PA business leaders applaud State Senate’s approval of permitting bill

Following up on the collective letter forwarded Monday by more than 60 Pennsylvania chambers of commers, employer associations, and labor groups, the Pennsylvania Senate on Wednesday approved important permitting reforms aimed at streamlining and expediting the state’s much-criticized permitting process. 

Sponsored by Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland/Dauphin/Perry, Senate Bill 350 requires state agencies to implement an accessible website so permit applicants can check the status of their application in real time.  

The bill also requires permits to be publicly accessible and if turned down, the legal authority the agency relied on must be stated. In addition, the legislation requires that a permit, license, or certification is considered approved by the state if the agency reviewing the application misses its statutory deadline. 

Greg Moreland, state director, NFIB-Pennsylvania, said Bill 350 would “provide certainty and clarity which is critical for small business owners.” 

Robert Bair, president of the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO, called the measure “an important step in streamlining the permitting process so that we can start the projects that will propel Pennsylvania into the future.” 

Gov. Josh Shapiro signed an Executive Order on Jan. 31 seeking to reduce permitting delays by creating the Office of Transportation and Opportunity and the Economic Development Strategy Group in the governor’s office. 

Bill 350 looks to build on the governor’s actions by establishing a program for third-party review of permits and a resolution to delays in permit decisions. 

A report from Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office released earlier this month revealed that wage-earning groups were leaving Pennsylvania for pro-business states, Florida and North Carolina among them. 

“We are losing Pennsylvanians to other states at an alarming rate,” Phillips-Hill said in a statement. “This is not a Democratic or a Republican problem, this is a Pennsylvania problem that requires commonsense solutions that have been successful in other states. 

“Regardless of partisan affiliation, I think this is an area we can all agree on: No one wants to lose residents and businesses because they are hitting dead ends within their own state government.” 

Rothman said residents expect their state government to be efficient and responsive. 

“With this bill, we send the message that Pennsylvania is serious about growing the economy, attracting job-creators, and reforming government for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians,” said Rothman. 

Luke Bernstein, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said there is a generational opportunity to advance a significant permitting reform bill that would lead to an increase in jobs, transparency, and a more robust economy. 

“Senate Bill 350 takes a giant step forward propelling our state to become more competitive,” said Bernstein. “By building on the governor’s efforts to improve permitting, this measure further helps to modernize, streamline, and add much needed transparency to the permitting process. The PA Chamber is proud to support Bill 350 and be part of the solution that will help Pennsylvania become more competitive.” 

David Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturer’s Association, urged the state’s regulators to “move at the speed of business and serve as partners in compliance” to improve the state’s economy.

‘Coolest Thing Made in PA’ winner announced

In the end it came down to Eastern Pennsylvania versus Western Pennsylvania – and Western Pennsylvania won. 

After three weeks of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s bracket-style contest where voters weighed in on Twitter with their favorite PA-made products, Pittsburgh-based Primanti Bros. was named the “Coolest Thing Made in PA.” 

 The 90-year-old sandwich chain made famous for adding coleslaw and fries to its sandwiches earned the title Monday night following a championship round face-off with Schuylkill County’s Mrs. T’s Pierogies. 

The chamber said that more than 32,000 votes were cast to determine the final winner, which Primanti Bros. secured in the final round with 53% of the total vote. 

The restaurant is celebrating the occasion by offering free beer to customers at every location across Pennsylvania on Wednesday, April 5.  There are a handful of Primanti Bros. restaurants in Central Pennsylvania, but none in the Lehigh Valley. 

 “Hats off to the Primanti Bros. – not only for the brilliant and hilarious social media posts they entertained us with throughout the contest – but for being crowned by Pennsylvania voters as the ‘Coolest Thing Made in PA’,” said PA Chamber President and CEO Luke Bernstein. “This contest showcased what makes our state great by highlighting products made and manufactured in our Commonwealth – and the public’s response has blown us away. These last three weeks have left no doubt that Pennsylvanians are passionate about their homegrown products. While this was the first ‘Coolest Thing’ contest we’ve run, we’re just getting started!”  

 Runner up, Mrs. T’s isn’t taking the loss too hard, even if the excitement impacted operations. 

“We lost much more productivity following this tournament than we did with the NCAA tournament,” said Tom Twardzik, owner of Ateeco, Inc., the parent company of Mrs. T’s. “We congratulate Primanti Bros. on their win in the Pennsylvania Chamber ‘Coolest Thing Made in PA’ Tournament. It was a close win with our #PierogySquad showing up and voting for us round after round – we are so thankful for all the pierogy love.” 

