Gravel & Shea PC

March 2020

March 30, 2020: Governor Scott Restricts Travel into Vermont and Clarifies Lodging Restrictions

On March 30, 2020, Governor Phil Scott restricted travel into Vermont and clarified restrictions on Vermont’s lodging industry.  These directives supplement Governor Scott’s prior Stay Home/Stay Safe Order, which suspended commercial lodging unless required to support the COVID-19 response, and Executive Order 01-20, which declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19.

To curtail the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont and maintain Vermont’s response capabilities, Governor Scott issued the following orders as to travel and lodging.  These orders will remain in effect until April 15, 2020, unless later extended.

Governor Scott Restricts Travel into Vermont

Governor Scott restricted travel into Vermont (including business travel into Vermont), directing Vermont residents and non-residents traveling into Vermont from outside the state to self-monitor and home quarantine for 14 days.  The exception to this order is if someone travels into Vermont for an “essential purpose.” The Governor specified that “essential purpose” means “travel required for personal safety; food, beverage or medicine; medical care; care of others; and to perform work, services or functions deemed critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security, as set forth in [the Governor’s previous] Stay Home/Stay Safe” Order. As such, multi state businesses and businesses operating across state lines need to be aware that unless employees are traveling into Vermont to perform work for a business that has been determined to be essential under the Governor’s Order, the employees should refrain from traveling into the state, or they will be subject to the quarantine.

In addition, visitors are instructed not to travel to Vermont if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19, or if they are traveling from CDC “hot-spots,” including Florida, Louisiana, Detroit, Chicago, New York City, New Jersey or Connecticut.

Governor Scott Prohibits Most Commercial Lodging

In last week’s Stay Home/Stay Safe Order, Governor Scott suspended lodging operations.  Today’s guidance clarifies that “lodging” includes, but is not be limited to, “hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, inns, short term rentals, such as those made available through VRBO, Homeaway, AirBnb and other services, parks for recreational vehicles and campgrounds, [and] all public and private camping facilities including those managed by the Vermont Department of Parks and Recreation.”

Existing guests may remain in their lodging through the end of their scheduled stays but cannot extend their stays or make new reservations.  Governor Scott will allow lodging in only the following circumstances:

  • Housing vulnerable populations, such as homeless individuals, as arranged by the state
  • Housing healthcare workers, or other workers deemed necessary to support public health, public safety or critical infrastructure
  • Lodging used as quarantine facilities, as arranged by the state
  • Other limited circumstances for the care and safety of Vermonters

Permitted lodging must be reserved over the phone.  Online reservations are suspended.  Lodging providers are ordered to post notice on their internet platforms of these reservation restrictions.

Vermont law enforcement officials will monitor lodging providers’ compliance with this order and will report non-compliance to the Office of the Attorney General.

Click here to read COVID-19 News and Updates

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Please contact Heather Hammond (hhammond@gravelshea.com) at Gravel & Shea PC if you have questions or would like assistance.

 

 

 

April 1, 2020: United States Department of Labor Issues Guidance on Implementation of FFCRA

The US Department of Labor has issued some guidance for employers as we get prepared for the Paid Sick Leave and Paid Family Leave components of the FFCRA (the “Act”). While this guidance does not have the force of actual DOL regulations, it provides both employers and employees with some degree of certainty as we move into April.

The guidance is quite lengthy, and can be found here:

https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/pandemic/ffcra-questions.

We have summarized some of the issues that have been raised by many of our clients over the past week or so, but there may be guidance specific to your business that can be found on the DOL’s website, even if it is not addressed below.

Brief Summary of the Act

Employers with 500 employees or less must provide Paid Sick Leave to employees who are unable to work or telework because they: (1) are subject to a Federal, State, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19; (2) have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19; or (3) are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and are seeking medical diagnosis. Those employees must be paid at their regular rate of pay for two weeks, at a maximum of 80 hours per two-week period and $511.00 per day.

