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.

Baker Pushes to Outsource MBTA

As local residents are undoubtedly aware, the governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has been making a push to outsource the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) system. This has resulted in considerable controversy, not only from concerned citizens who use the MBTA system daily, but also from industry safety experts and city and state economists.

Many critics of the move allege that Governor Baker is pushing for full privatization and outsourcing without taking full account of the needs of local citizens—or of the harm that such privatization can do, not only to the state’s mass transit system, but to its bottom line as well.

Possible Exemption from the Pacheco Law

Governor Baker has introduced a measure that will allow a newly privatized and outsourced MBTA to claim formal and legal exemption from the so called Pacheco Law. This is the law that requires that certain rigorous and clearly defined standards must be met when considering whether to allow the privatization of public services that the state has hitherto been fiscally responsible for. In a word, Baker wishes to drop the MBTA from the state’s long list of responsibilities and hand it over to a private company to oversee.

Is There An Upside To Privatization?

Some readers may be wondering if there is an upside to privatization. The main advantage is economic: it certainly costs less to keep a privatized MBTA running, as it mitigates the rising maintenance and infrastructure spending. Critics of the bill allege that this is because the company doesn’t have to pay as much out for employee salaries, pensions, and benefits. However, other economic authorities in the state will counter these charges by the reasoned proposition that the management of MBTA is best handled as a profit making business. They point to the long-term and dangerous deficits being run up by the mass transit system. If the state was removed as the final authority in the matter, the MBTA might be run far more efficiently, with more attention being paid to customer satisfaction.

The Conflict Is Ongoing

As of the summer of 2015, the conflict remains ongoing. Governor Baker has issued several press releases, as well as several more public interviews, in which he has continued to deride the effectiveness of the Pacheco Law. While a long term resolution has yet to be reached, Governor Baker’s crusade for privatization is likely to continue far into the foreseeable future.

Solar Power Finally Gets Its Time In the Sun

Solar power is on the rise and threatening to unseat coal and nuclear power as the primary source of our energy. While the technology to harvest energy from our nearest star is nothing new, advances in efficient collection and storage have positioned solar power to take its place as a major power supplier over the next 30 years.

Advocates of solar power recently called on officials to lift the caps on solar energy production, which has created a major deterrent for companies considering investing in the switch to solar, or even producing compatible equipment.  While opposition has been expressed, perhaps most obviously from existing utility providers, Massachusetts administrators are taking a measured approach to address the solar issue in a balanced manner with a focus on long-term planning.

This type of resistance in the US may explain why it’s trailing behind Germany, China, Italy, and Japan in solar power installations, however, the US is expected to increase its solar installations significantly over the next few years. It will be interesting to see if the anticipated growth in the US  is met in light of the strong opposition from utility companies trying to protect their bottom line.

Experts now suggest solar power could provide up to 10 percent of our global energy within the next decade. Already accounting for 1 percent of global energy production, solar is quickly gaining popularity as costs decline and access to photovoltaic equipment and infrastructure increases.

Capacity for solar production is expected to multiply rapidly and is predicted to offer up to 3k gigawatts of clean, renewable, usable energy. According to a new study by UBS, the convergence of increased energy demands, more efficient power storage, and affordable solar solutions have set the stage for solar power to become a viable energy source for home use. While utility companies will still be an important player in managing power storage and use as the transition progresses.

The UBS study suggests dramatic decreases in battery cost, up to 50 percent by 2020. Combined with the increased popularity of battery-powered cars and homes, the picture this analysis paints is clear: solar power has finally found its time to shine.

SNAP System Leaves Recipients Hungry for Change

The system of food stamp benefits available in Massachusetts is known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Lately, this system has been coming under fire as it has proven inadequate to meet the basic needs of poorer and elderly residents in the state.

An Increasingly Bitter Cause Of Controversy

While the system of food stamp benefits has always been the center of much controversy, particularly among more conservative politicians and voters in the state, the basic system that governs food stamps eligibility is also beginning to become the focus of increasingly bitter and partisan attention.

