Share Your #GoodDeeds

GooddeedsCommunity is not based on our ability to physically see and touch each other, but rather the connection and care we show for each other—especially in times of need. ALTA would like to hear how you are continuing to serve your customers and communities during this uncertain and unprecedented time. We know how involved you are in your local market even when there’s not a pandemic, so we know you are actively involved in helping those that might need it most. We would like to highlight all the great volunteerism that is happening across our industry and the creative ways you’ve modified processes to get deals closed. 

Here are three ways you can share your story with us:

  1. Email your story at communications@alta.org.
  2. Post your story in the comments section on our blog.
  3. Share your story on Facebook or Instagram, use #GoodDeeds and tag ALTA.

11/24/2020

Time of Thanks: Check Out These Good Deeds

Iron clad_edited

Helping Their Own

Serving an area that has been ravaged by hurricanes this year, Lake Charles, La.-based Ironclad Title had the opportunity to recently give back to veterans, active military, first responders and the homeless in their community

The title company teamed up with the Southwest Louisiana Association of Realtors and the Affiliates Committee to provide 600 meals. Iron Clad Title thanked First American and Qualia for connecting them with organizations in Houston—El Big Bad, Houston Chuck Wagon and Boh Pasta—that donated all 600 meals.

Included in the picture is Ironclad Title member attorney Jared Watson and Director of Marketing Kaelyn Guillory, along with members of the Southwest Louisiana Association of Realtors and Affiliates Committee.

FTIC

Doing Their Part

During November, Florida’s Title Insurance Company is donating $162 for every new file received to JFS’ Cupboard to help feed three families. In October, FTIC donated $130 of each order to the Florida Breast Cancer Foundation to aid breast cancer research. The campaign raised $1,690.

Share Your Good Deeds

We know how involved you are in your local market even when there’s not a pandemic, so we know you are actively involved in helping those that might need it most. We would like to highlight all the great volunteerism that is happening across our industry and the creative ways you’ve modified processes to get deals closed. Send your stories and photos to communications@alta.org.

10/29/2020

Why HR Matters for Small and Medium Businesses

HR pic

Image credit: Pexels

By Grace Collins

Small businesses are the backbone of any economy. It rings true particularly here in the U.S., where small- to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) make up 99.9 percent of all businesses. That translates to over 30 million businesses that employ upward of 59 million Americans. A good Human Resources (HR) Department is crucial to every type of business. Yet in today’s current climate of uncertainty and cutbacks, HR has become even more important to SME owners. In this post we will cover why human resources matter greatly to small businesses and should not be part of any cutbacks.

More Than Hiring and Firing

Hiring talent, and firing them when necessary, is one of the primary tasks of HR. However, HR also performs a variety of vital tasks, notably preparing employees' payroll and benefits, initiating performance reviews, disseminating company announcements and policies, creating manuals, and taking care of any onboarding. Just as crucial, HR makes sure that all the above are accomplished in compliance with state and federal laws, in turn keeping the business safe from potential lawsuits. A company that cuts down on HR to cover costs will find themselves struggling to complete these tasks putting not only their hiring process at risk but the entire business operation. In order to avoid this, a small business must see the value in having a strong HR department.

Why HR Matters

Recruitment in the new normal

The success of any business depends on its employees. HR professionals can help attract and secure talent that fits the SME’s needs. This year has demonstrated how companies need to be very efficient with who they hire as an ill-fitted employee could cause a lot more issues than before. One benefit of the shift to operating online across industries is that traditional recruitment is giving way to remote recruiting. The ongoing pandemic has forced companies to reimagine the way they attract, recruit and retain employees. In particular, organizations need to bridge the virtual event recruiting gap through the use of available technology, like video conferencing platforms and artificial intelligence-assisted talent management platforms.

The way to bridge this gap is by employing HR professionals who are knowledgeable about the latest recruitment paradigms and equipped with expertise to adapt to the changing norms. The good news is that while remote hiring may be a new process to many companies, those who are now studying HR management at degree level will already be familiar with remote work due to the increasing number of students taking online degrees in the field. Graduates with an online human resources degree will have covered the latest emerging technologies, current issues and trends in HR. They will be able to apply them to the current situation. SME leaders who may have valued traditional qualifications over modern methods, like online learning, should now see that not only are the two equals, but those studying online may even have an advantage when it comes to remote recruiting. This is particularly crucial to SMEs, who will need to cast a wide a net as possible to bring in top talent in order to survive the coming years.

Employee Training, Development and Recognition

Finding and hiring top talent is one thing. Keeping them is another. HR helps in this regard by taking point in keeping employees engaged. Central to this is constant training and development, which will benefit SMEs greatly when done correctly. HR, for instance, can organize no-cost or low-cost training programs that will improve employees' skills, or they can even cross-train employees, in turn preparing them to take on multiple functions or tasks.