Employers with 500 employees or less must provide Paid Sick Leave to employees who are unable to work or telework because they are: (1) caring for an individual who is subject to a Federal, State, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19 or an individual who has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19; (2) caring for their child whose school or place of care is closed, or child care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19 related reasons; or (3) experiencing any other substantially-similar condition that may arise, as specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. These employees are entitled to compensation at 2/3 of their regular rate of pay for two weeks, at a maximum of 80 hours per two-week period and $200.00 per day.

Employers with 500 employees or less must provide Paid Family Leave to employees who are unable to work or telework because they are caring for their child whose school or place of child care is closed, or whose child care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-related reasons. These employees are entitled to an additional 10 weeks of compensation at 2/3 of their regular rate of pay, at a maximum of $200 per day.

New DOL Guidance (more…)

March 26, 2020: Congress Passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (“CARES ACT”)

Today, the United States Congress approved a bill known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act. It is expected to be signed by the President and enacted within the next few days.

For the purposes of this news item, we only summarize its principal provisions relevant to new loans made available under the Act for small- and medium-sized businesses. If you have questions about the technical exemptions, limits and conditions or specific questions about how the provisions of the Act will apply to you or your company, we recommend that you contact an attorney or directly consult the Act. Note as well that significant aspects of the aid, relief and loan programs require the relevant agencies to implement regulatory rules and procedures before they will be available.

Short Term Strategies for Seeking Assistance with Cash-Flow and Employee Costs: SBA Loan Programs

The CARES Act contains a number of provisions providing important support for small- to medium-size businesses, nonprofits, and similar enterprises. Among the most important is a direction for the Small Business Administration to set up a program of loans to help pay operational costs like payroll, some benefits, rent, mortgage interest, and utilities. The Act requires that the Small Business Administration implement the regulations required to roll out this program by April 27th.

What makes these loans particularly attractive is the possibility that some or all of the debt will be forgiven if spent relatively quickly on designated expenses and if certain employment targets are met.

The loans can be taken directly from the SBA or through its network of affiliated lenders, just like other SBA loans. We strongly recommend that any enterprise considering applying for these loans should be in contact with one or more potential lenders as soon as possible, even before the final details of the program are established. While the legislation does not set specific capacity limits for this program, as a practical matter, laying the tracks for early action is would be wise.

What Entities are Eligible?

Eligibility is broad. Eligible entities include (i) companies already qualified as “small business concerns” under the SBA rules and (ii) other business concerns, nonprofit organizations, veterans’ organizations and Tribal business with 500 or fewer employees. This numerical limit is subject to some special rules for specific sectors, most notably in the accommodation and food services sector. The SBA’s affiliation rules will generally apply for business groups, although here, too, there are some specific exceptions.

How Much Can Be Requested? (more…)

March 26, 2020: Congress and Vermont Legislature Pass Significant Expansion to Unemployment Benefits

As the COVID crisis continues, both the federal and state governments are rapidly passing legislation that is intended to provide quick aid to all sectors of the American economy, including businesses and employees. This bulletin will focus on the expanded employment benefits in recent legislation passed by the Vermont Legislature and Congress.

On March 26, 2020, two pieces of legislation were passed by the Vermont Legislature (H.681 and H.742), constituting Vermont’s first COVID-19 relief package. Together, these new laws aim to alleviate pressure the pandemic has placed on the administration of state and local government, our healthcare system, and Vermont businesses. While they have not yet been signed by Governor Scott, we expect that to happen very soon. This bulletin provides an overview of the changes to Vermont’s unemployment insurance benefits contained in H.742, which aims to significantly broaden workers’ eligibility for those benefits and to provide assistance to Vermont businesses during these unprecedented times.

Specifically, H.742 expands the availability of unemployment benefits to persons who are unable to work due to reasons related to COVID-19, and it exempts these benefits from employers’ experience ratings.

Under H.742, Workers Who Cannot Work for Reasons Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Claim Unemployment Benefits.

