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Mass. Residents Deserve Inflation Relief

Originally published in CommonWealth Magazine on June 18, 2022


Mass. Residents Deserve Inflation Relief

With money available, state should eliminate protectionist laws

by Jon B. Hurst, RAM President


A few of us are old enough to remember the last severe bout with inflation four decades ago. My first mortgage right out of college was a whopping 12 5/8 percent. Gas and food prices were through the roof, and families fell further and further behind despite rising wages.

In many ways the picture is as bad, or even worse, today. Energy prices and consumer essentials are far higher, interest rate increases are far from over, and the plunging stock market has become more important due to individualized retirement plans like 401ks.

Yet, while inflation is hammering consumers and small businesses, government has never had it so good, with revenues driven by pandemic federal dollars; and tax receipts such as sales, income, and property taxes all driven far higher with consumer goods, wages, and property value increases.

Before the Legislature adjourns for the year and before Gov. Charlie Baker leaves office, it is hard to imagine a more pressing priority for our consumers, taxpayers, and small businesses than an inflation relief package. There’s not only plenty of revenue for relief, but there are plenty of antiquated and protectionist laws in Massachusetts which hammer consumers to the benefit of certain industries and suppliers. There has never been a better time to reform these protectionist laws, and to create marketplace forces to lower consumer prices. Here are just a few opportunities worth reforming, repealing, or suspending.


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August 7, 2018 By Jon Hurst, President

The so-called “Grand Bargain” was signed into law in late June, and with its’ passage, three initiatives were kept off the November ballot.  One question was RAM’s rollback of the sales tax; and the other two were the $15 minimum wage and the paid family and medical leave payroll mandates. 

Make no mistake about it—without the existence of RAM’s sales tax initiative, the political pressure to remove these two costly labor mandates from the ballot would never have occurred.  The sales tax ballot initiative created the environment and the leverage to move closer to middle ground through compromise, rather than facing near certain voter passage of the labor initiatives.  Neither the Legislature nor the advocates pressing the labor mandates wanted to see a sales tax rollback with a $1 Billion price tag. 

Many factors contributed to RAM’s decision to agree to pull our sales tax ballot initiative in exchange for the agreement.  First, two major court decisions in June rendered our sales tax proposal a much tougher sell with voters.  They included a MA SJC decision eliminating the so-called “Millionaires Tax” from the November ballot, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision on internet sales tax in the SD vs. Wayfair case.  While both decisions were arguably good for our industry and the state, they also made the case for a sales tax cut more difficult without funding a multi-million dollar advertising campaign.

The more important factor leading us to the seek agreement was our ability to mitigate the effects of what would have been a near certain passage of the two payroll mandate initiatives through negotiations.  More reasonable and less costly requirements, with longer phase-in periods were vital objectives.  Movement to the public policy center on phasing out the antiquated, only in Massachusetts retail Sunday/holiday premium pay requirement; more affordable restaurant tip wages; no annual inflation increases and a slower phase-in of the minimum wage; a paid leave law which set fairer wage replacement rates and better distributed costs between employers and employees; and establishment of a permanent sales tax holiday as an important incentive for our consumers to invest their discretionary dollars in our local economy, all weighed in favor of striking a deal.     

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Changes Coming: Internet Sales Tax, $15, Paid Leave, Sunday Pay Repeal - Why We Took The Deal

June 22, 2018 BY JON HURST

This week, after 20 years of RAM work on sales tax fairness, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the future of our Main Streets by overturning the 1992 Quill decision on remote seller tax collection and remittance.  The South Dakota v Wayfair decision is important and welcomed as it will seek to end unequal application of state government imposed sales taxes.  Here in Massachusetts, we have always had the “New Hampshire problem,” but we also have a very tech savvy consumer, all too likely to send their vital discretionary dollars out of our local economy, to tax free sellers easily found right on their smart phones.  Thus for many years, local stores have had two strikes against them as tax free competitors have proliferated. 

Although the NH problem won’t be fixed, this decision certainly contains the competitive damage of tax free internet sellers.  RAM will be working closely with the Department of Revenue and our Beacon Hill leaders in the days to come to make sure as much as possible is done to create a fair marketplace and a level taxation playing field for sellers of all types.     

