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Small business owners struggle with painful decisions on layoffs


Wednesday afternoon, walk-in business at Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea is slow. Only a handful of customers trickle in to get a to-go coffee, while customers wait in a small lineup of cars outside in the drive-through.

Franchise owner Kristin Jackson says she's keeping the store open as long as she can following the Governor's order to stop service to sit-down customers as part of the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

She has bills to pay, "rent, utilities, payroll, taxes, insurance," and she wants to keep at least a few of her employees working.

Jackson says deciding who to let go was a bit of a business owners' Sophie's Choice, "based on how badly they need a pay check basically. Because some people are living on their own and this is their only job and this is how they survive with rent and food.  But other people are maybe still living at home."

So, as of now, about 18 of Jackson's employees are on unpaid leave, and about six are continuing to work. 

"It's heart breaking, because a lot of people need this," says Jackson, her voice getting a little wobbly. "And  we just kind of came up with what we thought was most logical."

For Sweetwaters Team Leader Cameron LaVallee, the answer to, "can you go without a paycheck?" was easy.

"I have to work," he says.  "I have to pay for rent and utilities."

LeVallee isn't sure what he will do if Sweetwaters has to close up completely for a while.  Ask his landlord for a hiatus on rent, maybe.

Meanwhile, Jackson estimates she can keep going like this for — maybe — two more months.

"I never dreamed that this could happen. I thought that my business - we got through the last recession. And I couldn't think of much that could take us down. But I guess I didn't think of a global pandemic." Liz Blondy, owner of Canine to Five

Some small business owners have already laid workers off, as opposed to just unpaid leave. 

Liz Blondy is the owner of Canine To Five, a pet care facility with locations in Detroit and Ferndale that offers dog day care, boarding, grooming, and training.  

With so many people working from home, and hanging out with their dogs all day, business has slumped. Blondy told 23 employees — about 75% of her staff — they were laid off on Tuesday. 

A few have already tried to phone the state's unemployment number. But they couldn't get through.  

"For somebody who's never had any experience negotiating this unemployment system, this is going to be really confusing for a lot of people, and for a lot of small business owners," says Blondy.

The day after Blondy laid off staff, the state issued some guidance for employers contemplating potential layoffs, including information about a program called Work Share that's designed to help employers avoid laying off staff. She's been busy trying to understand what that program is all about.

"It's only full time employees who are eligible, and actually it's a lot of work on the employers' part now, which is fine, but it's a lot of uncertainty, still," says Blondy. "So, I've not communicated that with my employees at this point because I don't want to continue to give them misinformation."

Blondy says no mater what happens, she's going to keep her business going to care for the pets of first responders and health care workers — even if that means 24/7 shifts by herself and her seven branch managers.

She's hoping it doesn't come to that.

"I never dreamed that this could happen," she said. "I thought that my business — we got through the last recession. And I couldn't think of much that could take us down. But I guess I didn't think of a global pandemic."

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