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Bills To Help Workers, Municipalities Now In Mass. Legislature’s Hands

With closures tied to the coronavirus outbreak impacting everything from restaurants and schools to municipal offices, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday filed a suite of legislation intended to offer a lifeline to workers forced to stay home and to cities and towns trying to keep local government operational.

Baker last week declared a state of emergency in response to the spread of coronavirus throughout Massachusetts, but his emergency powers only extend so far.

As he detailed Sunday night, the governor filed a package of three bills Monday morning to allow workers to begin immediately collecting unemployment benefits, and to allow municipalities to extend their existing budgets on a month-to-month basis.

The House and Senate were both in session Monday morning to receive Baker's bills and will return in informal sessions Tuesday as they map out a strategy to advance the governor's bills quickly. Baker planned to meet later in the day Monday with Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and a press conference with all three leaders was planned for 4 p.m.

One bill (S 2598) filed by Baker would waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits to be paid to workers impacted by COVID-19.

"This means that the Department of Unemployment Assistance would be authorized to pay benefits without delay to persons who become unemployed because of layoffs or business shutdowns taken in response to the virus, because of quarantine orders or directives or illness that prevents them from leaving their homes, or because they must care for a sick or quarantined family member or attend to children who are at home due to school closures," Baker said in a filing letter.

That bill was referred by the Senate to the Committee on Ways and Means.

The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development is also expected to file emergency regulations that don't require a vote of the Legislature to allow employees affected by the coronavirus to collect unemployment if their workplace shuts down with plans to reopen within four weeks.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said small business owners have been seeking "flexibility" from unemployment insurance rules at both the state and federal levels. The trade group began surveying employers Monday morning about other steps small employers would like to see taken.

Hurst said he would particularly like to see the federal government guarantee that unemployment insurance rates won't increase should the state need to borrow from the federal government to cover benefits.

"The unemployment insurance tax rate is based on usage. It's critical that no small business should be hit with a higher tax rate because they're using this system," Hurst said. "Fortunately we have low unemployment and a pretty good trust fund here in Massachusetts, but I have to think there will be federal legislation to take that into consideration."

The state's unemployment rate held steady for the sixth consecutive month in January at 2.8%, contributing to the health of a trust fund that holds over $1.6 billion to pay unemployment benefits.

According to the latest report from the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, the unemployment insurance trust fund had a balance of $1.6 billion in January, with $1.74 billion projected to be collected from private employers over the course of the year and $1.27 billion in benefits expected to be paid.

The state had been projecting that no federal borrowing would be required through 2024, but that could change.

Hurst said that in addition to providing a safety net for workers, the state and federal government will need to provide supports for business owners. He said many businesses still don't know if "business interruption insurance" will cover this crisis.

"There isn't a great safety net for small businesses out there that have to cover payrolls, high rents and health insurance coverage," Hurst said. "We're going to see a lot of dark storefronts unless there are ways to mitigate those ongoing fixed costs when you aren't getting any income."

The municipal flexibility bill (H 4572) would allow town moderators, in consultation with local boards of selectmen, to postpone Town Meetings for up to 30 days because of a public health emergency, and a select board could push the meeting beyond June 30, which is currently the deadline in state law.

Towns would also be able to reduce quorum requirements to conduct the most pressing Town Meeting business, and town leaders could extend budgets on a month-to-month basis based on prior-year spending levels if they are unable to complete a new fiscal year 2021 budget.

Local emergency deficit spending required to respond to the coronavirus could also be amortized over three years, rather than forcing municipal budget leaders to try to factor it all into next year's property tax rates.

The House referred the municipal governance bill to the Committee on Municipalities.

The final bill (H 4571) filed by the governor would make Monday, Sept. 14, 2020 a statewide holiday to continue the tradition of a long weekend for people to take part and celebrate the running of the Boston Marathon, which has been postponed until the fall.

That bill was referred by the House to the Committee on the Judiciary.

It's unclear how the Legislature plans to handle new emergency bills filed to respond to the coronavirus outbreak with legislative offices being told to limit personnel in the building, and the speaker and Senate president instructing committee chairs to postpone or reschedule public hearings.

By referring the unemployment insurance bill to Senate Ways and Means, the Senate may be trying to get around requirements that a public hearing be held in order to fast track that bill to the floor for a vote.

The governor over the weekend ordered schools statewide to close, and said restaurants and bars could no longer serve customers on site. Baker has also restricted gatherings of people to 25 people or less.

Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli and John Barrett III filed legislation last week to create a new fund to assist hourly wage workers who may have to miss work due to COVID-19 illness.

And Sen. Paul Feeney filed a bill to ensure that any state employee who has to miss work due to coronavirus infection, physician-ordered quarantine and doesn't have sufficient sick leave to cover their absence be granted the leave they need with pay.

Those bills have still not been referred to committee.

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