.C. markets primarily, and the legal rates charged in those markets are higher, and the pay is higher.”

That’s the downside of the changing dynamic, he went on, adding that there is plenty of upside as well, including the ability to look well beyond the 25-mile circle around Springfield that most young lawyers are currently recruited from.

Much of this is speculation right now, he went on, adding that, over the next six to 12 months, firms like his will have a far better understanding of just how — and how much — the recruiting picture has changed.

Albano agreed, noting that, overall, Bacon Wilson will entertain a hybrid schedule, to one degree or another, but it would certainly prefer its lawyers and paralegals to be in this market.

“I got an e-mail with a résumé from a young man in New York, indicating that he was looking to apply for a job here, but he plans on living in Boston,” he recalled. “First of all, his résumé didn’t coincide with what we were advertising — and we’re seeing a lot of that — and, number two, there needs to be that one-on-one connection. You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said the process of adjusting to everything COVID-19 has wrought is ongoing. That includes looking at the amount of space being rented and whether downsizing might be in order.

“We’re talking about what the future looks like in terms of physical space,” Mulhern said. “And that’s one of the things we’ll talk about — do we still still need all the space we have?”

The firm has more than two years left on its lease, he went on, adding that the answer to that question will come at another time. The answers to some of the questions, especially those regarding recruitment and gaining additional business, including some from other markets, might be answered much sooner.

Overall, this is a time of change and looking at things differently than they been looked at for decades.

“There has undoubtedly been a transformation of the practice of law, and we believe that there are many positives amid all of the disruption,” said Quick, referring to those at Bulkely Richardson while also speaking effectively for all those we spoke with. “The pandemic taught us many things, including how to work more efficiently, utilize available resources, and communicate better to keep teams connected. I anticipate many changes will remain with us in a post-pandemic world.”

 

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

Health Care

Danger Zone

By Mark Morris

MHA’s Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

MHA’s Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say social isolation during the pandemic has been problematic for young people.

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national suicide rate declined slightly in 2019, the last year for which full statistics are available.

Unfortunately, the latest government data does not take into account the arrival of COVID-19 early in 2020. But area mental-health professionals know what they’re seeing and hearing almost 20 months into the pandemic.

Amanda Hichborn, director of Outpatient Clinical Services for River Valley Counseling Center’s Westfield office, said the impact of COVID has in some ways been a double-edged sword when it comes to suicide risk.

“The risk factors for suicide have definitely increased,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve also seen protective factors that have come into play.”

On top of fears about our health, Hichborn explained, the pandemic also affected basic needs such as food — as evidenced by shortages in grocery stores — as well as the ability to sleep well, employment security, and freedom to move around wherever and whenever we want.

At the same time, she has seen people spend more time with their family, increase their fitness by taking walks to get outside, and improve their diets by eating more at home.

“Vulnerable groups like disenfranchised people were already struggling with basic needs. Throw the pandemic on top of it, and their needs are impacted tenfold.”

“These protective factors work to actually decrease the risk of suicide,” Hichborn said. “When we go through something as a community, we feel a kind of connectedness, which also helps decrease suicide risk.”

However, she was quick to point out that, while we may all be in this together, we’re not all in the same boat.

“Vulnerable groups like disenfranchised people were already struggling with basic needs,” she said. “Throw the pandemic on top of it, and their needs are impacted tenfold.”

Young people in particular have had a tough time with the pandemic. Alane Burgess, clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center at the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), noted that, while depression and anxiety have increased for all ages, it’s been particularly tough for adolescents, and suicidal thoughts and attempts are on the rise.

“With adolescence, there is a sense of permanency that things won’t change,” Burgess said. “When they experience social isolation, it feels like forever to them.”

Kristy Navarro, a clinical supervisor at MHA, said keeping young people safe in a pandemic can run counter to how parents raise their kids.

“Normally we want our kids to share, but now we’re saying, ‘don’t share, and don’t touch anything,’” she said. “When we discourage sharing things with friends, it can be a hindrance to the growth and development of young children and adolescents.”

 

Managing the Stress

Dan Millman agrees that the pandemic has affected young people in unique ways.

“It can be hard for young people who miss rites of passage like graduations and other celebrations and rituals,” he said. “Another part is the social stuff like having fun with friends and being independent. All of that has been much harder to do with the pandemic.”

Millman is the director of ServiceNet’s DBT program, or dialectical behavior therapy, an evidence-based approach to psychotherapy that can be effective with people who are exhibiting self-destructive behaviors.

Amanda Hichborn says staying home more has benefited people’s health

Amanda Hichborn says staying home more has benefited people’s health in some ways, but the pandemic has had plenty of negative effects, too.

DBT differs from conventional therapy in that it follows a more structured protocol. The six-month program is designed to give clients the skills to manage the urges to engage in self-harming behaviors. Millman described four main techniques of DBT:

• Mindfulness, a skill that helps the client focus on healthy coping skills to prevent negative thought patterns and impulsive behavior, and which is integrated throughout DBT techniques;

• Distress tolerance, which is most effective in improving a moment with soothing or distraction skills. “The point of this skill is to help survive the crisis without making things worse,” Millman said;

• Emotion regulation, a technique that allows clients to strengthen their emotional resiliency to more effectively navigate powerful feelings; and

• Interpersonal effectiveness, which Millman described as developing assertiveness skills so clients can ask for what they want, better address their needs, and set limits when necessary.

“The point of DBT is to help people feel like their life is worth living and has improved,” he explained. “It’s not a good outcome to have someone stay alive while still suffering the torment they have been feeling.”

Relieving the torment starts with allowing the client to accept they have suicidal thoughts. In this context, acceptance means acknowledgement, not approval.

“When someone has suicidal thoughts, it’s a sign to them that something is wrong in their lives that needs to change,” he said. “Acknowledging those thoughts can actually be protective for the person.”

Another area of DBT involves stepping into painful emotions. Millman explained how human instincts try to protect us and avoid things that make us feel anxious, so we tend to put them off. Avoiding a difficult conversation is a good example of something that needs to be done, but creates anxiety before we do it.

“I talk with people about what they can and cannot control. Though we can’t control events outside, we can control ourselves and our responses to those events.”

One way clients deal with emotional pain is to engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting themselves.

“We ask the client to just sit with the urge to cut themselves without acting on it,” he said. “In that way, we are asking them to step into the pain. It’s easier said than done, and it’s really challenging.”

The point is to show the client they confronted the moment and got through it. A distraction like a funny video or throwing themselves into an activity can also help, he added. “Once they are ready for the next step, they can use some of the other skills to influence the emotions that are underneath the urge and begin to think differently about it.”

 

Support Systems

The pandemic looked like it was going to subside this past spring as warm weather arrived and many people were getting vaccinated, but then the Delta variant reared its head, and vaccine levels plateaued. While that created frustration for everyone, it was particularly hard on people with pre-existing conditions related to anxiety and depression.

Dan Millman runs a program

Dan Millman runs a program that helps people take control of self-destructive tendencies.

Navarro said the confusion of starting to feel safe, and then, suddenly, not so safe, can lead to hopelessness, a huge risk factor in suicidal tendencies. A person who feels hopeless will often make vague statements such as “I can’t do this anymore,” “I don’t want to be here,” and “this is too hard,” she noted.

“I talk with people about what they can and cannot control. Though we can’t control events outside, we can control ourselves and our responses to those events.”

During the pandemic, social media can either help people feel more connected or lead to more hopelessness. Hichborn noted that, while it’s good to see friends and loved ones from across the country, social media also creates misleading impressions. The people smiling in the photo look happy, but they might be feeling lots of stress in their lives.

“The effect of social media is counterintuitive because it makes us feel more connected upfront, but in the long run makes us feel a lot more depressed and isolated,” she said.

Two other groups emotionally affected by the pandemic are very young children and seniors. Hichborn said she sees clients from ages 3 to 77. When a parent with young children dies, it can create a suicide risk.

“The child has a concept of mom or dad dying, and they want to see them again,” Hichborn said. “The child might feel like they have to die in order to see their mom or dad.”

Older people who are at risk of suicide tend to show warning signs such as saying goodbye to people, giving away their prized possessions, and cleaning out their house. When family members see this type of behavior, it’s important to talk with the person.

“If you see any suicidal ideations or any warning signs within a family member, don’t beat around the bush — ask them directly, ‘are you feeling suicidal? Are you having thoughts of harming yourself?’” she said.

If they’re not having those thoughts, Hichborn added, the question will not encourage people to start thinking about it. “It doesn’t work that way.”

In addition to asking direct questions, Burgess suggested active listening and being supportive.

“Sometimes the most important thing to do is listen and acknowledge the person’s experience,” she said. “They don’t need you to fix it, they just want to be heard.”

Hichborn recommends a safety plan displayed on the refrigerator to help a person who might struggle with suicidal thoughts.

“The plan can have support people to call and emergency numbers like the police, suicide hotline, or poison control,” she explained. “Everything is written out in a place that’s easily seen, so when someone isn’t thinking straight and their thoughts are all over the place, they don’t have to think about what to do — it’s right there.”

 

Stay Connected

Though we might feel alone in our thoughts, Burgess encouraged people to reach out to those they are comfortable with to talk about their feelings.

“What’s profound about the pandemic is that it’s a collective experience everyone is going through,” she said — and one that no one should have to confront alone.

Wealth Management

How the Pandemic is Reshaping This Decision for Americans

By Jean M. Deliso, CFP

 

After a year of Zoom calls, a deadly virus, inflated real-estate values, and a crazy stock-market surge, many Americans, mostly Baby Boomers, who can afford to retire are taking the plunge.

This pandemic caused mayhem for everyone. It drove the healthcare industry almost to collapse, families lost loved ones prematurely, parents became teachers, and many businesses did not survive. But amid all the gloom and doom was a silver lining for many. The government became efficient with quick economic actions, families re-evaluated the benefits of family time, pollution got a brief time out, and businesses became more electronically efficient, to name a few.

Through all the challenges, people took time to re-evaluate their priorities in life. Many are choosing to rethink their future and what is important to them going forward. In fact, about 2.7 million Americans 55 or older are contemplating retirement years earlier than they had imagined because of the pandemic, according to a Bloomberg report. Between increasing retirement-account values, those lucky enough to have pensions, an increase in home values, and government funds that have been put back into the economy, retirement is happening sooner than expected for many.

Jean M. Deliso

Jean M. Deliso

“Whatever your circumstance, achieving your retirement objectives will not happen automatically. The earlier you start planning, the better off your chances are of enjoying a happy, fulfilling, and long retirement.”

As a certified financial advisor, I have met with many individuals contemplating retirement who have decided “enough is enough — life is too short.” Some reasons include a scare with cancer five years ago that made my client reconsider his commitment to climbing the corporate ladder, or “I’m just not happy doing what I’ve been doing for years; it’s no longer fun.” Potential retirees have either saved enough or have decided to spend less in their retirement years.

In contrast, many Americans who were pushed out of their jobs by the economic slide of the pandemic had to take an early retirement against their wishes. This has resulted in them receiving lower Social Security benefits and pension amounts. Twenty-two percent say the pandemic has forced them to spend their emergency savings, 10% have reduced their retirement-plan contributions, and 12% have withdrawn money from their retirement accounts, according to a survey by the National Institute for Retirement Security.

Unfortunately, both scenarios have resulted in increased stress to Americans in the workforce regarding retirement. None of us know our date of death, which makes retirement planning tricky for most.

Too many Americans rely solely on Social Security. This pandemic proved that those benefits do work; checks were consistently received by Americans as the pandemic raged around them. This experience shows that the Social Security system works. Also, checks were sent to those who couldn’t find jobs.

Whatever your circumstance, achieving your retirement objectives will not happen automatically. The earlier you start planning, the better off your chances are of enjoying a happy, fulfilling, and long retirement. Here are a few steps to consider for a successful retirement:

1. Determine your cost of retirement. This includes your monthly living expenses, your age to retire, and your life expectancy.

2. Apply your income sources. Review what you will have available to you, such as Social Security, pensions, immediate annuity payments.

3. Withdraw from your portfolio assets. Take withdrawals against your portfolio assets to make up any difference needed. These assets may include brokerage accounts, money-market accounts, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, and annuities. (Withdrawals may be subject to regular income tax and, if made prior to age 59½, may be subject to a 10% IRS penalty. In addition, surrender charges may apply.)

4. If necessary, consider changes. If, after steps 1-3, you are falling short on your plan, consider changes such as saving more, redefining your retirement age, or considering part-time employment during retirement.

5. Consider a professional. This can help you clarify your goals and objectives in retirement.

 

Jean M Deliso, CFP is a financial adviser offering investment-advisory services through Eagle Strategies LLC, a registered investment adviser.

Home Improvement Special Coverage

Summer Special

Andrew Crane says the Home Show helps contractors fill their pipeline with future work.

Even though they’re busy now, Andrew Crane says the Home Show helps contractors fill their pipeline with future work.

By Mark Morris

In the old days — prior to the pandemic — when homeowners wanted to make improvements to their property, they called several contractors for competitive bids. Once a contractor was selected, the job would start shortly after that.

Since the pandemic, those days are long gone. Contractors are busier than ever, and building materials have been affected by worldwide supply shortages and price hikes. Now, homeowners seeking a contractor can leave a phone message, but may not receive a call back.

For those reasons and many more, the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts is staging a “special summer edition” of the Western Mass Home & Garden Show, usually held each March.