 The “Coolest Thing Made in PA” contest began on March 14, with 32 companies competing ranging from Yuengling Lager to Zippo lighters.   

In addition to bragging rights, Primanti Bros. will receive complimentary tickets to next year’s Annual PA Economic Forecast and Business Leadership Summit where they will be honored. 

Pa. business, education leaders look forward to cooperation with Shapiro, Fetterman

Praise for the winners and optimistic glances to the future figured in the fallout from last week’s victories by Josh Shapiro in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race and John Fetterman for a seat in the U.S. Senate. 

Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry President and CEO Luke Bernstein and Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) president Rich Askey extended congratulations and extolled the virtues of both men in the aftermath of the Midterm elections. 

“The PA Chamber congratulates Governor-Elect Josh Shapiro, Senator-Elect John Fetterman, and all candidates elected to serve Pennsylvania at the state and federal levels,” Bernstein said in a statement. “We look forward to working together to move Pennsylvania and our nation forward. This election featured spirited contests across the Commonwealth, with law passionate supporters advocating for their cause and preferred candidates.” 

Bernstein said that while Harrisburg has a divided government, Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated a willingness to cross the aisle for a common good. 

“We proved through the recent Corporate Net Income tax reduction and other bipartisan initiatives, that Republicans and Democrats can come together and tackle big issues. The PA Chamber looks forward to leading the way to foster that spirit of working together.” 

Askey offered his congratulations to Shapiro and Fetterman on behalf of the 177,000 educators he represents as PSEA’s president and in a statement, pledged “to work with them to make Pennsylvania’s public schools the very best that they can be.” 

He noted that the Gov.-elect has long supported public education and Pennsylvania students. “We look forward to working with him and the Legislature to ensure our students continue to have the tools they need to succeed.” 

“Just as important, we know that John Fetterman will be a strong voice for public education in the U.S. Senate and will advocate for federal support for programs that work for our public school students and the educators and support professionals who teach and serve them.” 

Askey said that addressing crisis-level staffing shortages in Pennsylvania’s public schools is a major issue awaiting the new governor. He added that Shapiro has shown himself to be “committed to continued investments in education and to working in partnership with educators, school teachers, and families to identify strategies to recruit and retain a new generation of teachers and support professionals.” 

Shapiro’s strong showing on Election Day makes it clear, Askey remarked, that Pennsylvanians are not interested in cutting billions of dollars in public school funding and redirecting it to voucher schemes. He stated that such ideas would dismantle public schools in their communities. 

“Shapiro is very focused on ideas that work in public education,” said Askey. “Throughout the campaign, Shapiro has promised to reduce the time students spend on standardized tests, keep our schools safe, and expand access to vocational, technical, and computer training as well as other academic and extracurricular activities.” 

Many students are struggling with mental and emotional health issues and Shapiro recognizes that, Askey noted. Shapiro is expected to take measures so that every Pennsylvania school has at least one mental health professional so that children and youths needing help can obtain it.

Mail delays give business owners heartburn with missed payments, late notices

After not getting mail for weeks, Mason Blanc in Allentown received a large pile of mail all at once. PHOTO/COURTESY MARJORIE MONAHAN


A local planning consultant complained that he got a late notice for bills he had paid two weeks prior. An eye doctor had to warn patients that eyeglass prescriptions they ordered might not come in for more than 10 days because of mail delays. A freelance marketer is concerned that it will take longer for her to get payment checks from her clients – enough so that’s she’s asking to pick the checks up at their offices instead.

A wide variety of businesses are feeling the impact of a reduction in services at the United States Postal Service as new postmaster, Louis DeJoy, makes dramatic cutbacks to trim the budget on the heels of a slowdown that had already started because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While he said he will halt the cutbacks until after the November election because of concerns over mail-in ballots, critics are saying even delayed cutbacks are a big mistake.

There have been stories about people not getting life-saving medication in the mail on time with devastating results, and while no one is reporting major business disasters because of the delays many professionals remain concerned.

Marjorie Monahan, owner of Mason Blanc Catering in Allentown, said she saw troubling delays in mail service during the peak of the COVID-19 shutdown. Her business hadn’t received any mail for nearly five weeks, and then one day all of it came in through her office’s mail slot in one big pile.

“This was obviously piling up somewhere. I know it was because I know colleagues who were getting mail,” Monahan said.

Among the delayed mail was a number of certified letters and offers from vendors she wished she had received on time. It made her so nervous that she hand delivered important mail herself because shed didn’t trust Postal Service.

