State Legislature Passes Bill to Collect Vital Public Health Data, Establish a COVID-19 Diversity Task Force

The Massachusetts House of Representatives and State Senate have now passed bipartisan legislation to promote equity and transparency as the Commonwealth continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, An Act Addressing COVID-19 Data Collection and Disparities in Treatment, will increase the amount of statewide, publicly available data as it relates to the coronavirus. The legislation also establishes a task force to study and make policy recommendations to address health disparities for underserved and underrepresented communities during the pandemic. The bill advanced to the governor.

“In order to more effectively and equitably prevent and respond to this pandemic, we must have better data and more transparency about the impacts of the COVID-19 virus,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “This is particularly important given the disproportionate impacts this crisis is having on communities of color and other vulnerable populations.”

Under the bill, the Department of Public Health (DPH) is required to compile, collect and issue daily online reports on the number of people tested for COVID-19, positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths along with the gender, race, ethnicity, primary residence, occupation, disability, age and primary language of each case.

To ensure a comprehensive understanding of cases statewide, the legislation also requires that daily reports include data and demographic information from municipalities and counties with more than 25 positive cases, elder care facilities, as well as state and county correctional facilities. Facility-specific information will be made publicly available while maintaining individual privacy. In addition to requiring greater data collection, the bill requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to describe the actions it is taking to address disparities identified through the data collected.

In response to increasing concerns about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and disproportionately impacted populations, the legislation also establishes a task force to study and make policy recommendations for how to address these health disparities. The task force is required to issue an interim report by June 30, 2020, with a final report due August 1, 2020.

The bill, which is the latest action by the State Legislature to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its effects on Massachusetts, now advances to the governor’s desk.

State Legislature Further Expands and Strengthens Unemployment Benefits

Last week, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill that will provide additional Unemployment Insurance (UI) relief to low-income families, non-profit institutions and employers. Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill into law on Wednesday, May 27.

An Act Providing Additional Support to Those Affected by the Novel Coronavirus Through the Unemployment Insurance System builds on UI legislation already signed into law that waived the one-week waiting period to receive benefits.

“Protecting public health and mitigating economic harm are the top priorities for the legislature during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “That’s why it’s critical to ensure that our unemployment insurance safety net is strong enough to support workers and employers through this crisis.”

This legislation is part of ongoing efforts to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its impact on businesses and workers, and follows the passage of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) which significantly increased UI benefits and expanded eligibility during the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislation includes the following provisions:

  • Protection for Employers. Employers who participate in UI pay contributions based on their layoff experience. Like other forms of insurance, employers that are more likely to have workers use unemployment compensation are asked to pay more in the system. The system does not anticipate a situation where employers across a number of sectors have been forced to significantly reduce their workforces due to situations outside of their control. This bill prevents layoffs related to coronavirus from negatively impacting employer’s future UI contributions.
  • Extending Unemployment Benefit Period. The number of weeks of unemployment compensation available in Massachusetts is tied to unemployment rates around the state. This trigger did not anticipate a situation, however, in which unemployment grows rapidly in a very short period of time. This bill ensures that the 30-week benefit period is triggered by a significant uptick in weekly unemployment claims.
    Currently, UI recipients are entitled to an additional $25 per week for each child in the family, capped at 50% of a recipient’s base allotment. The result is that workers with particularly low allotments, such as low wage workers, can easily be capped out of receiving these additional amounts.
  • Lifting the Cap on Dependency AllotmentThis bill eliminates the 50% cap for the dependency allotment providing additional benefits to low-income families. This increase will be in addition to the $600 per week benefit add-on provided for in the CARES Act for all workers eligible for state or federal benefits. This provision is effective for 18 months after the end of COVID-19 emergency and the end of enhanced federal benefits.

Currently, UI recipients are entitled to an additional $25 per week for each child in the family, capped at 50% of a recipient’s base allotment. The result is that workers with particularly low allotments, such as low wage workers, can easily be capped out of receiving these additional amounts.

  • Non-Profit Contribution Grace Period. Presently, many non-profits self-insure for unemployment claims. This means that when layoffs in the sector occur, non-profits pay the cost of those benefits dollar for dollar at the next billing period. This bill provides a 120-day grace period for non-profits to make these contributions. This delay will allow the state to review additional changes that are warranted to mitigate the impact on non-profits. The CARES Act provides 50% reimbursement for self-insured benefit payments during the Coronavirus crisis.

