July 2019  

Paid Family and Medical Leave Delay

As reported by the Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave, the Massachusetts Legislature and the Baker-Polito Administration have enacted legislation to delay the start of employer and employee contributions to the Paid Family and Medical Leave program (PFML) by three months to October 1, 2019. This delay will allow employers across the Commonwealth more time to prepare their organizations and workforces for PFML. Accordingly, please take note of the following key facts:

Required Withholding Now Starts October 1
The start date for required PFML contributions is now October 1, 2019. On that date, employers must begin withholding PFML contributions from employee qualifying earnings. Employers will be responsible for remitting employee and (if applicable) employer contributions for the October 1 to December 31 quarter through MassTaxConnect by January 31, 2020.

Contribution Rate Change
The PFML law requires that the Department adjust the contribution rate to offset the shorter period for collections that will result from the three month delay. As a result, the total contribution rate has been adjusted from 0.63% to 0.75% of employee qualifying earnings. This adjustment will ensure that full funding will be in place for the commencement of benefit payments in January 2021.

Timeline Extended for Required Employee Notices
Employers now have until September 30, 2019, to notify all covered individuals of their rights and obligations under PFML.

Timeline Extended for Exemption Applications
Employers that offer paid leave benefits that are at least as generous as those required under the PFML law may apply to the Department for an exemption from making contributions. Employers will now have until December 20, 2019, to apply for an exemption that will excuse them from the obligation to remit contributions for the full period commencing with the October 1 start date.

PFML Regulations Will Be Final and Effective on July 1, 2019
The final regulations were posted on the Department website at mass.gov/pfml on Monday, June 17, 2019. The regulations will be formally published under the title 458 CMR 2.00 DEPARTMENT OF FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE.

To view a copy of the final regulations, please visit: https://www.mass.gov/doc/458-cmr-200-department-of-family-and-medical-leave/download.

Legislature Hears Competing Visions for Funding Climate Resiliency Initiatives

As reported by the State House News Service and other media outlets, two key committees of the Massachusetts Legislature held public hearings on the same day as Governor Charlie Baker’s and Speaker Robert DeLeo’s competing proposals for funding $1 billion worth of climate resiliency initiatives.
The Governor’s legislation, which would raise the state’s real estate transfer tax to generate as much as $137 million a year, was heard by the Joint Committee on Revenue. The Governor’s legislation would generate new revenue by increasing the excise amount by $2.28 to $3.42 for every $500 of the price of a property sale. The new funding source would be directed to a recently established Global Warming Solutions Trust Fund. The legislation, which is similar to a proposal filed by State Representative Sean Garballey in conjunction with UCANE in a previous session, was supported by a variety of environmental and community groups.

The legislation filed by Speaker DeLeo, providing funding of $1 billion over 10 years for addressing climate resiliency initiatives, would create the GreenWorks infrastructure program. Municipalities would apply for grants through the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to fund infrastructure hardening improvements and associated measures. Interestingly, the same groups that supported Governor Baker’s legislation supported the Speaker’s legislation – with two notable exceptions. The Greater Boston Real Estate Board and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts solely supported the Speaker’s legislation. Shortly after the hearing, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy released the GreenWorks legislation with a favorable report.

In offering written support for legislation before the Joint Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy, UCANE wrote:

“House Bill 3846, which follows through on the commitment of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to advance the conversation around climate adaptation and infrastructure resiliency, is essential to the Commonwealth’s efforts to prepare for the future… The legislation will jumpstart the efforts to prepare for the Commonwealth’s future infrastructure and energy needs. To that end, UCANE respectfully requests that the Committee include language, within Section 3 of the legislation, to emphasize the need to focus on our water infrastructure assets. Whether including language that prioritizes water infrastructure investments or creates incentives for the undertaking of water infrastructure projects, HB3846 can be a vehicle that takes a substantial step forward in addressing our state’s $17 billion to $21 billion water infrastructure needs. Without a focus on water infrastructure now, the Commonwealth’s residents and businesses will suffer tomorrow from an aged drinking water and sewer system that is unable to handle the changes brought on by climate change and time.”

UCANE has indicated support for the Governor’s initiative as well while continuing to urge all elected officials to specifically identify water infrastructure needs as a priority to be addressed in any climate resiliency initiative. With the Commonwealth’s water infrastructure gap growing and the significant impact associated with new federal stormwater regulations, UCANE continues to assert that attention needs to be paid to investing in water infrastructure today.

It is widely anticipated that the House of Representatives will act on climate resiliency legislation before the branch unofficially breaks for the month of August. At this time, it is unclear whether the Governor’s and Speaker’s proposals will evolve into hybrid legislation before it heads to the Senate for its consideration.

Public to Receive Notification of Untreated Discharges into the Merrimack River

The Lowell Sun recently reported on the new permit that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be finalizing with the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility. One of the key components of the new permit is the timely and publicly available release of information about discharges into the Merrimack River.

According to published reports, communities along the Merrimack River released 800 million gallons of untreated sewer and stormwater runoff into the Merrimack River just last year. The discharges are the result of old infrastructure still used in some cities — including Lowell — that combine sewer and stormwater run-off into one pipe. When it rains, these systems fill with rainwater. If it rains enough, the influx of water can overload the system, resulting in the release of some of the combined run-off/sewage into the river.

The EPA issued Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility’s previous permit in 2010. It required the City of Lowell to notify only the EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection when sewage is released into the river. Under the new permit, the City of Lowell will be required to notify the public and downstream communities within four hours of “becoming aware” of the discharge. The permit does not define how the public should be told about these discharges.

