Grand Bargain Timeline

Six months ago, the State House passed a raft of legislation that had been negotiated between business advocates and labor groups. The compromise eliminated numerous ballot questions in return for concessions on the minimum wage, paid leave, and mandatory premium pay on Sundays. On the 1st of this year, the initial phase of the Grand Bargain’s implementation took effect. As employers, you have a right and a need to know how these changes impact your business. see chart for a brief overview of the rules which just took effect.

*Due to an error in the Grand Bargain Legislation’s language, mandatory premium pay of time and a half (1.5 multiplier) will remain in effect for New Year’s Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans’ Day until further notice. 

As was alluded to above, this is only the first phase of the Grand Bargain’s multi-year rollout. Further changes are approaching, and we encourage you to speak with your payroll company or human resource department about how these and future adjustments will impact you. If you would like to learn more about the Grand Bargain and its schedule of implementation, you can do so here. 

If you have any questions or concerns about the Grand Bargain, the Chamber’s policy on it, or our stance on other matters before the State House, please contact Christopher McDermott at (978) 353-7600 ext. 224, or email him at cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com. 

 

 

Small Business Energy Exemption Certificate

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue will now oversee the process for claiming a certificate.  As of January 1, 2019, the process will be completed online through the Department’s MassTaxConnect.  Here are some of the highlights that will be important to qualifying small businesses:

  • As of January 1, 2019, small businesses will apply online for an exemption certificate through the MassTaxConnect application rather than submitting a paper Form ST-13 to their energy provider
  • Current (2018) exemptions were automatically extended for small businesses through March 31, 2019
  • Small businesses must apply for a 2019/2020 exemption certificate by March 31, 2019
  • Exemptions granted in 2019, and after, will be effective for up to two calendar years
  • DOR will send renewal reminders prior to the exemption certificate’s expiration date in 2020

For additional information, including a link to the draft regulation, businesses may refer to the Department’s small business energy exemption page which we will continue to update as information is available.

Updated EMAC Supplement Hardship Waiver Regulations

On July 26, 2018, St. 2018 c. 154, § 68, was enacted into law, amending the EMAC Supplement statute, to require that the Director of the Department of Unemployment Assistance, in consultation with the Secretary of Administration and Finance develop a hardship waiver process for a employers experiencing financial hardship due to liability for the EMAC Supplement.

For a hardship to be approved an employer must fill out the application and include sufficient supporting documentation justifying need. After review, a determination without appeal rights will be issued to the employer. A hardship waiver is temporary and related to a specific quarter. Hardship waiver requests must be received during the first two weeks of the filing period. Employers who receive a waiver will be required to timely file and pay any additional contributions or the waiver will be reversed and the total amount (including interest) will be payable.

Click Here to read the updated EMAC Supplement Hardship Waiver regulations

For additional information about the EMAC Supplement Hardship Waiver, please visit: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/the-emac-supplement-hardship-waiver

Government Affairs Update

The Chamber recently unveiled its Public Policy Agenda for the new fiscal year–outlining the Chamber’s legislative priorities on issues important to businesses and the advancement of North Central Massachusetts. The agenda was developed to serve as a blueprint for the Chamber’s government affairs efforts and were reviewed and approved by the Government Affairs Committee and Board of Directors.  The agenda can be found online at www.NorthCentralMass.com. 

The Chamber continues to be active on the local level, monitoring legislation and advocating on behalf of members. In Fitchburg, the Chamber testified at the annual tax classification hearing and successfully secured an unprecedented eight point reduction to the property tax shift. This move towards a single rate reduces the impact on commercial and industrial property owners and makes the city and region more competitive. The Chamber will also advocate in Leominster for the city to maintain its single tax rate and in the Town of Clinton for a reduction in their dual tax rate. 

Fitchburg’s license commission also recently held a public hearing in regards to proposed regulations on BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) establishments. The Chamber submitted a letter opposing the current proposal and articulating the concerns of many local businesses.  Energy costs, the EMAC assessment and Ballot Question 1 were also issues that Chamber staff were involved with over the Fall. 

In other news, the Chamber plans to reconvene its Manufacturing Taskforce to continue its efforts to improve the workforce pipeline and improve the business climate for this important industry for the region. The Chamber will be compiling the recommendations from the taskforce and issuing a final report after the first of the year. The report is intended to help the Chamber and private sector work more effectively with government at all levels to ensure that the region has a competitive workforce and can support our local manufacturers.