While the Wayfair case is a clear win for our membership, cost mitigation is a better description of the so-called “Grand Bargain” which is now on the Governor’s desk.  Presumably it will be signed into law before the July 3 signature submission deadline for ballot initiative sponsors—including RAM’s own sales reduction tax measure. 

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Beacon Hill Ballot Question Negotiations Underway With Tight Deadlines

May 29, 2018 by Jon Hurst, President

As RAM members know, your association has been working for almost a year to qualify a ballot initiative to roll back the sales tax to the 5% rate last seen in 2009. The measure also authorizes an annual two day sales tax holiday.
Sufficient signatures have been obtained to file with the Secretary of State by the July 3rd deadline to qualify the measure for the November ballot. But important negotiations are underway on Beacon Hill with various ballot measure sponsors in order to achieve middle ground and avoid the questions being placed before the voters. Besides the sales tax question, two payroll mandate proposals are being negotiated: the initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 over 4 years, and another initiative to create the most costly and extensive paid family and medical leave mandate in the country.
Complicating the negotiations are pending court cases on whether a constitutional amendment to increase the state income tax by 4% for those persons earning $1 Million or more will reach the November ballot. That case is before the MA Supreme Judicial Court. And before the US Supreme Court is the landmark case on whether states can mandate out of state internet sellers to collect the sales tax from local consumers (SD vs Wayfair).
Whether RAM moves forward with the ballot question on the sales tax rollback will be based on a combination of the outcome of those court cases; as well as on the ability of negotiations to produce more reasonable payroll mandate measures; while still giving taxpayers and local small businesses some sales tax relief to incent local consumer spending rather than driving purchases to NH or to Silicon Valley.
In case we do move forward with the sales tax ballot question, investments are being made for a campaign. The 10,792 required voter signatures for the second round of qualification have been obtained and will be held for potential filing. In addition, the Beacon Hill Institute has completed a study which confirms the economic benefits of lowering the sales tax—particularly for lower income consumers and our small businesses—as well as the fact that the tax loss is far less than what opponents might suggest due to increased local investment and jobs.
What links the high and avoidable sales tax and the proposed costly state labor mandates together is that both make it harder for local sellers to attract and retain local consumer spending due to the resulting and obvious higher customer prices.
In the age of the smart phone, we must all adapt. That includes our existing and proposed laws under the purview of our public policy leaders--who are all very quick to say they support small businesses and our Main Streets. To have laws which make local consumer prices far higher than our competitors, whether through a high sales tax or through unaffordable payroll mandates, is simply antiquated, unacceptable and counterproductive state economic policy. In the 21st Century, that fact is certainly crystal clear to anyone that has ever worked to make a payroll, and to attract consumers armed with unlimited spending options.
More than ever, the employer community, labor, and elected officials should all be working together to keep consumer spending--which is 70% of our economy—right here in Massachusetts. The next few weeks will be telling as to whether that cooperation can and will happen.

Real-time sales tax proposal must be rejected

May 1, 2018 By Bill Rennie, RAM Vice President

Many in the business community were pleased to see that painstaking policy work undertaken by Speaker Robert DeLeo and Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez of the House Ways and Means Committee had resulted in the removal of a real-time sales tax provision from an earlier version of the state budget currently being debated in the state house. They propose instead to create a bipartisan and commission to study the feasibility of a monthly estimated sales tax payment structure. This eminently sensible approach allows a thoughtful review of Massachusetts’ sales tax collection system, and removes the need for the immense technological overhaul real-time sales tax would require.

A real-time sales tax system would require retailers in the Commonwealth to remit sales tax from electronic transactions as they occur. The concept has been universally opposed by Massachusetts businesses, with a broad coalition of retailers, banks, payments providers and others, urging policymakers to reject real-time sales tax on the grounds that it is costly, burdensome and doomed to failure.

The case against real-time sales tax is overwhelming. Even if the technology to provide such a system were to exist (and there is little evidence that it does), implementation would require a wholesale reworking of retail technology and software, imposing a huge cost and compliance burden on payments networks, financial institutions, and merchants of all sizes, all while negatively affecting millions of consumer card payments and electronic funds transfers.

