Editor's note: The following is the transcript of an interview with Michael Litrenta and Ashlee Poplin from Cotney Construction Law. You can read the interview below or listen to the podcast here.
Heidi Ellsworth: Hello, this is Heidi Ellsworth with Roofing road Trips with Heidi podcast, part of Roofer's Coffee Shop. I am Heidi Ellsworth, partner with Roofer's Coffee Shop. I have the best guests today because it's really about what's happening right now. So for all of you listening to us, this is April 1st, 2020, and we are in the midst of COVID. And so I had asked Mike LiTrenta and Ashlee Poplin, both of Cotney Construction Law out of the Charlotte Carolina office to join me today. Welcome to the show you two.
Ashlee Poplin: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Michael Litrenta: Thanks for having me Heidi.
Heidi Ellsworth: That is awesome. I've really gotten to know both of you over the last month. So we've kind of been in this new normal together since we've really started talking and visiting. But there is a lot going on out there right now and I was really impressed with what both of you are doing to help. Talk about the Carolinas. What's happening right there? And so we thought let's do a podcast, let's talk about it. Because this is really important for the state level, for anybody. Everything is different in every state, sometimes in every jurisdiction. It's kind of crazy right now.
Ashlee Poplin: That's true. And changing every day.
Heidi Ellsworth: It is. So you know what, before we get into the meat of it, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your background and how you joined Cotney. So Michael, do you mind just giving us a quick introduction and a little bit of your history?
Michael Litrenta: No, not at all. So I began my career as a prosecutor in Monroe County, Florida, which hopefully we'll be speaking about later today when it comes to jurisdictions and what's going on with COVID-19. But it's the Florida Keys for anybody that doesn't know Monroe County. And then from being a prosecutor, I transitioned into criminal defense. I specialized in DUI defense and drug defense. And then through my career I began practicing in other areas such as immigration. I did some administrative law, personal injury, insurance defense, med mal, and then finally I joined up with Trent Cotney and Cotney Construction Law. And I've been happily working there ever since.
Heidi Ellsworth: That's great. You have a nice, well-rounded, a lot of experience that you can bring to the roofing industry. I know Cotney does a lot more than roofing. They do all the construction across things, but of course, I'm all about roofing. So it's nice to hear all that. That's a very diverse background and it brings a lot to our industry to know all that. So. Okay. Ashley, tell us a little bit about you.
Ashlee Poplin: Sure. I have practiced solely in civil litigation for the past seven years. So I've practiced in North and South Carolina in the state and federal courts and tried jury trials, civil cases.
Heidi Ellsworth: Wow. And so welcome to construction and roofing.
Ashlee Poplin: Yes.
Heidi Ellsworth: You're going to love it. It is like the best thing ever. And of course I know Trent has already got you signed up for National Women in Roofing. So we're going to definitely keep you involved. You're going to love this industry.
Ashlee Poplin: I'm excited.
Heidi Ellsworth: That is good. Well let's go right to it then because one of the things Ashley, that you did, last week we were talking about this, the three of us. And I said, "You know, contractors need it spelled out simple. I need it spelled out simple. What should I be doing? What should I not be doing with this whole COVID-19. It's just so scary." And I thought you just did an amazing job developing the top 10 tips for dealing with COVID-19 in the Carolinas. So really, Carolina contractors can see exactly what's going on at that state level. Can you kind of share some of the top tips overall since you've written that, what you're seeing in the Carolinas and what contractors really should be focused in on?
Yes, sure. Certainly, and thank you. I know some of those tips are very common that you've heard on the news and everywhere over and over, speaking of the very first bullet point of those of the CDC guidelines. Wash your hands often. Avoid close contact, stay home if you're sick, clean and disinfect. These are things that have been drilled in everywhere. They don't necessarily just apply to the Carolinas, but everywhere and across platforms. So it's always good to start with the most general there. Everyone follow CDC guidelines, do your best to prevent the spread of this virus. Some things that you can do to help enforce those guidelines that you otherwise couldn't do based on HIPAA laws and things that are enacted in every state, you're able to actually ask your employees specific questions, take temperatures. And all of that is permitted so that you can do your very best to help your job site and help make sure that your employees and your workers aren't infecting everyone else. One thing that we all now know about this virus is that it's extremely contagious. So if you can keep an infected person from infecting the rest of your team, that's huge because then you're able to continue working. Now being able to ask them questions and take their temperature. The questions have to be related to COVID-19. So it doesn't allow you to just start asking all sorts of personal medical information, but you can ask them anything about their recent travel, people that they're in close contact with, whether they are displaying any of the symptoms and what those specific symptoms may be. And you can go into that. lso, you can require subcontractors to follow your employees rules. It's very important in doing that, that you don't assume control of them and accept any sort of liabilities that you otherwise wouldn't. But you can still have them temperature check, to have them have questions of them on the jobs as well. Something that we are seeing specifically here in the Carolinas. It's different in every state and this goes back to what you're saying Heidi, about make sure you contact an expert in your state that knows what these laws are and who are on top of them so they can give you the best advice. Different states and different counties within those states are issuing orders. North Carolina issued one before South Carolina and now North Carolina state has issued an order. South Carolina state has is still not under an order. And those orders all have different names. Some of them are shelter-in-place, some of them are stay-at-home, things of that nature. Specifically, North Carolina enacted by county. They started with the largest counties first. Mecklenburg County where our Charlotte office is located was the first one to issue a stay-at-home order. That stay-at-home order was one that shut down a lot of businesses that were considered nonessential. And then other counties in the state started doing it before an entire statewide stay-at-home order was enacted. South Carolina, certain counties have issued them, but the state's a little bit slower to act on that. But one thing that's important to note in all of these across the Carolinas is that the construction industry and therefore the roofing industry, it's a very broad term. It's construction trades men and women, so that would qualify roofing industry as well, are considered essential employees. And often there've been questions from roofing contractors and other contractors that have asked, "Just because I'm an essential worker doesn't mean I'm immune to this virus, so why am I considered an essential worker?" It's a good thing. It allows you to continue your business. It keeps your business from shutting down. But the concerns are valid because no, just because you're an essential employee doesn't mean that you're immune to this virus. So it's important again, to go back to the top of that, following those CDC guidelines on the job, trying to give as much distance between people as possible, washing hands, making sure that employees are not sick before they're coming onto the job and so forth. But it is important to remember you're an essential business and it's a good thing. You want to take advantage of that to the best that you can. But of course, if you're sick, stay home. But if not, you're an essential business and you can continue to work.
Heidi Ellsworth: Well and it is really essential because if we have roofs that are leaking, if we have water intrusion ...
Ashlee Poplin: Of course.
Heidi Ellsworth: Yeah, I mean that can cause even worse things. And especially in the Carolinas, you guys are getting storms. There's a lot that happens there being a coastal state that can kind of change things around too.
Ashlee Poplin: Certainly. And also, I know that any roofers that have worked in different parts of the Carolinas, just as you were mentioning, there are different issues that arise at the coast. We have Lake Norman is really close here in Charlotte, and anybody who's put on a roof in Lake Norman knows that there are issues with the weather coming off of the Lake that affect the roofs, that how the roofs have to be done in that area. And so yes, you're completely right, a roof is an essential part of a home or anywhere.
Heidi Ellsworth: For our protection.
Ashlee Poplin: You've got to have a roof. And so definitely, you're and essential business. You can stay open. And not only can you stay open, the orders are encouraging essential businesses to stay open. So it's kind of the exact opposite of what's being done for everyone else. Everyone else was being told stay at home, stay at home. If you're an essential business, you're urged it's to stay open because we need you. So that's why.
Heidi Ellsworth: People need that. Now, along that line, I understand that Cotney Construction Law is helping roofing contractors and all contractors with essential worker or essential business letters that they can use in their trucks, right?
Ashlee Poplin: Yes, that is one of the things that they're offering. We've had a lot of questions what happens, because a lot of these states are enacting abilities for the police to issue fines or warnings or things of that nature. And so if you have a letter that explains that you are an essential business where you fall under the categories, because there's a few different categories, it would explain to any law enforcement, or anyone questioning a roofing contractor, it would allow them to produce this piece of paper or to explain why they're still out and about and on the job site and so forth. We've had questions, does that apply to my estimators? Does that apply to my suppliers? Yes, it applies to all of you. And so that's something that is important with that.
Heidi Ellsworth: Yeah. We need to keep business safely going. We need to be taking care of our buildings, taking care of our customers safely.