Senate Passes Bill to Collect Vital Public Health Data, Establish a COVID-19 Diversity Task Force

On Monday, May 11, 2020, the Massachusetts State Senate passed bipartisan legislation to promote equity and transparency as the Commonwealth continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, An Act Addressing COVID-19 Data Collection and Disparities in Treatment, would increase the amount of statewide, publicly available data as it relates to the coronavirus, and establish a task force to study and make policy recommendations to address health disparities for underserved and underrepresented communities during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us, but it weighs especially heavily on our most vulnerable neighbors and communities,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “This legislation will ensure we are using resources equitably and effectively to fight the pandemic.”

Under the bill, the Department of Public Health (DPH) will be required to compile, collect and issue daily online reports on the number of people tested for COVID-19, positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths along with the gender, race, ethnicity, primary residence, occupation, disability, age and primary language of each case.

To ensure a comprehensive understanding of cases statewide, the legislation also requires that daily reports include data and demographic information from municipalities and counties with more than 25 positive cases, all DPH licensed nursing homes, assisted living facilities licensed by the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, as well as state and county correctional facilities. Facility-specific information will be made publicly available while maintaining individual privacy. In addition to requiring greater data collection, the bill requires the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to describe the actions it is taking to address disparities identified through the data collected.

In response to increasing concerns about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and disproportionately impacted populations, the legislation also establishes a task force to study and make policy recommendations for how to address these health disparities. The task force will be required to issue an interim report by June 1, 2020 with a final report due August 1, 2020.

The bill is the latest action by the Senate to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its effects on Massachusetts.

Information on Unemployment Assistance for Massachusetts Residents

Access to unemployment insurance benefits is vital to help residents weather the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout. State and federal lawmakers have recognized this need and taken unprecedented steps to strengthen and expand access to unemployment benefits for as many people as possible.

Unemployment assistance is now available to many different types of workers who may have lost their job, been laid off, furloughed, had their hours or wages reduced, or seen their income reduced as a result of this pandemic. This includes self-employed people, independent contractors, gig economy workers and others who would normally not qualify for unemployment benefits.

In general, your weekly base benefit amount is approximately 50% of your previous earnings up to a maximum of $823, plus an additional $600 per week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). You can receive benefits for up to 39 weeks. The typical one-week waiting period and job search requirements have been waived during this emergency.

If you worked for a company (you receive a W-2) and you were laid off, furloughed, or had your hours or wages reduced:

  • Apply for regular unemployment benefits: LINK
  • Guide to Massachusetts unemployment benefits: LINK
  • How unemployment benefits are calculated: LINK

If you are self-employed, an independent contractor or gig economy worker (you receive a 1099) and your source of income has been reduced you may qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA):

  • Am I eligible for PUA? LINK
  • Apply for PUA: LINK
  • Frequently Asked Questions about PUA: LINK

If you have further questions about unemployment assistance or encounter problems in applying for benefits with the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), contact the office of State Senator Jason Lewis at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or (617) 722-1206. We will do everything we can to help you access your benefits.

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State Legislature Continues to Take Action to Address COVID-19 Pandemic

BOSTON—In recent days, the Massachusetts Legislature has taken a number of important actions to protect public health during the novel coronavirus pandemic and to address the economic impacts on Massachusetts residents, small businesses, non-profits, municipalities and others. Lawmakers in both chambers of the State Legislature, working closely with the Baker administration, also continue to develop additional legislation to address this unprecedented crisis.

The legislature enacted two important pieces of legislation: a bill to strengthen local public health authorities, originally filed by Senator Jason Lewis; and a bill that authorizes electronic notarization (electronic signatures) for real estate and other business transactions. Both bills are expected to soon be signed into law by Governor Baker.

“As we continue to tackle the unprecedented public health and economic challenges to our communities and our Commonwealth, the state legislature is taking an active role in developing policy solutions and protections for the people of Massachusetts,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “In close partnership with local authorities and the Baker Administration, we are working hard to contain this pandemic and mitigate the impacts on residents and businesses as much as possible.”

