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Banking and Financial Services

Contractor or Employee?

By Sarah Rose Stack

 

Even prior to the pandemic, the ‘gig economy’ was growing at unprecedented rates. That growth has only been accelerated with more traditional companies relying on remote workers and hiring more contractor workers. Freelancing is big business, with nearly $1 trillion of income generated. However, although that total number is impressive, independent contractors earn 58% less than full-time employees (FTEs), and more than half don’t have any employer-provided benefits.

From a business perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages to how a company classifies its workers. With employees, you’ll have more control, but that comes with more compliance obligations. With contractors, you’ll have fewer compliance obligations, but you will also have less control.

“From a business perspective, there are advantages and disadvantages to how a company classifies its workers.”

Some tax advantages to hiring independent contractors include the ability to avoid several tax obligations that apply to employees. For example, a company generally isn’t required to withhold federal or state income taxes, pay the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes, withhold the workers’ share of FICA taxes, or pay federal or state unemployment taxes.

In addition, companies that use contractors may avoid other obligations, such as the requirement to pay minimum wages and overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and similar state laws, furnish workers’-compensation insurance (in many states), make state disability-insurance contributions, or provide employee benefits.

Keep in mind that simply having a written agreement or labeling a worker as an independent contractor doesn’t make them so. The IRS and other government agencies look at all the facts and circumstances to determine whether workers are misclassified.

When someone is hired, they must be classified as either an employee or an independent contractor. Here’s how the IRS determines worker status.

 

Behavioral Control

If the company has a great deal of control over the behavior of the worker — for example, where they work, when they work, or how they perform their jobs — the worker should be classified as an employee. If the company is giving the worker evaluations, conducting extensive or ongoing training about procedures and methods, or demanding that the worker attend daily meetings or set hours, then the worker is more likely an employee. Independent contractors will customarily set their own hours, decide on how to implement a project, and dictate where they work.

 

Financial Control

If a company provides equipment for the worker (tools, software, computers, phone, etc.), often reimburses expenses, and/or pays on regular and ongoing basis, then the worker is more likely to be an employee. The IRS clarifies by considering the following:

• Significant investment in the equipment the worker uses in working for someone else;

• Unreimbursed expenses, which independent contractors are more likely to incur than employees;

• Opportunity for profit or loss, which is often an indicator of an independent contractor;

• Services available to the market, as independent contractors are generally free to seek out business opportunities; and

• Method of payment. An employee is generally guaranteed a regular wage amount for an hourly, weekly, or other period of time even when supplemented by a commission, while independent contractors are most often paid for the job by a flat fee.

 

Relationship

Perception of the relationship is considered, but the interactions between workers and employees is what ultimately defines the relationship. Written contracts are considered; however, an employer cannot classify their workers as independent contractors when they, in fact, treat them like employees. If the company is providing employee benefits, insurance, paid time off, sick days, or pension plans, then the worker is most likely an employee.

Another area to consider is the permanency of the relationship. Employees are more likely to be hired indefinitely, and either party can terminate the relationship at any time, for any legal reason. Independent contractors’ rights are subject to a contract.

 

Penalties for Misclassifying Workers

The consequences for misclassifying employees as independent contractors can include IRS penalties and other non-tax implications. The IRS may assess back taxes against the company and demand that the company pay the employees’ share of unpaid payroll and income taxes, regardless of whether or not the independent contractors met those tax obligations. Companies can also expect to pay IRS penalties and interest. Further, workers can file a lawsuit against employers to demand back pay, overtime, and benefits.

 

Review Your Current Workers’ Status and Hiring Policies

The potential tax and non-tax savings do not outweigh the significant cost of misclassifying workers. It’s important to review your hiring policies, even if you are comfortable with your classification of current workers, to ensure that you are meeting all applicable standards for classification. Talk with your advisors if you believe you may have misclassified an employee or have questions about the standards.

