Workers at Effina’s restaurant in Anniston cook chicken on an outdoor grill as they try to fill to-go orders during the stay-home order caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Credit Trent Penny/The Anniston Star
By ABBY DRIGGERS and DEVIN PAVLOU, Alabama Daily News
In what is supposed to be their busiest time of year, Effina’s, a sit-down restaurant with locations in Anniston and Jacksonville, is seeing firsthand the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.
Between laying off all 66 employees and sales declining 90%, Steven Katsinas, owner of Effina’s, says the experience has been a “nightmare.”
“It was kind of like a dream (to own a restaurant) and over the past few weeks it literally turned into a nightmare,” Katsinas recently told Alabama Daily News.
It’s no secret that small businesses are having a tough time in this uniquely challenging economic environment. And thought state and federal programs have tried to keep businesses afloat, there’s only so much government can do for the private sector, company owners say.
Other businesses, such as Southern Medical Equipment in Cullman, have also been hard hit. Referrals have been down significantly, said owner Don Jones.
“Physicians are doing telehealth more than anything and the number of patients that a physician would see is greatly decreased,” Jones said. “I think people are staying home until they are in dire straits.”
Jones was able to keep all his employees paid thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.
“We have been able to keep all of our folks employed,” Jones said. “We were able to secure a PPP loan through the Small Business Administration, which has helped out tremendously that will allow us to keep our full workforce in place and serve the patients.”
Businesses had varying experiences when they applied for the PPP loans from the government.
“We were in the first round of the PPP and honestly, we did not have too much of a problem,”Jones sad. “We have a real close relationship with our banker who is SBA approved.”
Katsinas applied for a PPP loan in March to keep his business afloat and pay employees. As a result of not receiving a first-round loan, Katsinas reopened for take-out delivery with minimal staff at the end of April.
“This whole thing has been a fight,” Katsinas said last week. “I mean, I still have employees that have yet to receive unemployment and we started cutting staff on March 18. That’s six, seven weeks.”
On April 30, Katsinas received a PPP loan in the second round.
“I found out I got one of the loans for one of our corporations and the other one is in the works,” Katsinas said. “Literally just when i was thinking about bankruptcy, losing my house and just craziness, now, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m okay, I have some money to help now.’”
Kevin Forsyth, president of Forsyth Consulting in Birmingham, a provider of customized music for business, says filing for the PPP was a “dredge.”
“The bank, the Small Business Administration, and I guess the government struggled with the process,” Forsyth said.
Katsinas contacted the Alabama Department of Labor and says there’s difficulty with unemployment claims for his employees.
“The process became complicated because how do you keep up with all those employees and where their statuses are along the way because the Department of Labor is receiving (many) more applications a day than normal,” Katsinas said.
ADOL has received more than 400,000 initial claims, since March 16, spokeswoman Tara Hutchison told Alabama Daily News.
“To put that in perspective, for the entirety of 2019 we had around 130,000,” Hutchison said.
Efforts to handle the surge include:
Contracting with outside vendor with about 100 staffers to take initial claims;
Reassigning about 120 staff members from other divisions to take claims
Launching the tracker to allow claimants to track their claim in real time
Hutchison said ADOL is in the process of extending hours for unemployment claims personnel to continue to work inquiry calls and emails and is establishing another call center.
“We understand there are many who still have questions and who have not yet been paid,” she said. “We understand the frustration and hear the complaints. We are working daily to develop new processes or solutions that allow us to make the process easier and faster while maintaining program integrity.”
Rosemary Elebash, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said it will be next year or even into 2022 before some businesses recover from coronavirus-related shutdowns. And some are changed forever, Elebash said.
“I think you’ll see businesses that re-organize, retool, look at their workforce,” Elebash said. “Can they do more with technology?”
She said older employees may not be returning to work.
“I think we will see employee turnover, absolutely,” Elebash said.
Elebash said businesses are also thinking about how they’d operate in a future pandemic situation, including the technology they use and how they deliver their products.
“I think as new restaurants are built, they will all have a drive-thru window,” she said. “They will see that as a necessity.”
Jones said some things never go back to how it was before the virus.
“To be quite frank, I don’t think it will ever be as it once was, and the reason I say that the health care setting as we’ve known in the past is radically changed and I think that you know, this is kind of a new dawning for health care,” Jones said.
Glenn Phillips, owner of Lake Homes Realty in Hoover, has been spending time every day trying to help employees furloughed due to the uncertainty of the virus and agrees the system is “overwhelmed.”
He said his company furloughed and laid off employees because it doesn’t know how long it will be impacted by the virus.
“It’s kind of like getting thrown in the water in the middle of a storm and you have no idea how long you’ve got to tread water, so you better save energy,” Phillips said. “The unemployment system is clearly overwhelmed.”
Phillips said the website for unemployment claims would lock up, or send a message to contact for help, but “every email or phone call, none of them were answered.”
“The phone just rang or another number would answer and hang up on you, or the tech support would answer your call, leave you on hold for 10 to 15 minutes, until you were really busy later and hang up on you and you have yet to talk to him,” Phillips said.
“While the federal government put money into paying people, I’m not sure they put money into the states to help find the support staff needed to do it,” Phillips said.
On Monday, the Alabama Department of Labor said $503 million in COVID-19 related unemployment compensation benefits have been distributed, including federal money.
“Even though we’ve made payments to 84% of those who have filed, we know there are many still waiting, and you have not been forgotten,” Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said in a written statement.
Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the re-opening of some businesses including retail stores and beaches. An order that is keeping closed dine-in restaurants, bars and close-contact businesses like salons expires May 15.
Forsyth is a part of the leadership committee for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
“We are fighting hard for parity for the restaurant, bar and brewery industry when the governor and the state health director have decided to pick winners and losers,” Forsyth said.