Many area employers report improvements in the economy and operations since the coronavirus pandemic broke out more than a year ago, according to recent survey results on the issue.
However, hurdles remain before business returns to a semblance of normalcy, Clinton and Jackson County economic development officials say.
“I do think in DeWitt we were definitely impacted by COVID,” said Angela Rheingans, executive director of the DeWitt Chamber & Development Co. “This third (survey) illustrates to me we’re recovering, we’re bouncing back, we’re pivoting. We’re not there yet, but we’re figuring it out.”
The survey she references is one funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and conducted by the University of Northern Iowa. The survey analyzed how the coronavirus pandemic has affected businesses and organizations across the country.
Rheingans said such surveys often help officials either reaffirm existing condition or key in on issues they perhaps were less aware of.
The results of the most recent study, which was conducted Feb. 23-March 24, were made public June 7. Community- and county-specific summaries were released.
Some 91 businesses and nonprofits in Jackson County and 95 in Clinton County responded to the survey, which focused on the effects of the pandemic, respondents’ concerns, financial assistance, business operations, and remote work.
Rheingans and Jackson County Economic Alliance Director Nicolas Hockenberry agreed that the results of this third survey confirm what they have been hearing from local business and industry.
Jackson and Clinton county businesses, like Iowa and much of the nation for that matter, were negatively impacted. About 67.4% of Clinton County respondents said they experienced a direct negative impact from the pandemic. More than 63% noticed the direct negative impact in Jackson.
“That includes loss of sales, difficulty securing supplies, or difficulties for employees to get childcare,” Hockenberry explained. “Maquoketa saw Hollander Sleep Products (formerly Pacific Coast Feather), a producer who had been in the community since the 1990s, close directly because of the pandemic’s impact on the economy, leaving 126 people without a job. Other businesses worked hard to limit their layoffs with temporary furloughs and cutting hours.”
Respondents in both counties reported a shortage of supplies, decreased demand for products or services, and decreased attendance by employees related to COVID as the most immediate impacts to their organizations.
“It appears that much of the hit to our retail and service sectors is relenting, but the impacts to manufacturers supply chains, material availability, and workforce continue to be a struggle,” Hockenberry explained. “Specifically, the experience of many businesses dealing with a shortage of supplies and inputs in the case of manufacturers.”
He said the volatility in pricing for those needed supplies and inputs is an ongoing concern, whether it is stainless-steel sheeting, lumber, or even food products.
Revenue loss remained the top concern for Clinton County organizations between March 2020 and March 2021, survey results showed.
However, concerns shifted slightly in Jackson County. Last year’s top concern during the pandemic was revenue loss, with employee health and wellbeing in second. But this year, the concerns were reversed, with employee health and wellbeing topping the list at 43.2% compared to revenue loss at 40.9%
This comes after some organizations reduced their workforce last year, but this year, employees who are ready to hire can’t find the qualified workforce they need, Rheingans explained. As a result, the existing workforce has had to work more hours and assume more duties to maintain basic operations.
The survey also illustrated the impact financial assistance had on employers during the pandemic.
Some 62% of responding DeWitt organizations that requested financial assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program, for example, received help.
“That was huge,” she said. “Just about all who applied (for 14 specified resources) received them.”
In Jackson County, that number was almost 50%, followed by 22% of respondents asking for and receiving self-assistance.
But perhaps the most eye-opening result showed just how many responding businesses considered permanently closing had it not been for outside financial aid.
Between the PPP program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), about 50% of DeWitt respondents said they may have faced permanent closure.
“It’s not a surprise but a really sobering affirmation to think that about 50% of respondents said that if not for the PPP or EIDL loan, they could have permanently shut down. That’s a startling affirmation,” Rheingans said.
Those numbers were slightly lower in Jackson County, where without self-funding assistance, EIDL, banks, and family/friends, organizations said they may have closed permanently. Only about 33% said they faced closure without PPP aid.
Hockenberry was most surprised by the number of employers that are integrating remote working capabilities into their operations — 20.9% are currently doing it, with 4.4% considering it.
Overall in Jackson, fewer people are working remotely compared to the number who would be eligible to, according to the survey.
“I think if this year has taught us anything, it is that many essential job functions can be done from anywhere as long as the technology tools are there to facilitate it,” Hockenberry explained. “As someone who was a part of less than three virtual meetings in previous years, I would never have imagined how natural it feels to me now to have three virtual meetings in a single day with prospects and partners from a town over to a continent away.”
More people who work in DeWitt continue working from home instead of at their place of business, a survey result that somewhat surprised Rheingans.
However, she surmised that those results likely were indicative of the survey’s respondents, of which more than half worked in businesses or services that generally require people to be at the worksite, such as construction, manufacturing, accommodation and food services, etc.
One problem that persists, Rheingans and Hockenberry agreed, is the lack of a qualified workforce.
“Businesses are wanting to hire and are not being able to find/hire quality candidates,” she explained.
“The emerging trend is showing some long-term negative impacts on our manufacturers due to disruptions in supply chains that continue to play out from this last year, and as our larger employers the lack of workforce availability is a challenge,” Hockenberry added.
But overall, Hockenberry and Rheingans said the survey results showed a positivity that had at one time diminished.
“Compared to one year ago, I would say things are better,” Rheingans. “We have new businesses opening now. That’s an exciting and positive indication of recovery. We’re further through the pandemic and acclimating to the new normal, and that’s huge.”