HR also makes sure that employees get compensation, benefits, and recognition. This can include aiding with a retirement plan or opening a 401(k), running a bonus system, and coming up with recognition programs and activities that will make employees feel valued. A company that is on top of this will improve employee engagement, empowerment and retention.

Legal Safety Net

Save for retaining an actual lawyer, HR can help protect SMEs for possibly crippling lawsuits stemming from unjust labor practices, illegal firings and similar cases. That's because HR professionals are well-versed in employment laws, which vary from state to state. This knowledge will help SME owners avoid mistakes that could have serious legal consequences. HR can ensure full compliance to state and federal laws, from displaying FMLA and OSHA notices and posters in the workplace, to keeping the business from potential fines and other penalties.

Ostensibly, quite a few SME owners think that having HR is an unnecessary expense, especially with a limited workforce. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Yes, it is an additional expense, but it is also essential that SMEs have a good HR department if they want to continue growing.

Grace Collins is a business and financial blogger. She provided this content exclusively to ALTA. Send feedback to communications@alta.org

10/14/2020

E-mortgage Volume Spikes During Covid

FHFA emortgage chart
The increase of e-mortgages purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac spiked significantly over the first six months of 2020, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) reported.

In a September white paper, the FHFA reported that e-mortgages comprised 4.25 percent of all single-family mortgage purchases made by the Government Sponsored Entities (GSE) during the first half of the year. This accounted for $38.8 billion in mortgages. As a comparison, e-mortgages comprised 2.8 percent ($29.3 billion) of all single-family mortgage purchased made by the GSEs in 2018.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac attributed the spike to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The FHFA reported that lenders have accelerated their e-mortgage implementation plans because of social distancing requirements and borrowers’ desire to conduct business remotely.

“As a Fannie Mae official explained, the COVID-19 crisis put e-mortgages front and center, and lenders began to realize some of the benefits, such as speed and efficiency,” FHFA noted.

in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of jurisdictions have implemented emergency or permanent orders relaxing notarization laws, including allowing remote online notarizations (RON) in those areas. In addition, the GSEs have extended temporary loan measures, including the use of RON.

The FHFA reported the GSEs expect e-mortgage purchases to increase during the second half of 2020 and 2021. Its estimated that e-mortgages will represent 5 percent of total GSE volume by the end of the year.

GSE officials said longer-term expansion could be impeded because e-notarization (including RON) was not available in all 50 states. Additionally, despite initiatives and orders allowing for RON, an official with Freddie Mac said the number of notaries certified and available to act as electronic notaries is low.

Use of e-mortgages carries both risk management benefits and potentially heightened risks.

Both the GSEs said e-mortgages offer fewer signing errors and ensure that documents, pages and signatures are not missing from the closing package, which minimizes post-closing review delays.

Other benefits noted in the report include:

  • may reduce the need for settlement provider and lender back office teams to perform quality post-closing reviews for missing signatures and unsigned documents and can help minimize efforts associated with trailing documents.
  • GSE systems can automatically certify the loan when it is delivered by verifying that all the information in the note, such as loan terms and property information, matches the loan delivery data.
  • Eliminating the need to physically transfer a note improves efficiency, reduces costs and eliminates the risk that it will be lost.
  • Borrowers can review and electronically sign some documents before the closing, making the closing faster and easier.

While underwriting parameters are the same for an e-mortgage versus a traditional paper-based mortgage, differences for signing processes introduces potential risk.

According to Fitch Ratings, e-mortgages can increase risk if counterparties do not have proper controls and remediation plans for their e-mortgage systems and platform. For example, Freddie Mac told FHFA that if counterparties do not comply with the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) and the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) in the e-mortgage and e-closing processes, then the resulting e-mortgage may have issues or delays in enforcement. According to Freddie Mac, the potential for enforceability issues with e-mortgages is their highest risk.

10/09/2020

ALTA Announces Winners of 2020 Title Webbies

ALTA announced the winners of the 2020 Title Webbies, an awards program recognizing member companies that have created or redesigned the best title industry consumer-facing website or page within the past year.

The Title Webbie award winners were honored during ALTA ONE, the largest annual event for the land title insurance industry. Nominees in two categories—Best Website-Title Agents and Best Website-Underwriters—were judged on mobile friendliness, overall user experience, social-media integration, image/video use and content quality. New this year, ALTA awarded a third Title Webbie—the #GoodDeeds Award—recognizing a company’s connection to its community through a social media campaign.

ATGATG Title in Fairfax, Va., won the Best Website-Title Agents category. On its new website, ATG Title focuses on providing information to educate consumers. Six tabs in the homeowner section highlight the purpose and benefits of title insurance, a step-by-step breakdown of the closing process, ways to save on closing costs, resources for more information on buying a home, information on ALTA Best Practices and standards and a real estate glossary.

