Detroit area women business owners discuss COVID challenges with fed officials

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Southfield — During the pandemic Tara Young, owner of 44 Burrito in Detroit, had to gradually reduce her days of operation as she lost nearly 80% of her staff.

“I didn’t get a break,” she said. “We were feeding frontline workers. I’m getting a break now because of lack of employees.”

Young was among several women owners of small businesses and leaders in sectors including manufacturing and construction to express their concerns this week during a roundtable in Southfield with Isabel Guzman, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Natalie M. King of Dunamis Clean Energy Partners talks with U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaib before a business roundtable discussion on women-owned small businesses

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, hosted the conversation at the Centrepolis Accelerator at Lawrence Technological University in honor of Women’s History Month. She was joined by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and fellow Reps. Haley Stevens, D-Waterford Township, and Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

Guzman said the SBA has issued more $33 billion in pandemic relief under initiatives including the Paycheck Protection Program and COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans. 

"Obviously that's had a huge impact on helping businesses," she said. "But now they're still facing some of these challenges on the horizon where we wanted to make sure the SBA is positioned to support them with the capital that they need and continue to take advantage of opportunities and grow in the future, as well as provide them technical assistance on the strategic business model changes that they're having to adapt to now in the marketplace."

Guzman said the SBA has more than 1,300 centers across the country to help small businesses with strategy development and workforce challenges.

Among the top concerns expressed by the business owners were how to gain access to capital and contract opportunities. Participants also discussed childcare and the labor shortage.

Shawntay Dixon, Women’s Business Center program manager with the Great Lakes Community Business Council, said she’s seen numerous women benefit from COVID-19 relief programs, but there’s still a need for more funding, particularly in those sectors hardest hit, such as the restaurant industry.  

“We’re still finding that now that the economy is coming back, there’s still gaps with the women that we serve,” Dixon said.

Guzman said SBA’s pandemic relief programs closed as of Dec. 31; however, individuals still in the reconsideration pipeline for Economic Injury Disaster Loans or those who received less than $150,000 before the limit was raised to $2 million, can still apply for funds.

Tlaib noted a bipartisan bill would replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund with $60 billion; the American Rescue Plan legislation enacted last year provided $29 million for the fund.

"I love that it's not just the owners, but also workers that have come to the Hill saying we've got to do something about this," she said. 

Tlaib said childcare also needs to be address to get some of the workforce back. "My worry is we'll do the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, but will that bring people back to work?" she said. 

Gilchrist mentioned the state's $700 million in stabilization grants to support childcare providers.

“Childcare is our business and a really productive one,” he said. “Nothing unlocks productivity in the community like a place for your children to be where they’re safe, loved on.”

Lawrence said that as one of the chairs of the congressional Democratic Women’s Caucus, they know the restaurant and childcare industries are predominantly women.

“That’s why we’re so tied to the childcare piece,” she said. 

The congresswomen also expressed support for President Joe Biden's Build Back Better social spending bill, which is stalled in the Senate.

Stevens said meeting with the women was inspirational.

"But also we got our marching orders in terms of what we need to get back to Washington and do," she said. "Tackle daycare costs, invest in workforce development, disentangle some of the supply chain complexities that we're dealing with. We've got legislation obviously to solve our chips crisis as well."

As for Young, she said she plans to figure out what her next steps will be for her food truck and restaurant. In 2020, she reduced her days of operation from six days a week to two. She's also at three employees now, down from 14 pre-pandemic. 

Among her options is placing her products in grocery stores.

“I have to go get some legwork done,” she said. “I need to also find out what other program I can tap in to help me because really trying to find employees is my main concern."

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN