You can watch the recorded video of this roundtable here.
On Thursday, June 3 ten GSBA small business members participated in a roundtable discussion with Senator Maria Cantwell, moderated by GSBA Board Member Linda Di Lello Morton of Terra Plata. Representing Washington State since 2000, Senator Cantwell is currently the Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and she also serves on the committees for Small Business & Entrepreneurship, Energy, Finance, and Indian Affairs. This means that the input of Washington small business is particularly important to her position.
Senator Cantwell started off the meeting reiterating her focus over the last year - getting dollars out the door to help small businesses weather and emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. She touted two of the most important federal programs this spring - the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund - that dealt with two of the sectors most severely impacted by the pandemic. She mentioned that she hopes to get Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg out to Washington in the near future to talk about infrastructure, which is critical to our fast-growing region. Senator Cantwell acknowledged that one of the critical bills that the Senate had not yet passed was the federal Equality Act, and she expressed hope that it would soon follow in the footsteps of the legislation on anti-Asian hate crimes that was passed last month.
When the discussion was turned over to the panelists, Eli Allison of Repair Revolution kicked off the group sharing how their business brings rare diversity to the automotive sector, and how any recovery must include underrepresented groups like women, LGBTQ+ people, and BIPOC individuals. Eli stressed how we cannot have infrastructure without a representative workforce in the trades, and shared how there is a severe shortage of qualified workers in many trade sectors.
Sean Brownlee of Mount Vernon-based rope manufacturer Ravenox elaborated on the similar issues for manufacturers, compounded by rising costs and inflation. Over the last year, his raw materials have had a 25% increase in cost, a 40% increase in shipping costs, and faced significant delays in shipping due to a shortage of shipping pallets and containers. He had founded his company with the goal of bringing manufacturing back to America, but the turmoil in the global economy is threatening his business. Dani Cone of Cone & Steiner reiterated the challenges with supply chain logistics at the moment and how she has seen the impact on her small vendors.
Both Nicole Johnson of Sound Therapeutic Acupuncture and Jordie Neth of Rain City CPAs warned about the crushing effect of educational debt on small business owners. Nicole talked about how high interest loans prevent her from reinvesting back into her practice and hiring new employees, while Jordie shared how high debt scares away those who might otherwise be interested in careers that require professional degrees like CPAs, attorneys, and auto technicians. Senator Cantwell shared how she was working with Senator Elizabeth Warren to cancel federal student debt, cracking down on predatory for-profit financing, and how understanding the impacts on small businesses was critical in how the federal government should address the problem.
Reflecting a common concern that GSBA has heard across our membership, Danielle Hulton of Ada’s Technical Books and Fuel Coffee in Seattle shared how her employees have been able to take advantage of Washington State’s great paid family leave program, but that they end up not returning to work because of the inability to find affordable childcare. Senator Cantwell said that this is one of the many examples of how the pandemic exposed a number of pre-existing crises across our society, and that the federal government needed to do more to keep parents in the workforce and have opportunities, whether through tax incentives or ways to drive down the costs of childcare.
Omari Salisbury of Converge Media shared his experiences as a Black-owned small media business, saying the adage “when America sneezes, the Black community catches a cold.” The pandemic laid bare a lot of huge disparities that already existed, particularly in healthcare and business outcomes. When trying to stay afloat during 2020, Converge Media like many small businesses, applied for grants and loan programs, but was denied or found the application process was too onerous for a struggling entrepreneur. Luckily, he did receive a GSBA Ready for Business grant this spring. Senator Cantwell responded saying that COVID also showed us how we need to have a diversity of representative local media voices like Converge who can provide trusted and accurate information. She expressed an interest in expanding the pandemic programs to support diverse media and to build what Omari referred to as a level playing field for all small businesses.
With his perspective as a certified public accountant, Jordie Neth also shared concerns about staffing levels at the IRS not keeping pace with the increasing complexity of the federal tax code. Numerous tax credits, loan forgiveness, employee retention credits, and other incentives are important, but difficulties arise when there is no one to answer the phones and take questions on how to correctly implement them.
Ashley Martinez of Ashley’s Pub in Bremerton ended the discussion on a positive note. While she was wary of PPP loans at the start of the pandemic, she ended up receiving support from the City of Bremerton as well as GSBA’s Ready for Business fund, and then from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund. She particularly wanted to acknowledge the importance of the ability for women, minority, and veteran owned businesses to apply first to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. With these grants, her business is looking optimistically to the summer as Washington State continues its reopening plan.