Peter N. Lobasso has served as ASTA’s General Counsel since 2015. A licensed attorney for over twenty years, Peter has successfully represented clients in a wide variety of litigated matters before courts and administrative agencies at both the state and federal level. Peter has also negotiated numerous multi-million-dollar transactions on behalf of businesses throughout the country. Practice areas include contracts, corporate governance, employment and labor law, intellectual property, real property, mortgage lending, and creditor side bankruptcy, among others. Peter is a member of the bars of New York, Virginia and Washington D.C. He received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and earned his law degree at Touro Law Center on Long Island.
Travel Research Online (TRO): Hello, Peter. How are you in the start of this new year?
Peter Lobasso (PL): I am doing very well; thank you for asking. By any measure, 2019 was an extremely successful year at ASTA and for the travel advisor industry as a whole. Our successful rebrand in the second half of 2018, coupled with the continued strength of the U.S. economy, put a lot of wind in our sails entering 2019, and ASTA’s unprecedented win in securing a travel advisor exemption to Assembly Bill 5 in California was a perfect illustration of the great things our members can achieve when we work together as a powerful and dynamic trade association. We are excited to build on that momentum in 2020.
TRO: You’ve been an attorney for over 20 years. What prompted you to get into law in the first place?
PL: That’s a question I haven’t been asked in a while. For as long as I can remember, I had an interest in history, politics and government, which led me to major in Political Science in college. I also enjoyed debating issues with people who had viewpoints different than my own. That seemed to me at the time to be an attribute for a practicing attorney. So, after graduation enrolling in law school seemed to be a natural next step for me.
TRO: Joining ASTA in 2015, you moved over to legal counsel for travel industry related matters. Was there a learning curve to this change?
PL: Absolutely. Prior to joining ASTA I had worked exclusively in law firms, first in New York, representing the mortgage banking industry, and then later in Virginia, where I focused primarily on representing businesses in the home improvement and remodeling industry. Moving to an in-house counsel role in a trade association was, obviously, a pretty significant departure from that. Fortunately, over the previous ten years or so, I had acquired a lot of experience in the areas of contracts, employment and labor law, corporate governance and intellectual property, all of which translated well to my core duties here at ASTA. Of course, I wasn’t all that well-versed in the specific concerns of the travel industry, but I had the enormous benefit of joining a very supportive team that was always more than willing to share their considerable knowledge with me, and that made the transition much less challenging than it otherwise might have been.
TRO: Advocating for travel advisors seems a tricky business, as the laws vary per state. How do you approach this multifaceted need?
PL: It’s a good question, since as you noted the laws do vary from state-to-state. Our Government Affairs team does an outstanding job prioritizing the fights that we take up at the state level, and of course we would not be nearly as successful without our members’ grassroots efforts on the ground. That being said, ASTA is of course a national trade association with members in all 50 states and that dictates that we focus primarily on laws, regulations and issues at the federal level that impact, or threaten to impact, the travel advisor industry nationwide. The two substantive priorities we’ll be addressing at Legislative Day next month are good examples. The first of these is the Modern Worker Empowerment Act (H.R. 4069 / S. 2973), the legislation that ASTA has long supported that would harmonize the tests used to determine worker status at the federal level. The existence of multiple tests creates significant uncertainty among business owners and in some cases will result in conflicting determinations when the same relationship is evaluated by agencies that use different tests. Establishing a single standard is particularly important to industries like ours that rely heavily on independent contractors. The second is urging that Congress take action – as a bill has not yet been introduced – to lessen the expected impact of REAL ID implementation beginning on October 1, 2020. Estimates are that 500,000 travelers a week could be denied boarding as only 27% of the population has REAL ID-compliant identification. If those estimates are reasonably accurate and nothing is done in the interim, REAL ID will, obviously, be extraordinarily disruptive to both travel advisors and their clients.
TRO: What do you think are the most pressing legal matters regarding travel advisors currently?