The delivery of food stamps in the state of Massachusetts has been interrupted or halted altogether on more than one occasion, and the lack of proper supervision of the state’s SNAP and EBT programs has caused recrimination and the “blame game” to ensue. Meanwhile, many individuals and families are having to tighten their belts even further, as food stamps and other forms of assistance become increasingly more scarce. Many families are going without assistance of any kind.

Unwarranted Reductions Are Causing Hardship

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Food Drive employees help a food stamp recipient pick out items.

There have been seemingly unwarranted reductions and interruptions of service that are causing severe hardship for families and individuals dependent on these benefits throughout the state. The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) is bearing the brunt of criticism as a result of its decision to make severe, and in the eyes of some, completely reckless revisions in its processing policy. For example there have been issues with the new computer program’s filtering applications and the phone system that was designed to accommodate 6,000 each day was overwhelmed receiving roughly 20,000 calls per day. In addition, staffing decisions were made to support phone service and document processing rather than increasing the number of client caseworkers.

These policies govern the fate of those who receive food stamps from the DTA, causing many to be considered “unqualified” who would have been routinely accepted prior to the implementation of these reforms. Also, the failure on the part of the DTA to process client claims in the the designated 30 day window has caused claims to be closed automatically leaving those in need of benefits without any. Their only recourse is to spend hours on the phone being transferred from person to person only to receive insufficient answers and wait for a failed system to fix itself. As a result, the process of food stamp renewal for those who have been on the program for an extended period of time is also adversely affected.

The Race Is On To Reverse The Damage

As things stand, the race is now on to reverse the effects of these ill considered reforms. The hope is that the much needed revisions can be made to fix the basic SNAP system before it proves to be irrevocably broken. However, due to the mountains of red tape that the system has accumulated over the years, it may be sometime before relief reaches the families that the snafu has inconvenienced or even endangered.

Brockton Residents Approve Casino In The Recent Referendum

The much anticipated casino referendum for the proposed $650 million resort casino for the Brockton Fairgrounds won by a close 143 votes. The Enterprise newspaper reported that approximately 32% of the city’s 44,010 voting population casted their votes to approve the multi-million dollar casino venture. According to the state’s law, local approval must be granted to obtain a casino license. The proposed casino will be a complex that is expected to include a 225 room hotel, an event center, and many restaurants set on approximately 45 acres of land. The cities of New Bedford and Somerset are also in contention with Brockton for the casino license that has been reserved for Southeastern Massachusetts.

Many of the citizens voted favorably due to the 1,500 permanent casino job opportunities and the minimum $10 million annual income that Brockton would gain if the project is approved. One of the concerns cited by citizens opposing the casino is its close proximity to the Brockton High School.

The project developer for the Brockton casino—Mass Gaming and Entertainment—had invested over $1 million in the campaign to win the approval of the citizens. However, opponents to the casino spent roughly $3,000 for their cause.

State officials have given the developers of the New Bedford casino until June 9th to secure their financial backing or their bid will not be considered. The developers have stated they are confident they can secure their financial backing by the deadline and that New Bedford will be conducting their referendum on the proposed Foxwoods casino on June 23rd. However, the developers of the Somerset do not intend to submit their application any sooner, as they have requested for an extension from the state’s gaming commission.

Considering the financials and after weighing the proposals, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission will make its final decision on the much-anticipated third casino license sometime this fall. The commission has not yet determined when they will be awarding the license for the casino in the Southeast region.

Central Mass Adds 5K New Jobs

The latest state employment report contained some good news for Central Massachusetts, which posted some of the highest annual job gains in the state.

The employment numbers showed the Worcester metropolitan area, essentially southern Worcester County, added an estimated 5,800 jobs from April 2014 to April 2015. The 2.1% increase was among the largest annual gains among the 15 areas of Massachusetts for which regional employment data is published.

Elsewhere in Central Massachusetts, the statistical area including Fitchburg, Leominster, and Gardner added 1,300 jobs during the last year, resulting in a 2.7% increase.

The Framingham area added 3,200 jobs, or 1%, according to the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development figures.

