Iowa’s pandemic-pummeled small businesses appeal to Congress for more aid

Owners of small businesses, like these in Des Moines' East Village, are lobbying for more federal help as the pandemic continues. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Forty Iowans will be among a national group of 2,000 small-business owners lobbying virtually on Wednesday for more support in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The lobbying effort by Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Voices program will focus on the costs of restarting operations, health care, child care, and simplifying applications for aid.

The lobbying session is the latest in an effort that has included 3,000 emails, 850 phone calls and 470 virtual meetings with Iowa members of Congress and their staffs. 

Goldman Sachs notes that the nation’s small businesses employ nearly half of all private workers. But 60% of poll respondents said their revenue fell due to the pandemic, and only 9% said small business owners had a “very strong voice” in national policy matters.

Iowa has 267,000 small businesses, 99% percent of the total. The small businesses employ 48.3% of Iowa’s employees, Goldman Sachs reported. 

“While Congress’ efforts to support small businesses have been tremendously appreciated, more is needed to help small businesses survive the pandemic and recover,” the organization said. 

Megan McKay runs Peace Tree Brewing Co., which has a wholesale operation and taprooms in Knoxville and Des Moines’ East Village. 

McKay had hoped her wholesale business distributing Peace Tree beer to bars and restaurants in Iowa and Nebraska would grow 10% in 2010. Wholesale accounts for just over half of Peace Tree’s business.

But the pandemic and the forced temporary closures of the bars that came with it resulted in a 15% percent drop in wholesale business year over year, instead of the 10% gain projected.

“Honestly on that end of the business, it would have been a whole lot worse but we shifted business from the bars and restaurants to grocery stores,” McKay said in an interview. “But the costs are a little higher there, so profitability suffered.”

Her two taprooms are pulling in around 35% less than before the pandemic. Both were closed under the state’s pandemic proclamations for two and a half months in the spring, and the Des Moines location was closed for three weeks in the fall. At one point, sales were down 60%.

She laid off workers, took $10,000 in state aid and delayed payments on a Small Business Administration loan under another program. More help is needed, McKay said.  

“We’ve kind of had piecemeal relief efforts that have been a bit of a Band-Aid to kind of help us limp along,” McKay said. 

“But it’s created a lot of uncertainty” when Congress stalemates on the next relief packages, she added.

“We need some plan that would kind of steady the boat until we can get through this, on a longer-term basis, so that we’re not kind of whipsawed from day to day,” McKay said. The bureaucracy is a burden to many small businesses, she added. 

“I think sometimes there’s just a lack of understanding of how many hats we have to wear as small business owners and how many resources we really have to be able to muddle through all of this,” she added. 

Body shops get slammed by pandemic

Christy Jones runs 1Collision auto body repair shops in the Des Moines area. She was coming off one of her best business years ever after 2018 brought hail storms — and business.

“We were quite excited coming into (2019),” she said. 

But in 2020, the pandemic, with many working at home and driving less, brought a drop in business.

Last spring was better than she expected, though, Jones said. When people first started working at home, many decided to catch up on projects and fixing their dented fenders and bumpers were among them. 

“After that, we really hit bottom,” Jones said. 

She took out a federal payroll program loan and sought other aid that helped her keep the businesses open. About $250,000 total.

For the year, she lost 30% of her business in 2020. She is looking into the second stimulus package. 

Wednesday’s online lobbying visits, which focused on Iowa’s congressional delegation, are more of a long-term look at the issues, Jones said. 

“We’re really looking for longer-term solutions that will help small businesses. Things that would be able to sustain businesses and keep them open a little bit longer than eight weeks,” Jones said. 

Jones said small businesses sometimes are forgotten in a rush to help the big ones. “We are the backbone of our society. Sometimes we get lost in the shuffle because big businesses can stream a lot louder,” Jones said. 

Policies that small business lobbied for on Wednesday include: 

— Lowering health care costs for small businesses

— Protecting small businesses from potential COVID-related litigation

— Increasing access to affordable child care

— Offering incentives to large businesses that use small vendors. 

— Simplifying government Request for Proposal (RFP) process for small businesses

— Offsetting re-opening costs