 

Sarah Rose Stack is the Marketing manager for Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

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]

Coronavirus

Back on the Clock

By Mark Morris

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says companies should regard older workers as valuable assets that can help them ramp up.

David Cruise knows how to help people navigate tough economic times, but admits COVID-19 is a different kind of event.

“Quite frankly, we’re doing this live,” he told BusinessWest. “We have no playbook.”

Since February, more than 1 million workers in Massachusetts have lost jobs as a result of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Cruise, president of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, said nearly 35,000 workers filed new unemployment claims between February and May in Hampden County alone. One group in particular, workers age 55 and older, accounted for 20% of those new claims.

Job loss due to COVID-19 presents particular challenges for the 55-plus crowd. On top of the concern about finding a new job as an older worker, many worry that, because of their age, they face a higher risk of serious illness if they catch coronavirus.

Cruise expects many older workers will have an opportunity to go back to their prior jobs, but it may take time for that to happen. Because COVID-19 is still actively infecting people, he noted, career conversations with older workers must take into account a “fear factor” many have about returning to work.

“Our staff are trained to help people develop their career plans, and while they can be supportive, they’re not psychologists,” he said, adding that it can be a tough decision whether or not to return to work — one that’s ultimately up to each individual.

Cruise expects there will be more job search activity in July by older workers, but their prospects will depend largely on how successful the phased reopening has been and if employers are ready to start hiring again.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered. It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

As a first step, he recommends workers talk to the employer they recently separated from to see what kind of opportunities might be there, even in a different role. If it’s not possible to return to that employer, openings in other industries might be available.

“There are certain industries where I think older workers will find themselves in significant demand, if not full-time, certainly part-time,” he said.

He also thinks many people will seek out training in new fields, including ones that allow working from home. Those who have health concerns about returning to the workplace may find their next opportunity in a remote job. Cruise said this would be good fit for older people with a good work ethic, time-management skills, and self-discipline.

“Going forward, the whole notion of doing work away from the workplace could benefit many older workers, especially in industries where that type of work is encouraged and fostered,” he said. “It could extend a person’s career and help maintain their financial, as well as their personal, health.”

With so many Baby Boomers retiring, experienced workers are wanted and needed, according to Tricia Canavan, president and CEO of United Personnel. Hiring managers recognize that workers in their 50s still have 10 to 15 years of good work ahead of them.

“Employers are interested in people who bring a good work ethic, have skills, and are reliable,” Canavan said. “We have no issue placing older workers because our clients want employees who have those characteristics.”

Cruise advises older workers to think about who in their personal and professional networks are in a position to help them, or at least provide some guidance to finding work. “It’s essential for people to stay connected and to not leave any person untapped who might be helpful, even your dentist or your barber.”

Maintaining technology skills are another key for older workers. If a person was using technology before being laid off, Cruise said their skills are most likely in good shape. On the other hand, those who did not use technology in their job and now only use it socially may want to consider training to boost their skills and expand their job prospects.

“Technology keeps changing, and it’s possible that we all may need to develop new skills in the way we work because of the pandemic,” he added.

Because these skills can be easily updated, Canavan said a person’s “tech savvy” should not be a deal breaker when they are looking for work. “The hiring philosophy I share with my clients is: hire smart, hire the right person for the job. You can teach someone how to use Slack, but finding someone with initiative and the right mindset is harder to teach.”

When to Return?

For now, many careers are up in the air, at least until the state’s reopening progresses further. And in many cases, some are choosing not to return to work immediately.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the DOL encouraged some flexibility with unemployment claims to make it easier to comply with social-distancing guidelines. As a result, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) put in place emergency regulations that allowed those who could return to work to keep receiving unemployment benefits for personal health reasons or concern about the health of others in their home, even if they had not been diagnosed with COVID-19.

That emergency regulation expired on June 14. As shuttered businesses begin to reopen, workers who are offered their jobs by their prior employer are expected to accept them. Refusal — unless that refusal is deemed reasonable — would mean losing their unemployment benefits and termination by their employer. The DUA said determining what’s reasonable involves a fact-specific inquiry into the person’s health situation and whether they work with or near other employees or the public.

