If the economy were a car, it would be in a ditch. And the ditch would be the coronavirus pandemic.
As business leaders look to get us back on the road to recovery, they are grasping for a guide.
Brian Steverson, who teaches business ethics at Gonzaga University, said we won’t find one in the Great Recession of 2008.
“One of the things that has struck me in Spokane and in the state of Washington is the good-faith effort by businesses to do everything they can to keep employees on the payroll,” Steverson said. “There is no magic bullet. Businesses need to make sure employees are safe and customers are safe.”
He uses the $349 billion Payroll Protection Program as an example.
It’s one program government officials have come through with to help employers keep their workers off unemployment rolls.
This approach differs markedly from past economic downturns in which employers were quick to shed employees to save money, he said.
“I hope the state works closely with businesses to figure out how to re-open,” he said.
Alisha Benson, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, agreed, saying businesses not only need clear guidance from state officials but also assistance from other business owners.
“We are all anxious and want business to get back to normal, although a new normal,” Benson said. “But we also know this has to be done in sort of a measured and smart way. We are urging patience. This will be incredibly challenging.”
Greg Deckard, president and chief operating officer of State Bank Northwest, has been working feverishly to secure money commitments from the PPP package to benefit local businesses. He said the first key to re-opening Spokane’s commerce is to increase testing to determine whether employees or their customers have been exposed to COVID-19.
“I’m a banker, not a social scientist,” Deckard said. “But nobody wants to be that person who says, ‘I wish I had done that,’ and get blamed for it. Everybody is going to be overly cautions, and rightfully so.”
Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday announced he had formed a pact with the governors from Oregon and California. While Inslee said the governors wouldn’t necessarily move in lockstep on a date to end stay-home orders, he said they would work to develop protocols and procedures on how to restart public life and business.
Deckard said he’s skeptical that such a broad approach can work in Eastern Washington.
“The COVID numbers are drastically different on the east side of the state than the West Side,” he said. “Secondly, the states are not in exact alignment for the stay-at-home orders for certain industries. It creates more confusion.”
He noted that home construction was deemed essential in California and Oregon but not in Washington.
“To me, it’s absolutely shortsighted to align with different economies, different regions and different industries and lock us into something that may not be the best for the economy of Washington state,” Deckard said.
Joel White, executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association, said he hopes to soon have an agreement with Inslee to allow a phased opening of residential construction that will include safeguards for employees and at least allow the completion of projects underway when work was shut down on March 25.
He said a recent study shows the stay-home order has already cost more than $500 million in lost wages.
“Those are monies not in the economy because we are sitting at home, and the government is paying for them rather than they being at work,” White said. “Nobody wants to have their workers exposed. We are trying to put a safety plan together.”
Benson said one of the things state leaders need to consider during the process of opening businesses is child care. Most workers are now caring for their children at home because child care centers and schools are closed.
“It’s one thing for the business to open back up and another to have workers able to work,” she said. “So some systems coming back on line is going to be critical.”
Eric Renner, president of Local 1439 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, praised Inslee for his early decision to send all but essential workers home.
“When you look at when this began, we were the epicenter,” Renner said of the coronavirus cases in Washington state. “The measures he took have been fantastic. It slowed it way down.”
Steverson, from Gonzaga, said unlike the $2.2 trillion already approved by Congress to ease the economic pain of the pandemic, the decision on how to open the area’s economy probably should not be made by federal officials.
Steverson, who has taught at Gonzaga since 1992, said the process reminds him of the concept of subsidiarity, or drilling down to get the proper expertise to make a decision.
“The federal government may be too far removed from how local businesses work to keep employees and customers safe,” he said. “You need to allow businesses to develop their own plans about how to pull that off.
“Re-opening the economy is not going to be like the grand opening of Disney World where they just open the gates,” he continued.
Without widespread layoffs, which has been the historic norm, Steverson said businesses should be given credit for how they have kept employees in the loop.
“We should reward that good faith effort by making sure they have adequate input as to how we are going to proceed,” he said.
But business owners also have to be willing to change, such as by creating more space in restaurants to allow customers to maintain a safe distance.
“Gov. Inslee and other leaders at the federal level are calling for patience. I hope the public recognizes that,” Steverson said. “That patience can be fostered by very visible and real efforts by businesses to work with government agencies.”
He noted that certain professions, including grocery store clerks, first responders and medical professionals, have elevated their importance in society because of the essential roles they play.
“This might be a place for unions to regrow themselves,” Steverson said.
Renner represents about 7,000 workers in grocery stores and meat packing plants. His union has been able to secure an extra two weeks of pay for all employees who get infected.
His members also are getting $2 more an hour in what he calls “hazard pay” for continually showing up for work in dangerous conditions.
He praised owners who have been receptive to putting markers on store floors to help with social distancing and even plexiglass barriers between checkers and customers.
“We’ve had to argue some,” Renner said. “The thing with big corporations, getting from the corporate level to the store level sometimes takes time.”
He noted the average medical cost for someone infected with coronavirus is about $38,000.
“Our members have forgone wages in the last four contract cycles to put additional money into their health care plan because health care is that important to them,” Renner said.
Regardless of how the economy roll out begins, employees need to be able to have access to information about whether they have been exposed to the virus, he said.
“There needs to be testing. There needs to be (personal protective equipment) and real measures for social distancing,” Renner said. “Everything must be done that can slow the spread.”
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