In the coming months, we look forward to turning back towards the state as we convene our annual Legislative Briefing to organize efforts on Beacon Hill to address a number of crucial issues for businesses in the region. 

If you run a business in North Central Massachusetts and wish to make your voice heard on any of these issues, please reach out to Christopher McDermott at 978.353.7600 ext. 224 or cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com. We want to hear what’s important to you! 

Fitchburg Approves Reduction in Taxes

Fitchburg’s City Council took a historic step this past October, voting to close the gap between commercial and residential property tax rates by an unprecedented six points. This brought the business community’s share of Fitchburg’s property tax burden to 106 percent of the residential levy. Massachusetts allows two models for property taxes: single and dual rates. The single rate means that both residential and commercial properties are taxed at the same level. Meanwhile, a dual rate system dictates that one group – typically businesses- shoulders more of the burden and pays a higher share of taxes based on a property’s assessed value. 

A single rate tax system has come to be recognized as a key indicator that a community is open for business, and the Council acknowledged this at their annual tax classification hearing. Through a spirited discussion, a number of councilors pointed out that that seventy eight percent of Fitchburg’s property fell under a residential use. If Councilors hoped to reduce the tax share carried by voters, the only responsible method would be to attract new commercial investment, as had been done with Great Wolf Lodge and GameOn Fitchburg. Maintaining a dual rate would only serve to discourage such efforts and perpetuate the root problem.      

As always, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce was present at the meeting and attested to the importance of this shift. In particular, they spoke to the impact felt by the types of small businesses which make Fitchburg unique. “Though some would argue that business owners can afford a higher levy,” stated Chamber President Roy Nascimento in his testimony, “these taxes can prove a serious hardship to the local businesses which typify Main Street.” He went on to argue that it placed an additional hurdle before investors who might otherwise take interest in the community. 

Ultimately, the Council voted 7-3 in favor of reducing the burden on commercial property owners.  Commercial property tax owners will still see modest increases, but at a lower value than if there had been no change. Overall, this reduced the tax burden on businesses by $702,836. The Chamber would like to thank Councilors Kushmerek, Green, Clark, Donnelly, Zarrella, Kaddy, Fleming, and Walsh for supporting this historic action. 

Chamber Urges “No” on Question 1

On the surface, Question 1’s proposal to implement nurse staffing ratios seems like a good idea. Assigning fewer patients per nurse sounds good, but the reality is that the provisions of this proposed mandate would have devastating unintended consequences for our community hospitals and patients.

Should this measure pass, hospitals in Massachusetts would be held to rigid, no-exceptions nurse staffing ratios imposed by the government that would have a profound impact on their ability to provide care.  Just imagine what would occur under these mandates if an emergency department were to reach its full legal allowance of patients.  New arrivals would be sent to alternative hospitals, compromising their care and risking their safety in the process.

Of the 50 states, only one, California, has adopted mandated nurse staffing ratios and that was over ten years ago.  If government mandated nursing ratios were such a good idea, why haven’t more states adopted them since then?  The reason is that there is no evidence that it has led to improved care.  According to 2018 Leapfrog patient safety data, the gold standard for assessing quality outcomes, California hospitals rank 25th for patient safety.  Massachusetts ranks fourth.  Likewise, United Health Foundation ranks California seventeenth nationally in terms of statewide health, while Massachusetts ranks first.  Our hospitals equal or in many cases exceed California’s in nearly every meaningful measure of quality patient care and safety.

If voters pass Question 1 it would also raise costs substantially for hospitals and patients.  The independent, non-partisan Massachusetts Health Policy Commission has estimated that passage of Question 1 would cost the state up to $949 million annually.  Patients, employers and taxpayers will end up footing the bill for these new government mandates through increased taxes and higher premiums.  Most of our community hospitals operate now on razor thin margins. UMass Memorial HealthAllianceClinton Hospital reports that this will add $8.9 million more to their cost structure year over year moving forward.  Likewise, Heywood Hospital will see $5.6 million in additional costs and Athol Hospital an additional $1.9 million.  The pressures on them to break even are immense, and it is likely that they will be forced to make deep cuts to critical programs, such as opioid treatment and mental health services, in order to implement these mandates.  In some parts of the state, local community hospitals could close altogether, creating a significant hardship for those dependent upon them.

Staffing decisions should be left to the experienced doctors and nurses who operate our hospitals, and not imposed upon them by the state through a rigid set of mandates.  Nursing is a well-organized and respected profession, whose members are protected by their elevated skillset and long established union representation.  Concerns about working conditions and patient loads should – and regularly are – negotiated at the hospital level and should not be imposed via the ballot box.  This produces the best results for each institution, and is perhaps why many doctors and nurses have come out openly in opposition to this ballot proposal.