In most instances, workers who leave their employment voluntarily are prohibited from claiming unemployment benefits. Of course, certain exemptions exist, including for spouses of military personnel who leave their employment to accompany their spouse on a new assignment. H.742 adds a new series of exceptions to this general rule that allow workers to claim unemployment benefits if they cannot work for a reason related to COVID-19.

Under H.742 workers who leave their employment (either by virtue of a reduction of force, a furlough, leave of absence or otherwise) for the following reasons related to COVID-19 (“COVID-Related Reasons”) now qualify to receive unemployment benefits:

  • Workers who leave to self-isolate or quarantine after they receive notification by a health care provider or public authority that they have contracted COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, have been exposed to COVID-19, or are at risk of having been exposed to COVID-19.
  • Workers who leave due to an “unreasonable risk” that they might be exposed to or become infected with COVID-19 at the workplace. “Unreasonable risk” in this context means that the employer’s workplace is out of compliance with the COVID-specific OSHA regulations (which follows the publicized CDC guidance), or other federal or state protocol that may apply.
  • Workers who leave to care for an immediate family member or grandparent after the family member receives notification by a health care provider or public authority that they have contracted COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, have been exposed to COVID-19, or are at risk of having been exposed to COVID-19.
  • Workers who leave to care for a child under the age of 18 because the child’s school or child-care provider has closed due to COVID-19.

What is not specifically designated as a COVID-Related Reason is Governor Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Order (the “Order”). For workers who cannot work or telework due to the Order but are not otherwise covered by a COVID-Related Reason, we have been advised by the Department of Labor that it intends to treat “furloughed” employees the same as employees who have been temporarily laid off. It is taking the position that any cessation of work or reduction in hours due to the Order will make the employee eligible for these benefits.

As is customary with unemployment benefits, other sources of paid time off (employer-provided paid time off or state or federal paid sick leave or paid family leave) must be used first. While dollars spent by the employer to maintain an employees’ benefits during a furlough (such as health care benefits) will not be treated as disqualifying funds paid to employees, the Department has cautioned that attempts to “make the employee whole” by providing cash supplements to employees will be treated as a disqualifying event (depriving the employee of unemployment insurance).

H.742 Helps Employers Maintain Their Unemployment Insurance Tax Rates by Exempting Certain Unemployment Charges from Their Experience Rating During the Pandemic.

Under H.742, employers are exempt from unemployment benefit charges on their account for up to 8 weeks for workers who qualify for benefits for a COVID-Related Reason. Additionally, to qualify for the exemption, the employer must rehire the worker after a reasonable period following the resumption of normal business operations or after the employee is no longer subject to quarantine.

The Federal CARES Act Aims to Expand Unemployment Benefits for Traditionally Ineligible People and Increases the Total Benefits Received.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives today passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act” or the “Act”), a $2.2 trillion stimulus package meant to keep businesses and individuals afloat during the COVID-19 outbreak. President Trump is expected to sign it soon. Once enacted, the CARES Act will be the largest economic stimulus package in American history.

The nearly 900-page CARES Act contains many provisions that address national economic, healthcare, education, and government priorities. Among those priorities is a temporary expansion of unemployment benefits that increase the number of people eligible for unemployment and the amount of money they receive.

Individuals covered by the unemployment expansion will include many who are traditionally ineligible for unemployment benefits, such as people who are self-employed, contract or “gig” workers, and those who have already exhausted regular unemployment benefits.

A person may be eligible for unemployment under the Act if they self-certify that they are otherwise able to work (as defined by state law) but cannot do so because any one of the following applies to them:

  • They have been diagnosed with COVID-19
  • They are seeking a medical diagnosis for COVID-19
  • They are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19
  • They are providing care for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19
  • They are providing care for a member of their household diagnosed with COVID-19
  • A member of their household was diagnosed with COVID-19
  • They are the primary caregiver to a child or other household member who is unable to attend school or another facility that closed because of COVID-19, so long as school or facility care is required for the individual to work
  • They cannot reach their place of work because of an imposed COVID-19 quarantine
  • They cannot reach their place of work because they have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine
  • Their place of work is closed because of COVID-19
  • They had to quit their job because of COVID-19
  • They became the primary breadwinner of a household after another household member died from COVID-19

States (like Vermont) that opt-in to the CARES Act’s unemployment expansion will provide weekly benefits to approved individuals. Those benefits will include both the unemployment benefit amount already authorized by State law, plus an additional $600 benefit established by the Act.