“The main goal of our website is to educate the consumer on the cumbersome and confusing title and closing process in simple and clear language a fifth grader can understand,” said Mo Choumil, founder and CEO of ATG Title. “We collaborate writing original content by professional copywriters explaining all the aspects of closing, settlement and escrow services, with the intent to eliminate ambiguity and confusion from the process.”

FnfThe FNF Family of Companies, which has offices across the United States, was chosen as the Best Website-Underwriters winner. FNF’s Digital Closing Hub helps educate homeowners who are learning about digital closings and need to understand what to expect during a real estate transaction. The site is easy to navigate, mobile-friendly and a safe space for consumers to learn more about digital real estate closing options.

“The Digital Closing Hub has been an exciting project for the FNF Family of Companies because it has given our agents a way to directly talk to consumers, and the general public, about the changing world of digital closings and remote online notarization,” said Linda Grahovec ITP, IEP, NTP, vice president, National Agency Director of Education and Marketing at FNF Family of Companies. “Always talked about as a topic on the horizon before, the pandemic quickened the remote online notarization (RON) adoption timeline across the country, and FNF is proud to have provided resources and educational materials our agents need to make sure their customers understand these digital options. The Digital Closing Hub is central to these efforts and will continue to be a must-visit website for everyone who wants to learn about the innovation choices they have for a modern real estate closing.”

The Digital Closing Hub includes information about RON, COVID-19 resources, educational materials, digital closing solution partners and recent digital closing news.

ContinentalContinental Title, which operates in Kansas and Missouri, received this year’s #GoodDeeds Award for its #CTCcares Campaign. Started in January 2020, the effort has raised more than $36,000 for local charities, such as several humane societies and Ronald McDonald Houses across the two states.

“We are humbled and honored to be recognized by ALTA for the #GoodDeeds Award,” said Matt McBride, president of Continental Title. “One of the core values of Continental Title Company is ‘We Are Charitable.’ We truly take this to heart. Through the #CTCcares effort, we have donated $36,325 through the third quarter of this year to several charitable organizations in the communities we serve.”

“Over the past few years, the title insurance industry slowly has begun to turn the tide and put homeowners at the center of everything we do,” said ALTA CEO Diane Tomb. “With this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even more important that we take care of our customers and communities, whether that means providing much needed informational resources or financial support. I’m proud to see ALTA members stepping up to the plate with these Good Deeds. Congratulations to ATG Title, the FNF Family of Companies and Continental Title.”

10/07/2020

ALTA Announces Winners of ALTA Our Values Awards

ALTA announced the winners of the 2020 ALTA Our Values Awards. The awards program showcases the title insurance industry’s Our Values initiative, which serves as the industry’s cultural compass and highlights the core ideals ALTA members embrace.

The four Our Values award winners were honored during ALTA ONE, the largest annual event for the land title insurance industry. The three individual awards each represent one of the three values:

  • We Lead: We are the authority in real estate transactions. We innovate for the benefit of our customers.
  • We Deliver: Our customers trust us to do the right thing, the right way--before, during and after the transaction. We sweat the small stuff to assure that land transfer is accurate, swift and secure.
  • We Protect: We protect the property rights of those we serve. We reduce risk so our customers have peace of mind.

The program’s fourth award, the Our Values Collaboration Award, recognizes an entire ALTA member office that works as a cohesive team, consistently living Our Values and demonstrating an extraordinary level of positive impact on those who rely on their services.

MccughNancy McHugh WLTP, president and owner of Town n’ Country Title (TNCT), which has multiple offices in Wisconsin and Minnesota, won the We Lead Award for her leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. During March and April 2020, TNCT was going through a large title software upgrade amid the uncertainties created by the pandemic as well as a major increase in business volume. McHugh not only navigated work-from-home accommodations for her entire staff, but also sat with each department to learn their daily activities and help where she could. When she wasn’t working late, she was sewing face masks for her team and members of the community. And when an employee lost a child to COVID-19, McHugh drove four hours to the affected branch and spent two weeks working in the office while the team member took time off. She cried and prayed with the staff member and supported her in her time of need. McHugh leads by serving her employees, community and customers.

“I am humbled and honored to have received the Our Values We Lead award from the American Land Title Association, and I thank them for this recognition,” McHugh said. “These uniquely challenging times have impacted the way I lead our team. We have experienced the incredible volume increase while training and learning an entirely new production software program, just as COVID-19 changed the way we and the title industry do business. It remains important that as a leader I lend an ear and comfort staff through concerns, illness and, unfortunately, the loss of loved ones. It has not been easy. Ultimately, I serve those that I lead by serving our customers alongside my team, by being a part of the team each day, through it all. Whatever it takes.”

