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Business

Customer service

Facing long hours and angry customers, some Christian employees in grocery stores try to be examples of encouragement and calm amid a pandemic

Jennie Higgins is a 62-year-old employee at a Costco store near Houston, Texas, where she assists customers in the clothing section. Her husband, Randy, drives trucks to deliver stock to other Costco locations. The couple have worked for the retailer for years, but now, Jennie Higgins said, “We’re considered essential people.”

In March, Randy worked six days a week, and drivers doubled their loads to meet demand. Meanwhile, Jennie said, she has experienced a range of emotions “from unbelievable to just frightening,” never knowing what she’ll face at work: the coronavirus or angry, scared customers. 

Grocery workers are facing pressure from long hours, upset customers, and the threat of the coronavirus. But amid the challenges, some Christian employees say they are serving others by listening, encouraging, or just remaining calm.

On March 26, Costco announced reduced hours at its U.S. locations: Stores would close at 6:30 p.m. on weeknights. The stores are rationing some quick-selling items, and food courts now offer a limited menu and no seating. Costco locations around the country are reporting COVID-19 cases among their employees. Some have added sneeze guards at the registers and provided “hazard pay” for employees who work with customers.

The warehouse retailer has been overrun in recent weeks, but Chip Lind, an optician at a Costco near Seattle, said the company has cared well for employees. When his store closed the optical department, it offered him work on the warehouse side, checking out customers or assisting cashiers. Lind, a nine-year Costco employee, said the work is mundane, but he’s thankful to have a job. His store has limited the number of shoppers allowed in the building at once: Before that, Lind said, “fights were breaking out every day,” as customers competed for the last of certain products. Police sent officers to stand at the Costco doors. 

“I’ve prayed that God would allow me to be a light in an unusually difficult situation.”​

Lind, in his late 50s, sees his non-Christian co-workers responding to the virus fearfully. He said those who  resist fear and keep good attitudes stand out. He and his Christian co-workers quote Bible verses to each other during their shifts and sometimes sing worship songs between customers at the registers. Lind said co-workers see him reading his Bible in the break room and ask about it, and he encourages them to read the Psalms when pandemic anxiety keeps them from sleep. 

As a Christian, Jennie Higgins said, “I’ve prayed that God would allow me to be a light in an unusually difficult situation.” Sometimes angry customers direct their frustration toward her. When that happens, she said, she listens and acknowledges how difficult the situation is. Often people are surprised she cares, and thank her for listening. She also tries to encourage co-workers: One told her, “This place has been like a dark cloud, and I have seen who you are in this, and it means a lot to me.”

“I had no idea that just being kind and asking questions about his life would change his life so much,” Higgins said.

H-E-B grocery stores in Texas have placed tape on the floor to remind customers to keep 6 feet of social distancing. Employees give customers wipes for cart handles and point them to hand sanitizing stations.

Bonita Brant has worked at an H-E-B near Austin for 2½ years. Brant leads the team that provides in-store food demos, but two weeks after the coronavirus hit Austin, her store canceled the demos. Brant and her team took on other tasks, from sanitizing surfaces to bagging groceries to working in the store’s backlogged curbside pickup program. The store began rerouting customer foot traffic to reduce shoplifting and set product limits to reduce hoarding. “You could look at people and see the anxiousness on their faces,” Brant said. “I’m thinking, ‘Calm down, people. God is in control.’”

High-school junior Mason McGuire works as a bagger and parking lot attendant at another H-E-B store near Austin. He said the first week after the coronavirus reached the area was “insane.” Crowds of customers emptied whole shelves before 11 a.m. Managers worked quickly to keep the chaos under control.

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A sign on the window at Stein’s Flowers in Shillington, Penn., as part of non-essential Pennsylvania businesses closing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Business

No more business as usual

An economic aid package may not be enough to save many small businesses

Spring is a good time for tanning salon owners. People are eager to shed their winter sweaters and soak up warmer rays—and it’s also a time when they’re starting to fret about their vampire-pale skin.