Ashlee Poplin: Yes, and just building on what you were saying with safely, one of the things the roofing industry and all construction will be experiencing, because this virus is very widespread and the likelihood of someone, even one of your employees or team members or something contracting it are high, there's federal laws that have been put into place and then even those at the state that mimic those or support them where the employees can ... There's different qualifications. FMLA has been extended to include COVID. So employees can request leave if they are quarantined due to exposure, if they themselves have symptoms, or if they're caring for someone who has been exposed, is quarantined, has symptoms or a child who is out of school or daycare as a result. Under the FMLA policy, the first 14 days are unpaid and then 15 plus, the employee is paid at no less than two thirds of their regular rate. There's more details to that that you can reach out to us. I'm happy to explain any of the nuances of those laws for sure. There's also the sick leave policy, which does the same sort of thing. These apply to employees with either 50 to 500, is where it's looking. Employers of less than 500 and then there are specific exceptions for small businesses under 50. Something new that has come out in the last few days, the CARES Act. I know a lot of people have probably heard about that because it affects small businesses, roofing businesses, all construction businesses, allowing you to apply for different loans. And it's helpful because there is a loan, it's coming through the Small Business Association and their lenders, excuse me, administration. And it's acting more as a grant than it is a loan, which is very helpful. It's a loan. But if you use it for the specific requirements for payrolls and things like that it's meant to be used for, then it will be written off. And so that's very important.
Heidi Ellsworth: I have heard Ashlee too, that you need to read that really carefully because there are revenue stipulations, that you know how much you make and all that kind of stuff. So it seems to be-
Ashlee Poplin: That's very important that you brought that up because some construction industry can be considered a small business even if they have more than 500 employees, if their overall revenues meet a certain amount. Definitely something to reach out about. And Cotney is helping prepare the applications for that. It's a $500 program, we're helping you. You pay the $500 we give you the help in preparing your application. And so definitely reach out. There are, as you mentioned, several nuances to that law. A lot of them are very helpful to the construction industry. A lot of tax benefits that had been in place in the past and then were taken away, but are now back. It can also provide reimbursement for employees for these paid leave mandates. So when I'm telling you about the FMLA and the paid sick leave, I know that gives a lot of employers a lot of hesitation thinking, oh my goodness, if my employees all get this and start taking out and I'm required to provide them pay when they're not working for a couple of weeks at a time, what am I going to do? Well, the CARES Act gives you a reimbursement for those paid leaves and it gets it to you more quickly. So it's a tax benefit reimbursement, but you're going to get it more quickly than if you had to wait and do it for next year or so. So that's very helpful and also important to know.
Heidi Ellsworth: It really is. I mean, that is excellent. And that the fact that Cotney is helping with the essential letters to put the small business forms together, that's huge. That is great. And I want to just say again for everybody listening, Cotney Construction Law is national. They are in a majority of the states with barred lawyers or attorneys. But they do have brick and mortar, and one of these brick and mortars is Charlotte, North Carolina where Ashlee and Mike are. But Mike, you have experience with other states also, which is what's so cool about the attorneys of Cotney Construction Law is that there's many of them in different places. I was kind of hoping maybe you could share just a little bit what you're hearing. I know you talked about Monroe County, Florida and then also you are barred in Wisconsin. So what are you hearing from those states or are you hearing a whole lot of what's happening along with what's happening in the Carolinas?
Michael Litrenta: Sure. So Wisconsin, generally speaking, has mimicked what North Carolina is doing. Specifically, Governor Tony Evers, he recently released emergency order number 12 which is Wisconsin Safer at Home order. And essentially it sets out everything like we've been talking about or that you've heard as far as essential businesses and allowing them to stay open. The specific language for Wisconsin is essential infrastructure. And it, like North Carolina and so many of these other states that are having stay-at-home or similar orders echoes that construction is exempted. So if you are a roofer doing any work in Wisconsin, I encourage you to stay out, keep working, keep trying to take those jobs because they are out there. I have heard that the biggest problem now is coming through the supply chain, that some contractors, roofers in particular are having problems with supplies, and a lot of that stems from the epidemic that has affected the world. A lot of people were getting supplies from China. That has slowed down. Italy to a lesser extent. Mexico. And so everyone has to be cognizant. When you're out there working and taking these jobs to be very aware of supplies. Contact your suppliers, make sure that you know what is going on with them, they're able to get what they need. And to a bigger extent, if you're taking new jobs on now, it is imperative that you have an attorney take a look at your contract to make sure that you are covered with any epidemic as far as performance is concerned, force majeure, and then like I was just saying, supplies. Because what we have been seeing, what I've been told from some clients is that now with the epidemic reaching the way that it has, the cost of supplies and getting supplies is going up. Well, that's not built into the contract. And so, they are struggling to absorb these costs and it's making profitability drop because they're spending way more out-of-pocket to get the supplies anticipated. And that wasn't discussed in the contract that they signed prior to the job. So going forward, my suggestion to everyone, no matter where you're contracting and roofing, is to have somebody take a look at that. Before you get into any jobs, you really want to make sure that you're covered. And then getting back to Wisconsin, and Ashlee mentioned this before too. It's important to realize that trade men and women are exempted. So again, we're focusing on roofing and roofers, and by all means exemptions, but plumbing, electricians, laborers, sheet metal, iron workers, masonry, even forestry and arborists. Wisconsin has really expanded their definition as to who is exempted. Florida, on the other hand, they don't really have anything in place except for some county orders that are in place. Miami Dade issued an order almost at the beginning of March, shutting down non-essential businesses. And recently as of the 30th of March, Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida basically issued an order prohibiting non-essential businesses from staying open in Miami Dade County, Broward County, Palm Beach County and Monroe County. And so they did that because as far as COVID is concerned, 60% of Florida's cases are in those counties. So basically the southeast area of Florida. That said, like we've been saying all along, Florida, like almost every other state, has recognized that we need construction, we need contractors, we need roofers, we need everyone in the industry to keep going. We can't just hit the pause, bury our heads in the sand and say, "Oh man, I really hope we get out of this." We need to keep building, keep people working, and just stay active.