HarrisonDee Harrison, president and escrow officer of Alpha Reliable Title Inc. in Orlando, Fla., won the We Deliver Award for closing a transaction at her home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harrison had a client who needed to close on a property on a specific date not only because the associated rate lock was expiring, but also because the client needed to move her mother before the pandemic became too severe. The client was afraid of exposing her mother to movers and other professionals who might inadvertently put her in contact with the coronavirus. Because the client did not want to meet at an office, Harrison set up the patio at her home for the transaction. The client was blown away that a title agent would open her own home to help keep a stranger safe.

“I am extremely grateful to be the recipient of the “We Deliver” Award,” Harrison said. “Ever since I joined the title industry 30 years ago, it has always been my greatest pleasure to experience the tremendous joy that we bring to our clients by delivering the American Dream. Each file is completely different and comes with its own set of issues that we as title agents have to deal with.  My mission is that my team and I will never give up on a closing as long as there is a way to resolve the issues. My experience has taught me that once the clients are willing to hang in there, we should be willing to invest our time to bring that transaction to the closing table. I stand behind my brand, ‘We Stay Open Until You Close’ and live this every day. Closing at odd hours and strange locations, such as while someone catches a plane, being incarcerated or in the hospital, has made us famous among those we serve.”

PfaffMaureen Pfaff WTP, NTP, ALTA Board of Governor and president of Olympic Peninsula Title (OPT) in Port Angeles, Wash., won the We Protect Award for saving a transaction from a known fraudster who was a fugitive from another state. Pfaff was alerted to potential fraud when a man unknown to her wanted OPT to record documents related to a foreclosure because he claimed Fannie Mae had not paid him for work performed. When Pfaff searched county records, she found several suspicious documents. She eventually discovered that the stranger had been convicted of a home theft scam in Montana and confirmed with the recorder’s office that he indeed was the same man who had recorded the suspicious documents. She then alerted the local sheriff’s office who found the man had warrants out for his arrest. When the man appeared in court for the foreclosure case, the judge dismissed the foreclosure action and the sheriff arrested him on the spot.

“I am honored to receive the Our Values We Protect Award this year,” Pfaff said. “Given our specialized knowledge of the real estate transfer process, I believe we have a duty to protect the public record, question filings that don't seem right and alert property owners to questionable activity. We've all heard stories about fraudulent transfers of title, but it's easy to expect that it only happens somewhere else. When I spotted it happening in my community, I was determined to put a stop to it before it turned into a huge financial mess for the property owner.”  

Closing agentFinally, The Closing Agent team in Orlando, Fla., won the Our Values Collaboration Award for helping not only local real estate partners but also volunteering within the community they serve. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the office pioneered the use of remote online notarization (RON) throughout Florida. President and CEO Barry L. Miller was the first duly appointed remote online notary in the state while Vice President Lyliam Chau was the first woman appointed as a remote online notary. The team has provided multiple classes to real estate agents on the use of RON and the future of closings. They also hold monthly education courses for Realtors. The Closing Agent Attorney Christian C. Walters volunteers regularly with the Orlando Youth Alliance, an organization dedicated to providing nonexploitative, safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. Walters and Miller serve on the board of directors of The Central Florida Gay & Lesbian Law Association, which is dedicated to the professional development of its membership as well as community legal services outreach. Additionally, the two started a free legal clinic at the LGBTQ+ Community Center of Orlando where members of the community can receive free legal advice on a monthly basis. The program has helped hundreds of individuals with legal issues ranging from real property transactions to divorce and immigration. Additionally, Elizabeth Hernandez, a processor with The Closing Agent, volunteers with the American Red Cross. Her services range from assisting families after the tragic burning of their homes to managing full-blown shelters during hurricanes.

“From serving on the City of Orlando’s boards to volunteering time helping members of our community that are affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters, I am so happy that the team have been recognized for their tireless efforts,” Miller said. “We pride ourselves on keeping it local and look forward to many more years supporting our community.”

During the awards ceremony at ALTA ONE, ALTA Immediate Past President Cynthia Durham Blair NTP announced the honorees.

“The Our Values Committee was very excited to have so many worthy nominees, but the award winners stood out from the rest by going above and beyond,” Blair said. “We are so proud of the ALTA membership for continuing to lead, deliver and protect our customers every day.”

09/17/2020

Insuring Native American Land Webinar Series

ALTA and its Native American Lands Committee is producing a four-part webinar series titled "Insuring Native American Land: Special Issues and Consideration." Below are the recordings from parts one and two of the series.

Part I

This presentation discusses special issues and considerations when searching and insuring property involving Native American land. This presentation focuses on vesting and ownership of land, the Indian Non-Intercourse Act and Section 17 Corporations.