She has a great deal of concern for how any further delays would impact bill payments. “Especially when people need it right away for what they have to pay for,” she said.

Tina Hamilton, who runs MyHr Partners Inc. in Allentown, which handles corporate human relations contracts nationally, she said many of her clients are being impact by reduced mail service. “The big thing right now is that so many companies are working from home,” she said.

For many, that has made the mail a much more important resource for sending and receiving documents. “There are many businesses that rely on the mail. It’s the only way to get information to their employees,” she said.

While many companies now rely on direct deposit to pay their employees, there are also many that use the USPS to mail checks to employees. Delays won’t go over well with their workforce. “People want their pay,” Hamilton said.

The delays are especially stressful for the unemployed already dealing with problems obtaining unemployment compensation they desperately need, she said.

Some unusual business problems have even cropped up because of USPS delays, such as meal delivery companies that use the USPS to deliver prepared meals to customers. Timeliness is very important for such deliveries and Hamilton has heard of customers getting notices that their orders were cancelled because their food spoiled.

“That’s money those companies are going to have to eat because the post office didn’t deliver those meals fast enough,” she said.

Sam Denisco, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, hasn’t received any complaints about the mail, but said the status of delivery reliability “is important to business.”

“Anytime the speaker has to bring back the legislature – especially at a time like this – we’re paying attention.”

Denisco suspects many of the chamber’s member are using alternatives such as UPS or FedEx to handle their shipping needs, and he notes they have been operating just fine. The Chamber will be meeting with the state’s regional chambers to discuss how they might want to address the USPS situation if the matter persists.

Pa. Health Secretary, to business leaders: ‘We need your help’ to fight COVID-19

With 185 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 22 counties in Pennsylvania, state Health Department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, is calling on business leaders to do their part to help stem the progress of the virus, including shutting down.

“Now is the time for you to act in your roll as business leaders,” she said during a webinar on how businesses should respond to the coronvavirus organized by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “If a local business stays open, our local residents will think it’s OK to gather and congregate and it is not.”

Speaking to more than 2,600 participants, Levine warned that the state was in a rapidly changing situation.

“This is a very serious community health threat,” she said. “Participation of business leaders is essential.”

State officials are “keenly aware” of the monetary impact on business, Levine said, but the human toll of COVID-19 could be much, much worse if protocols put out by the governor are not followed. The state still has a chance of slowing virus if people stay home and limit their exposure to each other.

“It’s critical to keeping our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed,” said Dr. Levine. “If we wait two weeks it will be much worse. We need your help.”

It is impossible to say if the current call to keep non-essential businesses closed for two weeks would be extended, Levine said, but it’s assumed it will take six to eight weeks or longer for the viral threat to pass.

But keeping businesses closed or having employees working from home, causes a number of legal and procedural issues.

Jonathan Segal, an attorney with Duane Morriss LLP, said there are numerous factors that a company must consider when dealing with the various COVID-19 preventative measures, and reminded business leaders to remember they are dealing with human beings.

His first recommendation is for companies to have a rapid response team to handle any coronavirus concerns. The team should be made up of a diverse group of leaders within a company – ideally with representation from human resources and someone with a health care background – to focus on ways to handle any cases of exposure, or possible exposure within the workplace.

The first line of action should be with managers and the team should explain how to properly handle concerns employees may have about exposure, Segal said.

Under or overreacting to an infection concern could be a problem. Managers should thank an employee for coming forward with information about a positive case of COVID-19 and say that the team will be contacted to make a proper response.

Because circumstances are changing so rapidly, Segal suggests keeping all guidance as general as possible. If employees have questions about the virus, instruct them to contact their health care provider or obtain more information from www.cdc.gov.

Pay is also a concern, and that, too, is a rapidly changing issue with the federal government working on bills to address financial support for those displaced by the virus.

Paid time off, insurance and in some cases, workers’ compensation, can help with those who can’t work. The federal government is also working on support for people who can’t work because their kids’ school is closed, Segal said.

Those working from home should be paid as normal with non-exempt employees generally given a schedule of hours to work so there is less question over what time is worked and how much compensation is due.

The most important thing is to keep lines of communication open and try to be a resource for employees.

Not all staff will have access to email, he said, so make sure they have a way to communicate with each other – even if it’s about non COVID-19 things, to keep up a sense of camaraderie.
“We can talk about employee engagement all we want, but this is where the rubber meets the road,” Segal said.

Pa.’s new overtime rules: Boost, or bane?