Andrew Crane, executive director of the association, told BusinessWest that, even though contractors are busy, the event (scheduled for Aug. 20-22) fills an important need.

“Many people will research their home project online, but at some point they need to see and touch the products they want and speak to professionals who can get the job done,” Crane said. “The Home Show allows them to move the project forward and not wait for a callback.”

The Home Show also works for contractors because it allows them to fill their project pipeline with future work.

“While most contractors are straight out right now, many don’t know what their business will be like in the coming fall and winter months,” Crane said.

By labeling it a “special summer edition,” Crane made it clear this is intended to be a one-time event. Plans are full speed ahead for the 2022 Home Show in its traditional late-March timing. The summer show is a way to fill the void left when COVID-19 forced cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Home Show.

The special edition will be a scaled-down version of the full show, running only three days instead of four and setting up in only one building at the Eastern States Exposition grounds. The smaller event will still look similar to past shows, with booths set up in the Better Living Center and several outdoor displays.

Chris Grenier, owner of Grenier Painting & Finishing, said he appreciates having any version of the Home Show this year.

“I’m very busy right now, but it’s well worth it for me to be at the show because I still need a steady stream of work that I can plan for in the months ahead,” he explained.

Chris Grenier says even a scaled-back show brings value to vendors.

Chris Grenier says even a scaled-back show brings value to vendors.

BusinessWest spoke with a few contractors who have found both short-term and long-term benefits from participating in the show.

Frank Webb Home in Springfield sells a wide range of kitchen and bath fixtures, as well as lighting. Manager Lori Loughlin said taking a booth at the Home Show is well worth the investment.

“We often see a 40% increase in business right after the Home Show,” Loughlin said. “Even though we’re in a busy time right now, that can change, so we want people to keep us in the loop when they plan their kitchen and bath projects in the future.”

For the last five years, Gisele Gilpatrick, project manager for Pro-Tech Waterproofing Solutions in Chicopee, has chaired the Home Show organizing committee. Her company has always done well at the event.

“It’s a chance to meet people one on one and for them to collect business cards,” she said. “People will often call us six months to a year after the show to say they are ready to fix their wet basement.” She also said it’s not unusual to hear from people up to five or six years later.

When Gilpatrick meets people at the Pro-Tech booth, they often share photos with her, but they are not of children and pets. “They bring us pictures of their basements and say, ‘this is what my nightmare looks like,’” she said, adding that an interesting dynamic happens when someone describes the specifics of their wet-basement problem.

Gisele Gilpatrick says the lingering pandemic has forced show organizers to constantly reassess safety protocols.

Gisele Gilpatrick says the lingering pandemic has forced show organizers to constantly reassess safety protocols.

“One person might be telling us their story, and others who overhear become interested in the conversation because they have similar problems in their basements,” she said. “The next thing you know, a group of people are gathered around our booth.”

 

Safety First

While gathering at a booth can be good for business, this year, people will need to take social distancing into consideration when they congregate. The emergence of the Delta variant of COVID has show organizers making constant adjustments to their safety protocols.

“In planning the show, we’ve gone back and forth from wearing masks to not wearing masks as mandates keep changing, so it won’t be a surprise if they change again,” Gilpatrick said.

The maintenance staff at the Exposition grounds have boosted their protocols with more frequent surface cleaning during the show. They have also strongly encouraged people to wear masks. Crane advised, “if you are at all uncomfortable, wear your mask.”

Despite all that, Gilpatrick believes it’s worth attending the show, and for some, the scaled-down version might be easier to navigate.

“The crowds at the March Home Show can be overwhelming for some people,” she said. “This edition of the show will be easier to get around, and we will still have lots of quality exhibitors.”

Lori Loughlin says finding a contractor can be difficult right now

Lori Loughlin says finding a contractor can be difficult right now, and the Home Show can help make those connections.

As people have stayed closer to home for the last 18 months, many have set aside the money they would normally have spent on vacations and going out, and are using those funds instead to make improvements to the inside and outside of their homes, a trend Loughlin said is far from over. “People who are planning home projects now have been looking at their houses for a year and a half, and they are ready to make some changes.”

Crane emphasized the importance of planning and noted that the combination of busy contractors, shortages of certain building materials, and difficulty finding enough laborers all contribute to projects taking more time than in the past.

“Plan as far ahead as you possibly can,” he said. “I don’t want to scare anyone from doing a project, but planning is more important than it’s ever been.”

Grenier said good planning starts with recognizing that everyone is busy right now. “If folks go to the Home Show looking to make an interior improvement, they should plan it as a winter project. If it’s an exterior project, plan for next spring.”

Crane agreed. “The days of getting prices from four or five contractors are going away. If you talk with a contractor who gives you a reasonable price and you have a comfort level with them, sign them up.”

Loughlin said just finding a contractor to start a project is now more challenging. “The Home Show gives people an opportunity to meet contractors they might not have known about who can help them. It’s a chance to meet contractors in person and establish a point person to contact.”

The real opportunity is moving past thinking about a project, to making it happen, she added. “I believe people will come to the Home Show because many are at the point where they’ve done all they can online, and now it’s time to broaden what’s actually possible.”

Crane also emphasized how the Home Show has become a social event. For a $10 admission, it gives people an inexpensive time outside the house. It also allows people to see and touch new products.

“For the low cost of getting into the Home Show,” he said, “you might see that one thing that completes the puzzle of putting together your project.”

Cover Story

The Road Ahead

In late May, after 15 months of living through a global pandemic, the state entered into a phrase the governor called “a new normal.” A few months later, most businesspeople would say this ‘normal’ isn’t everything they expected or wanted. Indeed, while business has picked up in many sectors, from hospitality to healthcare, there are myriad challenges facing the business community, from what can only be called a workforce crisis to shortages of goods and rising prices; from a new and very potent strain of the coronavirus to issues with when and how to bring employees back to the office. To get a sense of where things are and, especially, where we may be headed, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders — Deborah Bitsoli, president of Mercy Medical Center; Harry Dumay, president of Elms College; Patrick Leary, a partner with MP CPAs; Elizabeth Paquette, president of Rock Valley Tool in Easthampton; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Edison Yee, a principal of the Bean Restaurant Group. Their answers to a series of questions on the economy and the forces shaping it are certainly eye-opening.

 

BusinessWest: How is the process of returning to ‘normal’ proceeding at your business?

 

Bitsoli: “It does appear that patients are coming back; our Emergency Department is really returning back to the volumes it had before the pandemic. On the surgical side, the same thing is occurring. I do think there is a lot of caution about the fall, but for the time being, patients are seeking the appropriate level of care, including a lot of the screenings they put off. That’s the good news in terms of a public-health policy standpoint. At the hospital, we’re still wearing masks, and we’re still relying heavily on Webex; we have some meetings face to face, but we still have masks on. As for returning to normal, we continue to have a focus on patient safety, and we have an expansion planned in our Emergency Department. Overall, we are trying to return to normal, but everyone is looking to the fall, and there is caution there. The one big difficulty is hiring staff.”

 

Dumay: “At the college, ‘normal’ for us would mean getting back to the high-touch, nurturing, vibrant, in-person environment for teaching and learning. Returning to normal means having everyone on campus in the same mode we had pre-pandemic. The process for preparing for that is the same as we had last year, with the ElmsSafe Plan for making sure that employees and students are safe. That begins with a level of vaccination that we need to accomplish. That’s why we came out very early and required vaccinations for our students and employees. The challenges are to ensure that we’re getting to that level of vaccination that the state considers optimal for campuses, which is roughly 90%. We are gearing up for the fall, to have full in-person learning and all of our faculty and staff on campus. We have a task force that is meeting on a regular basis to come up with all the elements of the ElmsSafe plan so that we can make sure our campus is safe and as back to ‘normal’ as possible.”

 

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay

“For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before.”

 

Leary: “We have found that our biggest challenge to returning to normal is a big investment in software. When we all went remote in March of 2020, we found the flaws in our system, we found out where we were falling down and where our system couldn’t handle the stress of people working remotely, etc. So we had a big investment in software across the board — we’ve replaced really all of our systems, so we met the challenge of not only keeping up with workload, but having people keep up with workload while also learning new software. The other challenge involves getting back to the office; being a CPA, we can work from just about anywhere — I can be in my office, or I can be sitting in the Caribbean, which, unfortunately, is not what I’m doing now. This presents us with a lot of challenges. We have a very young workforce — half our staff is 30 or younger — so they’re very much tuned into the social aspects of being in the office and like being in the office, which is great. Our greatest challenge is going to be how we incorporate our client-service work with the protocols of each of our clients; each one presents its own unique circumstances — our staff can’t be stagnant and say ‘this is how we’re going to do things.’

 

Paquette: “We’re a machine shop that manufactures parts for aerospace, defense, sports, and leisure, blow-mold and extrusion. When everything hit in the spring of 2020, we were getting letters from larger customers saying ‘you can’t shut down — you have to stay working.” So we were very busy, but at the same time, we had seven of our 43 employees leave for one reason or another due to COVID, so we had this intense workload, and we had to scrounge and fill the gaps in our workforce. And then, in mid-June, our largest aerospace customer said, ‘we don’t have anything to send anymore,’ and by the end of the summer, we had laid off a total of 13. Now, with things a little more normalized, we’ve been able to bring back some of those we had to lay off. So when we talk about returning to normal, we’re just trying to work our way through this crisis and keep people’s mental health in mind and … just keep working.”

 

Senecal: “Overall, I don’t know if ‘normal’ is the right word at this point — it certainly is a new normal. We’re going back to a hybrid method for our workforce — we’re going to allow people to work from home as well as work in our building. I’m a firm believer in culture, and I’m a firm believer in some sort of work in the office. The challenges with that hybrid workforce include dealing with office space — that’s going to affect a lot of our customers — and technology needs; how do we adapt to technology, and how do we use technology? One of the biggest ones is communicating expectations when you go to a hybrid model — how do you communicate with people expectations of what is expected of them, for meetings, for hours worked, for a lot of things? How do you evaluate good performance from a remote-workforce perspective? Those are all a challenge. Also, getting people comfortable with and without facemasks — we’re going back to work in this new normal, and people aren’t sure of the expectations when it comes to facemasks. It’s challenging getting people comfortable in those settings.

 

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, it’s a new normal as well. Outdoor dining is very much prevalent, but customers are starting to return to the dining rooms. And while they are beginning to feel more comfortable doing so, not everyone has made that transition — although a lot of them have. Our late-night business has not come back yet, but we feel that might change as time progresses. But to be frank, it was a messy way to get into COVID, and coming out of it has been messy as well, with lots of disruption in supply chain, with labor shortages, and other issues. We’re adjusting, as we always do, in the restaurant business, with much more takeout business as part of our overall sales, and with using technology to help us smooth out the rough edges from not having enough frontline workers.”

 

BusinessWest: How has this year been business-wise, and what is your forecast for the rest of this year?

 

Bitsoli: “Business is almost back to normal, but it will very interesting to see what happens in the fall when we hit flu season and everyone goes back into the office. And we still have a large number of people who haven’t been vaccinated. Directionally, we’re moving back to normal, but everyone is looking to see what happens when we migrate back inside. Internally, while the volumes of business have returned, people are tired because of the duration of this and the expectation of what’s going to happen in the fall. So we’re investing a lot of resources right now in things like a Zen room, spot yoga, massage chairs … so that is a new normal for us in terms of something we’re going to need to continue on with until we come to the end of this pandemic.”

 

Dumay: “For the traditional undergraduate, first-time freshman, we had a record deposit year, and we are looking at potentially a record enrollment year for first-time freshmen, so that has come back better than it was before. For continuing-education students, those who come to us from community colleges, that’s a population that often doesn’t enroll until the last minute, so we’re still watching that, but it looks a little softer than it had been previously. And graduate-school enrollment is very much looking to be a record year in terms of enrollment. One area where students and families may still be hesitating is a return to residential living.”

 

Yee: “For restaurants, we like to compare numbers to 2019, our last ‘normal’ year. And for quarter one, it was lower, when you’re looking at year-over-year numbers. It wasn’t until the vaccinations reached the general population that things started improving; in the second quarter, the sales have bounced back to a much higher level, better than 2019. We anticipate that this trend will continue.

 

Edison Yee

Edison Yee

“We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels.”

 

Paquette: “While we had lost work in aerospace, we’ve started to see some of it comes back. For us, workload is good and steady, and we project that this will continue through the rest of the year. The workload is good for the number of people we have.”

 

Senecal: “In the past 18 months, our deposits are through the roof. We are up more than 35% in a little over a year. And the balances are not going down. As we talk about demand and this influx of demand and a surge in spending, I’m not seeing it from people’s deposit accounts — those numbers are not going down. We’re up over a little more than $1 billion over the past 18 months in deposits. That’s a function of a lot of things — PPP money, stimulus money, people not going out and spending. We have an enormous amount of money in the system, and the government continues to put money into the economy. That adjusts to inflation, and that’s showing up everywhere in our economy — food, transportation, supplies, inventory, computer chips … it’s showing up everywhere, and I think it’s going to have an impact. We see good times ahead as long as inflation can be kept in check and interest rates stay relatively low.”

 

Leary: “The need for our services greatly increased in 2020 because of the PPP program and other initiatives and trying to help clients understand the rules, what qualifies for forgiveness, and so on. There was great demand for our services, and it’s continued into this year. As for our customers … most of them are doing OK post-pandemic, but I’m concerned that the federal money that these businesses have received is masking how they are doing financially. And as demand starts to grow, will these businesses be able to find the staffing to supply the products and provide the services?