Heidi Ellsworth: Yeah, that is so important. And no matter what the States, because you're right, the states are starting to kind of follow each other and sometimes like in Florida it's county by county. But we need to keep business going while staying safe. And there's a lot that is going to be happening as we're fighting this pandemic. We also have a lot of other things out there. I know especially in Monroe County, in Florida and throughout the Carolinas, hurricanes. I mean hurricane season, what does it start in June?
Michael Litrenta: Yeah, it's coming up.
Heidi Ellsworth: Yeah. So it would seem to me that, and maybe Mike, you can address this, but what are some of the things that contractors should be thinking about while they're dealing with this, but also prepping to get ready for the season, the roofing season and the hurricane season and everything else?
Michael Litrenta: So piggybacking off what I was just talking about, first and foremost, supply chain. Make sure that whoever you're getting your materials from is set up, ready to go, ready to have that stuff provided to you. Specifically Monroe County in the Florida Keys. Miami Dade is four hours across the overseas highway and US 1, so if you don't have materials ready to go, that's going to make that job really, really difficult, very expensive and probably not profitable at all. You're probably looking at being in the red at the conclusion of that. As far as the Carolinas are concerned, the greatest thing I can offer to any of the roofing contractors headed out east, it should be very cognizant that despite having general building codes and guidelines as far as installations of roofs and things, that a lot of these counties have nuances that people are not familiar with. Specifically, I've had a couple of clients that in the past and had done some roofing work out in Pender County and New Hanover County, even Wilmington County, and we needed to make sure before we underwent any of those projects that we were compliant with county-specific guidelines as it relates to hurricanes. So again, the advice is speak to one of us at Cotney, and have us look at your contracts first and foremost, make sure everything is set up appropriately to protect yourself. And then just to review the guidelines, because again, when you're setting up your contract, you want to make sure that the materials and labor that you're going to be needing and using are going to be suitable for the county that you're working in. We don't want anyone to start a job and then realize, oh man, I didn't realize that there's some variances here that I didn't account for. And now you're up a river without a paddle to be a kinder with the cliche.
Heidi Ellsworth: Yeah, or on a wave that you don't want to be. So one of the things that's been really interesting this last week as I'm listening to different webinars and Cotney, Trent, you guys, everybody, that your whole firm is out there talking and helping right now. It's just such amazing leadership. But one of the things that one of the contractors came back while we were on the panel, the contractor said, "You know, this Cotney subscription has saved us. It is the best thing we've ever done." So Ashlee, I was hoping you might be able to talk a little bit about Cotney Construction Law's subscription services and how they're helping the contractors now. And to the point what Mike was just saying, going forward with you two being right there, you understand what's going on and you can really work with contractors on a daily basis.
Ashlee Poplin: Yes, certainly. And that's one of the advantages of Cotney is the subscription plan. There are different plans that you can choose from. All that information can be found on our website as well. But one of the things that is particularly great about being a subscription client during this time, is when we're getting all these phone calls from different people with different questions about how should I handle COVID-19, how should I make sure my contracts are in order, things like that, the subscription plan clients go to the top of the list. They get the call back first. They get the information handed out to them first. And so it's important because it makes you priority. And second of all it's going to save you a lot of money over time. You get an attorney on demand, somebody that you can talk to anytime of the day. You can give us a call, somebody will be able to go walk you through whatever issues you might be having regarding COVID-19, how to deal with it. What Mike was talking about with supply chain issues. We can talk to you about what we're seeing. You're in the Carolinas. Of course Cotney covers other states so there will be other attorneys in different states that can help you if you're, you're not located here in the Carolinas. It also, as Mike mentioned, will help you in getting your contracts in order to handle jobs that may be coming in currently, and how those will be different from here forward, because never before have we had a pandemic like this, and now that we have one, everyone is learning to adapt and change and better themselves for the future. So it's important for us to be able to help you with that. And so when you're on a subscription plan, we can do it at a more cost effective rate.
