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Lawsuits may be next battleground for businesses as pandemic economy reopens — Business — Bangor Daily News — BDN Maine

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Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

The window of Finn’s Irish Pub on Main Street in Ellsworth.

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Legal experts anticipate a raft of lawsuits out of the coronavirus pandemic as businesses reopen and figure out a new normal, complete with detailed state-issued checklists of what and what not to do.

Increased liability was mentioned as the second-biggest concern about reopening by 68 percent of the 842 U.S. small businesses polled recently by the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group for small businesses. The biggest worry by 73 percent of respondents was getting customers back.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“They’re worried that they’ve survived COVID-19 only to be sued out of business by frivolous lawsuits,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the federation’s Small Business Legal Center. “Small businesses won’t go to court. They’ll just write out a check.”

The emerging fear among businesses is that personal injury lawyers could seize on the virus to capitalize for clients. They could include anything from claims by employees or customers that they caught the virus in a reopened business to what Harned calls “bottom feeders” who measure distances between restaurant tables to see if they are the required 6 feet apart.

The federal government could also sue small businesses that received money from the new Payroll Protection Program for not following the rules to spend the money, lawyers said.

Both federal and state legislators are examining possible protections for businesses from lawsuits. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has warned that not protecting business owners from coronavirus-related lawsuits could dramatically slow the economic recovery. He and other U.S. lawmakers have proposed adding safe-haven provisions in the next coronavirus stimulus bill.

Maine lawmakers brought up the issue in a Wednesday virtual meeting with Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, asked Fortman if she would talk to Gov. Janet Mills on the issue of liability. She said employers should be held harmless if a worker gets sick on the job unless there is “gross negligence.”

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said that liability is a “policy conversation” that the panel should take up next year. Bellows cited the complexity of reopening, saying she got a call from a worker who was told by their employer that they couldn’t wear a mask because “it would send the wrong message” to customers. The governor’s executive order says everyone has a right to wear a face covering.

Complying with the governor’s checklists of dos and don’ts on the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development website, along with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, are among the best protections for reopening businesses, lawyers said.

“They should follow that guidance to reduce their potential liability, because to be successful a claim must show negligence, that they didn’t follow the guidelines,” Joshua Scott, a lawyer at Jackson Lewis who practices in Maine and New Hampshire, said.

He said it is difficult for most people to prove where they caught the virus, except perhaps for health workers regularly exposed to the disease.

“You’d have to show the business owner was not acting in a responsible way. You’d also have to show that you were injured because of that failure,” Christian Lewis, a lawyer with Hardy Wolf & Downing in Lewiston, said. “Those are two big hurdles.”

Martha Gaythwaite, chair of Verrill Dana’s litigation and trial group, recommended that businesses keep a checklist of what they are doing to keep their premises safe and how they complied with list items such as wiping down counters every hour.

“Have a checklist to make sure you know who’s doing what and that they have actually done it,” she said.

Other issues may arise when business owners cannot rehire all laid-off employees, said Doug Currier, who chairs the firm’s employment and labor group. An older employee or person with a disability who is not rehired may have a claim against the business.

A potentially rife area for lawsuits is the Paycheck Protection Program, he said. Maine banks processed some 26,000 of the forgivable federal loans worth roughly $2.6 billion as of May 6 for small businesses.

“We already know that there are lawyers on the plaintiff side who are looking at whether or not businesses are compliant with the fine print associated with the loans,” Currier said. “You’ve got to dot your I’s and cross your T’s, because if you don’t have your act together, the government’s going to come in.”

Businesses are weighing the potential for lawsuits, but they are generally planning to reopen because if they do not, they might go out of business anyway.

“Yes, I’m worried about potential liability issues,” said Kate Williamson, general manager of the Gingerbread House restaurant in Oquossoc, a town in the Rangeley Lakes region. She plans to reopen for dine-in service on Memorial Day weekend.

“But it’s not my biggest worry,” she said. “My biggest worry is that we would be closed. The alternative is that we lose our business.”

Carrie Smith, owner of Kosta’s Restaurant and Bar in Brewer, said she isn’t worried about potential lawsuits.

“Restaurants are held to a pretty high standard anyway for cleanliness and food preparation,” Smith said. “Most restaurant owners I know are just begging to have customers, then we’ll deal with what people might say after.”

BDN writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.

Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen

 


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Two stores, two decades, one pandemic survived for downtown retailer

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Owning a business is not something that Vicki Tompkins grew up dreaming of, but in her now decades of entrepreneurship she said she “loves every aspect of it.” 

Tompkins has run the For Men Only (FMO) and For Women Only (FWO) downtown clothing boutiques since they opened in 1999 and 2001 respectively.

“It’s not perfect every day by any means, but for the most part, it’s great,” she said. 

Even through the quiet early pandemic days, the stores stayed open.

Vicki Tompkins has been running the For Women Only and For Men Only stores for two decades. In the early days of the pandemic, she admits she panicked over possible bankruptcy but has since “beefed up” web presence and been able to persevere. Natalie Pressman/NNSL Photo.

“Actually just coming into the store, even if nobody came in, was just really nice to be able to come in and sort of calm down and not be sitting at home freaking out,” Tompkins said. 

When the losses hit, Tompkins laid off almost all her staff – upwards of nine – though she has since been able to bring back a full time employee in each store. 

She said there was a lot of thinking “oh my god I’m going to bankrupt,” but then “I just started persevering and started to really try and calm down.”

Tompkins reduced store hours and worked to “beef up” her online presence through social media and the stores’ websites. FMO and FWO began offering delivery services and taking shopping appointments so patrons could come in one at a time to look around without fear of coming into contact with other residents’ household bubbles. 

