Is It Legal for Hospitals to Ban Nicotine-Positive Employees in MA?

In 2011, UMass Memorial Marlborough Hospital adopted a tobacco-free policy for its property. Recently, the same hospital announced that they would be establishing a nicotine-free hiring policy for all new employees as well. Nicotine will join amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and others on the list of prohibited chemicals. Hospitals test for these drugs following the interviewing and application process; it is often the last step before an applicant becomes an employee.

umass-memorial-hospitalMarlborough Hospital Leads Nicotine-Free Hiring

According to Steve Roach, president and CEO of Marlborough Hospital, the decision to hire exclusively nicotine-free applicants is meant to encourage employees’ healthy decisions. He expects his employees to abide by the same health advice they give to their patients—to lead by example, essentially. All hospitals in the UMass system have smoke-free and tobacco-free campuses, but Marlborough is the first in the commonwealth to establish a nicotine-free hiring policy.

Is Banning Smokers Illegal?

There is no federal law that protects smokers from these regulations, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not recognize tobacco smokers as a protected class. However, individual states have their own approaches. Some states say that companies cannot refuse to hire someone simply because he or she is a smoker. Massachusetts is obviously not one of those states. Even some of the states that protect smokers tend to be more strict with the healthcare industry and nonprofit organizations.

Some experts say that this ban will unravel a mess of additional issues. They argue that discriminating against smokers is the same as discriminating against those with diabetes or high cholesterol. There is also the concern that a tremendously well-qualified applicant will be turned away for what some deem to be a trivial issue.

no-smoking-decalMassachusetts Aims to Set Healthy Example

A Swedish study found that smokers take an average of 7.67 more sick days every year than people who have never smoked. Additionally, even if the smoker does not have other medical conditions such as diabetes or obesity, they typically have higher medical costs than the average nonsmoker. If you’ve ever been around a smoker, you know how tightly the smell of smoke can cling to clothing and hair; this new rule will help prevent patients from being exposed to those fumes. Each year, smoking or exposure to smoke causes 443,000 premature deaths and costs over $170 million in healthcare costs and loss of productivity.

Most employees who receive the “quit smoking or quit your job” ultimatum choose to leave tobacco behind. While Marlborough Hospital’s ban doesn’t affect current employees, it will hopefully nudge future employees to kick the habit.

WE BOS Supports Women Entrepreneurs in MA

A new initiative in Boston seeks to close the gender gap in business ownership and success. In 2012, women owned about 36% of all small businesses in the US; however, men-owned firms average a 67.9% higher profit margin. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently announced WE BOS, a plan to help establish and grow women-owned businesses in Massachusetts with training, networking, and business counsel.

boston-back-bay-women-business-week- leaf

Problem #1: Massachusetts Lags in Female-Owned Mid-Markets

A recent report by American Express and Dun and Bradstreet examined women and minority ownership of “middle-market” businesses. These are defined as businesses with annual revenue above $10 million but below $1 billion. There are approximately 4,000 such businesses in Massachusetts. Only 5% of these businesses are owned mostly by women; a paltry 14% have female chief executives.

Problem #2: Obstacles Include Lack of Access to Funding

Women-owned businesses often face obstacles when trying to get the necessary funding and support to grow. About 2% of venture capital funding is dedicated to women-owned businesses. This may be a consequence of Problem #1—that there aren’t enough women in leadership positions to even receive funding. A recent study by Babson College found that only 6% of venture capital firms have even a single female partner. Over the past ten years, the number of women-owned businesses in MA (and their success rates) has steadily increased, but not nearly as fast we’d like it to.


Solution: WE BOS Seeks to Boost Women in Business

The news is not all bleak. The AMEX and Dun and Bradstreet survey indicates that women-owned businesses able to crack into the middle-market tend to have higher rates of both revenue and employment growth—they just need a little help getting through the door. Massachusetts leaders have taken the initiative to get women-owned businesses on their feet and put them in a position for growth.

The initiative is called Women Entrepreneurs Boston (WE BOS). The group, which will offer skill training, technical assistance, and other services to women-owned businesses, will be led by Kara Miller. Miller said “I am thrilled to expand our reach to women-owned businesses through WE BOS.” She mentioned that the organization’s goals are to both support and create women entrepreneurs in Boston.

we boston weekWE BOS Becomes Part of Women Entrepreneurs Week in October 2015

Miller’s initiative has been up-and-coming for a couple years now and will finally launch on October 12th. The date also marks the beginning of Boston’s inaugural Women Entrepreneurs Week. Throughout the week, women entrepreneurs will be able to attend workshops, speakers, roundtable discussions, and will have the opportunity to meet and connect with others. You can find a full list of events here, many of which are free to attend.


