During these challenging, unprecedented times, reflecting on our new world is warranted. In the last two weeks, I have spoken to the small business owners of a limousine company, travel agency, craft brewery, physical therapy establishment, steel manufacturer, printing business, coffee shop, restaurant, promotion agency, landscaper, recruitment specialist, and the list goes on. All these owners expressed the desire to keep their employees, some of whom had been with them 40 years. After decades in business, they felt terrible if they had to lay off their entire staff. All the callers were looking for guidance from NFIB as to the next steps, because there was underlying hope that, between Trenton and Washington, D.C., relief might be around the corner. Starting with quick legislative action in Trenton, followed by the third COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress last week, financial support is indeed arriving.
First, I would like to compliment Gov. Phil Murphy for his diplomatic, courteous and sincere daily message explaining how his administration is managing the pandemic virus in New Jersey. With the support of the governor, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker CraigCoughlin quickly moved bipartisan legislation to begin the rescue mission for Main Street. For example, enacted legislation allows the Economic Development Authority to provide emergency grants and loan funding to businesses primarily in the hospitality and service industries.
Another new law extends temporary disability and family leave benefits to workers who need to take time to recover from COVID-19 or to care for family members suffering from the disease. It also expands earned sick leave benefits to cover mandatory or recommended quarantines. The current family leave program can provide up to 85% of wages, with a cap of $859. The expanded bill would make the benefits available for people who have to remain in quarantine or care for loved ones who have the virus. It also allows those who have not lost their jobs but are still confronted with financial difficulties to continue to collect a paycheck.
On Friday, President Donald Trump immediately signed federal bipartisan legislation that will aid all sectors of the business community. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act stimulus bill will provide small business grants, forgivable loans and tax relief. The Washington, D.C., office of NFIB deserves a shoutout for around-the-clock lobbying efforts to assure small businesses would be helped by the bill. New Jersey will get an estimated $3.4 billion from a “state stabilization fund,” plus the Garden State will get direct checks to taxpayers and help for local health departments. During the next weeks, the immediate challenge will be getting programs up and running so financial supports reaches those in dire need.
In New Jersey, we will face mounting challenges. The Legislature needs to deliver a balanced budget to the governor for fiscal 2021 by June 30. With the probable decline in sales tax collection and the anticipated delay in filing 2019 income taxes, New Jersey will miss its April bump in revenue. These revenue shortfalls will continue, because tax money that would usually be withheld from paychecks will also be lower as people stay out of work. Don’t forget that New Jersey businesses that are able to stay open already pay the highest family leave and paid sick leave in the country. They are legitimately concerned that, as they climb out of severe economic slumps, those costs will also escalate. The public health crisis that caused the current economic decline came at a time when New Jersey’s budgetary picture was starting to improve, but, now, the already-underfunded pension is in worse shape, and the Rainy Day Fund is depleted. Difficult choices are around the corner, but new ideas to rescue businesses must be discussed further.
If we continue to work together, we can maintain public health priorities while resurrecting our economy without unjustly placing new burdens on the ability to reopen the doors of small businesses.
Eileen Kean is state director of National Federation of Independent Business in New Jersey, a small business association with thousands of members in the state.