PL: Following on the heels of what California did with A.B. 5, a number of other Democrat-controlled “blue” states are considering, or have already introduced, legislation to adopt more restrictive tests to determine worker status. Like A.B. 5, these bills are aimed at regulating the “gig economy” to prevent the likes of Uber and Lyft from engaging workers as independent contractors. While travel agencies are clearly not the legislators’ intended targets, ASTA nevertheless will need to take action to protect the industry’s robust IC business model, either by defeating the bills outright or securing an exemption. Beyond the detrimental impact on our members’ operations, what’s particularly unfortunate in my view is that the lawmakers sponsoring these bills presume that independent workers are victims requiring the state’s protection. By essentially forcing businesses to reclassify them as employees, the workers will then be entitled to receive all of the various legal protections and benefits that they’re currently being denied. The problem with that presumption is that it is simply not accurate, as in most cases the arrangement is mutually beneficial. Businesses gain a measure of staffing flexibility where hiring an employee is either impractical or uneconomical, while workers can be their own bosses by setting their own hours, establishing their own pricing, and choosing the customers they wish to serve. For that reason, I strongly believe that these initiatives are seriously misguided and will ultimately result in harm being done to the very workers the laws are intended to help.
TRO: Where are your favorite destinations to travel?
PL: Europe immediately comes to mind, followed closely by the national parks in the western United States. While we don’t have anything too ambitious planned for the immediate future, when our kids are a little older, my wife and I plan to take a family vacation to London, a destination that neither of us have visited yet.
TRO: What are most common legal matters that ASTA handles for travel advisors?
PL: Well, before answering, I should probably clarify that as ASTA’s General Counsel I am the association’s lawyer and not the lawyer for the members themselves so, strictly speaking, I don’t represent travel advisors per se. It seems a technicality but it’s an important distinction from a legal ethics perspective. But, of course, I understand your question, and I strive to provide as much assistance to our members as possible given that limitation. Right now, it seems the majority of members contacting ASTA are agency owners asking about whether the circumstances of their engagement of independent contractors are legally defensible. This makes sense given how much A.B. 5 has been in the news, but the inquiries are coming not only from California but all over the country. It seems there is a renewed awareness everywhere that certain best practices must be observed in order to avoid exposure to worker misclassification claims, regardless of which state’s laws may apply. That, of course, is a good thing, and ASTA has put together a number of educational resources to assist our members with that. I also receive dozens of questions every year asking what information advisors are obligated to disclose to their clients in light of whatever might be in the news at the time suggesting that there may be risks associated with a particular travel option or destination. Here, too, ASTA has created a number of valuable resources for its members that provide the needed guidance.
TRO: ASTA has a plan in the works to offer health insurance to travel advisors in the majority of US states. Can you tell us more about this?
PL: Certainly. We officially launched the ASTA association health plan on December 2, after spending more than six months sourcing a suitable vendor and then negotiating the contract, followed by a beta testing period. We chose to partner with Association Health Programs (AHP) of Overland Park, Kansas. We went with AHP for two primary reasons. First, they had substantial experience creating plans for trade associations similar to ours – they are currently working with over 300 associations as I recall. Second, they had the ability to make insurance coverage available in the greatest number of states. Given the lack of affordable options, particularly since the advent of Obamacare, we wanted as many members as possible to have access to this important benefit, so that was critical from our perspective. Currently, ASTA members, their employees and family members in 38 states may participate in the plan. The early enrollment numbers are very encouraging thus far, and we’ve even seen an increase in new ASTA memberships over the last month or so – which we believe is attributable in part to the availability of this new member benefit.
TRO: How about the remainder of states, when can advisors expect this coverage to be available?
PL: We’ve received questions like this from many of our members, and I wish I could provide a definite answer. Unfortunately, I can’t as the decision is not within our control. That’s because all health insurance, including that offered through an association health plan, is regulated under both federal and state law. In the twelve states where we are unable to offer coverage through AHP, it is because there is a legal restriction in effect which prevents us from doing so. In the event that there is change in the law that results in one of these restrictions being removed, the ASTA plan can, and will, be expanded to offer coverage to our members in that state.
TRO: Does ASTA have any big news or announcements that you’d like to share with us today?
PL: Yes. We are currently exploring the feasibility of launching an ASTA association retirement plan, or ARP. Such a plan could allow our members to band together and offer retirement plans to their employees that don’t currently have access to a 401(k) or similar workplace plan. A rule announced by the Department of Labor last summer makes it easier for associations to do this now and we are excited about the possibility. We’re not in a position to announce anything definitive yet, but we expect to have a better sense of the viability of an ASTA ARP in the coming months.
TRO: Peter, thank you for joining us today.
PL: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.