WE BOS joins other local endeavors designed to assist women in business such as Innovation Women and the Women on Main Initiative. Although Massachusetts businesses—along with those of the rest of the nation—are still far less diversified as they should be, these recent efforts will hopefully move us in a better direction.

Are you interested in attending any of the events at Women Entrepreneurs Week? Do you have any advice for women-owned businesses in MA, or business owners in general? 

Massachusetts Confidence Index Offers Promising Data

Stemming the tide of declining confidence in the Massachusetts economy for the first time in three months, employers indicated that they had a more positive view of the state’s economic outlook during the month of July. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Confidence Index, which serves as a barometer of local business activity, increased by nearly three points last month, rising to 59.2 points on a scale of 100.

Seen as a benchmark of business function and opportunity in Massachusetts, the Confidence Index registered an all-time high of 68.5 points in 1997 and 1998; they saw a historical low of 33.3 points in 2009.

A lobbying and management group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) collaborates with Massachusetts employers to enhance the business environment and generate greater business opportunity. They also engage various sectors to help reduce healthcare expenditures, unemployment insurance assessments, and other related business costs. AIM also collaborates with legislators in defining regulations on local, state, and federal levels and promotes the need for a knowledgeable and skilled labor force. Another priority for the group is keeping members informed about mandated changes in employment standards and other regulations that may have an adverse impact on their business and the economy of the Commonwealth.

Chairman of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts Board of Economic Advisors Raymond G. Torto asserts:

The AIM Index is up three points from last July, and apart from its recent crest in February and March is at its highest level since December 2006. Like the economy itself, the Index has followed a long-term trend of improvement. But the upward course has been longer and bumpier than most past recoveries.

Data extracted from the released report indicates that the current Massachusetts confidence index data is as strong as from 2006, preceding the 2007 recession.

boston waterfront

Details from the Index:

  • Employers’ opinion of current business conditions, the Current Index, rose 3.5 to a level of 59.7 points in July.
  • Gauging expectations for the next six months, the Future Index, rose 2.2 to a level of 58.6 points.
  • Assessing the overall situations of their operations, the Company Index, rose 3.7 to a level of 61.7 points.
  • Increasing 5.3 to a level of 63.2, the Sales Index rose to its highest level in nine years.
  • Rising to 57.2, up from 54.7, the Employment Index indicated strength compared to prior months.

While the overall view is positive, there were some dips in the manufacturing sector, as well as a lower general confidence rating in areas outside the Boston Greater Metropolitan area, displaying a moderate rise of only 1.1 points. As with any business-monitoring system, fluctuations can be expected; however, there seems to be a consistent but gradual increase in confidence in the Massachusetts business climate.

Do you agree? What kind of working conditions have you experienced in Massachusetts?

Public Housing Pushes Residents Toward A Better Life

Ray Mariano, executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority (WHA) and former four-term mayor of Worcester is on a mission to point individuals and families currently residing in public housing toward “A Better Life.”

A Better Life (ABL)

ABL is a program designed to encourage upward mobility for public housing tenants; challenging them to reach goals, become educated, secure employment, and to make better healthcare and financial choices.

Though the program was voluntary when instituted in 2011, it has since been made compulsory for some residents within the WHA system.

ABL HousingThe ABL program requires one adult in each household to work or attend school for a minimum of 1,200 hours per year, which is an average of 23 hours per week. Support services to reach for these goals are provided through grants as part of the program. If the residents do not make an effort to abide by the program rules within three years, they face eviction. The disabled and elderly are not a part of the mandatory participation program, so they will not be compelled to leave public housing.

The Cititzen’s Housing and Planning Association recently submitted a bill to the Legislature this past July, which would bring ABL to five housing authorities around the state. Some officials question the morality of making self-sufficiency programs mandatory. Mariano points to the statistics from the last three years as evidence of the program’s effectiveness. Only 36% of ABL participants were employed when the program first began. Since then, the percentage of employed participants has more than doubled. Additionally, the percentage of tenants going to school has tripled.

ABL Opposition

While political opposition can no longer prevent the implementation of mandatory participation, some tenants and community members are still at odds with ABL. Mariano, who grew up in Great Brook Valley—the same area currently targeted for the mandatory ABL program—is faced with the difficult mission of encouraging people in his community to embrace the change.

