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Decrying high costs, Mass. small businesses urge lawmakers to do more to help them
Decrying high costs, Mass. small businesses urge lawmakers to do more to help them
Decrying high costs, Mass. small businesses urge lawmakers to do more to help them

Published on: 05/15/2024


BOSTON — Boasting that he’s a “paperwork guy,” a whiz at filling out and filing forms, Neil Abramson, CEO of ECi Stores in Leominster said even he is confounded by the complexity of applying for state workforce training grants.

“And It can take up to six months to get the money back,” Abramson told legislators attending the briefing for Small Business Day Wednesday at the State House. Some grants, Abramson said, require applicants make the initial investments before being reimbursed.

His stores, Cutie Patuties, are celebrating their 25th anniversary in Leominster this year, Abramson said. They are crucial to the economic well-being of the city and form the backbone of its downtown.

The challenges presented by paperwork to apply for state programs was just one of the issues mentioned by small-business owners, representatives from local chambers of commerce and advocacy organizations like the National Federation of Independent Business attending the advocacy day.

Overall, said Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, small businesses are impacted by the same conditions that impact consumers — costs spiraling upward from energy and housing to food and health care.

“We have to focus on what government can do to increase sales and decrease costs,” Hurst said, adding that government policies do impact both.

Mentioned most often at the gathering was the high cost of offering health insurance to employees.

“The cost is growing far faster than the economy, than salaries, than sales and income for the small-business owner,” Hurst said. “We’ve had a 7.5% increase in health insurance costs (in 2023), but we haven’t had a corresponding 7.5% increase in sales or income.”

Also mentioned:

  • The cost of collecting and remitting sales tax for the state.
  • The fees charged by banks and credit card companies to process payments made with debit or charge cards.
  • The ballot initiative that would raise tipped workers to minimum wage and allow employers to pool and distribute tips among all workers in the business.
  • The challenge of breaking into established service areas, construction, electrical, carpentry, for women- and minority-owned businesses.

“We do good work,” said Carlene Lewis, owner of CAAN Fence Inc. in Dorchester. Clients rate her work highly and seek her out to meet diversity quotas for jobs. However, once they have complied, clients hire the same few firms they have always contracted with in the past.

“I’d like to see a change,” Lewis said, one that she believes can be helped along by legislators through policy decisions. Lewis also suggested that there be a safety net for small business, similar to the safety net the federal government relies on when large corporations like Walmart or Walgreens face financial problems.

“It’s easy for a large corporation to say it is losing money and then to get emergency funding. Why doesn’t that exist for us?" Lewis asked.

Sens. Michael Moore, D-Millbury and Peter Durant, R-Spencer, and Rep. Paul McMurtry, D-Dedham, assured the group that the Legislature is listening and attentive on small business. Several grants and loans are aimed to support and promote small businesses as well as pending legislation that could address some of the concerns broached.

“There are ways to access state funds, through grants, program initiatives,” Moore said, explaining that while the state is good at creating programs, it does not advertise or market them well. He suggested that people network with members of the local chambers of commerce, subscribe to websites and monitor agency posts to learn of opportunities.

Networking is one key to learning of opportunities for small business, Moore said.

Thomas Erb, president of Electric Time in Medfield, a clockmaker, alerted legislators that many small manufacturers are being wooed by other states and encouraged to relocate for lower costs for everything from energy to labor.

“If I moved to Tennessee, I could pay 10 cents per kilowatt hour for energy. In Massachusetts I pay 22 cents,” Erb said. “I could spend $5,000 a month on energy, not $10,000 to $30,000.”

Businesses also bridled at serving as tax collectors for the state. Hurst said of the 45 states that collect sales tax, 24 pay vendors to process the money. Massachusetts does not; Abramson noted that it costs him $3 for every $100 dollars of tax he remits to the state. That cost, coupled with the swipe fees charged by lenders for patrons paying with plastic, can add up quickly and tax small-business owners.

On the legislative to-do list are several bills that address some of the concerns, including allowing business owners to pass through the credit card swipe fees to consumers, tacking the fee to the cost of the merchandise or service provided. A different measure would allow retailers to keep 2% of collected sales tax, up to $750 a year, to pay for processing the taxes.

Legislators have filed a measure that would allow small businesses to form cooperatives to purchase health insurance as a group. One bill would reconfigure employer requirements for the payment of workers compensation insurance into the state fund.

Vassilios Theodorakos, of Spot On in Framingham, said state supports must include technical assistance for small businesses to ensure that the applications and programs they are using are installed and deployed correctly. He suggested legislators meet the state’s newest entrepreneurs, many of them immigrants, at the ground level, and develop measures that will help them establish their bodegas and small restaurants.

“I want to see businesses succeed,” Theodorakos said, adding there is a need for additional state support for businesses located in “downtowns.”

“It’s important to have a mix of businesses,” Abramson said, pointing out that local businesses have symbiotic relationships with people going downtown to shop at his stores and then eating at a neighboring restaurant, and vice versa. “There must be reciprocity, we cannot stand alone.”

His business supports his community; he hires local staff and trains them with an eye to the future to ensure they grow, even if they grow out of his employment. And his community supports his business, a consignment shop that sells clothing for women and children, furniture and home decor.

“The store is a window on the community, a glimpse into the homes and closets of Leominster and North Central Massachusetts,” Abramson said.

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