Heidi Ellsworth: That is excellent. And I think that's really where ... I've learned this from Trent over the last couple of years as I've been working with them on the coffee shop and NRCA and all these different things. But there is a real need out there for people to have legal services be easy to use. And I think that's what I'm seeing from you guys. And now to be having that right there in the Carolinas, I think is so important. So just to wrap up, we're kind of coming to the end of our podcast here, but I would love to just have Mike, to have you just finish up with really placing in the mind of the contractors out there in the Carolinas, how to get in touch with you and the best way to work together to really take care of it. And I want to point out, this isn't just roofing, I know we're Roofers Coffee Shop, but this is all construction. So maybe to share a little bit of that final, how to, how should they get ahold of you?
Michael Litrenta: Well I think the easiest thing to do obviously would be to call the office, and so I'll do a plug for that. Our number is (704) 275-5712. You can also call me on my cell at (262) 880-9349. I've kept my Wisconsin number because that's where I'm originally from. So if you have any questions or anything like that, we are accessible. Trent and Ashlee and myself, everyone at Cotney Construction Law has been working ramped up over time with everything going on, to try to make sure that we're accessible, that we get answers out there. And like Ashley said, subscription clients come first. So seriously take a look at the subscription plans. The way that they're set up, they're incredibly beneficial for customers especially, because we also give discounts for attorney rates, which obviously is important, especially if you're going to have an attorney doing something with the contractor viewer or anything like that. Kind of wrapping up, Heidi, I just also wanted to put out there not really legal advice, but legal advice nonetheless. When it comes to your contract, I mentioned this earlier with force majeure, some people are using ConsensusDocs, others take their information from the American Institute of Architects. Both of those are unique in that I could see anything in the AIA docs that really covers infectious diseases. ConsensusDocs does have something covering epidemics. But what I want all the contractors out there to just think of and realize is, when it comes to force majeure, we're not really looking at recovering money for you. To the contrary, we're looking at excusing performance or delaying performance. And so I just want people to keep these four things in mind. And the first is whether the event was outside the reasonable control of a party. Was the event reasonably foreseeable is number two. Whether it affects a party's ability to perform. And then any reasonable steps to avoid or mitigate the outcome. So again, going forward, now that we are all painfully aware of what's going on with COVID-19, I think it's more imperative that you go through and really think those elements, if you will, out. Because obviously we all well aware of what's what's happened with COVID-19 and it's going to make performing both your actual work and contracts much more difficult. So again, just be very diligent on that. It'll save you a lot of time and a lot of hassle and a lot of money.
Heidi Ellsworth: You know what? That's perfect. And that's exactly where we need to ... Listening to you right now, I'm thinking that's why contractors need to talk to you. I mean that's the kind of stuff that's going to save them money, heartache, the stress, everything that goes along with that. So I just want everyone out there listening to know. We have decided, on Roofer's Coffee Shop, of course you can always find the Cotney Construction Law in our directory section with tons of information, articles, everything you need, white papers we need legally. We are just getting ready to launch out there. Also, the individual office's directories. So Ashlee and Mike are going to have a directory on there for the Carolinas. It will be Carolina specific information. So Ashlee has already sent us three articles that are amazing that we're going to be putting out there. These top 10 tips. And then Mike, all the kind of stuff you just talked about, we're going to keep that kind of information coming into that directory. So along with how to get ahold of them, whether that's email or the phone numbers that Mike gave. If you didn't have a chance to write that down, it'll be on the directory. So thank you so much Mike and Ashlee for first of all, everything you're doing for the industry, and for being here today. I really appreciate it.
Ashlee Poplin: Thank you Heidi.
Michael Litrenta: Thank you too Heidi.
Heidi Ellsworth: Thank you, and thank you everybody for listening. This is a Roofing Road Trip with Heidi podcast, and we are doing these nonstop right now. We have them out going out every week. They're on our website under read, listen, watch, under our podcasts. You can also find us on Spotify, on Google and also on Apple podcasts and a whole bunch of iHeart, a whole bunch of other ones. So be sure to listen to us, follow us, subscribe and get notifications for when the next podcast comes out. Thank you so much for being here today and have a great rest of your day.