House legislators

With State House closed, Sullivan and Keenan working from home, adjusting to new routines

Rep. Alyson Sullivan would normally be focusing almost exclusively on the upcoming debate over next year’s state budget. Instead, on top of monitoring the state’s increasingly shaky fiscal picture, Sullivan is also juggling legislative responses to the nation’s worst pandemic in a century, the growing number of constituents in need of unemployment assistance, and small businesses closing  across her district — all while working remotely. 

“It’s a different pace and a different world,” said Sullivan, a Republican, who is in her first term as Abington’s state representative. “We’re definitely seeing a higher call volume from constituents than in the past.”

Like many businesses in Massachusetts, the House and Senate have ordered members and legislative staff to stop reporting to the State House and instead work from home in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

Legislators and their staffs are working from home to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Photo courtesy of Sen. John Keenan

For Sullivan and her Upper Chamber counterpart, Sen. John Keenan, that means fewer hearings and community meetings, and more phone calls and emails.

“From my perspective, the pace has been crazy,” said Keenan, a Democrat, who is finishing his fifth term in the Senate. “It’s been pretty much nonstop. Because everyone has their cell phones they’re picking up calls on Saturdays and Sundays. Things are literally happening 24/7.”

With legislators stuck back home, Democrats and Republicans have agreed to keep passing needed legislation in what’s called informal sessions, which requires only a handful of members and staff to be in attendance. Traditionally, only non-controversial matters are advanced during informal sessions, as any single member can stop the proceedings if they object to a bill.

However, both branches have passed major pieces of pandemic-related legislation in recent weeks during these informal sessions. Sullivan and Keenan said legislative leaders have been working collaboratively and productively to ensure bills have a broad consensus across the political spectrum.  

“We’re most definitely seeing an increased spirit of bipartisanship” she said. 

The House and Senate continue to meet in informal sessions. Photo courtesy of Sen. John Keenan

Sullivan said she is in regular contact with her fellow caucus members and other legislative colleagues via phone, text and email. Committees are using teleconference apps such as Zoom to meet and discuss pending legislation. Although committees aren’t holding public hearings in person, they’re still seeking out public input on proposed bills.  

“I think they’re doing a great job keeping legislators informed, along with keeping the public informed,” Sullivan said, mentioning a new law allowing restaurants with liquor licenses to also sell drinks to-go as one recent example of a bill crafted with feedback from all sides. 

“If there is consensus the bill moves forward, if there’s not consensus, it won’t move forward,” said Keenan.

If the House and Senate can’t agree on a bill, they appoint a conference committee consisting of three members from each chamber to try and iron out the differences. For example, on Thursday, the Legislature agreed to a bill allowing the state’s Education Commissioner to cancel this year’s MCAS test. However, the House and Senate have yet to agree on legislation granting emergency eviction and foreclosure protections for people at risk.

Keenan said another bill still being worked out would allow notary publics to notarize documents remotely.   

In addition to everything else, Sullivan said she is very concerned about victims of domestic violence being stuck in their homes with their abusers. With schools, work sites, gyms and other places closed, Sullivan said victims lack the opportunities to make calls to police or seek restraining orders from the court system.

“My biggest fear is we’re going to have way more people suffering in silence,” said Sullivan, who has been open about her past experience in an abusive relationship. “I’m worried about kids at home and not having school for an outlet, and not having the resources available to help those individuals. 

Keenan said he is concerned about the region’s homeless populations, many of whom are battling mental health issues, as well as those with substance abuse disorders. Homeless shelters are typically cramped and not set up for social distancing. Those that have been exposed have difficulty isolating or finding a place to quarantine, which then puts additional people at risk. 

“They can’t just go upstairs and stay in the bedroom,” he said. 

Public health officials have loosened treatment options for those fighting addiction to make it easier for them to stay at home, according to Keenan, such as waiving the requirement that people receiving suboxone also receive counseling.    

Sullivan and Keenan both said although they aren’t working from the State House, they are still available to help Abington residents navigate challenges arising from the COVID-19 crisis, including filing for unemployment, protecting housing and health insurance, and getting licenses renewed.  

“My office is always available, whether through email or phone,” said Sullivan. 

Keenan said his office is regularly putting out resources and information from the state Department of Public Health and CDC. 

“I think we have to play a role to make sure people get accurate, reliable information,” he said. 

[DISCLOSURE: The author of this article is a former legislative staffer to Sen. John Keenan]

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