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Maryland small business owners: We need more workers

Gov. Larry Hogan and six business owners gathered for a roundtable discussion at Strum Contracting Co., owned by one of the roundtable’s participants, on the challenges facing businesses amid COVID-19. (The Daily Record/Johanna Alonso)

Small business owners, from the co-founder of a local chicken-and-waffle spot to the owner of a child care facility struggling with staffing, sat down with Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday to discuss the pandemic’s lasting impacts on their companies and industries.

Part of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Business Voices initiative, which was launched earlier this year to help business owners advocate for policy changes, the discussion included seven alumni of the company’s 10,000 Small Businesses Program who own businesses in Maryland, including five members of the 10,000 Small Business Voices Maryland State Council. The meeting was a part of the initiative’s national “Road to Recovery” series that aims to connect business owners and elected officials.

The participants, who came from a range of sectors, described how COVID-19 has affected, and continues to affect, their businesses.

Angela Kidane is the owner of KidzStuff Child Care, a pre-school and day care located in Baltimore. Kidane’s business has had some success during COVID-19; she was recently able purchase a building about 12 minutes from the space out of which she previously ran the center and is currently operating both locations.

But staffing continues to be a massive issue as both Maryland and the nation at large struggle under the dual pressures of a teacher shortage and a general labor shortage.

“We aren’t able to open classrooms or to continue to accept new families without workforce, so we really need something to be done about attracting new individuals to our industry,” Kidane said. “We just want the help of our local government to assist us with just putting some sort of campaign out there to attract individuals to the industry.”

Hogan noted that the lack of staffing at child care facilities feeds into one of the central reasons people aren’t all returning to their jobs: They can’t find reliable, affordable childcare.

“It becomes a vicious cycle,” he told Kidane.

Other participants, like Kahri Parker, who co-founded Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, a restaurant with locations in Baltimore and Delaware, also testified to Hogan that staffing and hiring is currently their main concern.

“We right now in Maryland have far more jobs available than ever before in the history of the state, far more jobs than we have people unemployed, but we can’t get people to take certain jobs,” Hogan said to Kidane. “We’ve got to figure out ways to provide incentives and to try to help you because that’s going to help the rest of our economy.”

While he too continues to struggle with workforce issues, Brendan McCluskey’s company faced its greatest hurdles early in the pandemic; although as a general contractor, Trident Builders was considered an essential business, the company could do almost nothing for months. This was because Trident specializes in high-end restaurants and hotels, which no one was interested in building as the hospitality industry struggled with closures, restrictions and a lack of customers.

“2020 was our breakout year. We were going to experience 400%, 500% year-over-year growth,” he said. “We were to finally to the promised land and (then) that did not happen.”

Kristen Cooper’s business has been in a similar situation throughout the pandemic. The company, Leap Day Media, struggled largely because the industries it works with, the performing arts and higher education, were all but shuttered for over a year.

Leap Day Media, which partners with arts and higher education clients to create print products, said she wished that the money that was made available to keep performance venues afloat had extended to companies, like hers, that contract with those venues.

“There have been so many opportunities for those venues to survive. Not so much for … those contractors that support businesses that suffered,” she said.

“I want to follow up to see if we can find a way how you might be able to qualify for some of the things that you didn’t get, because you’re a part of that industry,” Hogan replied.