Experts participating in this webinar include:

  • Cindy Guanell ITP, NTP | Regional Underwriting Director/Pacific Northwest Region | First American Title Insurance Co. 
  • Sean Holland | Vice President & Underwriting Counsel | Fidelity National Title Group
  • Paul Cozzi | Senior Underwriting Counsel | Fidelity National Title Group
  • Branden Allen | Underwriting Counsel | Old Republic National Title Insurance Co.

Moderating the discussion is Cindy Guanell of First American Title Insurance Co. 

Download Presentation

Part II

This part of the series explores the statutory and regulatory authority and processes for leasing restricted Native American lands, including 25 U.S.C. § 415, 29 CFR Part 169, and the HEARTH Act, which created a voluntary, alternative land leasing process available to tribes who enact leasing regulations, that permits tribal leasing without having to obtain further approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You will learn key items to consider when handling transactions involving leases on Native American land.

Experts participating in this webinar include:

  • Orlando Lucero | Vice President/New Mexico State Underwriting Counsel | FNF Family of Companies
  • Sam Shiel | Vice President/National Underwriting Counsel| Old Republic National Title Insurance Co.
  • Cindy Guanell ITP, NTP | Regional Underwriting Director/Pacific Northwest Region | First American Title Insurance Co. 
  • Rolf Lindberg | Senior Underwriting Counsel | Stewart Title Guaranty Co.

Download Presentation Download Materials

Upcoming

  • Part Three: Authority, Recording and Access (Q2 2021)
  • Part Four: Case Study--Applying What We’ve Learned (Q3 2021)

08/20/2020

Strategies for Title and Settlement Companies to Keep Staff and Customers Safe

 

Across the country, nearly a quarter of all employees have returned to the office in 10 of the largest metropolitan areas. And as more employees return back to the office, companies must ensure they have the proper policies and procedures in place to remain compliant despite a lack of uniformity and inconsistent guidance. The landscape can be confusing enough for an employer with a single location, but for those operating across multiple states, or even across county lines, monitoring what is required can be quite the endeavor. Business owners and managers must consider an assortment of employment issues affecting health and operations policies as employees transition back to the office. Liability is a major concern, beginning with what to do if an employee or customer gets sick and how to screen people entering the office.

While many businesses across the United States closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the title and settlement industry remained resilient. An ALTA survey found that 98 percent of respondents reported their offices remain open during the crisis. Additionally, only six percent of those surveyed said they’ve temporarily ceased operations at any of their business locations. Title and settlement companied are deemed “essential businesses” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and allowed to remain open. Because of this, the issue is more about ensuring the proper policies and procedures are in place to keep everyone safe and healthy.

To develop a plan of action, Elliot Griffin, an associate with the law firm Ballard Spahr, encourages business leaders to establish a team or task force to oversee planning, execution and monitoring. This group will need to conduct a COVID-19 risk/hazard assessment and develop a reopening plan, establishing monitoring and update protocols and documenting the process.

“The task force should look at things from an employee’s perspective from start to finish,” Griffin said. “Things to consider include whether you have a lot of employees taking public transportation, if you’re a tenant in a commercial office, how are employees getting in and out of the building, how will they get to bathrooms, while mitigating any exposure to COVID-19.”

While companies don’t want to think about it, Griffin said the reality is that a company may have an employee test positive for COVID-19. A business will want procedures in place to limit the possibility of infection and to notify employees and customers if an exposure occurs.

OHO Top 10 TipsPreventive Policies and Protocols

  • Social distancing: Griffin said employers should revisit their employee handbook and develop social distancing protocols for the workplace. Social distancing protocols can address a broad range of issues. For example, employers should consider engineering controls and administrative practices to provide at least six feet of space among workers, whether in motion or stationary in their work areas. This may include reconfiguration of workspaces, erection of barriers such as Plexiglas shields, marking floors for directional movement and spacing, and limiting the numbers of individuals who can congregate in common areas. It also may include new schedules and staggered shifts, different and staggered breaks and meal periods, and greater use of virtual meetings.
  • Hand washing: Employers should make sure that employees returning to the office have access to facilities to allow for regular hand washing, according to Griffin. If soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol content) is acceptable as a substitute.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting: Employers should establish updated and enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols, particularly for high-use and high-touch areas. Griffin said this may be done through the employer’s regular workforce and/or through outside vendors. It may be necessary to hire additional staff or to expand cleaning contracts. Some public health orders mandate consideration of janitorial staffing.
  • Workspace and movement (entry, exit, elevators, common space): For employers in leased space and/or in buildings with shared common space, such as elevators, halls, lobbies, etc., the employer should consult with the landlord or building management about how cleaning and disinfection will be handled.
  • PPE (face coverings, gloves): Companies will need to think through whether face coverings will be mandatory, Griffin said. Face coverings or shields, respirators, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) may be mandated, depending on the state and industry. For example, some states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have adopted public orders mandating face coverings, both for employees and for customers. Others have issued guidance on what are appropriate face coverings and how to make them. Usually, the employer is responsible for providing PPE. Some workers may have health or religious objections to the use of PPE, giving rise to the need to consider accommodations under the ADA or Title VII.
  • Scheduling, breaks, shifts, interaction: Griffin suggested modifying the work schedule to ensure only a portion of staff is in the office each day.