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Sales Tax Initiative Leveraging Debate on How Government Affects Sales and Operating Costs on Main Street

October 24, 2107  By Jon Hurst, President

The Retailers Association of Massachusetts has been investing considerable time and resources this fall to qualify a ballot initiative to reduce the sales tax rate back to the 2009 level of 5.0%, as well as to authorize an annual August two day sales tax holiday.  Our membership polling clearly showed overwhelming support for the Association to take this rare step.  As an industry, we have not used the ballot initiative mechanism since 1994, when the voters approved a RAM sponsored measure to make Massachusetts the last state in the nation to allow stores to open on Sunday mornings, and on the three summer national holidays. 

The existence of the sales tax ballot measure creates an important opportunity to discuss what every Massachusetts small business owner needs—higher sales and lower costs.  Unfortunately, for many local employers, both of those needs are heading in the wrong direction.  And make no mistake about it—government imposed taxation, as well as labor and cost of operations mandates can and do create financial incentives on where consumers spend their important discretionary dollars.  With consumer spending representing 70% of our economy, any state policy which incents our residents to spend elsewhere instead of right here in the Commonwealth is economically dangerous in the age of the smartphone.   

The 25% sales tax increase in the Great Recession, and the lack of a sales tax holiday over the past two years couldn’t have happened at a worse time—just as mobile commerce exploded.  And despite two decades of advocacy and debate, most of those online marketers are still not collecting the 6.25% Massachusetts sales tax.  The result has been sales reductions for our local small businesses, and a more regressive state tax system for our lower income families and seniors on fixed incomes.  

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Moving Ahead on Sales Tax Ballot Question

Moving Ahead on Sales Tax Ballot Question

RAM’s membership overwhelmingly decided this week to move forward with an effort to put a sales tax ballot question before the voters that would reduce the state sales tax to 5% and mandate an annual sales tax holiday.

This much needed measure will provide meaningful relief to small businesses while significantly benefiting seniors and low-income families who pay a disproportionate amount of their income in sales tax.

Today, RAM represents more than 3,500 small retailers that populate the Main Streets of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth, provide good paying jobs, and bring vibrancy and economic vitality to their communities. Unfortunately, far too many of these small businesses are struggling due to tax-free competition from New Hampshire and online sellers. By reducing the sales tax and coupling it with an annual sales tax holiday each year, we can give these small businesses and their employees a fighting chance to compete and survive.

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May 17, 2017  By Jon Hurst

As the fiscal year 2018 state budget gets closer to implementation on July 1, it is becoming clearer that employers will be asked in some way to help fund a state Medicaid budget gap.  The MassHealth budget has exploded under a combination of ACA related costs, mixed up consumer incentives, and a lack of provider expense control.  And until the state can institute some guardrails, and move some over to more appropriate and affordable options, it appears that employers will be asked to fund some of the increased costs over a two year period. 

Important discussions on the economic impact to small businesses have lowered the dollar ask and have allowed for discussions of better taxing plans, but still absent from the negotiations is skin in the game from the providers themselves.  A proposal to cap commercial rate increases for the big, high cost providers was lost in the flood of unparalleled political power by “non-profit,” non-taxpaying healthcare providers.   They aren’t shy about asking for more money from consumers, employers and taxpayers, but ask them to pay taxes or reduce their expenses, and they pull out all the stops to deflect the conversation.

Some of these providers are among the largest employers in the state, are far wealthier than most “for profit” employers, yet due to their tax status, they pay no corporate income tax, no commercial property taxes, and incredibly, no sales tax.  With their direct tax avoidance they force the rest of us to pay more in taxes.  More taxes, on top of uncontrolled, escalating health insurance premiums.    

Furthermore, they are arguably given by government an unfair advantage under those tax laws compared to their for profit competitors.  Taxes are supposed to not only fund important government services like healthcare, but also create fair playing fields, and incentives to do the right thing.  Truly there is nothing like paying taxes to force you to closely examine your expenses and behavior.  And ideally the tax system should be set up to make sure everyone is treated fairly and equally by government. 