Proposed permits for treatment plants in North Andover and Haverhill institute the same notification requirements. Efforts to require communities to notify the public are taking place at both the state and national level. For more information about the soon to be finalized EPA permit, please visit: https://www.epa.gov/ma/public-notice-draft-permit-lowell-regional-wastewater-utility-and-csos-co-permittees-town.
Scientists Find Undersea Freshwater off of Northeast Coast

According to a published report in Science Daily, a new survey of the sub-seafloor off the U.S. Northeast coast, shows a gigantic aquifer of relatively fresh water trapped in porous sediments lying below the salty ocean. It appears to be the largest such formation yet found in the world. The aquifer stretches from the shore at least from Massachusetts to New Jersey, extending more or less continuously out about 50 miles to the edge of the continental shelf. If found on the surface, it would create a lake covering somec 15,000 square miles. The study suggests that such aquifers probably lie off many other coasts worldwide, and could provide desperately needed water for arid areas that are now in danger of running out.

The first hints of the aquifer came in the 1970s, when companies drilled off the coastline for oil, but sometimes instead hit fresh water. The consistency of the data allowed researchers to infer with a high degree of confidence that fresh water sediments continuously span not just New Jersey and much of Massachusetts, but the intervening coasts of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. Researchers estimate that the region holds at least 670 cubic miles of fresh water. If future research shows the aquifer extends further north and south, it would rival the great Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies vital groundwater to eight Great Plains states, from South Dakota to Texas.

Researchers say the new findings indicate that the aquifer is also being fed by modern subterranean runoff from the land. As water from rainfall and water bodies percolates through onshore sediments, it is likely pumped seaward by the rising and falling pressure of tides. Also, the aquifer is generally freshest near the shore, and saltier the farther out you go, suggesting that it mixes gradually with ocean water over time. Terrestrial fresh water usually contains less than 1 part per thousand salt, and this is about the value found undersea near land. By the time the aquifer reaches its outer edges, it rises to 15 parts per thousand (typical seawater is 35 parts per thousand). If water from the outer parts of the aquifer were to be withdrawn, it would have to be desalinated for most uses, but the cost would be much less than processing seawater.

To review a copy of the study, which was funded by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, please visit: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44611-7.

Plymouth Votes to Increase Water and Sewer Rates; Sets Aside Responsible Reserve

Wicked Local Plymouth recently reported that the Town of Plymouth’s Select Board has voted to increase its water and sewer fees by 10 to 14 percent, with the highest users paying the higher percentage increase. While some Select Board members expressed concern about treating water users through disparate pricing, the end result created a system that will likely generate a $377,000 surplus for the sewer program.

As part of the new rate plan, town officials will look at the last five years of system use to determine what type of revenue to expect and weigh that against the cost of running the systems, thereby arriving at rates and fees. The average user in the Town of Plymouth is currently using 6,000 cubic feet of water semi-annually or about 12,000 cubic feet per year. The current bill for the average user for water and sewer is $1,547 annually. The average increase for both water and sewer will be approximately 10 percent, with $33.13 increase on the water side and $124.60 on the sewer side for the average user. There are 3,354 locations on town sewer, an increase of 116 from FY 2019. The system can handle 10,000 hookups. By contrast, there are 14,039 accounts on town water, which is an increase of 128 from FY 2019. There are six pressure zones – three in the north of town and three in the southeastern section. There are approximately 60 miles of gravity sewer pipes.

The proposed increases feature different percentages for different levels of use. For instance, the highest users would experience the highest percentage increase in their fees. Ratepayers currently all pay a “base rate,” which is a charge for being connected to town water or sewer systems. The second charge is currently linked to how much the system is used, with various steps. Four water and sewer rates, or steps, correspond to usage. Those on town water and/or sewer who use the least pay the lowest per cubic foot fee, while heavy users pay higher per cubic foot fees.
The Town of Plymouth’s actions reflect the difficult, but necessary steps that municipalities must make to stay ahead of their water infrastructure needs. As identified by the Water Infrastructure Financing Commission in its 2012 report, many businesses and residents have been sheltered from paying the “true” or “actual” cost of providing water and sewer services due to historically generous programs at the state or federal level that are not as ubiquitous today.

Unemployment Rate Slowly Ticks Upwards in May; Still Reflects Strong Economy

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS’) preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts lost 3,600 jobs in May. Over the month, the private sector lost 4,000 jobs, although gains occurred in Professional, Scientific, and Business Services; Information; and Manufacturing. The jobs level in Other Services remained unchanged over the month. Government added jobs over the month. From May 2018 to May 2019, BLS estimates Massachusetts added 26,700 jobs.

The May unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 3.6 percent reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force increased by 600 from 3,840,400 in April, as 1,100 fewer residents were employed and 1,700 more residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped five-tenths of a percentage point.
The state’s labor force participation rate – the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks – remained unchanged at 67.8 percent. Compared to May 2018, the labor force participation rate is up three-tenths of a percentage point. The largest private sector percentage job gains over the year were in Information; Education and Health Services; Other Services; and Professional, Scientific, and Business Services.

The May estimates show 3,727,000 Massachusetts residents were employed and 114,000 were unemployed, for a total labor force of 3,840,900. The unemployment rate increased one-tenth of a percentage point to 3.0 percent. The May labor force increased by 600 as 1,100 fewer residents were employed and 1,700 more residents were unemployed over the month. The labor force was up 42,200 from the 3,798,800 May 2018 estimate, with 60,100 more residents employed and 17,900 fewer residents unemployed.

Of particular note to UCANE members, the construction industry lost 2,300 (-1.4%) jobs over the month. Over the year, construction has lost 700 (-0.4%) jobs. Trade, transportation and utilities industries lost 2,300 (-0.4%) jobs over the month. Over the year, the trade, transportation and utilities industries lost 600 (-0.1%) jobs.