Feeling that it unfairly targets single Latino mothers and their children, the detractors point out that Mariano’s own 2012 statistics show that 89% of families in Great Brook Valley are headed by single females. Mariano has countered that ABL can help these families by making it possible for single mothers to get an education; many will also be eligible for childcare vouchers.

Latino familyThe Bigger Picture

While many families have been in WHA public housing for generations, many needy families are waiting to get in. By enabling those in public housing to make efforts to rise out of their current situation through education and gainful employment, those currently in need of safe and affordable housing will be able to get off of the waiting lists, out of homelessness, and into housing. Worcester currently faces a crisis, with over 5,000 people on the applicant waiting list for public housing. In order to provide those individuals and families with much-needed help, those currently in the WHA system need to make strides to move into self-sufficient lifestyles. Mariano believes that ABL is the right program to help them grow.

Public housing problems like these aren’t unique, but Worcester’s new mandatory BL program makes a statement. With people on both sides of the debate, Mass Business Blog wants your opinion. Do you have any stories or reactions to this program? Please share your thoughts on social media (and tag us so we can respond!) or write your comments below. Community conversations matter.

What’s Really at Stake in the Verizon Union Strike?

Verizon unions along the East Coast are at their wits’ end with the company due to lengthy negotiations over cost cutting measures that they believe will threaten their job security. The old contract had expired as of August 1st, but no work stoppage has been initiated yet. If talks continue in the same manner, the unions have stated that they may have no choice but to strike.

What’s at Stake?

Unions are claiming that the top Verizon executives have been awarded a quarter of a billion dollars in the last few years and, as a whole, the service provider has made $18 billion in profits over the last year and a half. When bargaining started on June 22nd of this summer, Verizon proposed to raise health care costs by thousands of dollars, and threatened union workers’ job security by eliminating constraints on hiring non-union workers. It has been stated that the company wants to reduce overtime pay, as well as remove any restrictions on their ability to offshore union jobs. The company’s administration has expressed frustration that both parties have still not come to a concise resolution following a recent legitimate rebuttal to the union demands.

verizon girl

Preparation Movements During Talks

The Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who represent about 37,000 Verizon employees, are not ready to back down. They claim that Verizon has been planning for this by training managers and hiring contract workers throughout the negotiation process, demonstrating that they are anticipating a long strike. But, for now, union workers will continue to be on the job despite Verizon’s apparent preparations.

The Next Step

Unions will continue to put the pressure on Verizon to decide on a fair contract soon. The negotiations for the last contract went on for 16 months, and both parties want to avoid a repeat experience. This agreement only applies to wireline technicians and call center staff from Massachusetts to Virginia. It also affects 150 employees of Verizon Wireless that are part of the Communications Workers of America union. If the bargaining continues much longer without an agreement, both sides are ready to stand against each other.

MA Judge Upholds Sick Time Law

Massachusetts District Court Judge Rya Zobel recently dismissed a complaint filed by two construction contractors, and six construction employee associations, seeking to challenge the Commonwealth’s new sick time law.

The Massachusetts Earned Sick Leave law went into effect on July 1, 2015 following overwhelming support from voters in the fall elections. The legislation requires employers with more than 11 employees to provide up to 40 hours of accrued paid sick time to workers at their “same hourly rate” of pay. Employers with fewer than 11 employees are obliged to provide the accrued time as unpaid leave.

Sick time law don't be your own doctor

An hour of sick time is accrued for every 30 hours worked under the new sick time law, accumulating to up to 40 hours annually. After 90 days of employment, sick time may be used for an employee’s physical and mental health concerns or similar concerns for a direct family member. Employers providing existing leave benefits, if equal to or more comprehensive than the requirements of the new sick time law, will not be required to change their employee benefits.

Employers and employer organizations, including the Labor Relations Division of Construction Industries of Massachusetts, filed petitions with the court to challenge the law under concerns that it would change their existing union contracts. Citing the potential for pre-existing union negotiations would be negated by the change, they argued that the new state sick time law was preempted by the federal Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). The LMRA, a federal collective bargaining law, was a core component of their argument against having to abide by the new rules for union employees. They contended that employees with benefits currently negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement should be exempt from the new legislation.

In addition, the plaintiffs brought concerns regarding the definition of “same hourly rate” and posed situations under which the term could cause confusion when calculating a sick time pay rate. Additionally, the plaintiffs requested an amendment stating that the new regulations be preempted by a separate federal law known as the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA), which was also denied by the court.

