January 23, 2021

What small-business owners need from the 2020 election

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a store front at day


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There are a few numbers that represent the impact of the pandemic to Jesse Jacobs: 90% down, 100 to six, four to zero.

Those figures encapsulate the hit his small business, Samovar Tea, has taken in revenues, employee count, and number of stores open, respectively.

“Now we’re essentially using our own life savings and credit cards,” he tells Fortune of his San Francisco–based business, which has now pivoted to online sales. “That’s basically where we’re at.”

With numbers like those, small-business owners like Jacobs are a little preoccupied, even as the election looms in November. As a blanket wish, he says, “our needs would be met best by the right leader who has a calm, optimistic outlook with tactical solutions that benefit small business.”



This story is part of a special report examining what’s at stake for a wide range of industries—and for many workers—in this year’s election.


© Provided by Fortune
This story is part of a special report examining what’s at stake for a wide range of industries—and for many workers—in this year’s election.

Indeed, a presidential election is a spotlight-stealing event every four years, but 2020 is different. A pandemic has encompassed the U.S. for the better part of six months, and many small businesses are zeroed in on their own survival and how the economy might shape up next year. In fact, that’s the top concern for small-business owners this election, according to a new survey by business lobbying group U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife.

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Yet while small-business owners report having a heightened interest in the 2020 election (62% report being more interested this year than in the previous election, per the U.S. Chamber–MetLife survey), many small-business owners’ principal concern right now may well be their income statement.

“Because they’ve seen such a deep decline in revenue, I don’t think there’s been much discussion as it relates to a national election and…the ramifications of a Democrat or a Republican being in the White House,” Bill Wilkins, a manager at the East Brooklyn Business Improvement District, tells Fortune of the small businesses in his community. “I’m working in an underserved, financially challenged community where everyone has to grind and make it. People are in survival mode.”

It’s impossible to capture the needs of millions of small businesses across dozens of different industries, but Fortune explored a few key areas that may still impact the small-business vote in 2020.

Economic recovery and assistance tops small-business needs

When Fortune asked small-business owners what they needed from the 2020 election, one thing was repeated across many conversations: more certainty and more financial help.

After expediently passing a massive $2.2 trillion relief package back in March, Congress has been tied up in a battle over a fresh round of support for small businesses—and owners are facing a time crunch.

“If economic trends continue at this rate, one in five business owners anticipates they won’t make it until the end of the year,” says Kevin Kuhlman, the vice president of federal government relations for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a nonprofit small-business advocacy group.

Even in parts of the country that are largely reopened, getting another loan, like those through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), will be “integral” for small businesses “making it in next steps,” Jennifer Hensley, the executive director of the Downtown Boise Association in Idaho, says of her community. Meanwhile, businesses in hard-hit industries like retail, which already received funds, “need more loans, they need more forgiveness, they need automatic forgiveness for small loans, they need less paperwork,” says David French, senior vice president of government relations at trade group National Retail Federation.

But many small-business owners don’t want the same kind of “Band-Aid,” as they describe it, that the CARES Act placed on their businesses’ bleeding gashes. For many of them, something more long-term is essential to seeing their businesses through the indefinite period of time the pandemic will affect them.

“We need a commitment for the duration, not just a small stint, so that we have the confidence to move forward and plan, which is so much a part of running a small business,” says Sara Conklin, the founder of Glasserie, a restaurant in Brooklyn. Conklin’s business got a PPP loan, having seen revenues drop roughly 50% during the pandemic, but with winter coming, she’s nervous. That extra aid is perhaps especially crucial for businesses in the hospitality and retail industries who have been among the hardest hit by shutdowns, representatives for the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation tell Fortune.

Public policy think tanks like the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) have advocated for long-term, low interest loans (the group has suggested 20- to 30-year terms at fixed interest rates at around 0% to 1%) to give small-business owners more than just a few months of support, the group’s president and CEO John Lettieri said on a recent press call.

That longer-term support may be key, because, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife’s new poll, more than half (55%) of small businesses said it would still be “six months to a year” for business in the U.S. to get back to normal.

But longer-term support needs to look a bit different for Black-owned small businesses, argues Ron Busby, the president and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers. Black-owned businesses were some of the hardest-hit by the pandemic, with a more than 40% drop in active Black business owners early in the pandemic. With those businesses closed, “we don’t want loans,” Busby says. That’s why he suggests Black business owners need “money for startups, money for start-over firms, and that’s what the PPP and other programs have left out of the conversation.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber’s vice president of small-business policy Tom Sullivan points out (per the group’s newest survey) that one-third of small businesses actually report plans to increase investment in 2021, noting that “if they’re going to be putting their money where their optimism is, they want 2021 to be pretty darn good, and their elected leaders are the ones who are going to either make or break that environment.”