Not surprisingly, the more populous Boston-Cambridge area picked up the largest number of new jobs with 44,000 positions added during the period covered. But, the Boston area’s increase trailed Central Massachusetts on a percentage basis, working out to only a 1.7% jump in jobs.

The state employment numbers are not adjusted for seasonal variations in hiring patterns.

In separate figures tracking monthly employment changes from March to April this year, state officials reported Massachusetts gained 10,100 jobs. The monthly increase represented the eighth consecutive month of job gains in Massachusetts.

The resulting unemployment rate for April of 4.7% was the lowest it has been in Massachusetts in more than seven years.

From March to April, Central Massachusetts as a whole added nearly 6,000 new jobs, with Worcester accounting for the largest share of the total with 2,700 new jobs. With the bump in employment, Worcester’s jobless rate stands at 3.3%, down from 4.4% in April 2014.

Solar Energy Industry: Lift of Net Metering Caps

Stalwarts and leaders of solar energy industry gathered on Tuesday to call for the lifting of the caps on solar production, which has been a major reason for impeding projects on the development of the solar power industry in the Bay State. This cap has been deterring some major companies to invest their money in solar energy projects and has also put many of the current projects on hold in 171 cities and towns within National Grid’s service area.

“It’s not like a future problem, it’s a right now problem,” said Director of Policy and New Markets, Hannah Masterjohn at the Clean Energy Collective.

A new policy introduced as Net Metering allows electricity customers to offset their bills by receiving the retail rate for the energy produced in excess by solar panels. Residential projects under 25 kilowatts can benefit from this new policy, even though large scale government-owned and private projects are controlled and limited by caps.

The solar production cap is becoming a serious problem for customers who are limited in the steps they can take to reduce their energy costs. Currently, the Baker Administration is looking to find long-term solutions rather than quick solutions to solve this problem. The administration opposes short-term lifts of the net metering caps without a clear long-term focus on promoting clean energy and lowering costs for ratepayers.

Katie Rever, director of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association, has been trying to convince lawmakers to consider both the lifting of the net metering cap and implementing a long-term fix to resolve the problem.

Department of Public Utilities also opposes the lift of the net metering caps arguing that it would result in higher bills for the customers without solar panels. For the last few years, Department of Public Utilities have floated the idea of charging a minimum bill from all customers regardless of whether they produce their own electricity or not. It was expected to be charged as a payment to cover the expense of maintaining electricity service and other infrastructure.

“There’s only one wallet in the room, and that’s the customer,” said O’Connor who co-chaired the 17 member task force with Burgess.

Head of PowerOptions, an energy-buying consortium, affirmed that renewable energy and energy efficiency have seen growth recently, yet it has not benefitted the customers who are still paying high prices for gas and electricity.

Breathing Room for Some with Implementation of New Sick Time Law

Massachusetts employers scrambling to overhaul their paid sick time policies ahead of new state regulations will get more time, but only if they already offer some kind of paid time off.

The sick time reform law, passed by state voters in a ballot initiative last year, is scheduled to take effect on July 1. The changes will extend sick time to roughly one million workers who currently don’t qualify for any sick time, paid or unpaid.

Amid grumbling from industry groups that the fast-approaching deadline simply doesn’t give businesses enough time to comply, state regulators have agreed to a “safe harbor” provision that will push back the deadline to the end of the year for businesses with existing policies providing for paid time off.

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Under the provision, employers would be considered in compliance with the sick time law if they had a policy in place as of May 1 that allowed at least 30 hours of paid time off this year, according to a statement from Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.

The legislature has blocked several efforts to completely postpone implementation of the sick time law, which entitles all workers in the state to at least earn and use unpaid sick time.

Workers at companies or nonprofits with eleven or more employees can earn and use up to 40 hours of paid sick time per calendar year, while workers at smaller employers can earn and use up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time per calendar year, under the provisions of the ballot law.

In a statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said the tweak to the implementation schedule was needed to ensure organizations that already offer earned sick time have ample time to adjust their existing systems without facing any legal penalty. Employers that currently don’t offer any paid time off must still comply with the new law by July 1.

To qualify for the extension, a company’s existing paid time off must be “job protected” leave, subject to the ballot law’s bans on retaliation against employees who use sick time.