She said the losses are significant but that she’s “still here.”

“I still eat well, I drink wine on Fridays,” she said. “It’s not great, but it’s fine.” 

Government assistance has also helped, she said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m still open.”

By trade, Tompkins is an artist.

She didn’t have a background in business at the time, but when the possibility of opening a store came up in discussion with friends, it seemed like a way of bringing together the skills Tompkins had amassed through various jobs throughout her life. 

“Sometimes you just fall into jobs. It just sort of happens.”

She acknowledges there are challenges to running a store and frequently facing risk head on, but when Tompkins said she “loves doing this,” she’s quick to list the reasons why. 

“I like the buying, I like doing the books, I love the customers. I love finding people things.” 

“It’s very satisfying to sell somebody something when they come out and they love it and you love it, when you both just feel like ‘yes, this is the right thing for you right now.’” 

From working in a small town for so many years, Tompkins said she’s gotten to know the people who come into the store. That way, when she does the buying, she said she really knows who the product is for and say “that line will really work for that person.”

On the other hand, Tompkins said it can be a challenge to manage customers’ expectations. She decides personally each item that is sold in the store and as fashions change, so do the products. When customers come in looking for the same pair of pants they bought five years ago, or a specific boot, she has to remind them “I’m not Amazon.” She said it is just another way that customer service fascinates her.  

To other entrepreneurs, Tompkins said “you really have to find your passion.”

Vicki Tompkins’ background is in art but said she “loves every aspect” of running her business. Natalie Pressman/NNSL Photo.

“There’s a lot more to jobs, as everybody knows, than what meets the eye,” she said, so you have to have a love of the work to keep you motivated.  

Tompkins emphasized the importance of buying local, in Yellowknife and across the country. 

“I think it’s really opened people’s eyes to, ‘if you don’t support us, then we’re not going to be here.’” 

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FirstOnSite Restoration opens business in new locations

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FirstOnSite Restoration opens business in new locations

Driven by its recent business growth despite the challenges of the pandemic, emergency restoration and reconstruction service provider FirstOnSite Restoration has opened a new branch in New Brunswick, as well as relocating its Winnipeg branch to a much larger facility.

FirstOnSite Restoration’s new branch in New Brunswick is located in Fredericton; the firm says that by investing in a local facility it strengthens its commitment to customers and insurance partners.

The new branch will be led by acting branch manager Kevin Bourque, and will be holding a grand opening event on November 05.

“The launch of the Fredericton branch strengthens FirstOnSite’s commitment to New Brunswick and the surrounding region,” said FirstOnSite Restoration Atlantic regional vice-president Darren Bezanson. “The team is excited and ready to serve our insurance partners and customers by helping them to prepare for, mitigate and recover from any type of property loss.”

FirstOnSite Restoration has also relocated its Winnipeg branch, after the regional team grew from six to 25 employees. The new 14,000 square foot facility has a larger warehouse space, a carpentry shop, and a separate cleaning space for managing damaged property contents. The new branch opens November 09.

“The relocation is the result of immense growth we are seeing in Winnipeg and the surrounding region,” commented FirstOnSite Restoration Prairies regional vice-president Jamie Mackie. “The larger facility will allow the branch to operate more efficiently, reflecting our ongoing mission to provide unmatched customer service.”

The branch has also added to its leadership team with the appointment of Dan Plouffe as complex loss project manager.

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Talking small business resiliency at Chamber town hall

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CORNWALL, Ontario – The Cornwall and Area Chamber of Commerce held their second of a series of virtual town halls as a part of small business month on Thursday, Oct. 29.

The focus of the second town hall was supporting small business through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chamber invited a number of local representatives from different levels of government and organizations to talk about ways that they had worked to support small businesses during the pandemic.

Representatives included Greg Pietersma, Executive Director of the Cornwall and Area Chamber of Commerce, Denis Lapierre of the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, Business Advisory Branch, Candy Pollard of the Cornwall Business Enterprise Centre (CBEC) and Martha Woods of the Eastern Ontario Training Board (EOTB).

Much like the businesses they support, these organizations explained that they too had to pivot as a result of the pandemic. For the Chamber, in some ways, their mission remained consistent, namely serving as an advocate for local business.

“The thing we are most proud of here at the Chamber is that we were open throughout,” said Pietersma. “That was something that was of big importance to our board was that we be here for businesses when they needed us.”

Lapierre explained that during the pandemic, his ministry shifted to coordinating with businesses to support frontline workers, primarily through the Ontario Together Portal, which, amongst other things, helped provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to frontline workers and aggregated a list of businesses who produce PPE.

The panel talked about the resiliency they had seen from small businesses during the pandemic.

“Some of the main street businesses we have that have impressed me the most, like the Happy Popcorn Company, and Brunch on Pitt,” said Pollard. “They opened up and changed completely. They figured out how to get people to order ahead. It was ‘how do I get my products online. How do I get people to know I have these things.’”

Pollard had explained how during the pandemic, they had offered seminars to small businesses to help show them how to manage cash flow during the pandemic, and continue advertising.

“Through it all, I saw people who wanted to open a new business or had already opened and wanted to continue that new business,” she said. “I’ve been totally amazed at how versatile and how people have adjusted almost on the spot.”

Lapierre said one of the most important ways that a business could pivot during the pandemic was through online accessibility. He pointed to the Digital Main Street project, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping businesses create online stores, and promote online advertising.

On Oct. 30, the Chamber will be holding another virtual seminar on tourism with Archie’s Family Golf Centre being a keynote speaker.



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