“Companies that have offices across the country may want to have a workplace coordinator on site,” Griffin recommended. “That person should have an open-door policy for employees to bring concerns.”

A businesses’ COVID team will need to regularly review public orders and guidance from CDC and OSHA. Additionally, there are media and public relations concerns. A company’s reopen plan and how it plans to bring employees back to the office may be considered newsworthy by local media.

“You’ll want to think about how you’ll respond to media inquiries,” Griffin said. “Internal PR strategy is equally important in how you are communicating with employees. You need to be transparent in all the steps you are taking to prioritize their health and safety.”

Liability Mitigation

  • Third-party agreements: Title and settlement companies may use staffing agencies. Griffin said employers will want to work with these agencies to assess what their requirements will be.
  • Lease agreements: In addition, if an office is in a building with a lot of common space, “you’ll want to look at those agreements and determine what your landlord is responsible for and what measures they are instituting,” Griffin said.
  • Insurance: Companies may get workers’ compensation claims from employees saying they contracted COVID in the workplace. In some states, employee infections may be covered. Griffin said companies will also want to review coverage under their general liability policy and assess what’s covered if any customers, vendors or third parties who enter your office claim to have contracted COVID there.

Shannon Farmer, a partner with Ballard Spahr, said one of the main questions the law firm receives is about liability if an employee contracts COVID in the office. She said several wrongful-death lawsuits have been filed against employers by estates of employees, claiming negligence and accusing employers of allowing employees to work without adequate safety measures.

“Whether those cases go anywhere or are barred by worker’s compensation statutes, there are other areas of liability,” Farmer said.

These relate to the general OSHA Standard of Care, which says employers have a general duty to provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” OSHA has not yet adopted mandatory COVID-19 standards.

Protective Personal Equipment

For the title and settlement industry this mainly involves masks and gloves. Whether a company must require employees to wear masks will be determined by local and state guidance, according to Farmer. The CDC only recommends face coverings. If a company requires masks, this becomes a respiratory program under OSHA and must adhere to its rules.

Considerations include:

  • Whether employers should (or must) provide?
  • What kinds of PPE (gloves, shields, face coverings) will be mandated?
  • How PPE will be procured
  • How much PPE is enough?
  • Will PPE be required for just employees, or for vendors, clients and customers too?
  • What if limited quantities are available?

“You need to be realistic in thinking about what you’re going to require,” Farmer advised.

CDC COVID Fact SheetScreening and Testing Programs

Employers may consider implementing temperature screenings, health questionnaires and/or infection or antibody testing for COVID-19 (if available). Screening, if done, generally should consider all persons entering the workplace, including employees, contractors, vendors and visitors.

Some states, under public health orders, require screenings, especially after a positive COVID-19 incident in the workplace. Any screening and testing measures or health assessment policies should be implemented thoughtfully, with consideration of issues.

related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including confidentiality of medical information, as well as other privacy concerns. Farmer said employers must have separate files and limit access to those on a need-to-know basis. There also may be an OSHA requirement to retain records for up to five years.

Any testing or screening measures should be applied to all employees consistently, to prevent any inference of discrimination. If an employee is singled
out for testing or questioning about symptoms, the employer must have a “reasonable belief based on objective evidence” that the employee may have the disease. Employers should also be mindful of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, which may apply. Also, some state agencies, including Pennsylvania, have advised employers that its state anti-discrimination statute may be interpreted more broadly than its federal counterpart.

Farmer said Ballard Spahr has a client developing a platform where employees can login, record their temperature and answer a couple of questions.

“I would say a lot of employers outside of large companies that have medical facilities onsite are going to have people do self-screening,” Farmer said.

Companies will need to determine what they expect employees to report. In addition, Farmer said employers will need to assess whether time spent undergoing screenings (or waiting in line for screening) will be considered compensable time under wage and hour laws.

“Generally, under federal law, the answer is probably going to turn out to be no,” Farmer said. “This is due to the way federal law looks at what’s called activities as opposed to things that are integral to the work. However, state laws are different. Some states have ruled going through security checks can be applied to hours worked.”

Employers also should establish clear guidelines for when employees will be sent home based on screening and when they can return to work. The CDC has issued guidance on these issues.

