April 3, 2021

Seneca County businesses struggling despite federal stimulus | Regional News

Here comes the money. Throughout March residents began receiving stimulus checks as part of the…

Here comes the money.

Throughout March residents began receiving stimulus checks as part of the latest round of COVID relief signed into law by President Joe Biden. To that end, there was more than $12 billion for New York State. Around $10 billion more is being divided up between counties, local municipalities, and other entities.

That money will be essential, according to Jeff Shipley of the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce. He serves as president and CEO of the organization, which advocates on behalf of businesses. His agency has been one of the most vocal, not only because it has needed to be during the pandemic, but also because Seneca County is uniquely positioned in the heart of the Finger Lakes. 

Shipley said there should be a fund for small businesses to tap in to moving forward. In his view, the money should come from the billions being given to the state to help businesses that were ravaged by the pandemic. 

“The SBA loans were great; in many cases they served a point and helped businesses,” Shipley explained. “But this is a way you can take real money and distribute it where it’s needed most. The businesses that were devastated by COVID. So we’re working very hard to help set up a fund of that kind to help in New York State and especially in communities where tourism is most important.”

He said for counties like Seneca, Ontario, Wayne, and Yates those funds are crucial because not every business saw increased foot traffic in 2020. There were some businesses that saw more, as downstate residents traveled upstate to experience some sense of normalcy. But that was not what happened across the board. “We’re advocating for some of that money be set aside for a special business relief fund,” Shipley added.

He also leads the statewide association of chambers’, which means  advocating for business-related issues even during the pandemic is an absolute must.

One of those issues is related to unemployment insurance. But not in the way most people think about it. During the pandemic the state had to borrow around $10 billion from the federal government to keep its unemployment fund flush. Businesses see their unemployment insurance tax rate built around the number of employees they have, and the extent of claims filed on their behalf. To put it in perspective, Shipley said across New York around 18 years worth of claims were filed in five months. 

That means significantly increased rates for businesses. He called it “devastating” for businesses that are trying to rebound from the pandemic. “The state passed a temporary move that excluded unemployment claims from COVID from being counted against their unemployment tax rate,” Shipley explained. “But there’s a provision in state law that triggers an automatic increase whenever money is borrowed from the Treasury. So we’re trying to prevent a major increase, at really the worst time possible for so many of these businesses.”

He said New York State should take some of what it received in federal aid to lessen the blow, so businesses do not see such a dramatic spike. 

There is also the New York Hero Act, which Shipley said started out as a well-intentioned effort to address issues experienced during the pandemic. “It was created to ensure that frontline workers and medical personnel in New York, the heroes of the pandemic, were provided the necessary personal protective equipment for employers and to make sure safety protocols were in place,” he explained. “Unfortunately, the bill has been added to in a way that is really overreaching. Some would say unnecessary, or certainly potentially very costly to small businesses.” 

He said lawmakers have extended the coverage of it to include every business in New York. So, any business with 10 or more employees would be required to take a number of extra steps they may not have the infrastructure to handle. “It exposes businesses, many without HR departments, to new liabilities, potentially predatory lawsuits, higher insurance costs for sure, and costly state fines,” he added. Shipley said an interesting note is state and local governments were excluded. He hopes the state Assembly will modify the bill before it is passed or signed into law.

While the money coming into Seneca County will undoubtedly help bolster tourism in the short-term, tourism and business advocates agree the long-term goal needs to be assisting small businesses that were hardest hit by the pandemic.