Pennsylvania has joined a handful of states that have raised their thresholds for overtime pay above federal levels, which is projected to extend overtime pay to 82,000 additional Pennsylvania workers within two years.

On January 31, the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) voted to approve final regulations by the Department of Labor & Industry (L&I) that will phase in salary increases over three years.  This year the threshold will be set at the federal level ($35,568 annually).  In 2021 the threshold will be increased to $40,650 (or $780 per week), and in 2022 the threshold will be $45,500 (or $875 per week).

DLI accomplished this by amending regulations in the Pennsylvania Code to update the salary threshold for Executive, Administrative and Professional workers who are exempt from receiving overtime pay, otherwise known as the “white collar exemptions.”  The state based these amendments on statutory law which permits L&I to revise the definitions of those provisions “from time to time” in order to “safeguard the minimum wage rates thus established.”

The last update of the regulations occurred in 1977.

Absent a legal challenge to the regulations, they will take effect upon publication of the rulemaking in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.  The new regulations, however, will have no practical effect on employers or employees this year.  That is because the new regulations merely bring the state threshold up to meet the federal threshold already in place.  As employers are already required to meet this threshold, nothing further need be done this year.

Approximately 61,000 Pennsylvania workers became eligible for overtime pay when the federal regulations increasing the prior threshold of $23,660 took effect this year.  About 34,000 more Pennsylvania workers will be subject to overtime pay in 2021 and another 48,000 in 2022 under the new regulations, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).  These workers could see average estimated increased earnings between $20,257,417 to $22,639,208 per year after final implementation of the salary threshold increase, according to L&I.  EPI estimates that 63% of those affected are women and 15.8% are minorities.

Other provisions of the new regulations allow up to 10 percent of the salary threshold to be satisfied by nondiscretionary bonuses, incentives and commissions, paid quarterly or more frequently.  In addition, the minimum threshold will automatically adjust every three years starting in 2023 and every third year thereafter.

Even if an employee meets the salary threshold for exempt status, however, that is not the end of the inquiry.  The employee must also meet the duties test for each category in order for the employee to be classified as exempt.  The new rules changed the state duties tests to mirror those of federal law.  The trickiest category here is with the administrative exemption, where the employee’s “primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.”  That means that an employee cannot be categorized as exempt if the employee does not exercise discretion and independent judgment as to how the job is performed, even if the salary threshold is met.

Employers have a number of options for dealing with the new rules, in addition to just paying time and a half to employees who become subject to overtime.  They can limit non-exempt employee work to 40 hours a week to avoid overtime costs.  They can keep overall costs relatively the same by reducing the base pay to make up for the extra pay if an employee regularly works overtime, as long as the base hourly rate does not go below the minimum pay rate of $7.25 per hour.  They could also raise non-exempt employee salaries to above the threshold in order to keep them exempt.

Last year, as part of a compromise with Republican legislative leaders, Governor Tom Wolf agreed to back off from his push to raise the overtime threshold in exchange for an incremental minimum wage hike up to $9.50 an hour in 2022.  The Senate passed the bill, but it never came to a vote in the House.

Naturally, there were advocates both for and against this change in the overtime rules.

“Many small business owners submitted comments explaining this excessive expansion of overtime will cause them financial turmoil, leading to fewer hours for employees, and a limit on future promotions for those who have just moved from hourly to salaried positions,” Rebecca Oyler, of the Pennsylvania branch of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said in a statement.

Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” by the IRRC’s vote.  The Chamber had contended that the new rules would inflict higher costs on employers and possibly force those with thin margins to layoff employees or slash wages and benefits.

L&I cited in its regulatory analysis other comments reflecting positive outcomes from the rules change, however.  Most simply, many workers could see their pay remain the same, but their hours capped at 40 per week, ending uncompensated time spent at work.  L&I received comments citing examples of low-level supervisors in the retail, hospitality and food service industries working 60-80 hours per week without any overtime pay, while making less than a living wage in a low-salary occupation on a per hour basis.  (A living wage is considered $11.45 an hour for a single adult residing in Pennsylvania.)

More free time for workers can mean time to pursue educational goals or a second job to supplement income or gain work experience to enhance earning potential.  Furthermore, DLI states that income gains by lower wage workers could lead to a decrease in the use of public assistance.

Benjamin C. Dunlap, Jr. is managing partner at Nauman Smith, a Harrisburg-based law firm, and concentrates his practice on business and employment law.

