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Small businesses extend lifeline to employees and communities battered by coronavirus

Verne Harnish, special to
Key Points
  • Small business owners are doing all they can to support their workers during this coronavirus pandemic.
  • Their strategies range from creating an emergency support fund and hiring employee spouses for gig work to sending food deliveries to homes.
A man cleans the windows at his store on March 17, 2020 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City. - The coronavirus outbreak has transformed the US virtually overnight from a place of boundless consumerism to one suddenly constrained by nesting and social distancing.The crisis tests all retailers, leading to temporary store closures at companies like Apple and Nike, manic buying of food staples at supermarkets and big-box stores like Walmart even as many stores remain open for business -- albeit in a weirdly anemic consumer environment. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Angela Weiss | AFP via Getty Images

Panic is contagious. So is leadership. We've read how some big companies, like Ted Leonsis' Monumental Sports and Entertainment, are stepping up to help workers — such as the arena workers he's paying through at least the end of March, despite the suspension of the NBA and NHL seasons because of the coronavirus panic.

Small companies are doing the same. As his team transitioned to working from home, Ben Fisher, who runs MagicCo., a 12-person company in Brooklyn, New York, that helps brands build their presence on Amazon Alexa and Google Home, discovered that two team members, his office manager and his cleaning person, could no longer do their usual work.

He's reassigned the office manager to solving challenges related to taking the team remote, like getting the firm's call-forwarding software to work smoothly, while the cleaning person is now doing administrative work from home, while he continues to pay her. "They're solving new problems," he says.

Fisher is not alone. When I reached out to my network of small and midsize businesses, I found that many of these job creators are doing all they can to keep their teams (including independent contractors) employed and to make sure they have food, shelter and all kinds of other support — even as some of their firms fight for survival. Some are also finding ways to give back to their communities on top of this.

Looking for ideas on what you can do to help your employees? Here are some ideas they shared.

Hire laid-off spouses

Dwight Cooper, CEO and founder of Hueman, which does outsourced recruitment for hospitals, has encouraged his 200-member team whose spouses have lost their jobs to apply for jobs at his firm, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. He is already in the final stages of interviewing two laid-off spouses, whom he is fully prepared to train. "They can learn to be a recruiter pretty quickly," says Cooper.

He has also created an emergency support fund for employees who experience financial hardship due to the coronavirus crisis and can't pay for essentials like housing. "We went through 2008 and 2009," he says. "We were building our balance sheet for a rainy day. We're going to be bold, decisive and generous because employees are the most important part of our business."

Dwight Cooper, CEO and founder of Hueman, which does outsourced recruitment for hospitals, has encouraged his 200-member team whose spouses have lost their jobs to apply for jobs at his firm.

Replace office perks

Many employees, particularly those at the entry-level end of the pay scale, depend on the lunches that tech companies provide to keep their grocery bills down. Knotch, a 55-employee firm that developed a platform to help firms optimize their content marketing, has been using the expense-reimbursement platform Abacus, made by Emburse, to provide employees with $15 a day to subsidize their lunches or groceries during the crisis. These funds replace the lunches normally ordered in if they work through mealtime. Knotch provides the payments as part of their monthly expense reimbursements. "For March they'll be reimbursed in the first part of April," says Jason Lee, vice president of finance for Knotch.

Knotch has also added a $50-a-month reimbursement for the fitness app or equipment of their choice and, to bring back some of the familiar rhythms of employees' daily life, started hosting virtual online fitness classes, like a yoga class one employee will lead for colleagues on Monday. "This is not a normal time," says Lee. "People aren't used to it."

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Keep pantries full

Jennelle McGrath, founder and chief marketing strategist of Market Veep, a full-service digital agency with 11 employees, went all-remote on Monday. When a few of her employees mentioned they didn't have a chance to stock up, the five-year-old firm sent them care packages full of healthy snacks and, for an employee with twin girls at home from school, origami and friendship bracelet kits to keep them busy.

McGrath tried to ship them toilet paper, but the industrial supplier she found online sold out, so she's standing by to place the order. "That's their biggest concern," says McGrath. Fortunately, her agency has been busy so she hasn't had to think about layoffs. "We're paying everyone," she says.

Buy them some time to pay the rent

Anton Morgulis, CEO of 76 Group, which owns seven properties in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has been trying to negotiate with his bank, insurance and utility company and brought in a tax advisor to try to postpone the payments the company owes so it can give its tenants more time to pay their rent.

"This is not about profits or making money," says Morgulis. "We've removed any of the profits. This is a kind of war. We need to survive. Our business infrastructure is a big, giant circle. It comes in one way and comes out the other. If the circle is broken, our society will be broken. We are doing everything we can to make sure that circle stays alive."

Take care of the children in the community

With schools closed in many cities, many children who relied on getting meals there are facing food insecurity. Una, a 12-person group purchasing organization in Kansas City, Missouri, was able to donate $5,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Kansas City, which is serving meals for pickup and delivery, and $5,000 to Harvester, which runs a regional food bank, when managing partner Anthony Clervi donated $5,000 of his own money and had the company match it. "We believe it should turn into thousands of meals," says Clervi.  

Verne Harnish is owner and CEO of Scaling Up and author of Scaling Up



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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.