State, federal officials give employers new guidance on weathering COVID-19
More than 1,200 Washington employers and others joined an AWB webinar today to hear from state and federal officials about how they can get through the coronoavirus pandemic.
Topics ranged from how to register a business as essential during a shelter in place order and what unemployment benefits could be expanded by Congress to cover self-employed people to how long it will take to get funded by a federal disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Many employers are understandably concerned about further restrictions that could shutter their businesses in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
About 70 Washington businesses have filled out a form to deem their company as essential in case of a possible shelter in place order, Assistant Director Chris Green of the Washington State Department of Commerce said. Washington does not currently have a shelter in place order in effect, but other states do. In those other states, only so-called essential businesses like banks and grocery stores are allowed to stay open, for example.
Green pointed out a link on the state Emergency Management Division website that allows companies to fill out a form and apply as essential.
"If your business wants to get on the list you can submit that," Green said.
(Listen to a recording of today's call below.)
Later today, Gov. Jay Inslee was scheduled to discuss "enhanced strategies" to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. The address will be live streamed on TVW.
Beyond the essential designation, many of the questions on Monday's call centered on funding, and how to access it. (Check out AWB's Employer Resources webpage here.)
It takes three weeks to hear back from the SBA on a disaster loan application, and another week after that to get the funds, Regional Administrator Jeremy Field of the U.S. Small Business Administration said. (Apply for a loan here.)
And there's obviously huge demand for the SBA products now, he added. The agency quickly received 700,000 applications in California, as one example.
"This is a personal crisis for everyone," he added. Friends and family have asked him how to apply for SBA loans, he said.
He urged listeners to be patient as the agency ramps up in a way they've never done before.
And notably, he gave his direct email address as one resource: Jeremy.email@example.com. He urged listeners with technical questions to email him and he would connect them with a loan adviser.
Sheryl McGrath of the Washington Small Business Development Center offered confidential, no cost, one-on-one advising for businesses.
She also presented a detailed checklist of practical steps to take in times of economic crisis, including:
- Eliminating any expenses not absolutely essential to survival
- Contacting landlords to reduce or abate rents
- Contacting lenders about loan deferrals
- Debt restructuring
- Talking to suppliers about delaying payments
- Contacting utilities about fee reductions
- Tax relief at the state and federal level
- Business interruption insurance
- Collecting any and all outstanding accounts receivable
- And moving products or services online.
"The goal is to improve overall cash flow…and extend the business' ability to survive," McGrath said.
At the state level, the Employment Security Department has expanded access and eased rules for many unemployment insurance programs. Those benefits could also be extended to self-employed business owners and contractors if Washington receives disaster unemployment assistance from the federal government, noted Dan Zeitlin, the department's Employment System policy director. There could also be a national extension for unemployment benefits from 26 to 39 weeks. He noted how Congress is currently working on a major federal relief package.
"We're really looking to see what the feds do next," Zeitlin said.
Monday's call also included updates from leading state health officials.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer for the Washington State Department of Health, said it's critical for employees to practice social distancing, which means staying six feet apart.
Social distancing has emerged as a major tool in the fight against the disease.
A caller asked her if Washington had arrived at its peak in terms of cases.
"No," she said. "I wish we were but no. I'm fairly confident that we have not hit the peak of the curve yet."
Hilary Godwin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health, included encouragement in her remarks.
"Thanks to all the folks running businesses in our state," she said. "We appreciate the work that you are doing to maintain supply chains and make sure that services are available."
She added: "Uncertainty in general is difficult for people, and it's important to take care of yourselves and those around you."
For questions about the next webinar, please contact Jacob Sodeman at JacobS@awb.org.