 

BusinessWest: That’s a good segue to the next question. Attracting and retaining workers has become the dominant challenge for 2021. How has your business been impacted?

 

Yee: “There is virtually no one applying for jobs, and the people we do have working are tired from working extended hours, so we’re trying to give them breaks by closing an extra day during the week or sometimes two, which we’ve never done in the past. But we’ve found that’s one of the only ways we can deal with this labor shortage — giving people some extra time for that work-life balance.

 

Senecal: “I received a résumé the other day from a headhunter for a position we were looking to fill … the person was very well-qualified and has all the right skill sets. But in big, bold letters on the résumé, it said this person is only interested in working remotely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen on that on a résumé before, but it’s an indication of the world to come.”

 

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary

“I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits.”

 

Leary: “We’re seeing the same thing many of our customers are seeing. As tax laws change and accounting rules change, we have a great demand for people, and it’s not for entry-level people, but more experienced people. And it’s very challenging to find them. But what we’ve found is that, because of the ability to work remotely, instead of searching for someone and saying, ‘we want you to work in our Springfield office or our Connecticut office,’ we can say, ‘you can work anywhere in the country — we have the ability to let you work wherever you want.’”

 

Dumay: “I haven’t looked at the comparisons closely, but it certainly seems, anecdotally, that we have more open positions than we normally have. For some, we’re seeing good pools of candidates, and for others, the pools are not as strong as we would like. So in many ways, we’re like everyone else. There is a higher level of vacancy at the college, and for many positions, the pool of applicants is simply not as robust.”

 

Bitsoli: “From a business standpoint, the thing that’s very different for us and most all businesses is the staffing. It really is different. There are people who retired early, people who decided to change career paths … so we’re dealing with quite a few staffing challenges, like everyone else. One of the things I’ve heard anecdotally is that, because of the incentives being offered by the state, for people at a lower level, like dietary, housekeeping, nurse aides, and other positions, it’s almost better for them financially to stay at home than it is to work. I’ve also heard anecdotally that there’s a group of people that are gathering resilience over the summer, and they plan on coming back after Labor Day.”

 

BusinessWest: What are the forces — workforce, inflation, inventory, COVID, and more — that will determine where the local economy goes?

 

Senecal: “I think we’re all going in the right direction, and there’s nothing but good news ahead as long as inflation stays in check. Businesses are opening and growing, and with the levels of demand we’re seeing, that’s a good problem to have. And I think things will start to open up from a supply-chain perspective. We talked a little about unemployment benefits ending in September; let’s see if that pushes people back to work and brings the labor situation closer to normal. Overall, as long as COVID stays under control and we don’t go back to shutdowns — such shutdowns are devastating for the economy — I feel very positive about the fourth quarter and going into 2022.”

 

Dumay: “I second that optimism and emphasize the ‘as long as’ comment regarding COVID. The only thing that is sobering or bringing caution to my optimism is the slowdown in the rate of vaccination across the country, especially in areas of the country where it’s very low. Also, with the CDC looking at potential mask mandates and people getting alarmed about another surge … that could slow down what is looking to be an optimistic time and an opportunity to really get back to normal.”

 

Yee: “We’re very optimistic about the last two quarters of the year and going into 2022. We’ve seen a lot of positive results during this summer, which is traditionally our slower time of year. It’s been a very strong summer to date and much higher than 2019 levels. We’re really positive about what’s to come, but there are many challenges that could slow things down moving forward, like labor shortages, inflation, and supply-chain disruptions … those are all major concerns. We’re eager for everyone to get to normal so we can see a higher level of business than we have and, we hope the pent-up demand generates business across the area.”

 

Bitsoli: “People are looking for optimism, and I think as long as the economy holds out, and if we can get more people vaccinated, things should continue to improve. With the new variants out there are certainly concerns, and there are questions about whether the vaccines are going to continue to keep people healthy even when they’re exposed to the variants and keep them out of the hospitals and from getting severe complications.”

 

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big.”

 

Paquette: “It’s really business as usual for us now. Our biggest concern is trying to hire people who are skilled — which means we’re like everyone else. But we’re seeing a lot of people who are interested in growing their skill set, and that, to me, is a positive; I’ve never had as many people enrolled in school and training programs as we do now. We’re rebuilding, we’re in a good space, and we’re growing. It feels much different than a year ago.”

 

Elizabeth Paquette

Elizabeth Paquette

“I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them where they’re at.”

 

Leary: “I’m optimistic about the rest of 2021 and 2022, at least the first half. It will be interesting when the government programs start to dry up and slow down and we see how people react to that when it comes to their spending habits. But as we heard, deposits are way up, which means people have money to spend; they have disposable income. So I think people will start to spend as they get out and feel more comfortable going to restaurants or getting on an airplane. I see that continuing for the next year or so, but who knows after that what will happen? We need to have supplies free up, and we need to push for everyone to get vaccinated.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, what have you learned during this pandemic, and how has this made you a different and perhaps better leader?

 

Bitsoili: “As a leader, what I’ve learned is the importance of that human connection. We’ve all talked about t the fact that Webex is great from a technology standpoint, but that relationship building and that ability to look someone in the eye … I really realize that there’s something to that, and it’s quite big. Also, I knew this before, but now I really know it: you really have to lead from the heart because employees want to feel the empathy and the caring from leadership. Lastly, it’s visibility and the ability to connect with people on their turf and really be able to listen to issues and immediately follow up with resolution. These are all things I knew, but this pandemic has caused me to reflect and overemphasize the need to do those things.”

 

Dumay: “I realized the importance of connecting with the people with whom I work, the faculty and staff at Elms College, and be present and pay attention to what people are experiencing and have that be relevant to my decision making. Also, I’ve learned the importance of giving people some answers, even if they don’t have the complete answer. There was a lot of uncertainty during the past year, and people were looking for the leaders of organizations to provide some answers. For someone who likes to completely process things and share them when they’re finalized, I had to learn to provide answers that are sometimes incomplete and need to be finalized. That was important to me.”

 

Leary: “One thing that I learned is that each person is very unique with regard to what their circumstances are — they might be a single parent with high-school children, or they may have a newborn … there are so many factors, and we can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy. We have to be flexible when it comes to work-life balance.”

 

Paquette: “I had to spend a chunk of my time with a remote first-grader, so I had that stress at home while trying to be at work. So I found that employees function better if we’re able to meet them we’re they’re at. Everything was remote to me outside the shop, but in the shop, it just seemed important that people had someone that they could look to make them feel better. We definitely improved our transparency with employees to let them know where we were at. It was probably so scary to see so many people laid off, some by choice, but some by our choice. I held meetings with people just so they would know what was going on and that they had as much information as I had in that moment. And the response was pretty good. Most people stayed, and they kept at it at a time when it was hard to keep at it.”

 

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Doing the Math

 

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession

Joe Bova compared the past 18 months in the accounting profession to “trying to sail a ship while you’re building that ship.”

For accountants, the past 18 months have been a time of change, challenge, and adapting to everything from new ways of doing business to new responsibilities with clients to ever-changing tax laws. Looking forward, they note that many of these changes are permanent in nature.

It’s been called the ‘never-ending tax season.’

That’s just one of the many colorful ways those in the accounting sector have chosen to describe the past 18 months or so, a time of change, challenge, learning, and adapting — for them and for their clients.

Indeed, this time of COVID-19 has been marked by everything from changing tax laws to fluid filing deadlines; from new responsibilities, such as helping clients handle PPP and SBA loan paperwork, to changes when it comes to where and how work gets done; from a greater reliance on technology to the acceleration of a shift in accounting toward a more advisory role as opposed to merely adding up numbers.

Summing it all up, Joseph Bova, CPA, CVA, CGMA, a partner with Northampton-based Bova Harrington & Associates, said navigating all this has been “like trying to sail a ship while you’re building the ship.”

Nick Lapier, CPA, a partner with West Springfield-based LaPier Dillon, used phraseology from sports (sort of), but more from politics.

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts.”

“It’s very hard for us to focus on our work when the government kept moving the goalposts,” he said, referring to the many changes in tax laws — some coming in the middle of tax season — and moving of filing deadlines. “For some people who filed their tax returns early, we then found ourselves amending those returns because they changed some of the rules. And some we didn’t file because we hoped they would change the rules.

“The end zone kept moving,” he went on. “We’d be on the 10-yard line, work really hard, and still be on the 10-yard line. There are 50 sovereign states that have the right to tax, so if you have clients filing tax returns in multiple states, each state was also possibly changing their laws and moving the goalposts.”

As the calendar turns to August, those we spoke with said this has been a time for many at area firms to catch their breath and take some of the vacation days they didn’t take last year or earlier this year. It’s also a time to reflect on what has transpired and what likely lies ahead in terms of the lessons learned and which of the changes seen over the past year and half are more permanent than temporary in nature.

Nick Lapier

Nick Lapier says a taxing period for all accountants was exacerbated by the federal and state governments constantly “moving the goalposts.”

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE, managing partner of West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., said her firm, like most others, is not simply turning back the clock to late 2019 when it comes to returning to something approaching normal, especially when it comes to how and where business is conducted. She said most employees have returned to the office, but moving forward, there will be even more flexibility when it comes to schedules and working remotely because of what’s been learned over the past 18 months.

“We’re not going to dial back to everyone needing to be here those static hours of 8:30 to 5,” she noted. “I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

Meanwhile, Lapier told BusinessWest that many accountants, himself included, spent far less time meeting face-to-face with clients in 2020 and early 2021, and he expects that trend to continue.

“This current generation lives in the digital world; they don’t need to see people — they transact their personal and their business life electronically,” he explained. “What has changed because of COVID is that all the prior generations have adopted that same mentality — not 100%, but a heck of a lot more than before the pandemic.”

Howard Cheney, CPA, MST, a partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. and director of the firm’s Audit and Accounting Services, agreed, while noting, as others did, that the pandemic in many ways accelerated a trend within the industry toward accountants shifting to roles that are more advisory in nature, with a greater focus on the future than the numbers from the past quarter or two.

“I’m a glass-half-full person, and if there is a positive from the past 16 or 17 months that we’ve been dealing with, it’s taught us that we need to be more flexible, more mobile, and more adaptable — and understand that people don’t have to be actually sitting in their offices to get their job done.”

“Accounting has for many years been an historical-look-back kind of thing,” said Cheney, part of an executive committee now managing the firm. “With the speed that people can now get data, they don’t need us to tell them about what happened six months ago; they need us to tell them what’s going to happen six months from now and help them interpret that.”

For this issue and its focus on accounting and tax planning, BusinessWest talked with several CPAs about the never-ending tax season, which still hasn’t ended — many are still dealing with a large number of extensions, many of them resulting from changing tax laws — and what will come next in a sector that has been taxed (yes, that’s an industry term) by this pandemic, and in all kinds of ways.

 

A Taxing Time

Chris Nadeau, CMA, CPA, CVA said he spent most of the past April — the height of tax season — in Florida. And hardly any of his clients knew he was working and handling their needs from more than 1,000 miles away.

Julie Quink

Among the many lessons learned from COVID, Julie Quink says, is the need for more flexibility in when and where people work.

“No one would have known unless I told them,” said Nadeau, a director with Hartford-based Whittlesey, which has offices locally in Holyoke, adding that he would never have considered such a working arrangement prior to the pandemic, but COVID provided ample proof that a CPA doesn’t have to share an area with a client to get the work done.

This anecdote speaks volumes about just how profoundly the landscape has changed in the accounting and tax-planning world over the past year and a half. There have been a number of seismic shifts, and where people work is just one of them, said Nadeau, who has come to his office on Bobala Road in Holyoke only a few times since St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 and was in on this day only to meet with BusinessWest.

Others we spoke with told of similar learning experiences during what has been a year and a half of acting and reacting to everything that has been thrown at them since those days in mid-March of last year when everyone — well, almost everyone — packed up and went home for what they thought would be a few weeks.

As everyone knows, that certainly wasn’t the case, and thus accountants, like all those in business, had to adjust to a new playing field, finding new and sometimes better ways to do things and communicate with clients and fellow team members alike.

“We had to reinvent our processes — how we communicated with the team and how we shared information back and forth, especially when working remotely,” said Lapier of those early days, noting that a three-month extension of the traditional April 15 filing deadline helped spread the work out and was a saving grace.

Bova agreed, noting that his firm of nine employees adjusted to the new landscape out of necessity, with investments in technology, a move to a paperless work process, Zoom meetings between employees and with clients, visits by appointment only, and other steps.

Moving forward, many of these new ways of doing things will continue, with perhaps the biggest being where people work. Indeed, most of the firms we spoke with said some variation of hybrid schedules will become the norm for at least some employees .

“In the future, there will be more hybrid work models, where people work in the office, but they do some work at home — I can see some real potential for that,” said Bova, adding that not all workers have returned to the office, and he’s not sure when they will. “We’re going to explore our options with this; there’s no need to deal with it in the summer — it will be more of a fall issue.”

Howard Cheney says the pandemic

Howard Cheney says the pandemic may have accelerated, or amplified, a shift within accounting to an advisory role, with more emphasis on the future than the past.

Cheney agreed. “We’ve been really flexible as a business with not requiring people to come back just yet,” he said, adding that most at the company have returned to their offices in the PeoplesBank building, but some are still working remotely. “The likelihood is that some kind of hybrid work schedule will be the future for our business.”

