Written by Joshua Miner in The Sun Community News on May 22, 2020

PLATTSBURGH | Small businesses voiced concern over a working call with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) this week, pointing to the expanded unemployment benefits as a particular hurdle for getting their employees back to work.

President Garry Douglas of the North Country Chamber of Commerce said while the focus has been on getting unemployment to displaced workers over the past weeks, concern is now shifting to small businesses. Many of these businesses, he said, see workers reluctant to return as the $600 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on top of their New York Unemployment benefits has many workers making more than they were prior to the pandemic.

“We’re realizing just what a ticking time bomb is out there for our small employers,” he said in regard to experience ratings and future rising costs of unemployment insurance. “It’s something that we need to start [thinking] about to make sure that we don’t keep them open this year and then close them next year.”

Patty Waldron, owner of Plattsburgh’s Koffee Kat, thanked Stefanik for trying to make the Paycheck Protection Program more accessible to small businesses.

“I’m happy to give my employees a paycheck,” she said. “Although, two of them are receiving unemployment, so they’re not so much interested in their little paychecks they may get from me.”

Upon recently reopening, she found that most customers were excited to be back. Not all patrons respected her policies, however.

For a smoother reopening of our city, she said people need to be more aware of the regulations and realize the importance of following these guidelines.

“20 % of them don’t acknowledge your precautions, almost in rebellion to them,” Waldron said. “So, I may lose a few customers because I have to provide safety first.”

Charlie Wise, owner of The Mountaineer in Keene Valley, agreed with Waldron’s sentiment that some people are either unaware of the safety guidelines in place, or are purposefully flouting them.

“We, as a retail outfit, are sort of balancing all of these new protocols in terms of sanitizing and cobbling together our own signage,” said Wise. “Unfortunately, even though most people sort of [got] it in our first weekend of curbside, there are those that don’t – or intentionally don’t – get it. So, we’re going to have to cater to the lowest common denominator of folks that are either disrespecting or just simply not paying attention to how we want to try and run our business.”

Wayne Johnston, owner of Ruthie’s Run in Lake Placid, said that the nature of his business makes him cautious about opening too quickly. Retail shops like his thrive on serving as many people as possible, but that also means there is a greater chance it can be a vector for the spread of COVID.

“I see a reason to be somewhat conservative about bringing staff back into working,” Johnston said. “There’s the obvious thing about unemployment benefits and whether its worth working while the federal unemployment is in effect – but beyond that, we have a tight space and we wear many hats. Responsive customer service seems to invite you to do things quickly and without necessarily regard to the best, safest protocols.”

He pointed out how difficult social distancing could be and said the liability from spreading the virus should be an area of concern.

Stefanik addressed the liability issue, saying that the next aid bill that goes through Congress must protect small businesses like his.

“There is going to be a need for protections for small businesses who are acting in good faith – are ensuring that they’re updating their operations with a prioritization of health and safety for both their workforce and their customers,” Stefanik said.

She also went on to say that while the unemployment safety net has been important, there needs to be incentive for workers to return rather than stay unemployed.

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