Businesses hope to solve economic puzzle amid COVID-19 disruption

Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Graphic by Seth Boyes

Iowa Workforce Development is seeing some heavy traffic as employees across the state are not able to work because of COVID-19's impact it's just not foot traffic. Bob Becker with Iowa Workforce Development's Spencer office said all locations statewide have been closed to the public and converted to call centers. Staff is keeping busy fielding calls to help those who have found themselves unable to work.

"If they've been affected by COVID-19 in any shape, form or size 'I can't take my kids to school, therefore now I have to sit at home with them' or 'My daycare's been closed down' they can file a COVID claim," Becker said.

Unemployment payments are typically issued three weeks after an application, but Becker said procedures have been adjusted to respond to the COVID-19 outbreaks and may be closer to 10 days. He went on to say there is no particular procedure for an applicant to end their unemployment assistance.

"Generally what happens is, if they stop reporting, we stop paying and then we assume they're back to work," Becker said.

Iowa Workforce Development said Thursday some almost 42,000 unemployment claims were filed between March 15-21 the first period to include COVID-19 related claims. Becker said his office has been bustling lately as they assist a wide variety of workers.

"There's a lot of restaurant workers a lot of medical, dental that type of thing just lots and lots of folks that have been impacted," Becker said. "All you have to do is look and see what (businesses) you can't get into. It's pretty much everything."

Though most recent weekly report included claims unrelated to the virus, the state estimated more than 13,000 claims were made in the food services and accommodation industry. Healthcare and social assistance followed with almost 5,000 claims, and education services was the third most common field at about 2,700 claims.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Kiley Miller CEO of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corporation said the nonprofit has largely seen the coronavirus situation affecting smaller, service-based businesses in the region as the public remains in their homes and demand declines. He said scenarios ranged from business owners simply not making a profit in the current market to those who have needed to make staffing cuts to stay afloat.

"It's an interesting time," Miller said. "We're going to have so much disruption, and there are going to be certain businesses that are critical infrastructure like the grocery business that have high demand. Meanwhile, we have other businesses that have seen and will continue to see diminishing demand."

Miller said the key moving forward will be to find solutions on both fronts, and he noted Iowa Workforce Development is working around the clock to do so.

Landmark Products in Milford considered an essential service during the outbreak is also hoping to connect those dots. Dana Evaro, vice president of marketing for Landmark Products, said food manufactures nationwide are being negatively affected by the COVID-19 situation, but he said the coronavirus emerged at a time when Landmark itself was already in need of production workers.

"We were already behind because we are and have been ramping up production for quite some time," Evaro said. "We just added 80,000 square feet and brought in two new pizza lines. We were struggling to find help with people in general, and that's where we started this from. This area is struggling terribly with having enough people for production."

AID AND SOLUTIONS

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds responded to the novel coronavirus by declaring a public health disaster for the state, which resulted in the closure of many businesses like bars, restaurants, fitness centers, theaters and casinos all in an effort to keep the virus from potentially spreading among large groups. The governor's actions did allow restaurants to continue filling carry-out and delivery orders, and she later granted a request from the Iowa Restaurant Association to allow bars and restaurants to sell unopened bottles of alcohol for delivery or carry-out. Nonessential medical and dental treatments were also put on hold by the state to preserve personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves and similar items healthcare workers use.

Evaro said Landmark is open to hiring employees who are simply seeking short term work until the governor's orders are lifted and they can return to their regular jobs.

"I know a lot of people in the food businesses restaurant, hospitality, bars in the area, and they don't have a job to go to right now," he said. "They still have to pay rent. It sounds like they're going to get some subsidies back from the government, and that's going to help out a little bit, but it could possibly work well with us doing more temp and short-term employment opportunities."

Three different bills have been signed into law this month, approving trillions of dollars in various unemployment funding, forgivable small business loans and taxpayer rebate checks. Some of the funding is meant to reimburse businesses owners the cost of paid leave used because of the virus. Employees who were laid off were previously required to use all of their paid leave to be eligible for unemployment benefits, but Iowa Workforce Development on Monday announced a temporary halt to the rule in light of the recently approved federal funding. The organization clarified the change is not retroactive.

Miller said the unemployment funding in the federal relief package is a much-needed safety net for many families affected by the recent viral outbreaks. He went on to say stressing he was not critical of the federal aid the funds will likely delay forced returns into the job market, which he said may slow progress to a degree in helping fill open positions.

Iowa Workforce Development is waiving a number of fees and charges to businesses whose employees file for unemployment because of the virus. The state organization also assured employers the recent wave of claims related to COVID-19 would not increase their unemployment taxes, but Becker said it's possible unemployment rates could increase in the future.

'OPPORTUNITY AMID THE ENTROPY'

On a positive note, Miller said the current crisis has shined a light on what he called a cirrhosis in many supply chains single suppliers of products or heavy reliance on international shipping.

"I think that offers tremendous opportunities for a lot of communities to compete for smaller operations that create redundancy in the supply chains," Miller said, noting new businesses often emerge during economic downturns. "Gifted people identify solutions that hadn't been thought of in the past, and new companies come out of that. Certainly this time right now is catastrophic but, at the Corridor, we're already starting to think about where the opportunities are amid the entropy."

At least one local manufacturer is pursuing new opportunities to combat COVID-19. Brownmed in Spirit Lake manufactures medical devices which are distributed all over the country and the world. Like Landmark, the company is considered an essential service. Brownmed President Kylia Garver said some of the company's products have been used to create droplet barriers, which help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Specifically, the company has offered to provide long, protective gloves which have been used as part of a medical examination barrier recently designed by Wisconsin Pediatrician Dr. Alison Craig.

"Additionally, our company is looking at manufacturing patient gowns and face shields," Garver said, noting the first round of production will go to hospitals within Iowa. "These are not items we have historically made, but we feel we have the capability to manufacture them and there is a need. We are stepping up to meet that need."

She went on to say Brownmed's staffing needs are currently being met, but she said that may change quickly if the company ramps up production of personal protective equipment like the face shields and gowns. In the meantime, the company continues to do what many other large manufacturers in the region have done to keep their employees healthy during the viral outbreak. A more aggressive cleaning schedule has been put in place, duplicate equipment has been ordered to minimize commonly shared items and break times have been adjusted to allow social distancing as recommended by state and federal officials.

Garver expects the first shipment of Brownmed's face shields should ship out this week.

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