That’s what JP Godman anticipated when he and his wife, Taryn, invested about $12,000 into a new tanning salon business they bought last September in Dry Ridge, Ky. They paid for new UV lamps, new paint, new equipment, new tanning lotions, all in preparation for their most profitable season. But now, as most counties and states across the country order “non-essential” businesses to shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Godmans had to close shop.

The Godmans needed that money. Taryn had just delivered their third child, a daughter, on the night of March 17—the same day Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear ordered the closure of non-critical businesses such as beauty salons, theaters, fitness centers and gyms, concert venues, and spas. That day, an employee called Godman while Taryn was still recuperating in the hospital bed, saying she couldn’t come to work anymore because her husband had been around someone who tested positive for COVID-19. It didn’t matter, because the following Thursday when the Godmans returned home, they had to shut down the salon and lay off all four employees.

Small businesses are floundering in great uncertainty and anxiety as the COVID-19 pandemic forces many to shut down, lay off employees, swallow huge revenue losses, and cross off any plans for the future. Unemployment claims climbed to nearly 10 million in early April as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 1 million worldwide. On April 1, as millions of business owners pawed into dwindling funds to pay rent, employees, and other bills, the possibility that a shutdown could last several more months, not weeks, cast a silent and terrifying shadow: How long can they survive like this, before they lose everything they had worked so hard to build? Though an economic relief package brought some hope, it may not be enough to address long-term economic damage from the shutdowns for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses or e-commerce companies.

To bolster the flailing economy during this crisis, Congress passed an emergency $2 trillion economic aid package, which includes $367 billion reserved for small businesses in loans and payroll-tax deferment. The loans are for sole proprietors and freelancers.  But as many small business owners pore through the program’s requirements and conditions, they also hear precious time ticking off the few days left before they run out of cash reserves and may have to shutter their shops for good.

Small businesses make up more than 99 percent of all U.S., businesses and employ more than half the American workforce. Small Business Majority founder and CEO John Arensmeyer said in a statement that the loan programs aren’t all that practical for small business owners who have seen steep drops in sales and customers. He called the legislation “a complicated, slow, and cumbersome process that is totally unworkable for small businesses and sure to leave the most vulnerable behind.”

The loan packages seem generous but come with many restrictions. The main program, the Paycheck Protection Program, provides loans up to $10 million. They are forgivable if the owner pays normal salary rates to all employees for eight weeks and uses the money for specific payments: rent, mortgage interest, payroll, or utilities. At least 75 percent of the loan must be used for payroll. Otherwise, owners must pay back the government with interest rates of up to 4 percent. Small businesses can also apply for emergency grants of up to $10,000, or get a capital loan of up to $2 million at 3.75 percent interest. Certain states and municipalities are also providing their own special emergency funding for small businesses and nonprofits. In Los Angeles, businesses and microenterprises that provide jobs to low-income communities can apply for an emergency microloan of $5,000 to $20,000. 

Bobby Roshan, owner of Cafe Demitasse, a local coffee bar in Los Angeles, said he’s planning to apply for every loan and grant available. But he’s not sure if that will be enough to save his business. Under LA’s safer-at-home orders, his coffee shops can only provide pick-up and delivery services. Cafe Demitasse is known for its unpretentious, sun-splattered ambience and cool coffee gadgets. Few people, other than die-hard loyal customers, are going to fork over the extra cash just for Kyoto-style cold brew drip and lavender hot chocolate. Today, two of his three coffee shops are closed, and the only branch still open in Santa Monica is barely scraping enough cash to pay the six remaining employees—let alone his coffee importers, milk delivery, rent, pastries, and coffee beans. 