Whittlesey recently adopted a hybrid work policy, one that enables people to work “from wherever they will be most efficient,” said Nadeau, adding that most are finding it more efficient to work remotely, and they will continue to do so in the future.

“Some people are not coming in at all, and some are coming in a day or two a week,” he explained. “It’s ‘work where you need to for that day.’ Some employees have actually moved away to another state during COVID, so you could definitely call them ‘remote.’ And it’s been pretty seamless — and flawless.”

And this shift brings a number of benefits for the company, including a possible reduction of its physical footprint, he said, adding that it is likely that the firm will be able to downsize in Holyoke. “At some point down the road, we’ll see what kind of space we’ll need.”

It also means more and better opportunities to recruit top talent to the company because such employees will be able to work from anywhere, including another state, as Nadeau did earlier this year.

“It’s incredibly challenging to recruit people — I think there are fewer accounting students graduating now, and a lot of the people who do graduate end up going to Boston or New York to work for the Big Four firms,” he explained. “So having a remote-work or hybrid-work policy is an added benefit that we can offer, and one that firms are probably going to have to offer if they want to attract top talent.”

As for interaction and communication with clients, while all those we spoke with said face-to-face is still the preferred option, COVID has shown that Zoom and even the telephone work well — and, as with working arrangements, when it comes to interacting with clients, flexibility is the new watchword.

“As we’re talking with our clients, we’re seeing a combination of the two, in-person meetings and those by Zoom and phone — some want meetings in person, and other times, a Zoom meeting or phone call is sufficient,” said Nadeau, noting, as others did, a significant time savings from not physically traveling to see clients, so those at the firm are able to do more with the hours in the day.

Cheney agreed, to some extent, but noted there will always be plenty of room for, and need for, in-person service to clients.

“You don’t want to lose sight of that personal-touch aspect,” he told BusinessWest. “You don’t want to do everything remotely — I don’t think clients want to do everything remotely. But they’re OK with some level [of remote interaction] because we’ve gotten used to it, and they see the efficiency, too.”

 

Crunching the Numbers

As he tried to put all the changes to tax laws — and changes to the changes — into perspective, Joe Bova recalled the communication he received from the U.S. Small Business Administration concerning PPP loans that came with the header “Interim Final Rules.”

This oxymoron was just one of many challenging measures and changes that CPAs had to make sense of over the past 18 months, a time that Bova described as “a shooting gallery.”

“What’s been different during these past two seasons is that tax-law changes have been happening during tax season,” he told BusinessWest. “And when the PPP loans first came out … the SBA and the Treasury were updating their websites almost daily, and there was a lot of ambiguity in the definitions. We [accountants] were kind of on the front lines because people were calling us, even the banks.

“We all had the same information, which wasn’t clear, so people were calling us to help them interpret these changes,” he went on. “You were in the water on the boat, but you were still building the boat.”

In addition to coping with new legislation and changing rules, there was simply more work to do, said those we spoke with.

“Our workload has gone up probably a good 20% without adding a single client,” said Lapier, listing PPP applications, forgiveness, and audit work, as well as helping companies with SBA loans and the unemployment-tax credit as just some of the additional assignments.

Indeed, on top of all that, there was simply more consulting work to do as companies, especially smaller ones, leaned on their accountants as perhaps never before to help them make what were often very difficult decisions during truly unprecedented times.

Now, with the pandemic easing in some respects, the nature of some of this advisory work is changing, said Quink, noting that many business owners are now able to focus more on the future instead of being consumed by the present.

“We’re seeing a lot of clients that are buying and selling businesses, which is a good sign,” she noted. “And overall, people are starting to think forward now; they were in survival mode for a period of time, and now they’re starting to think forward from a business perspective.”

And there is a lot to think about, she went on, noting that what she and others at her firm are advising clients on is how to adapt to change and navigate challenge — such as a global pandemic.

“We’re talking to our clients that we see as potentially at risk because they don’t have the ability to adapt or they’re not identifying how to adapt,” she explained. “We know that things can change in the blink of an eye; we’ve seen a client, a third-generation business, close because it wasn’t able to look forward and move in a way that still made them competitive. You can’t rest on what you have — you have to be always looking forward, and that’s a hard thing for some of our more mature clients and businesses who have done things they’ve always done, and it’s worked.”

This additional advisory work, as Cheney noted earlier, is merely an acceleration of a trend that has been ongoing for many years now when it comes to clients and what they want and need from their accounting firm, with the accent on the future and how to be prepared for it.

Quink agreed that this shift, if that’s the proper term, has been ongoing for some time now as technology has enabled clients of all kinds to access data more quickly and more easily than ever before.

“We see robots in all aspects of life, and our profession is going to go that way as well,” she explained. “We’re using technology to do the things we’ve always done by hand; we’re now going to have programs that run that data for us. What we’re seeing and what we’re preparing people in our profession for is a shift to more of an advisory-slash-consulting role.”

 

Bottom Line

For several years now, Quink told BusinessWest, Burkhart Pizzanelli has closed its doors on Fridays. Historically, those Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day have served as comp time for those who logged considerable overtime during tax time, and it’s been a time to recharge the batteries.

This year, staff members have needed those Fridays off more than ever, she said, adding that, for many reasons — from all the additional work detailed above to the vacations that haven’t been taken over the past 18 months — there have been many signs of fatigue.

It’s certainly understandable. Indeed, while every business sector has been impacted by COVID, those in accounting were affected in different ways, with more work to do, different work to take on, and learning curves when it came to new and different ways of doing business.

They don’t call it the ‘never-ending tax season’ for nothing. It’s far from over, but in many ways, things are … well, less taxing.

 

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

Modern Office Special Coverage

Getting Up Off the Floor

For those in the office furniture and design sector, the past 18 months have been a long and extremely challenging stretch. Looking ahead, while the pandemic has eased to some extent, new challenges and question marks loom. The questions concern everything from how many people will return to the office to whether they will have their own space if and when they return. And the challenges involve everything from long wait times for ordered products to the specter of skyrocketing prices and the impact they will have on business.

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors makes it difficult to project what will come next for this industry.

Mark Proshan says the e-mail found its way into his inbox earlier that morning. It was short and to the point, but it clearly articulated one of the many challenges still facing those in the office furniture and design business.

“‘I’m in the process of closing my office and moving employees to fully remote work,’” wrote the business owner and client that Proshan, president of the West Springfield-based Lexington Group, opted not to name. “‘I have a lot of office furniture I’m looking to sell.”

As he commented on what he was reading, Proshan started with that last bit of news. He said there are a number of business owners and managers looking to unload unneeded office furniture these days. They should know first that there is already a glut, and, second, that the price they have in the back of their mind is not likely to be the price they’re going to get for what they’re looking to sell. “With the massive amounts of furniture now on the market, selling furniture isn’t something that’s going to realize an amazing return on the investment.”

But that’s just a small part of the story now unfolding, said Proshan, noting that, while this particular business owner knows just what he’s doing with his office, many do not.

Indeed, a full 18 months after the term ‘COVID’ entered the lexicon, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what will happen at many offices, colleges, hospitals, and other kinds of businesses moving forward. Proshan has his theories, and we’ll get to some of them later, but he and others believe there will certainly be some downsizing, some hybrid work schedules for many employees, and more of the outright closures and conversion to remote working described in that e-mail.

But at the same time, some businesses and institutions that are waking up (for lack of a better phrase) from COVID are ready to advance plans for new furniture and accommodations.

And they are running into strong headwinds in the form of supply shortages, long wait times for desired items, and, almost certainly, higher prices in a nod to the laws of supply and demand — and the skyrocketing cost of shipping items from abroad.

“We can’t get the products out of where we need to get them from,” said Fran Arnold, owner of Holyoke-based Conklin Office Furniture, which, in addition to selling new and used furniture, manufactures its own lines of products overseas and remanufactures used furniture here. “Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold, new challenges include supply-chain issues, soaring shipping costs, and long wait times for ordered products.

“On the import side, we’re running with massive delays in shipping and huge increases in the cost of shipping,” he went on, with some noticeable exasperation in his voice. “Our shipping costs have gone from $3,500 to $5,000 per container all the way to $23,500 per container. That’s a massive increase for freight; it’s now costing us more money to get the stuff here than to manufacture it over there.”

Proshan agreed.

“Because most of the manufacturers have employee shortages and raw-goods shortages, everyone’s lead times have been drastically pushed out,” he noted. “You try to stock up on what you think might make the most sense for when the floodgates open, but you just don’t know, and it’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

Overall, while the worst of the storm might be past for those in this sector — that’s might — there is still considerable cloudiness and general uncertainty about the forecast, and challenges ranging from those inventory issues to simply finding people to drive delivery trucks, to a huge merger in the industry between manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll, which only leads to more question marks.

Indeed, what happens next is anyone’s guess, as BusinessWest learned as it talked with Proshan and Arnold about has transpired and what is likely on the horizon.

 

Measures on the Table

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest in his huge showroom, Proshan noted that he’s selling a number of items to be used by people working at home, especially chairs — “they want good seating, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it” — and sit/stand desks, because they’re smaller and also because many people want the option of sitting or standing.

Meanwhile, he said he’s also been selling more large conference-room tables — those for 12 to 20 people — than would be considered normal.

When asked why, he gave a quick and definitive “I don’t know, exactly, but we are,” before joking that companies might need bigger tables for all those meetings that will decide what they’re going to do next.

Overall, this interest in large conference-room tables and the possible reasons behind it comprise just one of the many unknowns for this industry. What is known is that the past 18 months have been an extremely difficult time, and the challenges are far from over.

They may just be different challenges.

“Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.”

Looking back, Arnold said Conklin, like all businesses in this sector, saw business evaporate early on during the pandemic as businesses shut down and then hunkered down, with buying new or used office furniture, or redesigning their space, the last thing on their minds.

“We were flying just before COVID, and then we just hit a wall,” he explained, adding that, through a number of efficiency and austerity measures — including a four-day work week for all employees — the company managed to slash expenses to an extent that it was nearly as profitable in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Elaborating, he said that, in hindsight, the timing could not have been better for the company to consolidate operations and move into new facilities on Appleton Street in Holyoke in late 2019.

“We’re able to do more with fewer people,” he explained. “We’re much better organized, and we’re not so spread out. We’re much more efficient.”

Now, as it emerges from those very difficult times, there are new and different challenges to face, including supply-chain issues and a lack of inventory, just as some larger corporations are in a “panic mode,” a phrase he used a few times, to move on from the pandemic themselves.

“These corporations are working our sales teams to the limit,” he explained. “They want numbers, they want to know when things can be delivered … and a lot of the news we have to give them is not good; prices are going up, and deliveries are being postponed.”

Overall, Arnold said, inflation and the skyrocketing cost of shipping product are just starting to impact prices within the industry.

“We’ve just had our first price increase on our imported products; we just couldn’t hold it where it was any longer,” he explained, adding that, as the cost of shipping continues to escalate, more price hikes are likely. “It’s been quite an experience, and I don’t know how it will all play out; it’s a perfect storm that’s developing, and where it will go, I don’t know.”

 

Looking ahead and projecting what might come next, Proshan said this assignment is difficult because many companies are still very much trying to decide what they’re going to do.

“At the moment, business leaders are trying to figure out what their employees want, and employees are trying to figure out what their employers are going to be expecting,” he explained. “With all of that taking place, not a whole lot has happened yet. People have been talking about business getting back up to speed in the spring, and then the fall, which is not here yet, and then, the first of the year. We still have those mileage markers out there in front of us, so there’s a whole lot more that’s unknown than known.”

Proshan theorizes that many companies will create more space for each employee in efforts to create safer environments, and that, in all likelihood, there will be fewer people working in the office and more in remote settings.

“Every time you have a space that was occupied by three people, that had three work environments, they might cut that back to two to create a bigger gap between people,” he explained. “So now you have a work environment that’s going to be for sale or is going to become surplus; that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

“And I think that when it gets sorted out as to who’s going back and who’s not, and how often they’re going back,” he went on, “I think a lot of personal space is going to disappear. If you work at home, you’re going to have your own workspace; when you go to the office, you may or may not have your own workspace. It may be a space that’s occupied by someone else on the days you’re not there.”

 

Bottom Line

Proshan, who does a good bit of sailing when he’s not working, made a number of comparisons between what’s happening in his industry and what transpires on the water.

Specifically, he talked about wind.

“You can’t see wind,” he told BusinessWest. “What people experience as wind is what they see as the result of wind and its impact on objects. When you see wind blowing through the trees, you don’t see the wind, you see the result of the wind. When you’re on a boat and there’s no wind, if you look at the water and see it start to ripple, you know that wind is approaching you, and it can either knock you over or make you go faster, or help you determine which direction to go in.

“It’s almost as if we’re sailing,” he said of the current conditions in his business, “and not able to see the wind in the trees.”

That was Proshan’s way of saying that an industry that has been blown about for the past 18 months, and not in a good way, is still very much in the dark about what will happen next.

The mission, he said, is to be as prepared as possible, even with all those unknowns.

“If you don’t pay attention to the possibilities,” he said in conclusion, “you’re going to be too late.”

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic.

 

On a summer Friday night in Great Barrington, Mark Pruhenski simply enjoyed the sight of dozens of diners eating outside and the sound of musicians playing from various spots around downtown.

Town manager since 2019, Pruhenski said Great Barrington is fortunate to have weathered the pandemic well. He gave much of the credit to a task force formed early on that included town staff and a strong network of partners, including Fairview Hospital, local food banks, and others who lent support.