The first bill, known as the SAPHE Act (State Action for Public Health Excellence), was originally filed by Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Hannah Kane in partnership with the Massachusetts Public Health Association and other public health advocates. This legislation ensures that all members of the local public health workforce have access to essential training, and creates a grant program that incentivizes health departments to adopt best practices, including workforce standards, data reporting, and sharing of services across municipalities. At a time when local public health officials are playing a critical role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SAPHE Act will increase the capacity and effectiveness of local public health departments.

The second bill authorizes notary publics to perform essential notary actions using video conferencing during the COVID-19 public health emergency. It enables electronic notarization or signatures for a variety of transactions, including those related to a mortgage or other conveyance of title to real estate, wills, nomination of guardian or conservator, caregiver authorization affidavit, trusts, durable power of attorney, or health care proxy.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the state legislature has taken numerous actions to respond to this emergency, including: authorizing additional funding for local public health authorities; extending the state tax filing deadline; providing relief for struggling restaurants and other small businesses; expanding access to unemployment benefits; cancelling MCAS standardized testing for the remainder of this school year; providing cities and towns with additional budget tools and flexibility; and placing a moratorium on any evictions or foreclosures.

The state legislature is also continuing to work on additional legislation to strengthen reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths, including in nursing homes; make it easier for struggling residents to access benefits from the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA); further strengthen unemployment benefits; and other actions.

Any residents with questions or feedback about the state’s COVID-19 response or in need of assistance interacting with state agencies like DUA (for unemployment benefits) should contact the office of Senator Jason Lewis at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or (617) 722-1206.

Legislature Passes Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures Amid Pandemic

BOSTON – The Massachusetts House of Representatives and State Senate on Friday passed legislation that will provide a critical safety net for renters, homeowners, and small businesses grappling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus public health emergency.

The legislation prohibits all non-essential evictions and foreclosures and provides mortgage borrowers with forbearance options and protects tenants from late fees as well as other protections.

“No homeowner, tenant or small business should face eviction or foreclosure because of the economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic in our state,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “To keep our communities healthy and safe, it’s important for everyone to be able to stay in their homes or apartments, and this much-needed relief will make a big difference for many families across Massachusetts.”

To address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its adverse impacts on renters, homeowners and small businesses, the bill includes the following components:

  • A moratorium on all stages of the eviction and foreclosure processes for 120 days from the enactment of the legislation or 45 days after the State of Emergency has been lifted, whichever period of time is shorter.
  • Prohibits all non-essential evictions for residential properties and small businesses.
  • Prohibits residential landlords from terminating tenancy and sending a notice to quit.
  • Halts landlords from issuing late fees and reports to credit agencies for nonpayment of rent, provided that a tenant offers notice and documentation to the landlord within 30 days of the missed rent payment that the non-payment was related to a financial impact from COVID-19.
  • Allows for video or telephone conferencing during the State of Emergency for reverse mortgage loans in lieu of in-person counseling until the State of Emergency order  is lifted.
  • Evictions may proceed during the moratorium for actions that involve allegations of criminal activity or lease violations that are detrimental to public health or public safety.
  • Requires mortgage lenders to grant a forbearance of up to 180-days on required mortgage payments if homeowner submits request demonstrating financial hardship as result of COVID-19.
  • Allows landlords to use a tenant’s last month rent for expenses like mortgages payments and property maintenance, while protecting tenant rights regarding rent paid in advance.

The bill, which is the latest action by the Legislature to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its effects on Massachusetts, now heads to the Governor.

Legislature Passes Law to Cancel MCAS and Support Vulnerable Populations During Pandemic

BOSTON— On Thursday, April 9, the State Legislature passed legislation that cancels MCAS testing requirements for the current school year and supports those experiencing homelessness.

Cancelling MCAS testing for the remainder of this school year will enable our teachers and students to focus on learning and personal well-being as we continue to navigate the current public health emergency,” said Senator Jason Lewis, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Education “Legislators heard loud and clear from teachers, parents and superintendents that this was the right thing to do.”

This latest relief package known as An Act to Further Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities, School Districts and State authorities Resulting from COVID-19, includes the following components.

Student Requirements and District Operations. To address disruptions caused by the closure of K-12 schools due to COVID-19, the legislation waives the MCAS requirements for the 2019-2020 academic year and allows DESE to modify or waive competency determination requirements related to high school graduation.