On November 6, voters will decide whether to tie the hands of our experienced health care professionals by voting ‘Yes’ or allow them to make the right decisions for patients with the flexibility in staffing that is essential to their important work.

On behalf of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, we urge you to vote “No” on Question 1.  For more information, please go to www.protectpatientsafety.com.

 

Roy M. Nascimento, CCE, IOM

President & CEO, North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce

Question 1 Briefing

On November 6th, voters in Massachusetts will be asked to vote on a series of ballot questions, including Question 1 – a proposal to mandate nurse staffing levels in hospitals in the state.  Your support is desperately needed in helping voters understand the negative impact Question 1 will have on patient care, our communities and North Central Massachusetts.

Please consider sharing the following message and join the statewide effort to raise awareness and provide education regarding Question 1.

  • Staffing decisions should be left to the judgement of qualified healthcare professionals in our hospitals, not imposed via the ballot box. These new government mandated nurse staffing ratios would be enforced at all hospitals, on all units, at all times with no flexibility.  A rigid, one-size-fits-all approach threatens the quality of care for patients and would have a detrimental impact on the state’s healthcare system.
  • Virtually every major health care group, including the Massachusetts Medical Society, American Nurses Association, Emergency Nurses Association, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, American Academy of Pediatrics, Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses and Massachusetts Senior Care Association, opposes Question 1 and feels that it would have devastating consequences for patients. Consider what would happen under the new law if an emergency department were to reach its full legal allowance of patients under the new mandates.  The hospital would not be able to admit any more patients, forcing patients and ambulances to waste valuable time in life and death situations searching for an alternative hospital.
  • Every hospital in the state, including our three community hospitals located here in North Central Massachusetts – UMass Memorial HealthAlliance Clinton Hospital, Heywood Hospital and Nashoba Valley Medical Center – also oppose Question 1.  Question 1 would raise costs substantially for these hospitals and negatively impact their ability to provide care.  To implement this costly unfunded mandate, they will be forced to make deep cuts to critical programs, such as opioid treatment and mental health services.  Statewide, Question 1 is projected to lead to the reduction of 1,000 behavioral health beds (38% of the total supply).[i]  In addition, many smaller community hospitals are already struggling financially and will not be able to absorb the added cost and will be forced to close.
  • The independent, non-partisan Massachusetts Health Policy Commission has estimated that passage of Question 1 would cost the Commonwealth up to $949 million annually.[ii] Patients, employers and taxpayers will end up footing the bill for these new government mandates through increased taxes and higher premiums.
  • There is no evidence that Question 1 will improve the quality of care. Out of all 50 states only one other state (California) has mandated nurse staffing ratios and there is no evidence that it has led to improved care.  United Health Foundation ranks California seventeenth nationally in terms of statewide health.  Massachusetts ranks first.[iii]  In addition, a study conducted in 2018 of hospital patient safety ranks Massachusetts fourth in the nation for percentage of hospitals with top patient safety rating, while California ranks twenty-fifth.[iv]

We would encourage you to vote against this measure.  Patient safety should always be the primary concern of the Commonwealth’s healthcare system.  While proponents of this question may be well intentioned, its severe cost and detrimental impact on the state’s healthcare system cannot be ignored.

For more information, please contact Christopher McDermott, Public Affairs Manager at 978.353.7600 ext. 224 or email cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com.

Click here to view the Chamber’s positions on the Ballot Questions.

Click here to view our Op-Ed on Question 1

[i] (Coalition to Protect Patient Safety)

[ii] (Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, 2018)

[iii] (Attorney General of Massachusetts)

[iv] (The Leapfrog Group, 2018)

Government Affairs Alert

Over the past year, we have heard from some members about the state’s Employer Medical Assistance Contribution, or EMAC. Last year, the Baker Administration attempted to simultaneously address MassHealth’s growing deficit and encourage employers to offer private alternatives by levying a quarterly tax against the payroll of any employee who utilized the state’s health insurance program. Applying to any business with six or more employees, including part time and seasonal labor, this new assessment could run as high as $750 per relevant worker.