Self-employed individuals will be eligible for weekly unemployment benefits pursuant to a statutory equation plus the additional $600 provided by the Act.

Notably, the CARES Act makes unemployment benefits retroactively available to covered individuals who were unable to work on or after January 27, 2020.

Click here to read COVID-19 News and Updates

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Please contact Heather Hammond (hhammond@gravelshea.com) at Gravel & Shea PC if you have questions or would like assistance.

March 24, 2020: Vermont Emergency Rules for Remote Notarization

As a result of the COVID-19 global crisis, the Vermont’s Deputy Secretary of State promulgated Emergency Rules Enabling Use of Remote Notarization.  The emergency rules are effective March 24, 2020.  A copy of the rules can be found at the following links:

Vermont Emergency Rules for Remote Notarization

The Vermont Secretary of State’s guidance is live now:

Click here to learn more about the Vermont Rules and Guidance for Remote Notaries.

The use of remote notarization per these Rules is authorized pursuant to the following conditions:

  • The communication technology must allow the signer and the notary to communicate simultaneously by sight and sound;
  • The notary must be commissioned in Vermont and must be physically located in Vermont when taking the acknowledgement;
  • The signer must be physically located in Vermont;
  • Unless personally known to the notary, the signer must present, prior to the notarial act, two forms of satisfactory evidence of identity (which includes a passport, driver’s license or government issued non-driver identification card which is current or not expired more than three years and another form of government identification issued to the individual that is current or expired more than three years and contains the signature or photograph of the individual)
  • The notarial act is performed on either the original paper that was signed by the individual and subsequently provided to the notary, or a printed copy of the  signed document that was electronically provided to the notary by the signer;
  • The notary can reasonably confirm that the record before the notary is the same record signed by the individual;
  • The notary must record the notarial act and retain a copy of the recording for seven (7) years;
  • The notary must execute a certificate in accordance with the emergency rules, including a statement that the notarial act was performed remotely; and
  • The remote notarial act must comply with all other requirements of the Vermont Notary Act (26 VSA § 5361, et seq.)

These Emergency Rules are effective immediately for 180 days, unless modified by the Secretary of State.

Click here to read COVID-19 News and Updates

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 FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information about the Vermont Emergency Rules for Remote Notarization, please contact Michelle Farkas at mfarkas@gravelshea.com or your attorney at Gravel & Shea PC.

 

March 25, 2020: A Message To Our Clients

To all of our clients:

We hope you are staying safe and healthy.

In view of Governor Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Order, issued on March 24, 2020, we have fully closed our Burlington, Vermont office until further notice.  However, we want to assure you that we remain ready and available to help and support you.

Gravel & Shea prepared in advance to make the transition to a fully remote workforce, and will continue providing services to clients without interruption.  To assist in this process, we request that correspondence be sent to us by email or facsimile to the extent possible.  For questions regarding payment of fees, please contact Flossie Miller at fmiller@gravelshea.com.

We are providing up-to-date information on federal, state and local rules, regulations and legislation related to the coronavirus pandemic.  Please visit the dedicated COVID-19 news page on our website gravelshea.com

If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Best regards,

Robert H. Rushford, Managing Partner, on behalf of the firm

Click here for more COVID-19 News and Updates

March 25, 2020: What does Vermont’s Stay Home/Stay Safe Order Mean for Vermont Businesses?