In addition to fear, finances are another disincentive to return to work. Those who lost jobs at the beginning of the pandemic could apply for traditional unemployment benefits, which cover roughly 50% of a person’s average earnings. Then in March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which added $600 a week in addition to state unemployment benefits.

Business owners who depend on seasonal workers during the spring and summer months have told BusinessWest they are having trouble filling open positions because of the generous payments from the CARES Act. They say it creates a situation where people can make more money unemployed than if they took the seasonal jobs that are available. Unless it’s reauthorized by Congress, however, the CARES Act is scheduled to expire at the end of July.

A company’s ability to reopen — and quickly get back up to speed — may depend in part on how they acted before COVID-19 hit. Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, said some of her organization’s member companies are easily getting people to come back to work because of a well-established culture that keeps people engaged.

“The leaders have stayed in touch with people, they respect their employees, and they’re trying to do everything they can to create a safe environment for them,” she said, adding that, when employees are engaged, they want to be back at work because there is a mutual trust.

It’s a different story when a company has not communicated well and has allowed distrust to take root.

“For example, if a company has done a shoddy job of keeping up their facilities before COVID hit, why should employees trust them with proper cleaning and sanitizing now?”

Canavan echoed the importance of paying attention to worker safety. After visiting several manufacturing clients, she was impressed with the transformation they’ve done to comply with pandemic-related guidelines.

“They’ve completely retooled their facilities to ensure social distancing, and when that’s not possible, they’re putting up physical barriers,” she said. “Many have extensive policies in place regarding hygiene at work, frequency of washing your hands, and even how to get water out of the water cooler.”

Added Value

The impact of COVID-19 on older workers’ employment is something Cruise predicts will become clearer over the next six months. He is concerned that not just older workers, but younger ones — in the 18-to-24 group — may be more likely to permanently lose their jobs due to the pandemic than other groups.

With three and even four generations in some workplaces, Canavan stressed the opportunity to take a collaborative approach and learn from each other. “The members of my team are of different ages, and they all contribute different strengths based on their life and work experience,” she said.

Might companies use COVID-19 as an excuse to shed older workers? Wise said a few might, but many companies will not because they need the institutional knowledge that older individuals bring to the job. She said very few companies have effective succession planning or make a concerted effort to transfer knowledge, so they need experienced workers to get them back up to speed.

“Whether it’s an operator who knows the ins and outs of a machine or a salesperson who knows what certain customers like, companies need these people to come back to the workplace.”

Coronavirus

Supply Chain of Events

Supply chain.

That’s a two-word phrase that had rarely made its way into the lexicon of most area residents before the COVID-19 pandemic; it was generally assumed that the shelves in the stores would be crammed with product — because they always had been.

But in a year when there have been shortages of cleaning supplies, surgical masks, beef, fish, hair coloring, paper towels, ice cream, rice, frozen pizza, and, yes, toilet paper — a product that has become a metaphor for a crisis — people can no longer take supply chain, and full shelves, for granted.

This has been a learning experience — on a number of levels.

So too for those who work to keep the shelves stocked. For them, it’s a time of relationship building, finding new ways of doing things, and providing ongoing proof that, while the supply chain has been bent — severely and repeatedly — it hasn’t, in their minds, been broken.

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows,” said Michael D’Amour, chief operating officer at Springfield-based Big-Y, the fourth-generation, family-owned grocery chain. “But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Michael D’Amour

Michael D’Amour

“The supply chain has definitely been tested through all this, and there have been shortages of some things, as everyone knows. But, overall, I think this crisis has shown just how resilient the supply chain is.”

 

Doug Baker, vice president of Industry Relations for the Food Marketing Institute, (FMI) agreed.

