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Small Businesses Describe Struggles At NYS Legislative Hearing

The New York State legislature on Wednesday took one of its first official actions since passing a state budget over a month ago. They held a public hearing – remotely – on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on small businesses, and how the federal government has responded.

The hearing began with a moment of silence for the over 22,000 New Yorkers who have died from the disease, before they took testimony.

Two of the senators who participated in the hearing, Democrat James Skoufis from the Hudson Valley and Republican James Seward of Oneonta, had COVID-19 and have recovered.

Small business owners, including restauranteur Carlos Suarez, testified about the struggles they have endured to get federal aid, including the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loans and other loans through the federal Small Business Administration.

Suarez says the federal government’s response can be summed up in three words.

“Chaotic, flawed and inadequate,” Suarez said.

Suarez had four thriving eateries in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. They tried initially offering takeout service, but are now closed, and most staff have been furloughed.  

He says he received the PPP loan, but it expires in four weeks. He’d like to see it extended to 24 weeks, and would like a longer period to have to pay it back. Currently loan recipients have a six-month grace period and then are required to pay back the loan over a two-year period. He says otherwise, he and other owners in the financially devastated restaurant industry will be even further in debt.

“It’s fiscal suicide,” Suarez said.   

Natasha Amott runs Whisk, a kitchen accessory shop in downtown Brooklyn. She also received a PPP loan, on the second round, but says the program is fundamentally flawed. When it was designed, it was assumed that many business would stay open, if at reduced level of sales, and that the economy would be fully back open by the end of June. The loan is forgiven entirely if the business owner retains employees and uses 75% of the loan for payroll. But Amott says retail shops like hers were ordered closed, and she had to furlough most of her workers.

She says she’s converted her business to online sales , but she says its expensive and inefficient.

“It is so costly,” Amott said. “There are inevitably problems with shipping, with USPS or FedEx.”

Amott says when it comes time to reopen and rehire her workers, some of them may not want to come back right away. The federal CARES Act provides an additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance, in addition to state unemployment benefits. She says some of them are making more money from the two programs than they could if they returned to work.

“And if we are not fully operational by the end of June, they will be facing furlough again,” Amott said.

Lawmakers also heard from two upstate businesses, who are also facing challenges.

Jeff Knauss, CEO of Syracuse-based Digital Hyve, which helps small businesses navigate marketing on social media, says the company planned to expand to Rochester and Buffalo this year, but now its growth projections are 66% below what they originally planned, and has come to a “grinding halt.”

“Many of our clients were deemed nonessential, such as car dealerships, casinos and small property owners,” said Knauss, who said they were forced to shut down. “And stop spending money on advertising.”  

He says he obtained a PPP loan, which he says was a lifesaver, and has been able to retain his staff. But he also says the loan needs to extend for a longer period of time. He says he expects his business to continue to operate at a fraction of its former rate, and he anticipates that his staff may work at home until 2021.

Robert Stack, with CJS architects in Buffalo, also says the PPP loan was vital to the firm. He says he tried to get additional loans from the SBA, but never heard back from the agency. Because architects work with construction firms, he could be allowed to reopen sooner than the other small business owners. The first phase of regional openings outlined in the state’s plan include construction and manufacturing. Stack says it can’t come soon enough. 

“I don’t think this is sustainable,” Stack said.

Western New York has not yet been authorized to begin reopening.

The small business owners say there are several things that state lawmakers can help them with. First, they need access to personal protective gear for their employees when they do begin to reopen. Amott and the others say it’s been hard to locate masks and hand sanitizer.  

“It’s just exhausting,” she said. “I’m living on barely any sleep.”

They would also like unemployment insurance rules to be changed. Currently, the rate a business pays is based on how many workers it has recently laid off. They say they should not be penalized with higher rates because they furloughed workers after shutdown orders. They also say they need help meeting rent. Reduced business activity over the next several months will leave them little money to pay commercial landlords. They would also like to see their payroll taxes lowered, and finally, they want state government to encourage shopping at local businesses. They say otherwise, Amazon and the big box stores may squeeze them out altogether.

Read the latest on WSHU’s coronavirus coverage here.

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