Finally, Farmer said there should be consideration given to who will conduct screenings. This may be done by staff or an outside vendor or a combination of the two. Also, the configuration of the screening location(s) must be thoughtfully planned, particularly in light of social distancing protocols. High-traffic screening locations also merit special cleaning and disinfection procedures.

Sick Employees

Employees exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) should immediately be separated from others and sent home, according to the CDC. Sick employees should not be permitted to return to work until they have met the CDC’s latest criteria to discontinue home isolation. Employees should stay at home at least 10 days after symptoms first appeared and three days since recovery.

“The CDC also advises that employers do not need a doctor’s note or COVID test for employers to return to work,” Griffin said.

Signs/Postings

Businesses are encouraged to post reminders about the new policies in the workplace, such as reminders to wash hands and social distance, one-direction hallways, and breakroom/lunchroom etiquette.

OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have made available a wide variety of signs that can be posted in the workplace to remind employees about health and safety protocols. Either of these or workplace-specific versions should be printed and displayed prominently throughout the workplace. The Department of Labor also requires a poster advising employees of their rights under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

What Are Title Companies Doing?

Craig Haskins, chief operating officer of Knight Barry Title Group, said his company is taking a phased approach to returning employees to the office.

“Basically, we are not changing,” Haskins said. “We have offered employees the option to work from home. That’s been the number one question on our calls as states reopen.”

Haskins said about half of Knight Barry’s 400 employees has worked exclusively from home, while the other half has worked hybrid hours.

“It’s worked, so we are not rushing to bring everyone back,” he added. “We’ve decided if an employee is effective working from home, then we will continue to let them until we go into another phase. We’ve eliminated non-essential meetings and minimized in-person sales calls. Our sales team has done a great job getting creative to continue engaging customers.”

Mary O’Donnell, chief executive officer of Westcor Land Title Insurance Co., says her company has taken the same tactic. The national underwriter has coined it the “Office Optional Approach.” O’Donnell said the company has held virtual town halls to discuss “reoccupying” the office.

“Communication has been the ultimate key,” she said. “We wanted to be sure that employees knew that if one of their managers elected to come back to the office, they shouldn’t feel peer pressure that they need to return as well. On the flip side, if an employee comes back, we don’t want the manager to feel obliged to come back. We’ve worked hard on being totally open about expectations.”

To ensure proper social distancing, Westcor has removed chairs from conference rooms and elected to not reopen break rooms during the first phase of reopening.

“This is not a one-size fits fall approach,” O’Donnell said. “Even within counties, the approach is different.”

Because of regional differences, Westcor gives local managers freedom to determine how they want to reoccupy their offices through understanding what’s happening in their areas and listening to staff.

Haskins added that Knight Barry, which operates in several states, said it’s important to be flexible with staff working on the office.

“Staff is our number one asset,” Haskins said. “If they aren’t comfortable coming to work, then we don’t have a business.”

Jeremy Yohe is ALTA’s vice president of communications. He can be reached at jyohe@alta.org.

08/18/2020

GAO Says FinCEN Should Enhance Procedures for Implementing and Evaluating GTOs

GAO_GTO_study-2The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended in a 41-page report that FinCEN develop additional guidelines to help with oversight, outreach and evaluation when issuing real estate geographic targeting orders (GTO).

The main purpose of the study was to look at the cost burden of the GTO and examine potential loopholes in the GTOs. In 2019, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Van Hollen requested the GAO study the issue of whether vulnerabilities in anti-money laundering laws applicable to the real estate sector present increased risk of criminal activity.

ALTA provided background information to GAO investigators to help with the study. ALTA also a call with GAO staff and 20 of ALTAs, including agents and underwriters. Additionally, ALTA connected the GAO with individual agents to learn about the GTO compliance process.

FinCEN issued its first GTO addressing money laundering in the real estate industry in 2016. The GTOS have been renewed and expanded over the past four years. The current GTO is effective through Nov. 5, 2020.

The GAO concluded that FinCEN lacked detailed documented procedures to direct how it would implement and evaluate the GTO. As an example, the GAO in its report said FinCEN did not begin examining its first title insurer for compliance until more than three years after issuing the GTO and did not assess whether insurers were filing all required reports.

Also, one of the GTO’s objectives was to provide information to assist law enforcement investigations. However, the GAO found that the delay in implementing a more systematic approach to outreach resulted in delayed awareness and use of GTO data by some law enforcement agencies. FinCEN did not begin to contact law enforcement systematically until more than two years after issuing the GTOs, according to the report.