“The provision represents a reasonable compromise that will allow employers already offering sick leave some breathing room to implement the new law,” said Richard Lord, president of the trade group Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

New York City Land Use Attorneys Getting Busier

As New York City Land Use Attorneys Getting Busier, Possible Boom Lies Ahead

In a city where real estate commands a price higher than nearly anywhere else in the world, nothing is easy. This applies to middle and working class residents coping with the high cost of living, as well as to real estate investors and developers to whom New York City government can seem like a maze of approvals and strict standards, comprised of countless committees and interests, all of whom have their own priorities and powers to exercise.

NYC’s Real Estate Market

Increased real estate development activity is affecting New Yorkers who aren’t even involved in the real estate business. The so-called “pencil towers” going up around 57th Street near Central Park are redefining the city’s skyline and breaking records for both heights of residential buildings and sale prices of residential units. Ordinary Manhattan apartments are selling for substantially higher prices as well. According to the Wall Street Journal’s analysis of New York City Department of Finance data, the average sale price for a Manhattan co-op or condo in 2014 topped $1.68 million, which is more than 16% higher than 2013, and 10% above the peak prices in pre-recession 2008.

Mayor de Blasio’s Affordable Housing Agenda

Following the stabilization of the economy at large and the resulting increase in New York real estate development there was a mayoral changing of the guards. Since taking the reigns as Mayor on January 1st, 2014, Bill de Blasio has sought to establish contrast with his predecessor, the billionaire Wall Street magnate, Michael Bloomberg. A prime example of this contrast is placing a dramatic increase in affordable housing in the city as one of his top agenda items. His administration seeks to “to build and preserve 200,000 affordable units over the coming decade.” Achieving such an increase will require changes to infrastructure, building skyward, and new regulations.

Land Use Attorneys

New York City developers rely on land use attorneys to obtain required permits, ensure compliance with zoning laws, and to obtain approval from the city for their projects. There are two categories of development with regard to obtaining approval from the city: as-of-right developments and developments with discretionary approval processes.

The New York City Department of City Planning web site states that “An as-of-right development complies with all applicable zoning regulations and does not require any discretion­ary action by the City Planning Commission or Board of Standards and Appeals.” According to Frank Chaney, who is a land use attorney with Rosenberg & Estis, P.C. and a former Deputy Director of the Department of City Planning, “If there is any way shape or form by which developers can get approvals and permits without discretionary review, they’ll do it. The discretionary approval process can run from one and a half to two years on complicated projects.” As-of-right developments require limited assistance from attorneys, whereas applications with discretionary approvals are the bread of butter of land use legal practices. “Except for the usual due diligence done for all developments, people only need land use attorneys if there is some kind of discretionary approval involved.”

In New York, the recession which began in 2008 resulted in both reduced as-of-right development projects and projects with discretionary approvals. The onset of the recession didn’t immediately affect land use attorneys however, because the pre-recession pipeline of applications with discretionary approvals kept land use attorneys busy well into the first two years of the recession. Per Chaney, “once they [real estate investors and developers] were into the project, most applicants proceeded through the start of the recession into 2009, but the flow of new applications into the pipeline dried up.”

Chaney believes, however, that the demand for land use attorneys has increased since the recession-induced slump. “From 2010 until 2012 or perhaps early 2013, it was pretty slow.  I’m not sure we’re back at same level of activity we had prior to the recession but the gradual recovery has led to more and more activity.”

According to Ross Weil, of the New York City legal placement firm Walker Associates, land use and zoning attorneys have become hot prospects in the current job market. “When real estate is booming, land use work is booming. The current redevelopment efforts in the city mean a boom not just for residential property but commercial too. You can’t build a hotel without this kind of work.”

Uncertain Implementation of Affordable Housing Agenda

During his campaign for Mayor, de Blasio spoke often of increasing affordable housing in the city, and he hasn’t backpedalled since his inauguration. In fact, he’s doubled down, appointing Carl Weisbrod to chair the City Planning Commission and to serve as Director of City Planning, who has echoed the Mayor’s claims that the affordable housing agenda is a top priority.