Zobel held in the recent hearing that the LMRA does not preempt the new Massachusetts sick time law. In addition, regarding the interpretation of “hourly rate”, Zobel wrote, “If petitioners’ assumptions about how the law will be implemented and applied transport us from the factual to the hypothetical, then their scant allegations about the agreements with which it will conflict carry us on to the fantastical.”

The plaintiffs were provided with two weeks after the hearing date to file a new complaint on the allegation of the law’s conflict with ERISA.

The Realities of Reshoring US Manufacturing

Offshoring—or outsourcing—is the practice of moving factories and jobs overseas. In the last 20 years, American companies have started sending manufacturing operations to countries with cheaper labor, fewer regulations, and more forgiving tax schedules. The phenomenon is familiar to anyone talking to tech-support in India, but it has also occurred in the manufacturing industry. Before 2000, US manufacturing grew almost as fast as the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at ninety-four cents on the dollar, but since the turn of the millennium that number dropped to only 45%, until this year.  Currently, US manufacturing has grown faster than the GDP.

The reason for this is called reshoring—returning factories to US soil. Many companies are finding good reasons to move their operations back to America, and the result is higher domestic manufacturing rates, and in some markets, more general growth. Companies have returned to the US to: reduce the complexity of their management and supply chains, avoid the costs and delays of shipping, ensure quality control, and to take advantage of some lower energy costs.

Some corporations are not moving their existing operations, but instead opening new facilities. This geographic diversification insulates businesses against economic hardships like labor disputes, natural disasters, political upheaval, and more.

made in usa

Unfortunately, reshoring is not a marvel of American job-creation. Companies are choosing to move back stateside because it is the most economically feasible option. They are utilizing automation and optimization consultants to make their operations as lean as possible. The cost of healthcare and other benefits, coupled with government labor regulation, makes reshoring labor-intensive industries less likely to return. Those who do reshore have reported problems finding qualified employees, as too many applicants cannot pass drug screenings, do not have a grasp of basic math skills, or are unreliable.

Bill Conerly, an economics expert writing for Forbes, sums it up perfectly when he writes, “The fastest-growing parts of manufacturing will be those that use the least labor. Productivity in factories continues to improve, so the best jobs picture we can hope for is flat. The peak year for US manufacturing employment was 1979, and we’re not going back there.”

US Oil Fracking: Friend or Foe?

At least two decades of market uncertainty have kept Americans worried about the future of production costs and world market dominance. Fracking in the American Plains and middle regions have influenced a huge transition from complete reliance on near-Asian production, to the re-emergence of US-based goods and services.

The boom in the Dakotas and other fracking regions has reduced the gap between costs of production between the US and countries like China to a paltry 5%. This means, from the popularity of new domestic oil production, that it is absolutely viable for companies to stay in America rather than export production elsewhere. Fracking has been good for technical- and labor-intensive jobs in the field, but it has been meeting significant resistance from state officials concerned about the health of their lands and their constituents—New York has banned fracking in the state because of its potential health risks.

US Oil Fracking Is Our Foe

Fracking has been the source of some controversy. Its supporters champion its financial benefits, while its critics emphasize its environmental and economic hazards. For example, in early June, roughly 3 million gallons of the potentially toxic saltwater produced in fracking pipelines leaked into a North Dakota creek that flows into the Missouri River. Also, Kansas, Ohio, and Texas have all reported that they are experiencing many small earthquakes that rated approximately three on the Richter scale. There is substantial evidence that these quakes are in fact related to fracking.

There are also economic costs to consider, in addition to the problem of the “bust” following the “boom,” which North Dakota is now learning. While North Dakota has experienced a population boom, the development of the infrastructure has not kept up and officials are looking into “surge funding” to help pay for the cost of the expanding infrastructure—in one case, up to $1 billion. That funding is already in jeopardy because the taxes paid by energy companies are declining.

US Oil Fracking Is Our Friend

There is however, tremendous hope for American fracking. A glut of capable and skilled workers is available and waiting to make new US oil fracking wells produce oil like no other wells in the world. According to many reputable sources, the US markets are inclined toward supporting companies that use domestic supplies rather than imported oil sources. It is a magical market relationship that could spark a revolution if the right economic conditions fall into place. Whether the naysayers want to believe it or not, American fracking is an economic giant that could wipe out many modern economic concerns.

Statistics show that thousands of people are flooding to regions with fracking companies and the jobs they promise. Though many of the jobs are being put on hold because of temporary adjustments to international oil–trading indicators, the jobs have not been eliminated. With the foresight of leaders in the domestic oil futures market, US oil fracking dominance could outpace the production in other countries, put tens of thousands of Americans to work, and entice a revolution in domestic manufacturing.