“Almost weekly we’re getting back numbers, and we’re still seeing double-digit growth across many categories — and you can’t have double-digit growth if inventory is not available,” he said, referring to specific product lines ranging from cleaning supplies to frozen foods. “It’s just a matter of matching inventory with consumer demand, and that’s been the challenge.

“And that’s why we’ve seen shortages — because that inventory output hasn’t been able to rise to the level of consumer demand,” he went on, adding that recent numbers show a slowing of demand that is giving many producers at least a chance to catch up.

In March, on average, the industry was seeing 35% to 40% increases in overall sales volume, Baker said, while in late May, the number was closer to 20% to 25%.

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent,” he explained. “But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

D’Amour agreed, noting that, as May turned to June, a good number of people were still in something approaching lockdown mode. They were eating most meals at home because restaurants were only open for takeout. They were also still working at home and, therefore, eating lunch at home. Meanwhile, children are home from school, and college students are home as well. This all adds up to people buying more at the supermarket.

As phase 2 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan takes effect on June 8, restaurants will be opening for curbside dining, and preschools and day camps will be reopening. And as more and more people go back to their offices — the ones they left in March for space on their dining room table — the ratio of food dollars spent out of the home will start to rise higher.

How long it will take to reach pre-COVID levels — when 54 cents of each dollar was spent outside the home — remains to be seen, said Baker. However, what is certain is that the situation is fluid at best and it could change in a hurry if cases start to surge, a second wave arrives, and people start spending more time working — and eating — at home.

Doug Baker

Doug Baker

“We’re seeing sales slow, which is helpful because it allows the supply chain to catch up to an extent. But we also have to understand that those are still pretty significant increases, and we’re not going to go back to pre-COVID days, because the public still has yet to engage in a livelihood that they engaged in before the pandemic, and that’s based on where you see them spending their food dollar.”

Meanwhile, this new normal has essentially forced chains like Big Y to forge new alliances with suppliers, said D’Amour, noting that as restaurants, colleges, and schools of all kinds closed earlier this year, this created an enormous surplus of inventory, but put the demand on grocery stores, while also creating an opportunity to redeploy goods and resources to grocery retail to meet demand and reduce waste.

One such alliance, one that typifies how suppliers and grocers are working together to forge solutions, involves Little Leaf Farms in Shirley, a local partner and grower of lettuce that saw demand decline dramatically as schools and restaurants closed a few months back and was looking for new opportunities to sell product and reduce the kind of waste that was seen almost nightly on major news broadcasts.

“They’re one example of so many local partners who have sat down with us and worked to figure out how to maximize business between us and keep their stuff growing and moving through the pipeline when the restaurants were shut down,” D’Amour explained. “We worked with them on supply and hotter deals and pricing to keep it moving through the grocery channels.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several players involved with supply chain about the lessons learned to date and how they will help the broad food industry through the uncertain months to come.

Food for Thought

As noted earlier, the laws of supply and demand generally take care of shortages on store shelves — in normal times.

But these are not normal times, said those we spoke with. Still, those laws have applied to items like surgical masks. Hard to find only six weeks ago, they are now seemingly everywhere, and in large quantities, as a number of companies started making them — and more of them.

“Everyone’s getting into the mask business now,” Baker explained, adding quickly that it’s much easier to convert machines to make those products than it is to supply more canisters of Lysol or make more rolls of toilet paper, as simple as that might sound.

“Paper manufacturers have been putting in additional lines,” he said. “But the challenge the industry is facing now is that there two types of fiber used to make toilet paper — there’s recycled fiber and there’s virgin fiber, and with recycled fiber, the supply is low, and not every machine can be converted to use virgin fiber, so you’re going to have less output if you can’t convert.”

And sometimes, because of the pandemic, producers simply cannot meet demand.

That was the case for several weeks — although matters have improved — when it came to supplies of meat and chicken, said Baker, noting that, early on, plants were shut down temporarily. And when they reopened, to keep workers safe, production lines were altered in ways that actually slowed production.

Such specific cases help explain shortages of particular items, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, many of the empty shelves result from unprecedented demand and panic buying that is starting to wane in many instances. But as the year continues, more lessons will certainly be learned, said D’Amour, adding that there have been plenty of learning experiences already.

Elaborating, he said that, from the beginning, those at Big Y have been watching what’s happening globally, anticipating, and “trying to get on top of things” — a phrase he would use many times — when it comes to everything from employee and customer safety to creating efficient traffic flow in the stores, to keeping items on the shelves.

This has obviously led to new policies and procedures — from the directional arrows on the floors to special hours created for seniors to the plexiglass screens at the check-out counters.

“For us, the biggest component is the people part, and that continues to be stressed by our suppliers, wholesalers, and others,” he said, adding that, while much of that panic buying and hoarding is being talked about in the past tense, the need for diligence remains, and chains like Big Y can’t let their guards down.

Getting back to the supply chain, D’Amour said it has been a struggle in some well-documented areas, but suppliers are responding by trying to increase supply and also reduce the number of overall SKUs to help put some product on the shelves.

“Where people are used to walking down the paper aisle and seeing 150 different choices of bath tissue and paper towels, now they’re seeing far fewer,” he said. “But products are coming back; we’re working with all our partners to get them back in.”

Perhaps the biggest key to providing quality service to customers during the crisis has been efforts to forge new partnerships and stronger relationships with those within the food-service industry, said D’Amour. He mentioned ongoing work with Springfield-based Performance Food Group as one example.

“They’ve done a phenomenal job working with us, working together, to figure out what food they have stuck in the pipeline that we can use,” he explained, adding that, over the past several months, PFG, as it’s called, has even helped with trucking and labor for either Big Y’s warehouse or at wholesale partners. “Most of these partnerships we’ve had have been mutually beneficial, but there are strategies and tactics that we’ve never done before; everyone’s been very open and ready to fight the battle, work together, and think of new ways to partner for the benefit of the consumers.”

Which brings him to Little Leaf Farms. Paul Sellew, owner and founder of that facility, which began operations just four years ago, said it is now part of a larger local-food movement that not only puts fresher produce on the shelves, but in many ways helps ease flow of product through the supply chain.

“People don’t realize that 95% of the leafy greens that you see in the grocery store are grown in California and Arizona,” he explained. “And when you have this global pandemic, an unprecedented situation, that puts stress on the supply chain, so imagine managing a supply chain from Selinas, California to Springfield, as opposed to my supply chain, from Devens, Mass. to Springfield.”

Little Leaf has historically seen much of its business fall into the broad category of food service — restaurants, schools, and other institutions. But with the pandemic and the sharp decline of demand on that side, the company, like many other suppliers, has shifted into retail grocery, which has been a win/win/win, for those growers, the grocers, and, ultimately, consumers.

“When you get these unprecedented events, you really want to make this region stronger and more resilient, and food is such a strong, fundamental component of that,” he went on. “And that’s why we’re so grateful for partnerships like the one we have with Big Y, which has supported us from day one.”

Overall, there is a ‘new normal’ within the grocery/food-service industry, a phrase now being heard in virtually every sector of the economy. It involves a landscape that could change quickly and profoundly depending on the pandemic and its impact.

No one really knows when there will be real light at the end of the tunnel, said D’Amour, adding that Big Y, like all those it is partnering and working with, needs to remain nimble and flexible, and continue to work in partnership with others to not only keep the shelves stocked, but also keep people safe.

Bottom Line

Summing up the past several months, those we spoke with said it’s been a challenging and in many ways difficult time, where, again, many important lessons have been learned that will serve consumers, suppliers, and retailers well in the uncertain months still to come.

“The United States is a country of abundance, and the supply chain is a beneficiary of this abundance,” Baker said. “Yes, the supply chain is strained, and some shortages will be experienced, but it’s not broken — there are not critical disruptions in the supply chain.”

The hope, and the expectation, said D’Amour, is that things will stay that way.

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

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