While the economy ranked as the top election issue “by far” based on the U.S. Chamber–MetLife poll, most of the trade and policy groups (as well as small-business owners) that spoke with Fortune did not view stimulus or economic aid as a partisan issue. But if a fresh stimulus doesn’t get passed before the election, the U.S. Chamber’s Sullivan believes small-business owners may well punish the incumbent in the polls.

Second-tier concerns: Health care, taxes

Yet as in any other election year, small businesses are always concerned with a few key issues: health care costs and taxes chief among them.

Every four years, the NFIB releases a Problems and Priorities survey of small businesses—and this year, like most others, the cost of health care (ranked No. 1 overall and by industry) and taxes (ranked No. 3 overall) topped the list. That’s also what the U.S. Chamber–MetLife survey found, with taxes (27%) and health care (25%) as top areas of focus for the election this year behind the economy.

For David and Dawn Replogle of Resolution Group Inc., a civil engineering and construction consulting firm founded by partners including David and based in Indiana, health care was an unexpectedly big charge in 2020. “We had a [28%] increase this year. It was huge, it was a big hit,” Dawn says. “I don’t think that was normal. I think 15% was more normal, but 15% cost increase just on health care, one line item, that’s a big chunk of our budget every year.” Their business goes through the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Trust for their 23 employees’ health care (“It’s kind of our only option right now”), and the Replogles say they want more options for plans for smaller businesses.

“I think there is a desire to see a little bit more from both campaigns, to see what their policies and plans would be and perhaps a little bit less about personality,” NFIB’s Kuhlman suggests.

In terms of those plans, former Vice President Joe Biden says he will uphold and build upon the Affordable Care Act passed by his White House counterpart President Barack Obama. (Kuhlman, for one, suggests the Affordable Care Act has made health care more expensive and led to declining offer rates among small businesses in the past 10 years.) Perhaps one of the bigger changes Biden has proposed may be a so-called public option, which would be a government-funded addition seeking to cut costs and offer an alternative choice for employees, which his campaign claims would relieve the burden for small businesses struggling to provide insurance. Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for the Biden campaign, told Fortune in a statement that “Biden has laid out robust and detailed plans to build the economy back better, for all of us, by fortifying small businesses as the backbone of the American economy.”

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, just announced a long-awaited health care vision (though not necessarily a comprehensive new plan) that has largely been hinged on repealing the Affordable Care Act—a longstanding promise yet to materialize—and includes executive orders to protect those with preexisting conditions (a provision already in the ACA) and intentions to prevent “surprise” billing. A representative for the Trump campaign did not comment further to Fortune about the President’s health care plan.

For businesses in his purview, “issues like joint employer or health care…are important [for] midterm and long-term planning,” says Sean Kennedy, the executive vice president for public affairs at the National Restaurant Association.

On the other side of the health care spectrum, Dr. Marianna Weiner, who owns a cosmetic dentistry practice in New York, needs the fees insurers themselves pay to increase alongside the rising costs dental offices are paying. “The rent, salary, dental supply bills are going up,” she says, not to mention the added cost of personal protective equipment (PPE). That’s adding to the burden her business is already feeling after closing for three months this spring.

Meanwhile, some small businesses also report taxes high on their list of election needs. NFIB’s Kuhlman singles out one of the provisions passed in Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the 20% pass-through business tax deduction, set to expire in 2025. Of his members, Kuhlman argues, “We would hope in the next administration…that permanency becomes a priority.”

At present, the candidates’ two tax plans vary considerably, especially regarding corporations. Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28% on “day one,” but aims to leave taxes for people earning $400,000 or less per year unchanged, and has suggested he won’t raise taxes on small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Trump, on the other hand, has said he wants to reduce capital gains taxes (Biden wants to raise them), while also having promised a “Tax Cuts 2.0” currently light on details. Without providing specifics, Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, told Fortune, “the President knows small businesses are the lifeblood of American society, and in the midst of a pandemic he is working to ensure they are able to stay afloat and prosper once again.”

With roughly a month to go before small-business votes will be tallied, owners have a lot to think about. But those like the Replogles can sum up their needs in two tidy words: “Stability. Certainty.”

More from Fortune‘s special report on what business needs from the 2020 election:

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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