With its location in the Berkshires, Great Barrington has long been a popular spot for second homes. During the pandemic, many people relocated to their second homes to get away from populated metro areas and work remotely. As time went on, many decided to make Great Barrington their permanent home.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area,” Pruhenski said. “Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, noted that, even at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and cultural venues were closed, people were still looking for a place to rent or buy. She believes the consistently low COVID-19 infection rates were a strong part of the town’s appeal.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area. Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

“People from larger metro areas came to Great Barrington in droves,” Andrus said. “You could not keep a house on the market, with some sales happening in only a few hours. Others took a virtual tour and bought sight unseen.”

While admitting it’s difficult to find positives from a worldwide pandemic, Andrus said one benefit was forcing businesses in town to change the way they had been operating.

“I think we were kind of stagnant before,” she said. “Then, suddenly, our businesses had to put a lot of energy into how they could reinvent themselves.”

In addition to sit-down restaurants figuring out how to become takeout places, Andrus pointed to Robin’s Candy Shop, which could no longer allow customers to serve themselves in the shop.

“They moved the store around overnight, so now the staff gets you everything you want,” she said. “Then Robin’s quickly switched over to online sales, which is no small feat, either.”

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street.

While Great Barrington saw some stores permanently shutter their businesses during the pandemic, Andrus said COVID was not usually the main reason for closing. In some cases, the businesses that did not survive the pandemic were struggling before COVID hit. For others, the pandemic provided the opportunity for owners to change professions or retire.

“We had a huge movement of stores that was similar to musical chairs,” she said. “When a business would close and make their space available, multiple people were trying to sign up for it.”

 

Filling the Gaps

Like musical chairs, there are no empty spaces now in downtown Great Barrington. As a lifelong resident, Andrus said she’s never seen so much activity.

“In some ways, this big shift is the best thing that could have happened,” she noted. “The stores have all settled in to the right locations for what they are selling, and it has really changed the atmosphere in town.”

With retail storefronts full, the second- and third-story office spaces are also reaching full occupancy. Pruhenski hopes the current boom can address a long-term concern in town.

“We’ve always anticipated that Great Barrington would see a population decline over the next decade and beyond,” he said. “It would be great to see the influx of new residents flatten or even reverse that decline.”

While many town halls closed during the pandemic and conducted business remotely, Pruhenski said Great Barrington Town Hall closed only twice, for a month each time. Otherwise, he and his staff came in every day to keep several town projects moving forward.

In 2019, the state Department of Transportation had closed the Division Street bridge. Right now, the project is in the permitting and design phase for a new bridge, which is scheduled to open next summer.

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it.”

“Division Street is an important bridge because it links the east side of town to the west,” Pruhenski said. “It’s a shortcut everyone in town likes to use.”

In the northern part of Great Barrington, a private water company serves the village of Housatonic that has been struggling with insufficient water pressure. While Great Barrington doesn’t regulate or own the system, the town is involved to make sure residents there receive clean water and to make sure there is plenty of pressure for firefighters when they need it. Pruhenski said he and the Select Board are looking at several options, including a merger with the town’s water system.

“We were working on this during the pandemic because it has an impact on so many residents,” he noted.

After a transportation service for seniors abruptly closed, town officials took the lead to quickly revive the regional van service that now provides transportation to elderly and disabled residents in Great Barrington and five neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2020, the town launched a project to paint the downtown crosswalks as a way to recognize diversity in town. Pruhenski said the reaction by residents was more encouraging than he could have expected.

“We just did our little project, and the timing happened to be perfect that the rainbow was being used as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic,” he recalled. “After we painted our first crosswalks, people were encouraged to come outside to see them and take pictures with them. It’s been a fun project that’s made everyone happy.”

For 2021, the town added more rainbow crosswalks, and now the entire downtown corridor has replaced its white crosswalks with rainbows.

“People from other communities are calling us because they want rainbow crosswalks in their town,” Pruhenski said. “They are asking us how we did it and where we bought the paint. This project has been so rewarding during such a challenging time.”

For several years, Great Barrington has been pursuing projects to encourage environmental sustainability. One big step was to ban plastic water bottles in town. In return, the town has built three public water stations to make up for the bottle ban.

Another sustainability effort involves the Housatonic Community Center, a popular gym built shortly after World War II. Pruhenski said the center is used a great deal in the winter, so the town has bulked up on insulation and added LED lighting. He hopes to see big savings in energy use and operating costs for the facility.

Great Barrington also has the distinction of hosting the first retail cannabis store in Berkshire County. Theory Wellness opened January 2019 and is now one of four cannabis establishments in town. Pruhenski said sales at all four stores have been strong, and they have returned some welcome revenue to the town.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.99
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“For fiscal year 2022, we were able to use $3.5 million in cannabis revenue to offset taxes,” he noted. “Capital budget items, like new police cruisers that we normally have to borrow for, were paid for in cash thanks to the cannabis revenues.”

The town also collects 3% from cannabis stores to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis on the community. After awarding $185,000 in fiscal 2021, Pruhenski said the town will be awarding $350,000 in fiscal 2022 to five social agencies in the form of community-impact grants.

Andrus agreed that cannabis has had an overall positive impact on Great Barrington.

“Despite all the traffic cannabis brings to town, I’m surprised at how unintrusive it has been,” she said. “For people with health issues, cannabis allows them to live with much less pain.”

 

Hit the Road

When Massachusetts launched the Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program in June 2020, it was immediately popular across the state. Pruhenski called the program a “silver lining” resulting from the dark cloud of COVID. Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street to support several restaurants located there. Every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, two-thirds of the street is dedicated to outdoor dining. Pruhenski enjoys seeing Railroad Street turn into a café each weekend.

“When we started this in 2020, vaccines were not yet available, and the only way to dine out was to eat outside,” he said. “Restaurants nearby also use their outdoor space, so it creates a lively downtown experience.”

Andrus said outdoor dining on Railroad Street was a huge effort that was well worth it. “It works great, and people love it. The restaurants want to see this keep going, so they are all taking part.” The town also participates in an effort called Berkshire Busk, in which a dozen entertainers perform at different spots around downtown Great Barrington during the outdoor dining season.

Andrus said the town’s response the to pandemic reminds her of the expression, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it,” she added. “Because we were all kind of stagnant before the pandemic, it made us try something different.”

Pruhenski would be the first to say that Great Barrington is moving in a positive direction as more people move in, and many are locating their businesses here, too.

“School enrollments are increasing, and Main Street is busier than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for the town.”

Business of Aging Special Coverage

House Calls

While the pandemic may have challenged the home-care industry, it certainly didn’t suppress the need for such services. In fact, demographic trends in the U.S. — where about 10,000 Baby Boomers reach age 65 every day — speak to continued, and growing, demand for care services delivered in the home. That means opportunities both for agencies who specialize in this field and job seekers looking for a rewarding role and steady work.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

By Mark Morris

In early 2020, Michele Anstett, president and owner of Visiting Angels in West Springfield, was pleased because her business was doing well. As a provider of senior home care, she managed 80 caregivers for 50 clients.

“We were going along just fine,” she said. “And when COVID hit, it was like falling off a cliff.”

The business model for companies like Visiting Angels involves interacting with people in their homes, so when early mandates encouraged people to keep away from anyone outside their immediate ‘bubble,’ it hit the industry hard.

Even though caregivers were designated as essential workers, Anstett saw her numbers shrink to 39 caregivers who were now responsible for only 19 clients. In order for her business to survive, she continued to provide services for her clients who needed personal-care services around the clock and for those who had no family members in the area.

“Where possible, we asked family members to step in to help out,” she told BusinessWest. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was less risk to everyone when a family member could be involved with their loved one’s care.”

Anstett also incorporated a detailed checklist of risk factors for each caregiver to review to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to them or their clients.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier. As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

“We talked with caregivers about the people in their circle,” Anstett said. “It was similar to contact tracing, but we did it beforehand, so people would understand what they had to consider to protect themselves, their families, and their clients.”

A Better Life Homecare in Springfield runs two home-care programs. In one, it provides personal-care services such as helping seniors with grooming, cooking, laundry, and more. The other program provides low-income patients with medical care in the home, such as skilled nursing services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

On the medical side of the business, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) handle many of the home visits, while certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and patient care assistants (PCAs) are the main frontline workers on the personal-care side. A Better Life also employs case workers to supervise PCAs and CNAs and to set up other resources a patient may need, such as Meals on Wheels and support groups.

When COVID hit, said Claudia Lora, community outreach director for A Better Life, she and her staff made patient communication a top priority.

Claudia Lora

Claudia Lora says communication with clients was key to navigating the pandemic.

“We implemented daily phone calls to our patients that also served as wellness check-ins,” she recalled. Because a majority of the company’s clients are Spanish speakers, A Better Life employs many bilingual staff. At the beginning of their outreach efforts, Lora became concerned when some patients didn’t seem to follow up and respond to communications.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier,” she said. “As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

On the other hand, she said some patients temporarily stopped their home-care service out of concern about interacting with anyone in person. The system of daily phone calls helped address patient concerns and keep them current on their treatments. In addition, patients received whimsical postcards to lift their spirits and care packages of hygiene products and food staples.

“The pandemic opened our eyes in different ways,” Lora said. “It made us aware that we needed a system of daily phone calls in both programs, which we will continue even after the pandemic is no longer a concern.”

 

Growing Need

The lessons home-care agencies learned from the pandemic — some of which, as noted, will lead to changes in how care is provided — come at a time when the need for home-based services is only increasing.

That growing need is due in part to people living longer, of course. According to government data, once a couple with average health reaches age 65, there is a 50% chance one of them will live to age 93, and a 25% chance one of them will see age 97. With the increased longevity, there is also a greater chance these seniors will need some type of assistance with daily chores or treating a malady.

Receiving care at home, with an average cost nationally of $3,800 per month, is less expensive than moving into a nursing home (approximately $7,000 per month), and nearly everyone would rather stay in their home. When seniors need assistance, Anstett said, they often rely on family members out of fear of having an outside person come into their home.

Now that concerns about COVID are easing, she reports that people are increasingly more willing to have someone come in to their home to help, but there are still some who resist. “I wish they could understand we are not there to take away their independence, but to give them more independence.”

Lora said some of her patients were reluctant to allow people to come into their homes until they considered the alternatives.

“The only other option for people receiving medical care would have been checking into a skilled-nursing facility or a nursing home,” she noted. “I knew that was the last place they wanted to go.”

She added that the extensive news coverage of high rates of COVID in nursing homes and the high case rate locally at the Holyoke Soldiers Home convinced most people that care at home was a wise choice.

Anstett and Lora both pointed out that their companies always make sure anyone providing home care wears appropriate personal protective equipment and follows the latest guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID. Anstett said she encourages her caregivers to get vaccinated, but doesn’t force the issue because she recognizes some people have health issues.

“However,” she added, “I make it clear to the unvaccinated folks that the pool of clients willing to see a caregiver who is not vaccinated is fairly small.”

While the pandemic may have slowed down business in the short term, demographic trends still remain strong for the years ahead. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 10,000 people reach age 65 every day. This trend is expected to continue until 2030, when all living Baby Boomers will be at least 65 years old.

 

Looking Ahead

Fifteen months after the chaotic early days of the pandemic and with many people now vaccinated, Lora said A Better Life is busier today than before the pandemic.

“In the last six months, admissions have increased by around 50%,” she noted. “That’s more than I have seen in the past three years; it’s been insane.”

She added that her company is now short-staffed because of the rapid growth it is seeing and has been offering incentives to try to bring more CNAs and PCAs on board.

Anstett said her client numbers and caregiver numbers are back to where they were before the pandemic and noted that she has not had any problem filling open positions.

“I just cut 80 paychecks, and we are anticipating even more growth,” she said, adding that her secret to hiring is treating caregivers with respect and encouraging them to grow in their careers. “I stay in touch with every one of our caregivers. They’re the reason I’m working, so I treat them with the utmost respect.”

While many professions look to push out older workers, Anstett said she appreciates more seasoned workers and looks forward to hiring them. “Caregiving is an opportunity to keep working for those who want to, and we welcome their experience.”

Pointing out that she hired another case manager last week, Lora added that, while her organization is expanding, it has not forgotten its mission.

“Even with our growth,” she said, “we see our patients as part of a family and a community, not just a number.”

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Play Time

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

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

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

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Bujack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leveling Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Replay Value

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back on Track

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

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

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

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

Easthampton at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Change Agents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

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

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alane Burgess

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Baby Steps

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

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

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

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

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

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

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

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

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

 

Talk About It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Forward Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Hadley at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

Going back to the start of the pandemic, we expressed concern for the survival of not only the businesses in Springfield and across the region, but also the institutions that contribute to the quality of life we all enjoy here.

That’s a broad category that includes a number of museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Thunderbirds and other sports teams, and arts venues ranging from Jacob’s Pillow to Tanglewood to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. All of them are part of the fabric of this community.

Among all those, perhaps the one we feared for the most was the symphony, which has seen several changes in leadership over the past decade and has seemingly struggled to attract younger and broader audiences. If there was an institution that couldn’t afford to be on the sidelines, out of sight, and in many cases out of mind, it was the SSO.

“Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.”

These fears gained some legitimacy last week when musicians who play for the orchestra issued a press release that doubled as both warning and call to action. These musicians, some of whom have been playing for the SSO for decades, raised questions about how committed the SSO’s board is to everything from giving long-time maestro Kevin Rhodes a new contract to a 2021-22 season for the SSO. They asked for “an encore, not a curtain call.”