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Smart Tax Policy Protects the Home Team

April 28, 2017 by Jon Hurst

"Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the fellow behind the tree;” so said former Louisiana Senator Russell B. Long when describing “tax reform.”  This is a pretty clear description of the political process behind tax debates at the state and federal levels.  And this message is worth keeping in mind as we face major tax changes and debates over the next year on Capitol Hill concerning the Border Adjustment Tax; and on Beacon Hill and the state ballot on the so-called Millionaires Tax.

There is no better example of Senator Long’s “behind the tree” saying than the sales tax.  Big business prefers to have consumers pay more rather than them, and big non-profits like healthcare providers don’t care where the tax dollars come from, so long as they are exempt from taxes and they keep getting increased taxpayer support for their growing bottom lines. 

Always the most regressive tax on the books, the sales tax has also been a sticky political and economic issue for Massachusetts because of our common border with New Hampshire.  Consumers of means have always been able to avoid it since they had the transportation options to take the drive north.  The billions of dollars which regularly leave the state due to consumer taxing incentives to invest elsewhere is obvious with the commercial development, the retail jobs, and the multitude of Massachusetts license plates in shopping districts north of the border. 

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The False Promise of “Real Time” Sales Tax Remittance

March 20, 2017 by Bill Rennie

Much has been said and written about Governor Baker’s $300 million employer Medicaid tax proposal, which when fully annualized over the course of the year projects out to more than a $600 million tax increase on employers, and rightly so, as that is a big number.  Less attention has been paid to another proposal in the budget that is also meant to generate significant revenue from employers by adopting what the Governor describes as a “Sales Tax Modernization Timing Change,” more commonly referred to as “real-time” sales tax collection.  The Administration counts on this change to bring in $125 million in the next fiscal year – another big number.  However, like the proposed Medicaid tax, the “real-time” proposal is flawed.

This sales tax timing change, included in Section 34 of the Governor’s FY18 budget, would require third party payment processors to collect and remit sales tax from retailers in real time, on all third party credit and debit card purchases.  Currently, retailers collect and remit all sales tax to the state, and they are responsible for the accuracy, reconciliation and auditing of their payments and accounts.  That process would continue under this proposal for all purchases made not using a third party credit or debit card, such as purchases made using cash, gift cards, checks, store brand cards, and split tender transactions. 

However, a second payment system would need to be built to accommodate the state’s “real-time” collection and remittance process.  Retailers, credit card companies, processors and even the state Department of Revenue would incur millions of dollars in new expenses to build out and maintain this new system – costs that would be passed onto consumers and taxpayers.  For what?  No “new” revenue is generated.  You’re just grabbing sales tax a month early, in what amounts to be a one month’s advance in your allowance.  How?   The Administration proposes for this section to take effect on June 1, 2018 – one month prior to the end of the FY18 fiscal year.  In doing so, the state would grab the sales tax due in July one month earlier, moving the funds from FY19 back into FY18.  It’s a budget gimmick that only works once, because then you’d be on a forward schedule – but you’d also have created yourself a new hole in the FY19 budget.  

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Healthcare Is An Expense Problem, A Law Problem, Not A Revenue Problem

January 26, 2017 by Jon B. Hurst, President

ObamaCare (ACA) is under the microscope for repeal and replacement this year in Washington DC.  And here in Boston, yet another state commission on healthcare provider prices is grappling with the fact that in the 11 years since we passed RomneyCare, our healthcare costs have annually increased about 4 times the rate of inflation.  Unfortunately for Main Street, those increases haven’t been spread equally either—small businesses and their employees have seen far higher premium increases than those experienced by big business or big government programs. 

Despite a good economy, these are troubling times in Massachusetts due to the interwoven healthcare cost issues affecting employers, consumers and taxpayers.   

Local small businesses, employees and consumers have seen their premiums rise far faster than their sales and family incomes.  RAM members have reported average annual premium increases of 12% each year over the past decade.  Likewise, state government has seen their costs for subsidized commercial and Medicaid plans under ObamaCare rise as well, as a significant number of consumers have made the ACA incented, financial decision to take the very generous, low cost, taxpayer subsidized options through the Connector. 