Findings from the GAO report:

  • FBI officials said that their searches found that nearly 7 percent of the GTO reports identified individuals or entities connected to FBI’s ongoing cases since the issuance of GTO in 2016.
  • FinCEN found that nearly 38 percent of the real estate GTO reports filed from March 2016 through June 2019 did not identify a beneficial owner in the proper data field. FinCEN officials attributed the errors primarily to the use of a form not designed specifically for the GTO.
  • FinCEN calculated that 599 real properties with a total value of more than $147 million were subject to forfeiture in 2012–2015.
  • Federal law enforcement officials told the GAO that data from GTO reports can provide useful data points—or pieces of the puzzle—for an investigation. The officials added that law enforcement can use GTOs to start an investigation, but that GTOs more often serve as a secondary source of information to assist ongoing investigations.
    • FBI officials said that their agency used GTO data to conduct geospatial and temporal analyses to track real estate purchase trends in areas covered by the GTO
    • Through its analysis of GTO and other data, ICE-HIS officials told us FinCEN helped to identify new subjects for an ICE-HSI case, uncovered individuals of potential interest for a USAO investigation, and provided referrals to other law enforcement agencies.
  • Some officials from two federal task forces and a USAO official said that they generally support making the real estate GTO requirements permanent because the real estate GTO can generate useful investigative information and serve other purposes, including acting as a strong deterrent.
    • Officials from one of the task forces told the GAO that GTO reports are a useful investigative tool but that the GTO should be used to target specific areas and not be expanded to cover the entire United States.
    • Officials from another task force told the GAO that assessing the effectiveness of GTO reports in the short term is difficult because investigations and prosecutions take a long time. They said making the real estate GTO requirements permanent would provide them with the time needed to assess the GTO.
  • Federal law enforcement officials and AML experts the GAO interviewed provided several reasons why data collected through the real estate GTO still could be useful even if a beneficial ownership registry were created.
    • Without the GTO, law enforcement agencies would have to rely on multiple sources to connect beneficial owners to real estate purchases, which could be more costly and time consuming
  • FinCEN officials said that the agency has been continuing to assess more permanent solutions regarding BSA/AML requirements for persons involved in real estate closings and settlements.
  • For example, ALTA staff told the GAO that FinCEN should impose AML obligations on the real estate industry, including real estate agents and attorneys, because agents and attorneys interact more closely with buyers and are more involved in the transactions than title insurers.

07/23/2020

ALTA Promotes Industry in USA Today America Responds Special Edition

ALTA_USA TODAY AdIn the midst of all the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 health crisis, one thing is certain. The land title insurance industry has truly stepped up.

To promote the industry during this trying time, ALTA was included in the USA Today America Responds special edition that recognizes businesses and industries that have remained resilient during this pandemic to deliver for its customers and keep the nation moving forward. It’s the publication’s salute to those Americans making a real difference--whether they're essentials, creating safer ways to work and shop, opening their hearts and wallets or just offering moral support.

ALTA's ad can be found on page 85. 

In addition to the countless ways in which ALTA members are donating and volunteering to efforts in their communities, they also have developed innovative and safe ways to continue to make the American Dream come true. From drive-thru to digital closings, the industry’s dedication is allowing families to close on new homes or take advantage of low interest rates by refinancing their mortgages.

“There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the meaning of what we have come to know as ‘home,’” said Diane Tomb, ALTA’s chief executive officer. “In the wake of the pandemic, ‘home’ has now become an office, a school to our children and the heartbeat of a family’s sense of security. We are proud of our members for how they responded during this challenging time.”

The ad highlights the different roles ALTA members take when advocating for a homebuyer or seller. But one title encapsulates their true role: protection. Land title insurance professionals are responsible for protecting homebuyers, sellers, and business owners from risks that could impact the purchase of a new property, including wire transfer fraud, hidden liens and other critical threats.

“ALTA members, as title professionals, are the guardians of the American Dream,” Tomb said. “We want everyone to know about the people who are dedicated to making sure that families can still open the door to their dream of owning a home.”

ALTA and its more than 6,400 member companies—which operate in every county of the United States—strive to keep everyone healthy and safe every single day with dedication and purpose.

The USA Today America Responds special edition will be available side-by-side the daily USA TODAY throughout the country where newspapers are sold. Some of the major brands participating include Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Walmart, Kroger, Lowe’s and Verizon. More than 10 million readers will receive a link via email providing a complete shareable digital copy of the publication. Feeding America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Direct Relief, Americares, Goodwill Industries, The Salvation Army, and United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will include a digital copy of the publication directly into the news feed of their social media channels.

 

 

07/22/2020

Infographics: A Look at Two Digital Closing Scenarios

Remote online notarization (RON) uses two-way audiovisual technology to complete a notorial act when the signer is not in the same physical location as the notary. To date, 27 states have passed RON legislation, while another 20 states and Washington, D.C., have passed issued executive orders allowing for the remote notarization of documents.

Here's a look at two digital closing scenarios using RON. The graphis are provided by Fannie Mae.

Fannie RON Hybrid

Fannie RON Full