Even if he pays all 25 of his full-time and part-time employees to work for eight weeks, what “work” is there for them to do in an empty shop that’s constantly running electricity, water, and internet bills? Even if the shutdown ends, will customers feel safe enough to cozy up in coffee shops again as they once did without a second thought? 

“That’s the real scary thing that puts fear in our hearts,” Roshan said. “Even if they lift the quarantine, it doesn’t mean people will be out on the streets again. We’re entering a whole new era where people are afraid to go to shops, offices, restaurants … That’s one issue that nobody has an answer to: Why would I get all these loans and go into debt, just to find out that there’s still no point in keeping the doors open?” 

And what if a second COVID-19 wave breaks out, as some experts predict? “Maybe with the help of the government, we can survive this first shutdown,” Roshan said. “But having a second shutdown where we have to fire more people? Forget it. Those people are gone. Suppliers, gone. Can you imagine?”

Already, two of Roshan’s four landlords have refused to grant him any kind of rent relief, not even a deferral. They told him to apply for SBA loans so he can pay them on time. Another landlord gave him an ambiguous “We’ll see.” The fourth landlord hasn’t responded to his pleas. Roshan has not paid himself since the crisis hit, and like most businesses in the retail and hospitality industry, he doesn’t have a cash stockpile for such emergencies: “They can stomp their feet, they can demand, but I have no money to give them.” 

Meanwhile, Roshan’s wife is pregnant and due to deliver a boy in June. They haven’t left the house in weeks. What is supposed to be an exciting time for this new family is also terrifying and stressful as Roshan weighs all the unhappy and uncertain options before him. That includes a world in which he doesn’t reopen his businesses at all. For Roshan, that world won’t be too bad: His wife can support the family with her healthcare job, and he’s content to be a stay-at-home dad for a while. But he worries about his staff: “My heart bleeds for them. I’ll be OK, but there are a lot of people who are not going to be as lucky in a couple of months.” 

Even e-commerce businesses are hit hard. While online companies selling fitness equipment, personal protection equipment, toys, and office supplies are booming, others struggle. Karl Liang owns a cell phone case company called Schnail in Dallas, Texas. He makes the majority of his sales through Amazon’s Sold By Amazon program, which helps price and fulfill orders for third-party merchants. But since the pandemic, Amazon halted the program for all products deemed “non-essential.” That included cell phone cases.

So far, Liang has lost up to 66 percent of his typical revenue for the last three weeks. He spends $200 a day to run ads on Amazon but makes less than $100. He has a warehouse full of inventory collecting dust. Liang is still paying his two full-time employees who work at the warehouse, but he doesn’t know how long he can do that while bleeding money each day: “If this keeps going, I cannot. Even if business is open again, I will still have a problem, because I believe people don’t want to spend money.”

Production is also a big issue. Businesses both big and small have manufacturing plants overseas, and as factories close down in countries such as China, Vietnam, and India, many companies face supply chain problems. Santiago Velez, for example, owns an e-commerce bikini company called 11Swimwear. His company is “make to order”: it begins manufacturing only after receiving a customer’s order. That cuts down on storage expenses and waste. But all his manufacturing factories are in Colombia, which on March 24 went into a nationwide quarantine until April 13. Now his company isn’t making any money at all. 

Velez is based in Colombia but travels often to LA for business, where he is renting a house with his wife and three kids. They came to LA on Feb. 28, before the entire state went into an indefinite shutdown. When I spoke to Velez, his wife was due to give birth to a boy in five days. The family had no other income, yet he was still paying all his employees in Colombia who can no longer work. Like other business owners, he has no idea when the ripple effects of the pandemic will be over.

“I’m not as calm as you think,” he told me over the phone. “I just don’t want to burst out crying on the phone with you.” He tries to take things day by day, but sometimes his mind races toward the dark, scary unknowns: What if he and his family are stuck in LA for months? What will happen to his kids? What if truck drivers and delivery workers start contracting the virus, and the whole food supply chain crashes? What if police officers get sick and the already fragile law and order shatters? What if people begin rioting? “I don’t like to think too much because I get paranoid,” Velez said. “If you start thinking about the future, you go crazy.”  