Opposing Foreign Forces in Domestic Oil

Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons the American oil boom is being countered by market forces. Worldwide oil prices are in free fall. Fracking enterprises are creating the perfect conditions for the US as a whole to pull back reliance on foreign oil sources and look to the wells in its own backyard.
The highest echelons of market expertise are indicating that oil-producing nations sense a slowing of economies all over the world. This is even true in the United States. No matter how much cheap, new oil is discovered and put on the market, the lack of an industry to buy it will mean that prices will sink.

Worcester Businesses Meet to Discuss Growth and Regulation

Four local business leaders met in Worcester recently to discuss the fact that the city is growing at a phenomenal rate, despite the tight rein of regulations on business in the area. The discussion, which was named “Acting Locally”, was hosted by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, and featured guest speakers from some of the most important businesses in the area.

The meeting focused largely on the need for Worcester business establishments to connect and focus more strongly with their local community. Participating at the conference were three distinguished members of the Worcester business community, including Frederick Eppinger, President of Hanover Insurance; Nick Smith, President of Rand Whitney; and Neil McDonough, CEO of FLEXcon. The conference was moderated by Michael Mulrain of Polar Beverages.

Loosening The Grip Of Regulation: A Common Theme

One of the most commonly voiced themes was the need for authorities in Worcester to loosen the reins of business regulation in the area. More than one of the speakers at the meeting touched upon this theme, and it was generally agreed by many in attendance that the city could afford to be a bit more welcoming and cooperative when it comes to the proposals of entrepreneurs, whether local or national, to establish new businesses in the area.

Several of the panelists noted that, for a small business in Worcester, its owner has to pass through a sea of red tape and regulations before it can win approval for their proposals from local officials. The process can take up to five years before anything is achieved. By contrast, business owners in the Southeastern region of the country, such as Georgia, can usually get approval from city officials much sooner and with far less conditions placed on that approval.

Improving The Quality Of Local Life

Despite the difficulties presented by state regulations, the local Worcester business leaders at the conference expressed their continuing commitment to improving the life of the local community and surrounding towns. Mr. Eppinger, whose company has played a valuable role in the redevelopment of downtown Worcester, applauded the City’s collaborative approach. As Nick Smith pointed out, Worcester’s willingness to work with businesses has been a contributing factor in their desire to continue investing in the development of the area.

It was agreed by all of the panelists that looser regulations on establishing businesses, combined with a strong community commitment from those businesses, is the key to ensuring the growth and continuing good health of the Worcester region.  In addition, all of the assembled panelists made encouraging comments stressing the value of local education and training for the next generation of civic and business leaders in Worcester.

Massachusetts Unemployment Rates Reach Pre-Recession Levels

Recently, the unemployment rate has dropped significantly in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This drop has led to an increase in job opportunities for millions of workers in Massachusetts. Indeed, the outlook for employment in the commonwealth is better than it has been in a decade, and it is expected to continue to improve over the next couple of years.

While the source of this upswing can be traced to a multitude of causes, one thing is certain: Massachusetts employment figures tell the tale of a rapid increase in prosperity, not only for businesses in the commonwealth, but also for the workers who will fill these newly available positions. The influx in available jobs has provided job seekers with better opportunities, increased bargaining power for wages and benefits, and competing offers being directed to them by multiple employers.

Revisiting Pre-Recession Prosperity

The outlook for jobs in Massachusetts is constantly improving, thanks to the falling unemployment rate. In fact, the unemployment rate in the commonwealth is currently estimated to be 4.7% compared to the 4.6% pre-recession national unemployment figures. As a result of this change, employers all across the commonwealth are faced with a whole new problem: the need to hire more workers, as fast as possible. Massachusetts employers and job placement companies are at a bit of loss trying to keep up with the ever-increasing job openings. In fact, leading manufacturing companies are asking their legislative officials how they can help them fill these newly created manufacturing positions.

Taking Advantage Of A Strong Job Market

As a result of this new economic upswing, workers are being encouraged to take advantage of an increasingly strong job market. If they are unhappy with their job or have taken a position that classifies them as one of the “underemployed,” it is time to revisit the market. Experts predict that the growing employment opportunities in Massachusetts will level out sometime in 2017, but only because there will not be enough people to fill the positions that are available. Thus, while it lasts, the increasingly lucrative opportunities that await workers in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts should be snapped up as soon as possible.