In order to comply with measures under the newly implemented Student Opportunity Act, the legislation would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner to extend the deadlines for school districts to submit their three-year plans to address educational disparities in student subgroups.  This deadline shall be extended to May 15, 2020, or later, as determined by the Commissioner.

The legislation also provides budgetary flexibility for regional schools as a result of COVID-19.

Helping Vulnerable Populations. In keeping with the Legislature’s commitment to protecting vulnerable populations, the legislation repurposes existing homelessness funds that currently support services that can’t be provided due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The legislation redirects funding to address immediate and critical homelessness needs resulting from the public health emergency.

MBTA Budget FlexibilityThe legislation also provides the MBTA additional budgetary flexibility amid the COVID-19 emergency.

The bill, which is the latest action by the Legislature to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its effects on Massachusetts, was signed by Governor Baker on Friday, April 10.

State Legislature Passes Bill to Respond to COVID-19 Pandemic

BOSTON—On Thursday, the State Legislature passed a bill to provide essential relief to municipalities, taxpayers, restaurants, and others impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and State of Emergency declaration.

The bipartisan legislation extends the state income tax filing deadline for residents; addresses disruptions in municipal tax collections and permitting; and allows licensed restaurants to sell certain alcoholic beverages with food take-out and delivery orders, among other provisions.

“During these unprecedented times, it’s more important than ever for lawmakers to listen to feedback from our communities and respond swiftly to address the impacts of this pandemic,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “This bill is one of many steps that our state government is taking to support residents, small businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal governments and others that are facing disruption and hardship as a result of this crisis.”

The major provisions of the bill are as follows:

Tax Deadline Extension.  The bill provides immediate relief to taxpayers and extends the 2019 state individual income tax filing and payment deadline from April 15 to July 15 due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The extension of the tax filing and payment deadline to July 15 is consistent with the federal government and provides additional flexibility to filers during this crisis.

Restaurant Service.  The bill includes immediate economic relief to restaurants and other establishments that are licensed to sell alcohol for on-premises consumption to sell wine and beer with food takeout and delivery. This change would restore a crucial source of revenue to restaurants and other food establishments.

Municipal Governance.  This legislation also immediately addresses several challenges affecting municipal functions and operations during the COVID-19 State of Emergency. The bill:

  • Allows extensions for property tax exemption and deferrals from April 1 to June 1, 2020;
  • Modifies the permitting process to ensure flexibility for applicants and status hearing processes;
  • Allows annual town meeting to be delayed until June 30, 2020;
  • Enables the town moderator to reschedule town meetings for up to 30 days, and to do so multiple times if needed;
  • Permits municipalities to utilize retired employees and lifts pension-related hour restrictions for employees who return to work as it relates to COVID-19 response; and
  • Prohibits essential services provided by the city or town from being terminated as a result of a missed or late payment.

The bill also makes several adjustments to the municipal budgeting process so that cities and towns can continue to meet their fiduciary responsibility and provide resources for their residents.

The bill, which is the latest action by the Legislature to address the COVID-19 public health crisis and its effects on Massachusetts, was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker on Friday, April 3.

Update from Sen. Lewis on the COVID-19 Pandemic

I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well.

As we continue to deal with the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to thank the doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, first responders, public health officials, grocery store workers, truck drivers, and everybody else who is working hard to save lives and help us all get through this crisis!

Our government — at the local, state, and federal levels – continues to take the necessary steps to contain the spread of the virus and ensure that our healthcare providers can safely treat those who become seriously ill. Our top priorities are expanding testing, securing additional supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), and expanding hospital bed capacity. We are also taking the necessary steps to mitigate the social and economic harm resulting from this pandemic, by moving quickly and aggressively to support workers, small businesses, non-profits, municipalities, and others who are facing significant disruptions and hardship.

My office has compiled two resource guides that I hope residents will find helpful – one for individuals (link) and the other for small businesses and non-profit organizations (link).

We also need your feedback  to help us best respond to the public health and economic impacts of this crisis. Please take a few minutes to complete a survey that we have created, which can be found at bit.ly/LewisCOVIDsurvey.

