Coronavirus

A Roundtable — COVID-19 Style

Participants Say It’s Anything but Business as Usual

By George O’Brien

If you call the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast these days, the person at the other end of the line will likely ask you if you want the agency’s hotline.

Almost everyone does.

“We’re getting inundated — we’re getting more calls in a day than we would get in a week or two,” said Meredith Wise, EANE’s executive director, who told BusinessWest the calls vary in nature, but the vast majority of them have to do with workforce issues — whether to lay off people in the wake of this virus or furlough them (we’ll explain the difference in a minute), and how to somehow keep them if they are laid off. But there are other matters as well, especially the many evolving layers of support on the state and federal levels.

“People don’t know what to do, and they’re looking for help — they’re looking for answers, because there’s so much uncertainty, and the picture seems to change every day and even every hour,” said Wise, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging businesses of all sizes as they have probably never been challenged before.

Wise was one of several area business leaders who took part in a roundtable on this virus and the many ways it is impacting the business community — a different kind of roundtable, to be sure. Indeed, there was no actual table, round or otherwise; this was all done via a conference call and some subsequent follow-up interviews as the scene changed. (Editor’s Note: that scene continues to change, and this story will be updated as needed at businesswest.com.)

Through these discussions, we learned what should seem obvious — that, at this time, it isn’t ‘business as usual’ for anyone, and for many, there is no business at all. But we also learned that, in some cases, there is something approaching business as usual, as legal transactions and real-estate deals, both commercial and residential, move forward. Meanwhile, the marketing expert we spoke with had a simple message for businesses of all kinds — “don’t stop communicating.”

Here are the highlights from this COVID-19-style roundtable:

At the EANE

Wise told BusinessWest that, understandably, employers are on edge as they see revenue sources dry up and cash flow interrupted. A good number of calls to the hotline concern what to do with employees — lay them off, furlough them, or try somehow to keep them on, especially if the stimulus package currently being debated includes provisions that provide small businesses access to private bank loans equal to several months of expenses (payroll, rent, utilities, etc.) that would be covered by the federal government if they stayed open, maintained their workforce, and paid their bills.

“People are at wit’s end — do they lay off everyone, do they furlough people, do they shut down this operation, do they keep with that operation?” she told BusinessWest, adding that ‘lay off’ and ‘furlough’ are technical terms with specific definitions, and they are not the same thing.

“With a furlough, you’re still considered an employee — people are not going to get paid, but they’re still on the payroll, and they’re still eligible for benefits — all that stays in place,” she explained. “If you lay people off, they’re no longer an employee. They may get a call-back date, but in essence the business is parting company with that employee.”

And, with a layoff, a company has to pay all accrued paid time off and give the employee a check for that amount on their last day.

Wise said some manufacturers, concerned that business will dry up for a longer term, are laying off people (especially recent hires), while others, especially those with sizable investments in the people they’ve hired, are taking the furlough route with the hope that business will soon pick up or help from a stimulus package of some form will arrive.

“But people just don’t know when this is going to end — will it be by April 1, April 14, or are we going to the end of April or into May?” she said. “I’ve heard people say this could go on for three months and that they can’t keep their workforce going for three months.”

Meanwhile, with regard to the governor’s order to close non-essential businesses, Wise said it will certainly be unpopular with small-business owners not on the ‘essential’ list, but it might help bring a form of normalcy and routine that will replace the daily uncertainty that was annoying, to say the least.

“Let’s just do it and get it over with,” she said as the order was coming down. “This constant drip, drip, drip of changes every day is driving everyone crazy, and it doesn’t let you focus on anything.”

Developments of Note

Jeff Sullivan noted that it’s not business as usual for the region’s banks, and it won’t be for quite some time. But there will be a good deal of business, especially if, as expected, banks play a key role in funneling federal stimulus money to small businesses in the form of what will amount to bridge loans.

In the meantime, banks are keeping busy enough — with everything from customers who want some cash in their pockets during these uncertain times (and that’s many people) to businesses seeking lines of credit, or larger lines, to get through the crisis, to homeowners looking to take advantage of the recent drop in interest rates to refinance. And, again, that’s many people.

“It’s a little strange here … we had a large backlog of loans that were closing during the month of March, so we’ve tried to stay somewhat business as usual with those,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank & Trust. “Most of those are happening, and part of the reason we want to get through that is because the nature of the loan requests we’re going to get are going to change dramatically, from the normal buy, sell, refinance-my-building kind of stuff to building up piles of working capital to get through the downturn.

“I think I’ve heard more of the ‘we need to do whatever we can to keep the doors open’ type of conversations from people,” he went on. “But we’re also hearing about people wanting to refinance their free and clear property so they’ll have a lot of cash because they think there will be some opportunities down the road — there’s a little of that going on, too.”

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of refinancing on the residential side of the equation as homeowners look to capitalize on those interest rates, he said, adding that there is also commercial activity and a limited amount of business expansion happening.

Things should change dramatically with the stimulus package and its likely provision for forgivable loans that will, as he put it, essentially put everyone on unemployment for three months.

“People are on pins and needles waiting to see what happens,” he said as the bill was still being hammered out. “If something doesn’t happen, there will be another wave of layoffs.”

Case in Point

Scott Foster, an attorney with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, said his firm’s phones might not be as busy as EANE’s, but they are ringing constantly. And many of those who are calling are looking for the same kinds of answers.