Yesterday Vermont Governor Phil Scott issued an Addendum to his March 13, 2020 State of Emergency in Response to COVID-19 and National Guard Call-Out (“Executive Order”), directing Vermont residents to stay at home and businesses and nonprofits to suspend in-person business operations as of 5.00 p.m. today, March 25, 2020.  It is to remain in effect until April 15, 2020.  This is the sixth addendum to the Executive Order, adding a layer to the March 23, 2020 Addendum 5, requiring businesses and nonprofits to put in place telecommuting or work from home procedures to the extent possible, Addendum 4, closing all close contact businesses, and Addendum 2, closing bars’ and restaurants’ on-premises service.

Services or functions deemed critical to public health and safety and to economic and national security are exempted from the Order.  These include, in brief:

  • Health care operations, which includes a wide scope of operations such as testing, research, direct care, caregivers, logistics, technology, security and other services;
  • Critical infrastructure operations such as utilities, water, sewer, airports and transportation (that being said, Amtrak will suspend operations as of tomorrow)construction necessary to support the COVID-19 response and maintain critical infrastructure (but not residential or non-essential construction);
  • Critical manufacturing, including food and animal feed production, distribution and sales; pharmaceuticals and manufacturing necessary to support COVID-19 response;
  • Retail serving basic human needs like grocery, medicines, animal feed and essential supplies, but these should operate through online and telephone sales and provide for delivery and curb-side pick-up where possible;
  • Fuel products and supplies;
  • Hardware stores, but under the conditions similar to “retail servicing” above;
  • Transportation and agricultural equipment parts, repair and maintenance, but under the conditions similar to “retail servicing” above;
  • Trash collection and disposal;
  • Agriculture, farms, animal shelters, CSAs, veterinarians, and similar operations;
  • Lodging as required to support COVID-19, critical infrastructure and national security;
  • Building and property services;
  • Mail and shipping services;
  • News media;
  • Banks; however, retail banking shall be limited;
  • Providers of services and necessities to economically disadvantaged populations;
  • Vendors that supply services to support COVID-19 response, critical infrastructure and national security.

To read the more detailed list and the rest of Governor Scott’s Executive Order Addendum 6, click here.  You may also find a description of your business as critical here, or a description of workers critical to infrastructure and COVID-19 Response here.

Business that fall under the list enumerated above should continue their operations, except that they should do so while following social distancing rules to the extent possible. Guidance can be found here.

If your business does not fall into one of the exceptions in the list above, but which is still, in your good faith estimation, a provider of services or products critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security, you should seek an opinion from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (“ACCD”) through this form.  In your request, you should address the following factors, which the ACCD will evaluate when considering your request:

  • whether your business is necessary in order to properly respond to this emergency;
  • whether a business transaction or the performance of services requires in-person contact;
  • the implications for business operations in Vermont, taking into account the economic and societal impacts as well as supply chain dependences that are geographically distributed; and
  • other factors you consider relevant to your specific operations.

The ACCD has specifically requested that business and their representatives not call the ACCD directly but should instead use the form linked above to submit their requests.  While the ACCD has committed to answering each and every request, it is unlikely that they will be able to address all requests before the effective hour of 5:00 p.m. this evening.  We recommend that businesses that are specifically exempted under the Order continue their operations without submitting an ACCD request.  This will also help the ACCD by avoiding an overwhelming flood of unnecessary requests.  Those that have a good faith basis to believe that they are essential business operations should submit the request, but should then continue their operations until they have had a response from the ACCD.  All businesses that continue operations should do so while following the CDC’s safety guidance.

The ACCD also released this afternoon FAQs, which can be found here.

Businesses that are either specifically exempted or in good faith believed to be exempted from ceasing operations should also evaluate which suppliers and services will be critical to the continuance of their operations and inform those suppliers or service providers of their critical role and your expectation for their continued service.

Click here to read COVID-19 News and Updates

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For assistance with this communication, or with any questions about what the Executive Order means to you and your business, please contact: Peter Erly (perly@gravelshea.com); Chip Mason (cmason@gravelshea.com) or Cassandra LaRae-Perez (claraeperez@gravelshea.com).