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OCT. 17, 2016 • BY JON HURST

The results of our member survey are in, and it is clear that the Beacon Hill leadership decision to forego the Sales Tax Holiday this past August resulted in dramatic drops in local sales and hours worked, with no clear benefit to the state in increased taxed collections. This is no surprise to anyone who understands consumers and the rapidly changing marketplace driven by mobile commerce. RAM firmly believes the real winners of not holding the Massachusetts Sales Tax Holiday were the tax-free mobile commerce sellers.

In these times of 365 day a year government granted tax advantages of 6.25% to out of state sellers, the state chose to not give local employers a lousy 2 days to fairly compete on the same playing field. The state did not give our own residents the clear incentive to invest their important consumer dollars locally. And that decision backfired miserably for our local employers, their employees, and for the state.

The Sales Tax Holiday has always worked in Massachusetts because the sales generated by the state tax incentive would not have otherwise happened. Sales during the tax-free weekend come from: 1. recovered tax sensitive sales—in the early years sales brought back from NH, more recently recovered from the internet; and 2. from impulse buys generated from consumers who otherwise wouldn’t be shopping. What the bean counters on Beacon Hill don’t seem to understand, is that under neither of these two scenarios did the state lose any sales tax because these were sales we simply were not going to generate and keep in the local economy otherwise.

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JAN. 28, 2016 • BY JON HURST

For many years now, RAM has asked our state leaders to reform costly and anti-competitive laws which hurt our local employers and benefit out of state and new technology competitors. The antiquated Massachusetts Blue Laws prevent higher sales, and make it far more costly to serve your customers, meaning less operating hours, slimmer margins, and higher prices. We asked the prior Governor to fix the discriminatory Sunday premium pay requirement, and didn’t get it. Last year, I served on the Baker Administration’s Economic Development Planning Council and specifically asked for this reform.

Today the Baker Administration filed their Economic Development bill without the requested retailer Blue Law reform, and even more surprising and disappointing was the fact that the online sellers—like Amazon—did get a clarification in the bill that they don’t need to adhere to the Blue Law requirements.

Millions of Massachusetts taxpayer dollars have been given to Amazon by the state to locate warehouses in the Commonwealth, and now Governor Baker has proposed to clarify that Amazon is not a retailer, and therefore not required under the Blue Laws to pay time and a half on Sundays. Not included was an equal reform or exemption for real Massachusetts retail employers on Main Street or in struggling malls. To say RAM is disappointed in the Baker Administration is an understatement.

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Last summer I paid a considerable sum to have my house painted by a local, North Shore painting contractor. But the money was worth it, and I was pleased not only with the quality of the work, and but also with the fact that the contractor bought all the paint from our local RAM member, mom & pop hardware store. The local economy benefited, as did the taxman because the contractor didn’t take the trip to NH or go online to buy that large quantity of paint in order to avoid the 6.25% sales tax. But it got me thinking, where is the tipping point that pushes a contractor or a do-it-yourselfer to decide to take that ride north of the border to avoid higher, government imposed costs?

Being debated in the Massachusetts Legislature is a bill (S2052) that may indeed be that tipping point which pushes sales away from our local hardware and paint stores. Written by big paint manufacturers trying to pass the buck to consumers on the cost to fund their industry’s product collection and recycling program, this new tax on top of the state sales tax will push the cost differential between a Massachusetts and New Hampshire store for a gallon of paint to around $4 per gallon.

Although a few other states have passed this industry model bill being peddled by paint manufacturer lobbyists, I wonder if those manufacturers have stopped to consider what the very detrimental impact will be on their Massachusetts retailer customers, which must deal every day with the competitive pressures of non-taxed sellers. The reality is that just as consumers can easily avoid the sales tax by a quick drive or a few strokes of the smartphone, so too will they be able to avoid this paint tax.

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AUG. 12, 2015 • BY JON HURST

During the last week of July, the Massachusetts Legislature overwhelmingly passed the 11th sales tax holiday held over the past 12 years. For that action, countless mom and pop retailers are very grateful. The holiday represents a state version of Small Business Saturday, in which our public policy leaders create real consumer incentives, and send a very strong message to our residents that it matters where they spend their dollars. And in these days of unlimited shopping options—including countless tax free sites right on our smartphones combined with price comparison applications--the state incentive is far more important today than it was in the first year, 2004.