“I’m as busy as ever — the phones are ringing off the hook; people are working and getting things done while they still can,” he said just prior to the governor’s order to shut down non-essential businesses. “It’s mostly about contingency planning, looking at federal aid that’s already passed or is coming down the pike and how it’s going to help them, or staffing decisions — whether to furlough people, lay them off, or keep them on the payroll.

“All these questions are coming, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns,” he went on. “But this is business — people have to make decisions; you don’t get to not make decisions, or the decision gets made for you. So we’re very active.”

Foster said that deals — everything from real-estate acquisitions to business transactions — are still taking place, albeit at a slower pace in some cases.

“I have some real deals … they’re not closing tomorrow, but they’re still going,” he explained. “I haven’t had anyone pull the plug on any deal I’m working on; next week might be a different story, but right now, they’re all charging forth.”

As for the general tone of those in the business community, while many are understandably anxious, there’s also discernable optimism, he said, especially regarding some provisions of the stimulus bill being debated — ones that would essentially ‘mothball’ businesses until the crisis is over, with funds provided by the government to pay people and pay other expenses as well.

“Big sections of the economy are going to go on pause,” he explained. “And if the federal aid is sufficient and businesses reopen in a few months and the economy restarts … there’s a lot of optimism I’m hearing from business owners about what things are going to look like on the other side of this. It might be misplaced optimism, but it’s there.”

Overall, he said most business owners are “keeping their heads on,” as he put it, and not panicking.

“And the main reason they’re not panicking is because everyone is going through this,” he said. “It’s not one business or one sector, it’s hitting everyone, and you’re seeing some people growing — Amazon’s hiring, Walmart is hiring, Domino’s is hiring, online delivery services are hiring … there are some positive things happening.”

‘Cover’ Story

Dave Griffin has been in the insurance business for decades now and has certainly seen almost everything in the course of his career. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been different — in all kinds of ways.

That assessment refers to everything from the volume of the phone calls to the very difficult nature of the conversations with the people on the other end of the line.

“It’s been a tough few weeks, obviously,” said Griffin, vice president of Holyoke-based Dowd Insurance. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years here, and you develop a strong relationship with your clients. There have been a lot of hard conversations here this week with people just trying to do whatever they can to keep their business open. They have a real passion for what they do, and it’s heartbreaking to hear that they have to lay off employees and talk about the business like it might not be around.”

While talk of stimulus packages continues, business owners, especially those hit immediately by the crisis — restaurants, hotels, clubs, banquet facilities, and retail establishments — have been dealing with the moment, said Griffin, and most come forward with the obvious question: ‘does my business-interruption policy cover this deadly virus?’

And the answer he has had to give, unfortunately, is ‘no,’ and, as noted, he’s given it to a large number of people.

There is hope that this answer may change, just as it did after 9/11 — terrorist attacks were not covered in most all business-interruption policies, but that law was changed — but for now, the answer remains ‘no.’

If there is any good news for most insurance customers, it is that their payments are generally based on annual sales volume, and as those numbers go down as the pandemic continues, so do those payments. Meanwhile, many insurance carriers are responding to the crisis by providing flexibility on payments and commitments not to cancel policies if payments cannot be made.

While answering questions about policies and listening to his clients, Griffin also offered some perspective on the situation in the form of hope — and expectation — that most of those business owners he’s had these hard conversations with find a way to persevere and come out on the other side.

“Hopefully, we can come out of this sooner rather than later,” he said. “And I have no doubt that this region will rally behind the local businesses.”

And Now, a Word, or Two, or Three, About Marketing

John Garvey, president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc., told BusinessWest that, while every sector, and almost every business, has its own unique situation with regard to the virus and its impact, there are some common threads, or thoughts, when it comes to marketing in these difficult times.

To explain it, he summoned three words — actually, one word repeated three times — that was essentially the mantra of Doug Bowen, the now-retired president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, a long-time client.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate — that’s what he used to say, and I think that’s practical advice for everyone right now,” he said. “You need to be talking to your employees, and you need to be talking to your customers.”

As for the messages to be conveyed, he said they generally fall into several categories — from informing the public about what’s happening with a specific company during this crisis to speaking directly to employees. In both cases, the messages are generally about reassuring the intended audience.

“You really want to reach out to employees from the standpoint of appreciation and thank them for their efforts,” Garvey explained. “There is a lot of insecurity out there, and anything organizations can do to placate or resolve that is really important right now.”

Such efforts to reassure and thank people become more difficult and more complicated when a company is also laying off or furloughing employees, he acknowledged, but this shouldn’t stop businesses from heeding Bowen’s mantra.

Meanwhile, as for marketing and communicating in general, this is a perilous time, but it’s also a time when your message can be heard, he went on, because people are listening, and they’re looking for information.

“Your whole audience, your whole customer base, is pretty much sitting at home right now,” he noted. “They’re on social media, they’re reading things online, etc., etc. — you have their attention; never have people been more focused.”

That said, advertisers need to send messages that are important or interesting, or they won’t keep that audience’s attention, Garvey went on, and people need to send messages that are sensitive to the times.

Overall, he said many businesses have been so caught up in the day to day of coping with the crisis that they have become “frozen” when it comes to marketing. The “thaw,” as he called it, should come now, or very soon, as something approaching a new sense of normalcy prevails.

“And then,” he said, “the responsibility is to communicate, communicate, communicate.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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