A week later, I followed up with Velez. This time, he seemed to be in a better place: His wife had given birth to a healthy boy, and he was able to be in the delivery room with her. “Thank God,” he said. “We’re all safe and healthy!” Always the entrepreneur, he was already working on a new project better suited for a quarantine era: He’s sourcing in China to develop a fitness clothing and gear business. The cries of a newborn baby and laughter of kids playing fill his temporary home in LA. Business might be shut down, but life goes on.

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A woman sewing at Sari Bari (Handout)

Business

Steps toward freedom

Building businesses to fight modern-day slavery 

Kolkata (once known as Calcutta) is infamous for Sonagachi, one of the largest red light districts in Asia. About 10,000 women, trapped in the sex trade, live within a labyrinthine tangle of streets. Many are victims of human trafficking, young village girls lured to the city by false promises of a job or marriage, then sold on the doorstep of a brothel. Others enter the pain factories out of desperation and poverty.

Each night, thousands of men flood into “the Gach.” The women crowd the doorways and line the streets, smiles and makeup pasted on. Yet right in the middle sits an unassuming building where women sew saris into blankets and stitch hope into their lives. This is Sari Bari, a business founded in 2006 by Sarah Lance—formerly a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying—and Kristin Keen.

Lance and Keen aimed to build a self-sustainable business that could provide freedom and alterative employment to women trapped in the sex trade or at high risk of being trafficked. “I was profoundly afraid of being a hypocrite,” Lance explained. “I really wanted my faith to be active. … We’d been visiting [Sonagachi] for about five years, listening to the women and what their needs were. And what we heard over and over again was: ‘I want a different job.’”

Kolkata’s pervasive “shame culture” means that the families of trafficked girls will often not accept them back for fear of becoming outcast themselves. Most trafficking victims have little or no education or skills: Left with no alternative, they stay in brothels just to survive. A viable business that hires these women is an opportunity to escape. Lance and Keen wrote up a business plan, did market research, and developed a product line—bags and blankets made from saris. Sari Bari began with three women learning to sew in Kolkata’s smaller Kalighat red light district.

In the years since, Sari Bari has opened two production units in Sonagachi and a prevention unit in Canning, a major trafficking source area. It now employs around 110 women from the red light areas, and also operates a nonprofit trust. A social worker provides mental health and medical support. Employees receive preventative care checkups, health insurance, and three-fourths of schooling costs for their children.

The business has struggled but stayed afloat. Instead of employing the best-qualified people, Sari Bari intentionally employs women with no skills, no literacy, small motor skills challenges, and trauma—and still tries to pay well and make a quality product people want to buy. Normal (but tough) business decisions, such as firing an employee, take on enormous weight, since jobless women are likely to return to the sex trade.

‘God created us for work. Whether it’s [sitting] at a desk or stitching a cloth, there’s something empowering about it. It’s important.’—Sarah Lance

It’s not a business model for the faint of heart, yet it is possible. And the potential for transforming women’s and children’s lives is remarkable: Lance says, “After 13 years, we’re now seeing kids in college.”

Sari Bari and other Kolkata social entrepreneurs call their companies “freedom businesses.” Freeset, the largest and oldest of the bunch, has operated a factory in Sonagachi since 2001. It now employs more than 250 women from the red light area, printing T-shirts and making bags and scarves from jute and used saris.

The newest freedom business, Loyal Workshop, opened in 2014 and employs 18 women in Bowbazar, Kolkata’s second-largest red light area. Two years ago Lou and Andy Gane, with their two kids, left comfortable suburban life in New Zealand to live and work in Kolkata. Lou runs Loyal’s sales and marketing. Andy does the accounting: “We wanted to reorient our lives towards people on the margins,” Lou says.

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