“Oregon’s small businesses are hurting right now. Without immediate financial relief, thousands of them will shut down forever,” says Business for a Better Portland (BBPDX) executive director Ashley Henry. “The window for action is closing and, so far, we’ve seen little focus on the needs of small business from Governor Brown’s Coronavirus Economic Advisory Council.”
BBPDX, which exists in part to increase communication between small-business owners, nonprofits, and the government, is going into overdrive during the coronavirus pandemic, even coordinating Zoom video discussions with its members and Oregon’s US Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden in attempts to relay the needs of small businesses to those in power. The group says it’s had less communication with Brown—who hasn’t held a public press conference on economic issues for more than a week. As recently as March 19, in a response to a question Portland Monthly asked about virus exclusions in insurance policies, the governor said it was something that could possibly be addressed in the special legislative session being held in two weeks, along with several other economic relief possibilities. Now, there is no such session on the books and businesses are growing desperate, particularly as the help they believed was coming from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package seems nowhere to be found.
“I have been asking around, and to my knowledge nobody I know has heard a peep back from the SBA on the disaster-relief loans and grants that were supposed to be super-streamlined,” says Joe Mueller, a former attorney and owner of Wildwood & Company fine suiting, “many of whom, like me, applied last week on Monday.”
With no word from the feds, all eyes turn to the state. On Friday BBPDX published an open letter to the governor, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, and House Speaker Tina Kotek requesting the state take immediate action. The letter was cosigned by 33 other small business-related organizations across the state, including Oregon Economic Development Districts, LatinX Founders, and the Main Street Alliance of Oregon. They say it is in response to hearing word the governor plans to hold off on a special session and wait to see how the federal SBA loans and grants pan out—the same loans and grants that business owners say they can’t get any response on from SBA lenders.
“To us, that indicated a lack of understanding of how badly small businesses in our community are being impacted right here, right now. I suppose it’s not surprising that she’s not hearing that sense of urgency from her closest advisers,” says Henry. “If you take a look at the business organizations her team selected to participate in the Coronavirus Economic Advisory Coalition, there’s not one organization on that task force whose organization focuses on the needs of small businesses. We hear there may be a shift on that front, and we are hopeful that that is true.” (The five business representatives on the near-30-member advisory group are from the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, Oregon Business & Industry, Oregon Business Council, Portland Business Alliance, and Oregon State Chamber of Commerce.)
As many small-business organizations grew concerned with not seeing themselves reflected in the state’s economic policy panel, BBPDX reached out to Portland groups and then went beyond the city, seeking input from rural small businesses and organizations in culturally specific communities like the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA). Through the listening sessions, they developed the targeted series of requests they say the governor can enact now without convening the legislature to help stave off the local economic collapse that looms.
Federally, the definition of “small business” varies by industry, and CARES Act programs generally apply to companies with fewer than 500 employees (or, for restaurants or hotels with multiple locations, fewer than 500 employees on any single site). In contrast, BBPDX’s request focuses on businesses with fewer than 50 employees and is weighted in favor of business owners who are immigrants, entrepreneurs of color, and/or women, as well as rural businesses, as those most likely to be disproportionately affected by the crisis. The requests are:
- Allocate $5 million to fund technical support for Oregon’s most vulnerable small businesses by scaling up existing, trusted, community-based, and culturally responsive programs (such as PIE or Oregon Entrepreneurs Network). These organizations have the ability to rapidly provide short-term navigation services to small businesses so they secure their fair share of the federal economic relief package. And provide comprehensive business strategy coaching those companies will need to do in order to survive this crisis.
- Allocate $10 million to the Small Business Stabilization Fund established by the Oregon Community Foundation to get financial assistance directly to business owners immediately by prioritizing cash infusions as direct payments to businesses rather than loans.
- Postpone quarterly state tax prepayments due in April for 90 days without fees or penalties. Additionally, place a moratorium on quarterly payroll taxes due so those small businesses can use earned cash to preserve payroll and other expenses necessary to remain solvent.
On April 8, BBPDX asked small-business owners from around the state to add their names to the letter and send emails with its contents to Brown and to their state senators representatives in an attempt to make known the severity of the situation, even providing a template.
“The seeming lack of urgency on the part of the state sends a signal that our state officials really don’t understand how difficult it is to keep a small business alive,” says Henry, noting that the BBPDX requests are just a starting point. “I’m sad to say that many of the businesses the governor and legislators will want to support in a special session will have closed their doors forever by the time that special session is held.”
Please visit our resource guide for small businesses dealing with the impact of COVID-19 here.