Thus far, the most significant change in policy the administration has made in the name of increasing affordable housing in the city has been to convert the once voluntary, incentive-based Inclusionary Housing Program into a mandatory participation program. New York City’s Inclusionary Housing Program was originally established in 1987 for the purpose of incentivizing developers to include more affordable housing units in their projects via a zoning exemption allowing developers to build larger structures than they otherwise could obtain approval for, provided their project included a certain amount of affordable housing. In 2005, the Bloomberg administration substantially expanded the incentive-eligible areas in the city. Bloomberg’s major changes to the program seem minor in comparison to de Blasio’s.

In September, Weisbrod announced that affordable housing units will be required for any development projects requiring city planner approval. He spoke in unequivocal terms, saying “You can’t build one unit unless you build your share of affordable housing. You can’t build just market-rate housing, period.”

Alma Realty was among the first developers to opt in to the “mandatory” program with a 1,700 unit project on the East River in Queens, only to be met by resistance at the city council level, where leaders claimed that the 20% of units set aside for affordability wasn’t enough. After a compromise that included a raise to 27%, that project was approved, but the future is clear: achieving the mayor’s affordable housing goals isn’t going to be easy for the administration, or for developers.

Attorney Frank Chaney says he has received numerous calls and inquiries during the first year of the de Blasio administration from concerned people asking him about possible new affordable housing mandates. “What would be the criteria for them? On what basis would they determine compliance with mandates? Some of these questions have been answered to a certain extent, but there are still a lot of unknowns.”

When asked how he thinks de Blasio’s affordable housing agenda will impact land use attorneys in New York, Chaney answered “If they structure the affordable housing program such that it is as-of-right, not discretionary, then there might not be much of an uptick in work for land use attorneys. If it is subject to review and approval, there will be more work for people like me.”

In response to the same question, Ross Weil of Walker Associates said “The increase in development in the city which started in the late Bloomberg years as the economy improved has already led to a major increase in demand for land use attorneys. But if de Blasio’s affordable housing regulations make getting development projects approved more complicated, I’d say land use in the city would be an absolutely booming practice area.”

We’re in the early stages of what Mayor de Blasio called “the largest, fastest affordable housing plan ever attempted at a local level,” that he said would “change the face of this city forever.” If the implementation of his affordable housing agenda results in additional discretionary approvals for real estate development projects, then Mayor de Blasio could change the face of the land use legal practice area in New York City forever, as well.


Hologic plans to move HQ to Marlborough

Marlborough is about to become home to another life sciences company. Bedford-based Hologic Inc. plans to move its headquarters to the city. The relocation would add 150 employees to the 450 who currently work at two Hologic offices in Marlborough.

Hologic, a manufacturer of a variety of testing and diagnostic equipment, has asked the City Council to extend a tax-increment financing, or TIF, agreement for five years through the city’s 2020 fiscal year. The company’s current TIF took effect in July 2007 and is scheduled to expire at the end of June, the close of the city’s 2015 fiscal year.

“Hologic’s interest in expanding their operations in Marlborough is an affirmation of Marlborough’s continued economic growth,” said Mayor Arthur Vigeant in a letter to the council. According to Mayor Vigeant, Hologic is making the move to benefit from Marlborough’s location and the area’s “well educated workforce with a high degree of knowledge within the life sciences sector.”

The agreement between Vigeant’s administration and Hologic comes amid the city’s preparations to welcome GE Healthcare Life Sciences. The division of General Electric announced last year it would move its headquarters from New Jersey to Marlborough. The addition of a GE division within city limits is expected to add more than 200 jobs to the approximately 300 already slated to move into a new headquarters on Forest Street.

Hologic said that under the current agreement with the city, it expects to generate 150 new jobs within two years. The company plans to fill those positions by drawing from qualified residents of the city and surrounding communities.

The company has an annual revenue of about $2.6 billion. In its most recent quarterly statement, the company reported a 5 percent gain in revenue with net profits of $47.8 million. Hologic’s tax deal with the city is expected to save the company approximately 10 percent, or nearly $200,000, over the next five years on its estimated obligation of $1.93 million.