The SSO’s interim executive director, John Anz, responded by saying many of these issues are intertwined, and the orchestra cannot proceed with a new contract for Rhodes or a 2021-22 season until negotiations with the musicians’ union are resolved.

Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.

We sincerely hope the SSO is able to rebound from what is certainly the greatest challenge of its existence. Springfield needs these institutions to become the destination that we all hope that it can be.

Indeed, many things go into making a community livable — jobs, neighborhoods, schools, a thriving downtown, and, yes, culture. Springfield has already lost CityStage; it simply cannot afford to lose another thread of its fabric.

This is especially true as the state and the nation emerge from this pandemic. We’ve heard the talk that large urban areas are now less attractive to some segments of the population, who are now looking more longingly toward open spaces and less crowded areas. And we’ve seen dramatic evidence of this in our own real-estate market.

Springfield is to emerge as a player in this new environment, a true destination, then it will need institutions like the SSO to create that quality of life that both the young and old are seeking out as they search for places to call home.

The SSO has certainly been rocked by this pandemic. Emerging from it will be a stern test. We certainly hope it can move forward and be part of Springfield and this region for decades to come.

Features

Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

The addition of new flights from carriers Breeze Airways and Sun Country Airlines is one of many signs of progress and vibrancy at Bradley International Airport.

Kevin Dillon can see a number of signs of much-needed progress at Bradley International Airport, starting with the parking garage.

Until quite recently, it was all the parking the airport needed to handle not only the passenger volume at the facility, but all the employees as well. In fact, it was far more than enough. But over the past few months, things have started changing.

“Now, most days, we’re starting to fill the parking garage, and we opened up two additional surface lots — and that’s a good sign,” said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, adding that there are many others indicating that Bradley is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of vibrancy, including the restaurants and retail shops that are reopening their doors after being closed for months, new carriers introducing routes out of the airport, and, most important, climbing passenger totals.

“We’re pleased with the way the numbers are starting to roll out, although we still have a ways to go,” he said, noting that most all travel at present is leisure in nature. “At the beginning of the year, we were still down 60% compared to pre-pandemic levels; now, on any given day, we’re down 40% to 50% — it can shift any day. And it really does seem to correspond with the vaccine rollout here in the region. The more people got vaccinated, the more people started to fly. The more people start to fly, the more people see that, and they start to get a level of confidence.

“As we look toward the summer, we are expecting a very healthy summer travel period,” he went on. “What you’re starting to see in terms of some of these airline announcements and route announcements is a recognition on the part of the airlines, as well, that this recovery is well underway.”

Elaborating, he said it’s difficult to project where the airport will be by the end of the summer in terms of those passenger-volume numbers, but he believes that, if current trends continue (and most all signs point toward that eventuality), then Bradley might be down only about 25% from pre-pandemic levels — a big number, to be sure, but a vast improvement over the past 14 months.

Overall, a number of factors will determine when and to what extent Bradley fully recovers all it has lost to the pandemic, including everything from business travel to international flights.

Let’s start with the former, which, by Dillon’s estimates, accounts for roughly half the travel in and out of Bradley.

While some business travel has returned, the numbers are still way down from before the pandemic, he said, adding that the next several months could be critical when it comes to the question of when, and to what extent, business travel comes back.

He expects the numbers to start to improve once businesses set their own internal policies for when employees can return to the office and resume many of the patterns that saw wholesale changes after COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?” he asked, adding that there has to be a “reckoning” within the business community as to where it’s going with some of its pandemic-related policies.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?”

Dillon said there are two types of business travel. One involves businesses traveling to see customers, a tradition he expects will return once COVID-related fears subside. The other is inter-company travel, where a business sends an employee from one of its locations to a different one. It’s this kind of travel that seems most imperiled, if that’s the proper word, by teleconferencing, Zoom, and other forms of technology, and it’s this mode that will likely lag behind the other.

As for international flights, these, too, will be among the last aspects of the airport’s business to return to something approaching pre-COVID conditions, said Dillon, noting that Air Canada is severely limited by severe restrictions on travel to that country. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, which initiated flights out of Bradley in 2016, is still ramping up after restrictions on overseas flights were lifted in the fall of 2020. Nothing has been confirmed, but he is anticipating a return of that carrier in the spring of 2022.

Meanwhile, getting back to those signs of life — and progress — that Dillon noted, some new additions to the list were added late last month in the form of two new carriers. Actually, one is new, the other is an existing freight and charter carrier expanding into passenger service.

The former is Salt Lake City-based Breeze Airways, the fifth airline startup founded by David Neeleman, which will launch non-stop flights out of Bradley this summer, including Charleston, Columbus, Norfolk, and Pittsburgh. The latter is Sun Country Airlines, which will be expanding its footprint at the airport with the introduction of passenger service to Minneapolis.

Dillon noted that several of those new destinations, and especially Charleston and Norfolk, are primarily leisure-travel spots, meaning they could get off to solid starts as Americans look to make up for lost time when it comes to getting away from it all.

Looking at the big picture, Dillon said decisions in Connecticut and Massachusetts to move up their ‘reopening’ dates and accelerate the return to a ‘new normal’ will only help Bradley gain altitude as it continues to climb back from what has been a dismal 14 months since the pandemic struck.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

After a Year to Forget, This Springfield Label Is Ready to Roar

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery, is moving on from ‘cans to go’ to the next chapter in the story of this intriguing business venture.

 

He called the promotion ‘cans to go,’ which pretty much says it all.

Indeed, while he could brew his craft-beer label, White Lion, at his new facility on the ground floor in Tower Square, Ray Berry couldn’t sit any visitors at the attached pub because the facility wasn’t finished and painstakingly slow in its progress. But he could sell cans to go — and he did, quite a few of them, in fact — on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m.

May 26 was the last of those Wednesdays, and the last day for the promotion. Berry was sad to see them go. Well … sort of, but not really.

He called a halt to cans to go so he could direct 100% of his energies into the next phase of the White Lion story, a chapter that has been delayed more than a full year by COVID-19 — the opening of that much-anticipated downtown brew pub and a resumption of outdoor events with the now familiar White Lion logo attached to them.

“We want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, take a pause, exhale, and made sure everything is in place for our June opening,” he said. “We want to be ready to really hit the ground running.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Berry was checking the schedules of a number of prominent elected officials, trying to find a date when most of them could attend a ribbon-cutting for the opening of his downtown facility. That ceremony will be both a beginning and an end — a beginning, as we noted, of an exciting new chapter, and the end of 15 months of COVID-fueled frustration that didn’t derail White Lion, but struck at the absolute worst time for the brand born in 2014.

“COVID set us back a full year,” he said, adding that the owners of Tower Square, who also act as the general contractor for the buildout of his facility, had set May 2020 as the date for that project to turn the key and open for business. “We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

He said moving up the timetable for fully reopening the state will certainly help, giving him an additional 10 weeks of operating without restrictions that he wasn’t anticipating — although he was watching the situation closely and was hoping the date would be moved.

“We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

“We were already going to gear up for some sort of opening during the month of June,” he explained. “But we always wanted to be in a situation where any opening would be an unrestricted opening first, rather than a restricted opening, so we’re very happy to be in this new normal.”

Berry acknowledged that the office crowd that has helped make his outdoor events so successful — and will be one of his target groups for his Tower Square facility — hasn’t come back yet, may not return until the fall, and certainly may not be all that it was, sizewise, at the start of 2020. But he said that audience is just part of the success formula for this endeavor and that the ultimate goal is to bring people into downtown from outside it.

“We’ve never predicated our business model on one particular group,” he explained. “Craft breweries are destinations — they are considered experiences to the consumer. So consumers will take it upon themselves to find out where the local craft breweries are.

“Even when we had cans to go two days a week, we would have an influx of people from outside the area who would say they were driving through or were eating somewhere local downtown and looked up ‘local breweries,’ and White Lion popped up, so they came in.”

As for other aspects of the White Lion business, Berry said the beer garden that was a fixture in the park across Main Street from Tower Square will return in some form in 2021 — and at multiple locations. He’s currently in discussions with those running Springfield’s Business Improvement District and other business partners to schedule what he called “a series of special events that will encourage people to come out and support the local businesses in the downtown corridor.”

Overall, a dream that was years in the making took another full year to finally be fully realized. But, at long last, White Lion is ready to roar to life in downtown Springfield.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

At These Eateries, Guests Will Determine Pace of Reopening

Ralph Santaniello

Ralph Santaniello says his customers, and not the governor, will determine how quickly and how profoundly he increases capacity at the venues within the Federal Restaurant Group.

Ralph Santaniello says he’s read the language contained in Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to bring the state into the final stage of his reopening plan at least a dozen times.

And each time, he came away with the conclusion that the phrase ‘no restrictions’ means … well, no restrictions.

“That means no more mask requirements, no more tables being six feet apart, no barriers, no restrictions on capacity,” said Santaniello, director of Operations for the Federal Restaurant Group, which includes the Federal in Agawam, Vinted in West Hartford, and Posto in Longmeadow.

But just because it’s there in black and white doesn’t mean this restaurant group has to go as far and especially as fast (the date for full reopening was moved from Aug. 1 to May 29, as everyone knows by now) as the governor says it can.

And it won’t.

Indeed, Santaniello — several times, in fact — said it will be customers, the buying public, and not the governor who ultimately determines the pace at which these restaurants work their way back to where they were in the winter of 2020, before COVID-19 reached Western Mass.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things,” he noted. “What we’ll probably do is eliminate the barriers and slowly introduce more seating so the guests get comfortable. We’ll start to ramp up and ease our way back and see how things go.”

For example, while the requirement that tables be six feet apart has been lifted, the three restaurants in the group won’t immediately turn back the clock on such spacing, and will likely start with tables four feet apart and gradually reduce that number, again, with the pace of change and distance set by the public and its perceived comfort level with the surroundings.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things.”

Overall, as his group ramps up in the wake of the reopening announcement, Santaniello is projecting a solid balance to 2021, although projecting numbers is somewhat difficult. He noted, for example, that last summer was very strong for the three restaurants, all of which had outdoor dining, and one reason was because far fewer people were able to vacation out of the area. This summer, more might be able to, but most spots on the Cape and elsewhere are sold out.

“If spring is any indication, our reservations are up — they’re up to even 2019 levels,” he said, adding that the calls for reservations and booking events started picking up several weeks ago as the number of COVID cases started declining and the number of people vaccinated kept increasing.

Santaniello is projecting a strong fourth quarter, which is traditionally the most important three months for most restaurants, and especially the one he was sitting in while talking with BusinessWest, the Federal in Agawam, located in an historic home built just before the Civil War.

It has become a popular gathering spot year-round, he said, but business peaks during the holidays, and he is expecting a hard run on dates in December for holiday parties, especially after most companies, and families, went without last year.

But the next several months will feature a number of challenges, said Santaniello, noting rising food prices and especially the ongoing labor shortages as the two most pressing items on the list. The latter is the one keeping most restaurateurs up at night, he noted, adding quickly that he’s certainly in that group counting sheep.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees,” he said. “A good percentage of our employees have not come back yet, or some have left the industry; some are not ready to come to work for any of a number of reasons. Everyone has to do what’s right for them.”

He noted that the problem will actually limit the amount of business he can take on for the foreseeable future.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees.”

Indeed, while the Federal has historically been open six nights a week (Sundays are reserved for events), it will go down to five and possibly to four (Wednesday through Saturday, with events on Sunday), in large part due to the staffing situation.

Overall, though, the outlook for 2021 is obviously much better than 2020, he said, adding that he’s optimistic that the employment situation will eventually stabilize, probably by the fall, and overall business, by most projections, will continue to improve as customers feel more comfortable with being indoors and around other people.

“I think we’re going to have a great summer, and it’s going to be an even better fourth quarter,” Santaniello said. “The second quarter is shaping out great, the third quarter will be good, and the fourth quarter and the holiday season will be really, really good.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

While it was not exactly unexpected news, in some quarters, at least, Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he was accelerating the reopening of Massachusetts — shifting the date for removing most restrictions on businesses from Aug. 1 to May 29 and also removing most mask mandates — nonetheless sent shockwaves through the business community.

And for different reasons.

For tourism-related businesses, the announcement means they gain nine precious weeks during their peak time of the year to operate without the restrictions that have hamstrung them since March 2020. Everyone was looking longingly toward that time, but it comes sooner than most anticipated.

Indeed, for those businesses and many others, the announcement comes at a time when they’re struggling to find enough workers to handle the current pace of business, let alone the surge expected to come when the restrictions are lifted, adding another rather large dose of anxiety on that issue.

And, speaking of anxiety, for those businesses that were struggling with the challenge of when and how to fully reopen their offices and bring back employees who have been working remotely, the governor’s announcement brings more layers of intrigue to what were already-complicated decisions.

As for the lifting of the mask mandate — the governor and CDC have decided that vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors — it has created a whole new set of headaches for employers who already had enough to deal with, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, adding that faith in the honor system is not shared by many employers and employees alike.

Meredith Wise

“Things are very volatile in many respects. One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

“Things are very volatile in many respects,” she said, adding that differing opinions about whether vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in the workplace prompted a fistfight recently between two now-former employees of a company in Rhode Island, an EANE member. “One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

So it was certainly with a mix of emotions that the business community greeted the news that the state has finally reached the fourth stage of the reopening plan the governor announced almost exactly a year ago: what Baker calls the ‘new normal.’