I encourage you to contact my office at  Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or call (617) 722-1206 if you need assistance or information, or want to bring an issue to our attention. We are working remotely based on advice from public health officials, but we will respond as quickly as possible. We continue to work very closely with municipal and state officials to serve our communities during these challenging times.

 

  • Senator Jason Lewis

Guest Post: Concerned About Youth Vaping at Home while Schools are Closed?

This guest post was authored by Ashley Hall, MS, Program Manager of the Northeast Tobacco-Free Community Partnership.

Concerned About Youth Vaping at Home while Schools are Closed?

During these extraordinary times, when our lives are disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, schools, organizations, and activities are closed. While parents work to establish new routines at home and help their teens adapt, they may also be thinking about how to help their teens quit vaping or smoking. Youth are spending more time in the house and may be more stressed than usual. Parents may especially want to encourage quitting because of evidence coming out that vaping, like smoking, harms the ability of the lungs to fight infection.

Are you concerned about the youth in your life vaping while spending more time in the house? What are signs to look for? How can you help?

Here are suggestions from the Tobacco-Free Community Partnerships in Massachusetts to help you respond about youth vaping, including resources for learning more.

Q: What is in e-cigarettes and vapes? I hear that it is just flavored water. What is so bad about them?

A: E-cigarettes produce an aerosol, commonly called vapor, which users inhale from the device and exhale. This aerosol may have harmful and potentially harmful substances. E-cigarettes use pre-filled pods or e-liquids/e-juices that are added to the device. E-liquids generally consist of propylene glycol, glycerin, water, nicotine, and flavorings.

Q: What can I do to prevent my child or loved ones from vaping? 

A: Simply talking with your child about these products can help protect them. Let them know that you care about them and that vaping is not safe. Be patient and ready to listen; there is no” perfect time” to talk. Your goal is to have a conversation, not to deliver a lecture.  So avoid criticism and encourage an open dialogue. You can start by mentioning something that you heard about vaping. Tell them the facts: e-cigarettes contain nicotine; nicotine is a highly addictive substance. The smoke from vapes is an aerosol, not water vapor. The aerosol can contain harmful substances. The resources below can help you learn more.

Q: How can I tell if my child or loved one is vaping?

A:  Many types of e-cigarettes are made to resemble everyday items and come in fruity, minty, and candy-like flavors. So, you may not recognize a vaping device or an e-liquid scent.

Here are subtle signs your child might be vaping:

  • Unexplained Sweet Scent – If you notice a sweet scent that is unexplainable, it might be a flavored e-juice for a vaping device.
  • Unfamiliar Products – If you come across unusual looking items such as unusual pens or USB drives or an unfamiliar battery or battery charging device, they could be associated with vaping.

The best way to know is to educate yourself about the products and to talk with your kids.

Q:  How can I encourage youth and young adults to quit vaping?

A: There are currently two FREE programs available in Massachusetts to help youth and young adults quit vaping, smoking or using other tobacco products.

  1. This is Quitting powered by truth® is a texting program for young people who want to quit vaping. It is a free, confidential 30-day program during which youth receive texts with information, tips, and support. They receive daily text messages to help them prepare to quit and supportive texts from young people who have been through the program.  To enroll in the program, youth text “VapeFreeMass” to 88709. Go to mass.gov/quitvaping to learn more.
  2. My Life, My QuitTM is a specially designed program to help young people quit vaping or other tobacco products. My Life, My QuitTM  provides five free and confidential coaching sessions by phone, live texting, or chat with specially-trained youth coach specialists. Youth can text “Start My Quit” to 855-891-9989 or call toll-free 1-855-891-9989 for real-time coaching.  They can also visit mylifemyquit.com to learn more.

Q: How can I help adults who are trying to quit vaping, smoking or using other tobacco products?

A: Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to connect with the Massachusetts Smokers’ Helpline. The Helpline is a free and confidential service for Massachusetts residents who want help to end their nicotine and tobacco use. If you are looking to quit tobacco, you can now get help from a quit coach over the phone; or use online tools and resources; or a combination of these online features and telephone coaching. You can also enroll online using a computer or smartphone at KeepTryingMA.org.

Q: How can I learn more information and stay up-to-date? 

A:

To learn more, visit GetOutraged.org or contact me at (978) 722-2864 or ashley.hall@glfc.org