 

 

 

Gravel & Shea Completes Business Peer Exchange Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Fall of 2019, Gravel & Shea joined the 2019-2020 cohort of businesses participating in a Vermont-based program aimed at improving gender equity and inclusivity in workplaces around the state.

A year-long program, Business Peer Exchange works with Vermont businesses to shift workplace culture towards gender equity and inclusivity by creating “gender equity ambassadors” in workplaces throughout the state and providing coaching and support as these ambassadors make changes within their organizations.

As participants in the program, Gravel & Shea employees had access to a series of virtual trainings that addressed equity issues in the workplace, including building inclusive talent pipelines and website messaging, acknowledging implicit biases, and identifying male allies. Designated employees within the firm attended in-person exchange sessions and brought ideas back to a larger Business Peer Exchange team at the firm.

“The program was very energizing and encouraging,” says Michelle Farkas, the hiring partner at Gravel & Shea. “We got a lot of training on implicit bias and hiring—how you advertise, how you interview, and who you ultimately hire. We were already focused on inclusive hiring practices, but the program challenged us to look more closely at our actions and the language we were using.”

The task for those who participated in the program is to carry their ideas back to the firm and provide the education and support necessary to make lasting improvements. “The program expanded my vision of what it means to be an equitable workplace,” says Gravel & Shea partner Navah Spero. “I had been really focused on the firm being family friendly, and now I’m think more about being human friendly.”

While the Business Peer Exchange’s focus is gender equity, Gravel & Shea saw an opportunity to address respectful behavior not just among genders but more broadly—between lawyers and staff or between clients and staff.

“We want to have a respectful workplace,” says Farkas, “but people often don’t know what to do or say when they see something that isn’t right—for instance, if a client is disrespectful to a legal assistant or if a colleague asks the only woman in a meeting to take notes.”

In their final session with the Business Peer Exchange, Gravel & Shea’s participants got suggestions from the group on how to respond to specific situations. They’re using this crowd-sourced wisdom to help develop the strategies they hope will create an even more equitable and respectful workplace.

“Our goal is to create protocols for handling difficult situations, and we’ll even be integrating some of those concepts into our engagement letters,” says Farkas.

March 24, 2020: Officials Roll Out Changes to Vermont Room and Meals Tax, Sales and Use Tax and Burlington Gross Receipts Tax

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, both the State of Vermont and City of Burlington are taking steps to support affected businesses to the extent possible.

Most recently, the State of Vermont Department of Taxes announced that it will provide temporary relief to Vermont businesses subject to Meals and Rooms Tax or Sales and Use Tax.  Businesses that are unable to meet the March 25, and April 25 filing and payment deadlines will not be charged penalties or interest for late payments.  Additional details can be found at: https://tax.vermont.gov/business-and-corp/meals-and-rooms-tax.  The Department notes that this is not presently an abatement of the tax collected; as such, the tax remains due.  Since any tax abatement would have to come from the Vermont Legislature, we are tracking this issue closely and will report out any change to the tax laws that may be implemented in the coming weeks.

Separately, the City of Burlington, as part of its Covid Response Plan, agreed to provide a one-time relief subsidy to Burlington businesses. Specifically, such businesses will not be required to pay gross receipts tax to the City of Burlington for taxes collected between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2020.  This is an abatement of the gross receipts tax for this limited time period.

Click here to read COVID-19 News and Updates

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 FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information about the tax relief measures, please contact Chip Mason at cmason@gravelshea.com or your attorney at Gravel & Shea PC.

 

 

March 17, 2020: Permitted Delay in Filing Federal Tax Returns

The IRS had previously announced a delay in the due date for making tax payments as to 2019 tax returns until July 15.  Secretary Stephen Mnuchin has now stated that the due date for individual and business tax returns will be extended until July 15 as well.  Complete information is available on the IRS Coronavirus website about this development other Coronavirus related tax developments. Link to IRS Coronavirus website].