There was definitely some joy and relief, especially in the beleaguered hospitality sector, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who predicted both a quick and profound impact on such businesses.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.”

“I know people are pretty excited about it,” he said, adding that he’s had discussions with many in the hospitality sector who were looking forward to the day when they could be at full capacity — and now it’s almost here. “All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.

“I think people are really ready for some quality time,” he went on. “And that means travel and taking advantage of the venues we have here in Western Mass. for day trips.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, agreed, noting that gaining those two all-important summer months will provide a much-needed lift for businesses in that sector.

“This is great for the hospitality sector — they really need those summer months,” she said, adding that the difference between May 29 and Aug. 1 for that sector is immense.

That said, the governor’s announcement is only the latest of many that have caught business owners and managers by surprise and left them somewhat flat-footed, with little time to adjust to changing conditions.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement.”

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement,” said Creed, adding that this sentiment applies to everything from restaurants and tourist attractions ramping up for full capacity to business owners of all sizes now having to deal with questions on mask wearing, requiring vaccinations, bringing remote workers back to the office, and more.

Wise agreed. She said the announcement from the governor has left some wondering just what to do, especially when it comes to many of the precautions they’ve been taking for the past 14 months.

“There are definitely factions within management teams and organizations that are saying, ‘yay … let’s throw away all the masks and do away with all the social distancing and just get back to the way we used to operate,” said Wise, noting that EANE’s hotline has been flooded with calls on various aspects of the reopening plan and mask mandates. “But then there are concerns about whether people have been vaccinated or not. Do businesses put something out that says, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask?’ And if they do, will there then be peer pressure for people who haven’t been vaccinated to stop wearing a mask because they don’t want to stand out?”

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses, has lived through a number of announcements from the governor and has become adept at changing on the fly. Still, this change is abrupt and huge in scale.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways,” he said the day after the announcement came down. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days. Think of all the things we were doing … and now we’re just flipping a switch and going back to the old way, like with buffets. Now it’s suddenly OK to let people serve themselves? It just doesn’t seem right mentally.”

This change has him excited on some levels — he has a number of weddings booked for those two months, and now the bride and groom can invite more people to those ceremonies — but there is some apprehension as well, especially when it comes to the daunting task of staffing up for larger volumes of business.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways. Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days.”

In no way is this remotely one of those proverbial good problems to have, he told BusinessWest, adding that businesses across the hospitality sector have been struggling mightily to not just hire people, but keep them for any length of time amid immense competition for good help.

“I’ve heard that there’s one restaurant that’s paying people $1,000 if they stay for three months,” he noted, adding that many others have resorted to sign-on bonuses and other types of incentives to get people in the door.

He hasn’t taken that step yet (he’s thinking about it), but he is increasing hourly wages, a step he believes will help but certainly not solve what has been a persistent problem made worse, in his opinion and that of many others, by generous unemployment benefits and an overall relaxing of rules requiring those out of work to look for employment. Meanwhile, he’s not sure how these soaring labor costs will impact his ability to do business.

“This labor shortage is going to radically increase our labor costs,” he explained. “We were ready for a minimum wage of $15, and we were planning on that in our pricing. But $15 is not good enough post-COVID.”

As for people who are employed, the governor’s decision to move up the timetable for fully reopening the state is, as noted, bringing fresh emphasis to a problem many employers were looking to deal with later, rather than sooner.

That problem is simply deciding who comes back, when, and under what circumstances. Wise told BusinessWest several weeks ago that many employers were struggling with this issue because employees had grown accustomed to working from home and many of them would prefer to keep on doing so, even as their managers would prefer they return.

Compromises in the form of hybrid schedules are one solution, said Wise, adding that the new timetable for fully reopening the state is creating a new sense of urgency among some employers, whether they like it or not.

“Organizations probably thought they had a few more months before they had to actually roll out any new policies and procedures regarding how and when they’re going to bring people back and whether they’re going to require them to come back full-time or work a hybrid schedule,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, with everything being lifted as of May 29, do they rush this, do they put it on steroids and get it going a lot faster, or do they still take their time and be more thoughtful and more planned?”

Knowing that business owners are uncertain about how to handle this situation, EANE is preparing to survey its members on this matter, said Wise, adding that the results will be eagerly awaited by those pressed to make decisions.

“Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to know how to compare and benchmark against everyone else.”

What happens in offices in Springfield, Northampton, and other communities will certainly play a role in how quickly and profoundly some businesses bounce back, said Sullivan, adding that he expects that aspect of the economy to emerge much more slowly than the tourism sector.

“The bounceback to the office work as it was before the pandemic is going to be slower than the travel and tourism industry because everyone is going to be careful and methodical when it comes to opening back up,” he explained, adding that it might be fall or a little sooner before most offices are back to something approaching pre-pandemic conditions. “There will still be a significant amount of mask wearing and social distancing, especially in a larger office setting, even with the relaxed CDC guidelines.”

 

 

Back to Normal?

In many respects, the governor’s announcement amounts to more pivoting, said Creed, adding that, by now, most businesses have gotten pretty good at it — a trend she expects to continue into the governor’s ‘new normal’ stage of reopening the state.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that we can absolutely can pivot, and we’re incredibly resilient and can adjust,” she said. “So now, we just have to adjust to slowly getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, for Rosskothen, the acceleration of the state’s reopening plan means something else — getting back to doing business as he did before the pandemic.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’re going to be real managers again,” he told BusinessWest. “Instead of thinking about how we can get free money from the government, I’m 100% switching to becoming a manager — how do we manage this labor shortage? How do we motivate staff? How do we get staff ready so we can manage this influx of business that’s right around the corner?

“It’s real management again,” he went on. “No complaining about COVID or restrictions … it’s about work, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s just one of many good things to come from an announcement that brought a large helping of joy and relief, but with some anxiety on the side.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Positive Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

The light at the tunnel that we’ve all been waiting for is essentially here.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that he was eliminating virtually all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, in time for Memorial Day weekend, puts Massachusetts in the final stage of the reopening plan he announced almost exactly a year ago, which he dubbed the ‘new normal.’

But while this announcement is certainly cause for celebration and optimism, the local business community is, in many ways, still in the tunnel. COVID is not to be referred to in the past tense yet, and there are still a number of challenges to overcome, including some new ones.

Indeed, as the story on page 10 reveals, the governor’s announcement brings some anxiety to go along with the joy and relief that most business owners are certainly feeling. That anxiety comes in many forms, from finding adequate supplies of good help (a challenge confronting those in virtually every sector of the economy) to tackling the daunting task of bringing employees back to the office, to dealing with loosened restrictions on masks, which are causing confusion and considerable doubt when it comes to the ‘honor system.’

In many ways, as welcome as the governor’s announcement was and is, it’s a fact that many businesses are simply not ready to turn back the clock to the fall of 2019, when the world had never heard that word COVID.

What makes things even more complicated is that no one knows just how ready the consuming public is to turn back the clock and pick up where things left off 15 months ago. It’s safe to say it might take a little time for both constituencies to feel comfortable within the realm of the new normal.

Here’s what we do know: this region’s business community has shown remarkable resilience since the pandemic arrived in this region. We’re all tired of hearing and uttering that word ‘pivot,’ but that’s exactly what business owners and managers did, whether they’re in hospitality, manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, or any other sector.

The new normal means pivoting again. In some cases, it will actually mean simply returning to how things were in late 2019, and that can be challenging enough given the abundance of ‘help wanted’ and ‘we’re hiring: $250 sign-on bonus’ signs we’re seeing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as the skyrocketing price increases involving everything from food products to lumber to gasoline (see story on page 6).

For most businesses, though, things won’t ever be just as they were before COVID. They’ve learned new and, in many instances, better ways of doing things — out of necessity. Meanwhile, many employees will continue to work remotely, changing, perhaps forever, the dynamic of the modern office.

As we said, the region’s business community will have to pivot once again. Based on how well it did the past 14 months, we believe it will adjust quite well to the new normal. We’re not out of the tunnel yet, but the light is very, very close.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sean Hogan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Making Change

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

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank

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

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glenn Welch

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

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

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

 

From a Distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Howland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

By All Accounts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Linda Tyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsfield at a glance

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

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

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

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

 

Gaining Momentum

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

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

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

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

Cover Story COVID-19

Help Wanted

Long before COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., businesses across many sectors were struggling to find adequate supplies of good help. But now, just as the economy seems ready to surge, the problem, fueled increasingly by unemployment benefits that are conspiring to keep workers on the sidelines, is getting considerably worse, with no real end in sight.

 

Steve Corrigan has been in the landscaping business for more than 40 years now, and for most of that time, finding good help has been a challenge — to one degree or another.

But he says he’s never seen anything quite like this.

“Between our Chicopee location, a small branch we have in Wilbraham, and the office we have in Manchester, Conn., we probably have 12 to 15 positions we could fill tomorrow if we could find the people,” said Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare, adding that this is a mighty big ‘if’ at the moment. “It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

Indeed, his company is one of countless businesses across virtually every sector of the economy that are struggling mightily to fill positions, even as unemployment remains somewhat high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many reasons for this imbalance between open positions and adequate supplies of qualified help, but the main culprit comes in the form of federal unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly bonus that is part of the American Rescue Plan. These benefits, say area employers, are serving as a strong deterrent to putting people back into the workforce.

“When you do the math, if you took a person making $20 an hour … with their normal unemployment, they’d be getting $500 to $600 a week,” said Corrigan. “Throw another 300 bucks on top of it … and why would you go to work for $20 an hour? It doesn’t make sense.”

Employers have been posing similar questions since the first stimulus-related unemployment benefits — complete with a $600 weekly bonus — were approved roughly a year ago. But the situation is even more precarious now, because the economy, after a slow to very slow 2020, depending on the sector of the economy, is starting to rev up again. And just as companies are looking forward to consumers going back out again and spending some of the money they’ve been saving over the past 14 months, businesses are being hit with pervasive hiring issues — and deep concerns about if and when the situation might improve.

As noted, the problem exists across the board — with landscapers, home-improvement companies, and pool installers; restaurants and banquet facilities; golf courses and local farm stands; manufacturers and service businesses.

In response to the problem, employers have tried a number of strategies — from sign-on bonuses to higher wages to rewards for referrals that lead to new hires. Meanwhile, most all forms of marketing for businesses in a variety of sectors now include references to looking for help, being a great place to work, or both.

For the most part, these strategies seem to be generating lukewarm results, with those unemployment benefits being just one of many issues to contend with. Another is the inability, or unwillingness, on the part of most states, including this one, to enforce the basic rules pertaining to unemployment eligibility.

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield, says his company has responded to the ongoing challenge of finding workers by hiking wages above the average for this region.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work,” said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, which has seen its hotline handle a number of calls related to this matter and a host of related issues. “In pre-pandemic times, if people were on unemployment, they had to prove that they were physically out there looking for work — applying for jobs, looking at the help-wanted ads, and actively seeking work. And those with the state would occasionally ask them to prove that they were doing all this. With the pandemic, the employment offices have been overrun, and states took away that requirement that you were looking for work.”

Perhaps the best hopes for area employers are that returning college students and area high-school students soon to be off for the summer might increase the pool of applicants — and that the unemployment benefits are due to expire in September.

But even those hopes are tempered by the realization that September is a ways off, and the benefits may well be extended by elected officials who have already shown a willingness to do that.

“It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

So companies, some of them with the help of EANE and even area marketing companies, are honing their messages and updating their hiring strategies in the hope they will have enough warm bodies to take advantage of what is expected to be an uptick — if not a surge — in the economy.

For this issue, we look at what they’re up against and what they doing in the face of this growing challenge to their ongoing success.

 

Labor Pains

As they talked with BusinessWest about the hiring challenges they’re now facing, business owners, almost with one voice, said that COVID has simply exacerbated a problem that has existed for some time now.

Indeed, the phrase ‘skills gap’ has been a part of the local lexicon for years now, with many businesses, especially those in manufacturing, but in other sectors as well, struggling to find adequate supplies of help, with the degree of difficulty varying with the relative condition of the economy.

Chad Jzyk, HR business partner for Charter Next Generation (CNG), a Turners Falls-based manufacturer of plastic blown film for the medical industry, said the company has been challenged to find help for several years now. But the problem has reached a new level in recent months.

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent,” he noted, adding that the company has been running with one and a half to two open positions monthly on an almost constant basis for some time now. COVID has made the situation worse, at a time when the opposite might be expected because of the number of people out of work, and for several reasons, he said.

“With the stimulus checks and unemployment extension, the availability of workers has been impacted in a negative way,” he said, referring to both the number of applicants in the pool and their willingness to accept an employment opportunity.

“We’ve tried to engage with a couple of temporary agencies,” he went on. “In the past, it was common that you would have an applicant pool of temporary workers of between 15 and 20 people that were already pre-screened and ready to go — you’d call the employment agency and, pretty much on the spot, get someone in 24 hours. Working with a few local agencies that we’ve traditionally worked with … there’s no applicant pool; they’re seeing the same thing.”

Jzyk said the company’s hiring challenges have yet to directly impact production or limit its ability to take on new orders. However, he said it does limit CNG’s ability to be more “proactive,” as he put it, and do more when it comes to training and flexibility with employees’ responsibilities.

For other employers, the shortage of workers represents a real threat to day-to-day operations and especially the ability to handle the larger volumes of business expected as the region returns to something approaching normal as vaccinations rise and consumers venture back out to restaurants, bars, museums, stores, and more.