Access to transportation, job training among state guidelines for private sector grants

Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, joins Gov. Tom Wolf Monday in announcing the latest guidelines state officials will use to partner with private businesses to recruit qualified workers, a top concern among industry leaders in the commonwealth. (PHOTO BY JUSTIN HENRY)


State officials this week announced 42 strategic guidelines for building the commonwealth’s workforce to compete on a nationwide and global scale in the new decade.

Gov. Tom Wolf said the state would use recommendations from the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center to assess private sector grant approvals via the Department of Community and Economic Development. After the command center convened in February 2019, it spent the past 11 months consulting key stakeholders in state government and private industry.

Recommendations are designed to address five barriers preventing Pennsylvanians from working and employers from recruiting qualified candidates — inaccessible childcare, job training deficiency, inaccessible transportation, burdensome occupational licensing and workforce re-entry from the criminal justice system.

“Employment is high, but too many people are in low-wage jobs and many businesses cannot find or retain skilled workers,” Wolf said.

The command center’s recommendations will be supported by a $12 million competitive grant program.

The state will encourage and incentivize commercial and residential development to consider access to transportation when making decisions about business expansion or creation, according to Wolf. He said the state will increase employer-employee cost sharing programs to expand access to workforce-building assets like transportation, child care and job training.

Wolf was joined at Monday’s press conference by Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, who said recruiting and retaining a qualified workforce remains the number one issue for the second year in a row among industry leaders that responded to the chamber’s annual economic survey.

“It’s a problem that stretches across all industry sectors in every region of the state,” Barr said. “We’re pleased to continue our work with the [command center] and legislative leadership to raise awareness of the concerns and needs of the business community in the state’s evolving jobs market and identify innovative solutions to addressing the jobs skills gap and removing barriers to work.”

Nikki Haley to headline annual PA Chamber dinner

Nikki Haley, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is scheduled to speak at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s 35th annual chamber dinner. PHOTO SUBMITTED

Tickets are still available for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s 35th annual chamber dinner to be headlined by keynote speaker Nikki Haley.

Haley, who resigned from her role as the 29th U.S. ambassador to the United Nations late last year, is expected to share her experiences in both the federal government and as former governor of South Carolina.

“We felt that her experience in both the state and federal level gave her a unique story to tell and one that would be of great interest to our audience,” said Tricia Harris, director of public affairs for the chamber.

Haley is expected to address a crowd of over 1,800 people on Sept. 23, at Hershey Lodge in Derry Township, Dauphin County. She is currently a member of The Boeing Co.’s Board of Directors and plans to discuss her personal life as a working mother and first-generation Indian-American.

Haley, a Republican, was governor of South Carolina from 2011 to 2017 and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2018.

“From the pivotal moments that have defined her personal life and career to the lessons learned along the way, Ambassador Haley’s candor and incredible storytelling are certain to inspire, educate and entertain,” the chamber wrote in a release.

The chamber first announced that Haley would be speaking at the dinner in January.

The dinner has previously featured keynote speakers such as former President George W. Bush and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Letter to the editor: Vital employer protection mischaracterized as loophole

A recent guest editorial (“Philadelphia pay-equity case attracts national focus”) mischaracterizes an important facet of the pay equity discussion. Federal and state law require men and women to be paid equally for equal work. However, as the editorial notes, the laws also include exceptions when wages are based on seniority, merit, quantity or quality of production, or any other factor other than sex. The editorial repeatedly refers to the ‘factors other than sex’ exception as a “loophole” and accuses employers of exploiting this exception “as a pretext for gender wage discrimination.”

This accusation is an unfair and misleading portrayal of an important employer protection which has long helped maintain the balance between fighting discrimination and ensuring fair application of the law.

Anyone familiar with operating a business knows that pay differences among employees can and do exist for many reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with sex discrimination. An employer may increase wages for an employee being recruited by a competitor or provide a more generous salary to a new hire who was uniquely qualified, as opposed to another new hire who barely met the job qualifications. Some employers allow employees to choose between a bonus or extra vacation days or between a higher salary or more flexible work schedule. If these or similar scenarios create wage disparities, should the employer be found to have committed discrimination? Authors of equal pay laws, which include the ‘factors other than sex’ exception, apparently didn’t think so.

Recognizing this feature of equal pay law is important: the PA Chamber is pushing back against efforts in the state legislature to eliminate this employer protection. If ever enacted, honest employers would be subjected to frivolous and costly lawsuits, especially small businesses that may not have legal departments or HR personnel to combat unscrupulous plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Alex Halper
Director of Government Affairs
Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry