Maine businesses deserve fair warning

Have you ever heard of the “WARN Act?”

It is a federal law signed in the waning days of President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Basically, it requires medium and large employers to give a 60-day notice before mass layoffs occur. You can quibble with specific provisions, but the general idea makes good sense.

Give people a heads up with some lead time so they can get their affairs in order. What’s wrong with that?

There are exceptions. Natural disasters are unforeseen and can relieve an employer from the law. Coronavirus almost certainly counts under that catch-all.

But businesses don’t have a WARN Act when it comes to sudden government action. That became painfully clear on Wednesday.

A sign announces the reopening of the Hot Spot Diner in Wiscasset on May 18. Gov. Janet Mills is now allowing restaurants in 12 of the state’s 16 counties to have dine-in customers. She delayed a return to dine-in service in three Maine counties this week. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

A month ago, Maine’s small businesses were faced with a mayday May Day. In late April, Gov. Janet Mills released her “reopening” plan full of seemingly arbitrary dates to implement various “phases.” It was a bad idea; putting targets on the calendar months ahead was folly when the situation continued to evolve weekly.

Nevertheless, Maine citizens reacted to the plan. Plenty of debate surrounds its wisdom, but for the most part, they arranged their affairs accordingly.

Yet those dates — particularly “June 1” — served as a lodestar to many small businesses hoping to survive. To steal a line from Robin Williams’ famous standup, it was like the flag on the green in golf: it’s there “to give you fricking hope!”

Our golf courses opened May 1.

On May 8, 10 days after the governor first released her plan, she significantly changed it. “Rural reopenings” for retail were permitted on May 11 in 12 counties, with their restaurants to follow a week later on May 18 in these counties.

Retailers had to scramble to prepare with only three days notice. But restaurants, with perishable inventory and staff dependent on tips, had 10 days. Yet, since it was good news, many small businesses were happily surprised and went right to work.

That brought us to May 19, when Mills changed the plan again. Gyms were slated to open on June 1. When hard-hitting science — as well as common sense — revealed that enclosed areas where people breathe heavily might present a particularized risk with a respiratory virus, their reopening was paused. With 13 days’ notice, it undoubtedly created problems for those small businesses, but at least they had some lead time.

Then, this week, countless Maine businesses were walloped without warning.

That June 1 date had been circled by many small restaurants in the southern part of our state. As it approached, entrepreneurs and their teams began to study up on how to operate safely to keep customers and employees healthy. Creative businesses tried to find ways to give their people the best of both worlds — normal paychecks and enhanced unemployment — to protect their financial health.

None of this happens at a drop of a hat. Cleaning and preparing spaces takes time; the last thing anyone wants is an outbreak of Legionnaire’s diseaseAs headlines have told, supply chains have been disrupted during this pandemic. So, to open a restaurant, you have to order food. Getting it in stock takes time. Figure a week, at least.

On Wednesday, Mills took to the podium at 2 p.m. for the daily COVID-19 briefing. That is when she announced, with five days’ notice, that restaurants in Cumberland, York, and Androscoggin counties cannot open for in-house dining on June 1 after all.

No WARN Act here.

Outdoor dining is still permitted. But who wants to eat outside in the rain? That uncertainty means those food orders placed Monday and Tuesday are now out of whack. But, of course, the business still has to pay the bill once it shows up.

This is the problem that became perfectly clear when arbitrary dates were placed on the “reopening” plan. Businesses cannot simply snap their fingers and make things so. It takes time, deliberate planning, money, effort, and coordination to do something as seemingly simple as serving a salad with a soda.

The WARN Act makes employers give employees a heads up with some lead time so they can get their affairs in order. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander; employers deserve the same courtesy from their government, even if there is not a law.

If the Mills administration believes Maine should remain partially locked down, despite having effectively zero “excess deaths” during this pandemic, then say so plainly. We can have that debate. But offering false hope, only to backtrack at the last minute, is pretty poor policy.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.