With the economy frozen amid the coronavirus crisis, small businesses across the country are feeling the pinch and LGBTQ-owned companies — some of which have dramatically altered their business models to stay afloat in trying times — are no exception.
Faced with their traditional sources of revenue being cut off amid government-imposed shutdowns aimed at containing COVID-19, LGBTQ business owners who spoke to the Blade said they’ve had to improvise by facilitating different services than they did in their roles prior to the epidemic.
Amy Tiller, a lesbian and co-owner of the Portland, Ore.-based Inspired Results, said her company immediately pivoted from brand management in print and apparel for client businesses to sending supplies of PPE to hospitals in regions hardest hit by the coronavirus.
“We did a couple of large volume orders for hand sanitizer and gloves and things like that, and then people just started you know started referring us to other health care companies,” Tiller said. “It just became this thing in a matter of weeks that we were securing for traditional hospitals and clinics as well as senior living communities, as well as also we do a lot with our local retail grocery stores.”
The clientele base for Inspired Results, Tiller said, was around 70 percent in health care related industries, so pivoting to PPE was a natural shift, and the business that followed “just kind of blossomed.”
“We will quite literally send out millions of pieces of PPE between gloves, sanitizer, face masks and gowns — primarily those four are huge — and kind of with no end in sight,” Tiller said.
Typically, Tiller said a day for Inspired Results consists of sending emails at 3 a.m. to China, where the supply chain starts, to ensure the PPE is available for clients, which she said has built off the company’s mission to supply those in need without price gouging.
“I think that that has really resonated: The combination of speed, agility and access to the supply, combined with the fact that we’re not going to charge you $10 for a gown,” Tiller said. “We just won’t deal with suppliers that are doing that.”
Among her clients across the country, Tiller said, is a large health system in the United States as well as other highly regulated industries in health care, logistics companies and telecom.
The shift, Tiller said, has made her clients take a second look at the company and realize it has more to offer beyond its initial focus on brand management.
“It’s felt really good to be able to be there for them in their time of need and I think that they see us differently as well,” Tiller said. “Like, one you could do so much more than maybe what I thought your capabilities were before because like big organizations are using us for one or two things, right? Now, it’s kind of opened up this world now.”
The change in business model for Inspired Results is just one many for LGBTQ-owned businesses throughout the country, many of which are coordinating with the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce for assistance.
Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president for the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has been coordinating with the U.S. Small Business Administration to ensure they get that help.
“As the business voice of the LGBT community, the NGLCC is uniquely positioned to connect public and private sector resources to our network of affiliate chambers and partner organizations who urgently need the economic relief and emotional connection our community can always be counted on to provide,” Lovitz said.
Prior to enactment of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce sent letters to members of Congress demanding the inclusion of LGBTQ entrepreneurs as well as support for non-profit, micro businesses and independent contractors.
Justin Nelson, president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said via email the CARES Act and initial call with SBA were “positive first steps to ensure our community is financially protected during this crisis,” but more is needed.
“Many were left out and more will certainly be needed, especially as many of our business owners faced difficulty in applying for these essential funds,” Nelson said. “This is why NGLCC, in collaboration with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce (USBC), and the Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce (ACE) and over 100 of our collective affiliate chambers will continue advocating for expanded funding for small business relief in upcoming rounds of relief, the inclusion of 501(c)(6) organizations in relief for nonprofit organizations, and the eligibility of— and increased assistance for — diverse small and micro businesses.”
Other businesses are finding other ways to cope during the COVID-19 epidemic, even at the expenses of profit margins if it means keeping workers on payroll.
Nathan Perry, who’s gay and co-owner of the Brooklyn-based Cutting Edge Elite, said his company — a staffing agency for New York residents seeking to moonlight as hospitality workers at events — has shifted to find them work without any profit.
“Recently, with everything that’s happened, obviously, events wiped out completely,” Perry said. “So sales, 100 percent gone, and nobody should be having a party right now, frankly, but it was our mission to our staff, so now it’s just our mission to get them work without any profit.”
Among the staff at Cutting Edge Elite are New York performers in the gig economy, some of which are doing theater work. As a result, Perry said many of these workers don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.
Perry said he created a relief division, priced it at cost to cover their staff wages and employer tax insurance and then moved to “getting them out there to good work.”
“I think from a mental health perspective this is hard on so many levels,” Perry said. “And one of them is just not having work during this tragedy, which leaves you stuck at home watching CNN way too many hours, and our staff are among the most financially vulnerable.”
Lucas Mendieta, who’s gay and also a co-owner of Cutting Edge Elite, said among the new clients for staffers includes the New York Department of Aging. And the tasks have changed as well.
“We’ve had some staff that are helping out in-house with getting meals ready and then other ones … just to get food out to a lot of older people who just aren’t able to leave their homes,” Mendieta said.
Although $350 billion was made available for small businesses under the third installment of the CARES ACT, many companies have yet to see that relief.
Perry said Cutting Edge Elite applied for relief under the Paycheck Protection Program, but as of last week had yet to hear any news.
“We know we can last about eight weeks with zero business and everyone at this level,” Perry said. “We put in for that PPP application, as well as the SBA disaster relief as well as the NYC continuity fund. Haven’t heard a peep from our bank.”
With the money depleted for the Paycheck Protection Program, the Senate after negotiations approved this week on a bipartisan basis an additional $480 billion for the initiative. The measure is now pending before the House, which is expected to approve the measure this week.
LGBTQ businesses are adjusting to new realities under the coronavirus as debate rages on — with passionate advocates on both sides — over when is the right time to reopen the economy.
Medical experts are saying testing in the United States must be ramped up two or threefold before that can happen safely, while many throughout the country agitate over getting back to normal and fume over travel restrictions.
Tiller said Inspired Results last week held an all-hands meeting on when things would go back and concluded “there is no going back.”
“We’ve probably created a new business line within our company out of this,” Tiller said. “What does that mean? How do we keep engaged and keep that momentum, but then also we have to prepare for when we do go back will the marketing be there. Will those traditional spends that we normally see be there?”
Even though she’s a business owner and would stand to gain from restarting the economy, Tiller said she “has a fear” about the economy opening up quickly.
“I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but my fear first and foremost is more people will die right?” Tiller said. “If we do it too soon, it’ll just compromise more of our citizens, No. 1. And as we reopen the country and the economy, doing so in a layered approach — obviously there’s no light switch, it’s not going to go from one way to the other — I would be very much afraid to not follow the data and not follow the science.”
Perry said a number of factors are playing into his views on opening up the economy and the prospects for Cutting Edge Elite, including the possibility of a coronavirus resurgence in the fall — which he said could be devastating.
“If our business does survive this hit, which I’m 90 percent confident we will, a second one — we would have to lay people off immediately,” Perry said. “We’d already be in high debt — even nice cheap debt from the government — we’d already be in a high debt position. So, we can’t have any bumps in the restart or that could be kind of the killing blow.”