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill in downtown Springfield, said he’s looking forward to the return of shows to the MassMutual Center and other forms of vibrancy, but he quickly, as in very quickly, changed to the subject of staffing and his ongoing concerns about whether he can find enough help to handle whatever surge comes.

Meredith Wise says the escalating challenges facing employers looking to hire are prompting wage skirmishes in some sectors.

“I hesitate to get too excited because one of the things we’re dealing with right now is the lack of people who want to work,” he told BusinessWest, gesturing to a lighted message board behind the bar. Among the many messages being delivered is that help is wanted — and that display is just one of many ways that point is being made.

“We have created a commercial that focuses on how our patio will be open soon,” he said. “But it also notes that we’re looking to hire people — we need to keep letting people know that.”

Fran Beaulieu, second-generation president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, said the hiring crunch, which is certainly nothing new for that sector, has resulted from a number of factors, with COVID-related issues being only the latest additions.

Overall, fewer people have been getting into the trades, he said, and this has left the region with a shortage of carpenters and other specialists.

“You basically have an entire generation that didn’t get into the trade,” he noted, adding that, despite a wide-ranging effort involving social media and other strategies, the company has a workforce that is 30% short of what is needed. And this harsh reality is certainly impacting the firm’s ability to take on jobs — at a time when jobs are plentiful, again, due to COVID and people home so much and often of a mind to improve their surroundings.

“Finding projects has never been the problem; the problem has been managing your labor in accordance with how many projects you have sold,” Beaulieu said. “You almost have to stop selling after a while because you just don’t have the help.”

 

Hire Power

In the wake of the ongoing struggle to find adequate supplies of help, area businesses are taking a number of steps, with aggressive marketing of their staffing needs being just one of them.

Indeed, companies have initiated hiring bonuses and rewards for those who refer candidates who eventually sign on. Meanwhile, others are hiking wages, said Wise, adding that, in some sectors, wage skirmishes have arisen, the likes of which have not been seen in some time, if ever.

“What we’re seeing happening, and it’s a little scary, is that, for some positions, wage battles have ensued,” she said. “People are saying, ‘I’ll pay you $2 more an hour to come work for me because I need the help,’ and the employee goes back to his employer and says, ‘they’re willing to give me $2 more an hour; will you give me $3 more an hour to stay here?’

“There are some positions where people are willing to pay a premium to get individuals to come to work,” she went on. “And it’s starting to affect different kinds of businesses.”

One of them is the broad landscaping and lawncare sector, she noted, which has historically faced challenges to maintaining adequate staffing and is now seeing its problems escalate due to the many aspects of COVID.

Greg Omasta, owner of Hadley-based Omasta Landscaping Inc., said this has certainly been a trying year.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work.”

“The government incentives allow people to stay home and get paid more than if they actually went to their job on a daily basis — so some of the problems small businesses are facing in this country are inflicted by our government,” he told BusinessWest, adding that some of those the company had to lay off at the end of last season have opted not to come back when offered the chance, instead choosing to collect unemployment. “But there’s a general lack of people out there in the labor force who want to work hard, like in the trade we’re in, the landscaping business. A lot of people want to sit beyond a computer screen and punch a keyboard all day.”

Historically, the company, like others in this sector, has relied heavily on legal immigrants, many from Mexico and Guatemala, he said, adding that even this pipeline has become less reliable in recent years.

As a result of this ongoing challenge, he said the company has changed the way it compensates employees, with the goal of attracting and retaining better candidates. By and large, it’s a strategy that has worked, although this year, given the many additional COVID-related challenges and responses within the industry, it is certainly being tested.

“We’re probably one of the higher-paying landscape contractors in the area,” said Omasta, whose company handles a number of large commercial accounts and municipal facilities, such as the recently reopened Pynchon Plaza in downtown Springfield, as well as residential customers. “We do that because we try to attract better people and keep those people here. Paying that higher hourly wage makes a difference in the people that we’re able to find, keep, and employ.”

Corrigan, who can certainly relate to all that, said his company hired someone to handle recruiting full-time just before COVID hit. To say her job has become difficult, and frustrating, in the wake of the pandemic and the various stimulus packages would be an understatement.

“She’s at her wit’s end with people right now,” he said, adding that, between a hesitancy to work among many people and drug tests often standing in the way of those do want to work, the talent pool has become increasingly smaller.

Chad Jzyk

Chad Jzyk

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent.”

And this shrinking pool has definitely impacted Mountain View’s ability to expand the commercial side of its business and grow.

“We’ve had discussions — heated discussions — in our budgeting processes,” Corrigan said. “We ask ourselves, ‘how can you grow if you can’t get the help?’ And the obvious answer is, ‘you can’t.’”

 

The Job at Hand

It is that obvious answer that is keeping many business owners and managers awake at night.

Indeed, at a time when the challenges seem to be mounting for businesses of all sizes and in most all sectors — Omasta referenced the rising cost of materials such as lumber, still-escalating fuel prices, the specter of inflation, and the very real possibility of higher corporate taxes — finding good help is the one that poses the biggest threat to companies at a time when many are poised to break out from pandemic-induced doldrums.

What will happen between now and September, and even after September, remains to be seen, but it seems clear that these scary times, as Wise and others called them, are certainly far from over.

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.

 

When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”

 

Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”

 

Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”

 

Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

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

 

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

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

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

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

 

Change of Scenery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

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

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

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

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

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

 

Safe at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features
Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand

Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand for professional hockey in the region.

“Baby steps.”

That’s what Nate Costa, president of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, says the team is taking as it looks to return to the ice — and its place as a huge part of Springfield’s economic engine — this fall.

Such steps include selling season tickets, trying to secure some attractive dates from the league from home games, doing some preliminary planning of promotions, and putting together a new staff after most members of the old one — furloughed at the height of COVID-19 — found employment elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these assignments would be part of a normal late April for the team — but this is certainly not a normal April, nor a normal year.

Indeed, while 28 of the 31 teams in the AHL have been playing out an abbreviated 2021 season, the T-Birds are one of three franchises, all independently owned (the Milwaukee Admirals and the Charlotte Checkers are the other two) that have chosen to suspend play for the year and wait for 2021-22.

Costa doesn’t have any regrets about the decision not to play this winter and spring, saying the call was certainly the correct one from a business perspective — “at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the long-term solvency of the franchise; it was something we had to do” — and noting that his energies are completely focused on the 2021-22 season.

And as he talks about that upcoming season, he does so with a great deal of confidence about everything from pent-up demand for his product to what this new team he’s assembled can do between now and the time when the puck finally drops again in Springfield — October, by most estimates.

And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.

Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.

“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time. We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”

Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.

“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard … we’re hopeful that, by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”

Overall, he believes that, despite a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspective. Support from season-ticket holders and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.

Meanwhile, with American International College going to the collegiate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.

“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.

“We’ve had some meetings with corporate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible … we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features
Several sculptures created by Don Glummer now grace Pynchon Plaza

Several sculptures created by Don Gummer now grace Pynchon Plaza, and many more will soon be on display at the Quadrangle.

Kay Simpson calls it “a sculpture takeover.”

That’s how she chose to describe a new exhibit, featuring New York City-based artist Don Gummer, that will take place within the galleries of the Springfield Museums, outside on its grounds, and also within the recently renovated Pynchon Plaza.

“He’ll have three works on display in Yertle the Turtle Garden; another four, and these are large sculptures, on the Quadrangle green; one near the Blake House; an exhibition in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts; and several more in Pynchon Plaza,” said Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums as she referenced “Constructing Poetry: Sculptural Work by Don Gummer,” which will be on display from May 1 to Sept. 12, with many pieces in place already.

She described the works with a number of adjectives, including vertical, dynamic, and soaring, the last of which is one she hopes to also use in conjunction with the Quadrangle itself later this year.

Indeed, the Gummer exhibit will be one of the cornerstones of what will certainly be a very important year for the Museums, which, like all cultural and tourism-related attractions, took a huge financial hit due to COVID-19, with Simpson projecting that revenues for the fiscal year that will end June 30 will be off by roughly 50% from the year prior.

Other upcoming exhibits include:

• “Wild Kratts: Creature Power!” opening May 29, an immersive, interactive exhibit where kids explore four animal habitats and the creatures within them, building STEM skills as they play;

• “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville,” from June 19 to Nov. 28 in the Wood Museum of Springfield History; and

• “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” an exhibit featuring selections from three decades of work created by the internationally renowned artist and social activist. It will run from July 17 through Jan. 2, 2022.

Simpson is expecting these and other exhibits and programs, combined with large amounts of pent-up demand for culture — and simply getting out — to inspire a huge bounce-back year for the Quadrangle.

This optimism is fueled by the country’s aggressive vaccination efforts and statistics at her disposal from the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau noting that 84% of Americans have travel plans for the next six months — the highest number since the start of the pandemic — and a good number of them will be focusing on day trips, which is what Springfield’s Quadrangle, a five-museum gem, specializes in.

“We attract people from all across the country and also international travelers coming to our museums,” she said, “but the biggest percentage of travelers are coming from the New England region.”

Simpson told BusinessWest that evidence abounds that people are looking to get back out and do the things they simply couldn’t do, or were certainly apprehensive about doing, during the pandemic. And that includes a trip, or several, to the Museums, which were closed for four long months last year before reopening to 25% capacity last summer.

The capacity limit was recently raised to 50%, and Simpson said numbers of visitors to the Quadrangle have been rising steadily over the past several months, pointing toward what she expects will be a very solid last three quarters of 2021 — and beyond.

“Once the capacity was increased to 50%, we’ve had more and more people come to the Museums,” she noted. “I think there is a real appetite for people to come out again, and I think our summer is going to be very strong, and summer will be a really good indication for us of how the rest of the year will unfold; it typically is. If we have a strong summer, we usually have a very good year.”

The Museums will not be able to conduct some of the popular family programs that have traditionally been strong draws during the summer months, due to restrictions on large numbers of people together in tight spaces, but those at the Quadrangle will make full use of its outdoor spaces and exhibits at all five museums.

That includes the the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which, several years after its opening, continues to bring people from across the region and the country, and also from around the world, to Springfield.

“Dr. Seuss remains a huge draw — our highest attendance since we reopened in the summer was a ‘beep and greet’ we did on the weekend that followed Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March,” Simpson said. “We had 700 ticketed admissions; that’s about half of what we would typically get for a Dr. Seuss birthday party celebration, but it was a beep-and-greet — people were in their cars. That just shows the incredible drawing power he has.”

 

—George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

 

Let’s start by saying there is no debating that most of the economic-stimulus programs created by local, state, and federal governments have been extremely effective in helping businesses of all sizes and moving the economy forward at a time of extreme — as in extreme — duress.

Indeed, programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan initiative have provided an absolutely vital lifeline, without which many small businesses in this region and across the country would simply not be here. Other programs have benefited healthcare providers, specific sectors of the economy, and municipalities.

That said, some stimulus has actually backfired on business and the economy, and that’s especially true when it comes to federal unemployment benefits — checks that were designed to help those who lost their jobs to the pandemic, but have had serious unintended consequences in the form of people who are simply staying out of the job market because they can make more money by not working and are making the no-brainer decision to do so.

This is not a news flash; it has been going on for roughly a year now. What is a news flash — sort of — is the extent to which these unemployment benefits are stifling the economy just as the ingredients are there for it to start really taking off again.

Indeed, as the story on page 6 relates in great detail, businesses across a number of sectors are struggling mightily to find the help they need. And for some, the inability to find this help could threaten their ability to expand and take on work that could come their way.

Stories abound about pool-installation companies already booked solid for this season and simply unable to take on any more projects, even though they are there for the taking; home-improvement companies having to turn down lucrative projects because they just don’t have the workers; and restaurant owners looking ahead to better times with a mix of anticipation and dread, with the latter involving great uncertainty about whether they will have enough bodies to handle the surge in volume they hope — and believe — is coming.

Not all of this is the result of the unemployment payments contained in the federal stimulus package. Indeed, many employers were struggling to find adequate supplies of help before anyone had to think about hanging a mask from the rear-view mirror of their car. But these benefits have made the situation exponentially worse.

And it’s not just the benefits, especially the additional $300 per week contained in the stimulus package, that are causing the problem; it’s the inability, or the unwillingness, of state unemployment divisions to enforce the simple rules that pertain to unemployment benefits.

Unemployment was designed to help those who have lost their job and cannot secure another one. Those who receive these benefits are expected to maintain a vigilant pursuit of new employment opportunities, and accept one when a proper fit is found.

These days, that is simply not happening. People are staying on unemployment because, well … why wouldn’t they? Especially when they could earn as much, if not more, by not working.

Many employers are already counting down the days until September, when these benefits expire, thinking matters might then return to normal. This is wishful thinking — this Congress may well extend the benefits again, given the way things are going — and not where their energies should be placed.

Instead, business leaders should be lobbying those in power — both in Washington and Boston — to do something about this problem now, before things get worse and before the recovery from COVID becomes further stalled.

As we said at the top, most of the federal, state, and local stimulus has done what is was designed to do — help people hurt by COVID weather the storm. The unemployment benefits were designed to do the same, but the unintended consequences have now greatly overshadowed the good that’s been done.

This is a case of stimulus gone awry, and something has to be done.

buy ivermectin for humans buy ivermectin online buy generic cialis buy cialis payday loans online same day deposit 1 hour payday loans no credit check