Understandably, reaction to this policy has been strong. Having drawn sharp criticism for the shockingly high bills the measure gave rise to, the Department of Unemployment Assistance recently announced it would award waivers based upon financial hardship to a narrow band of employers. To qualify, a business must illustrate that:

  • It has acted in good faith in all its relations with the Department, and certifies that it is current on state taxes and assessments, including, where applicable, the nursing facility user fee assessment; and
  • provide evidence of one or more of the following:
    1. The business is unable to pay the EMAC Supplement because of financial hardship and failure to obtain a hardship waiver is likely to result in termination of the employer’s business or in substantial loss of employment;
    2. The business has paid an Employer Shared Responsibility Payment and been assessed an EMAC Supplement in the same calendar year; or
    3. The business has paid an Employer Shared Responsibility Payment and been assessed an EMAC Supplement in the same calendar year; or
    4. The business experienced a turnover rate of at least 300% over the four quarters immediately preceding the application. (https://www.mass.gov/service-details/learn-about-the-emac-supplement-hardship-waiver)

Waiver applications are due Friday, October 12th, and application forms can be found here. While still applied too narrowly, providing far too short a window for submission, and offering no opportunity for appeal if rejected, this step does represent a positive development. We encourage any employer who believes they qualify to apply and to do so quickly. Meanwhile, the Chamber and its partners across the Commonwealth will continue to advocate on behalf of regional businesses in an effort to repeal this punitive measure.

October Legislative Update

September was a busy month for the Chamber on the legislative front and October promises to continue that trend. In recent weeks, our staff helped organize a workshop to educate members about the recent “Grand Bargain” legislation, reconvened monthly meetings with the region’s mayors, and published an updated Public Affairs Agenda for the new fiscal year. This last item was approved unanimously by the Chamber’s Board of Directors and includes a new section addressing the debate over international trade and tariffs in Washington.  The month culminated with the Chamber’s Annual Legislative and Candidates Reception, held at the Chocksett Inn in Sterling.

Though this event always draws a crowd, we set records for attendance this year, attracting nearly sixty public officials and candidates and close to one hundred members of the general public. Illustrating the Chamber’s strong presence at all levels of government, the public officials who participated included Congressman McGovern; State Auditor Bump; the region’s entire state senate delegation; the vast majority of its state representatives; the mayors of Fitchburg and Leominster; councilors from Fitchburg, Leominster, and Gardner; and numerous town managers, administrators, and select-people from throughout North Central Massachusetts.  The first in the Chamber’s fall series of public policy related events, the reception will be followed this month by our Annual Congressional Luncheon on Friday, October 5th and a special congressional debate scheduled for Thursday, October 18th between the final contenders in the race for the Commonwealth’s Third Congressional District seat. It is especially fitting that the luncheon precedes the debate, as the former will be Congresswoman Tsongas’s final Chamber appearance before voters identify one of the debate’s three contenders as her successor.

While that election unfolds, the Chamber has also been working hard to monitor ongoing developments. For many of our members, the recently implemented Employer Medical Assistance Contribution (EMAC) has been an issue of pressing concern. After considerable criticism following its rollout, the state has chosen to provide waivers to businesses facing a disproportionate impact from this new tax. While still applied too narrowly, providing far too short a window to apply, and offering no opportunity for appeal if rejected, this step does represent a positive development. Employers can learn more about the hardship exemptions here and have until Friday, October 12th, to apply. Applications can be found here.

At the local level, several communities in our region will conduct annual reviews of their respective assessor’s tax rates this month. As always, the Chamber will be actively advocating in those communities for policies that treat both commercial and residential property owners fairly. Such efforts have proven successful in recent years, with Leominster maintaining a common rate and Fitchburg moving towards one with increasing speed. These successes illustrate just how important this work is and lead us to believe there will be further progress in the weeks ahead. If you own a business in Fitchburg, Leominster, or Clinton and would like to make your voice heard on this tax issue, or you are interested in any of the other topics discussed above, feel free to reach out to Christopher McDermott, the Chamber’s Public Affairs Manager, at 978.353.7600 ext. 224 or cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com.

Become a Season Ticket Holder for 2018-2019

Season Tickets for one of our most popular programs, Good Morning North Central, are now on sale! New this year, we have expanded the season tickets to also include three of our other popular breakfast events. We have added the Economic Forecast Breakfast, Tourism Update Breakfast and the Real Estate Summit to the season tickets.

Season Ticket holders enjoy a 20% discount as well as the convenience of being automatically registered for each of these popular events. Season Tickets can be transferred to another colleague within a business as well. Season tickets are on sale at www.northcentralmass.com/news/calendar-of-events  at $160 for members and $260 for non members.