If the Sales Tax Holiday helps your sales and traffic and that of your local retail community, please be sure to thank your local legislators for this important economic investment. It is vital for the future that they know it is important to you and your customers.

The sales tax holiday this year was more controversial than in past years due to rhetoric from the opposite ends of the political spectrum. On the right, there were arguments that the two days are nothing more than “crumbs” to small businesses and to taxpayers. To those opponents, I say if you are starving, you will take the crumbs.

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JUL. 7, 2015 • BY JON HURST

As the calendar moves past Independence Day weekend and the state budget gets finalized, the question is now being asked by stores and consumers alike on whether Massachusetts will enjoy a weekend of tax-free shopping this August. If authorized, a 2015 Sales Tax Holiday would be the eleventh in the last twelve years. Stores and Main Streets would be packed with consumers enjoying both the 6.25% tax savings on items up to $2,500, along with the sale prices many stores would be offering.

Starting with the first “Sales Tax Holiday” held in 2004, shoppers have embraced this late summer event providing Massachusetts Main Street retailers, and the state’s economy, with a much needed economic boost at an otherwise very slow time. Eighteen states normally authorize sales tax holidays, but none as successful as the Massachusetts event. And with the incredible growth of smartphone/mobile commerce just over the last couple of years, this state incentive is becoming even more important to keep hundreds of millions of dollars in our state rather than lose sales to tax-free internet sellers. While virtually all of our elected leaders agree that the sales tax holiday is good politics, some question if it is good policy. Here’s why it is:

Consumers Vote With Their Dollars: Past sales tax holidays have created a December-like weekend in what would normally be empty stores and Main Streets. And a May, 2015, poll by Opinion Dynamics showed that 72% would be Very Likely or Somewhat Likely to shop locally instead of in New Hampshire or on the Internet if the Legislature and Governor re-authorize future sales tax holidays. The consumer represents 70% of our economy, and consumer spending has a multiplier effect that determines whether new jobs and investment will be made by wide variety of employer sectors. The Sales Tax Holiday is truly an economic stimulus of the most effective form.

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A top priority for RAM early in this legislative session is a return of the Sales Tax Holiday (STH) in 2015. Legislation was filed on our behalf at the beginning of this session to establish August 15-16, 2015, as a Sales Tax Holiday weekend. RAM staff has been laying the groundwork, discussing the issue with legislators over the past few months, and recently contracted with a consultant to study the overall economic impacts of the Sales Tax Holiday. It is our belief that this study will show the positive added economic benefits to the Commonwealth that result from a tax free weekend and this will further support our lobbying efforts. We are requesting that all RAM members, particularly those who have benefited from past holidays, click here to take this brief confidential survey to assist in the data collection for the study.

Also, RAM recently paid to add a question regarding consumer interest in future tax free weekends to a broader statewide poll. That question and the results are here:

If the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor re-authorize future Sales Tax Holidays, how likely will you be to participate by shopping nearby and keeping your consumer dollars local instead of buying online or in New Hampshire:

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MAR. 5, 2015 • BY JON HURST

At the request of the Baker Administration to help their efforts to obtain federal disaster relief from the historic month of winter weather, RAM spearheaded a survey to determine average small business sales losses over the four week period of January 26-February 22. RAM designed a survey and recruited the Massachusetts chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB-MA), Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), the Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA), the Massachusetts Business Roundtable (MBA), and the members of the Massachusetts Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (MACCE) to participate. The survey results confirmed the anecdotal evidence of just how severe the sales losses were, while at the same time showing a much higher loss number for small retailers and restaurants than for other employer sectors.

The average small business sales losses across the state were 24%; but the retail and restaurant numbers were far higher, at 49%. The reductions in payroll costs were only 7% for all businesses, and 14% for retail and restaurant, and thus most employers took care of their employees, while taking a very large hit to the bottom line.

Thanks to all of our RAM members for taking the time to participate in this important survey. Click here to view press release.

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