As Montclair businesses struggle in COVID surge, talks on solutions get going
Jan. 17: This story has been updated to include further comments from Rachel Wyman, owner of Montclair Bread Company.
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Hebba Swiss, a Montclair resident, had heard about the struggles local businesses were having this winter as coronavirus cases surged. She took to the Secret Montclair private Facebook group with an offer.
“Is your restaurant/food establishment understaffed?” she asked. “I have no idea how helpful this might be, but if you need an extra set of hands for an hour or two a day, I'll work for free.”
Maybe Swiss could set up a deli case, or roll silverware, she suggested. She’d only have a few hours she could give, but if she could be useful, she was willing.
The suggestion spurred dozens of responses. Many were grateful. Some people were upset at the idea of people offering up free labor that others might get paid to perform – though many Montclair businesses say the problem isn’t that they’re unable or unwilling pay; it’s that coronavirus cases and exposures are keeping their employees at home. Others wondered about labor law or liability issues.
But overall, one theme ran through the responses – people were supportive of local businesses, and hoping ways to help them might pan out.
Montclair’s business community made it through the early days of the pandemic, and made it through the damage caused by Ida – with some shops and restaurants closing, but many others finding ways to adapt. Now, several are struggling once again. Notices on social media about temporary closures because of coronavirus cases and exposures have become common since December, with the township seeing new daily case numbers as much as 30 to 40 times as high as in early November.
Montclair businesses have been featured in national news reports about the issue. Mike Guerriero, owner of Guerriero’s Gelato, and Rachel Wyman, owner of Montclair Bread Company, have written pieces published in Montclair Local asking for more help from local leaders.
Wyman shared a form where supporters could sign up to volunteer, after initially sharing the same piece with her email mailing list. She said about 30 people have done so. About one person a day has been pitching in to help with staff shortages.
"There is so much more than just baking that goes on behind the scenes," Wyman told Montclair Local by email. "Sometimes you just need an extra set of hands. To be honest, it's taken a little pressure off my kids, who have been essential to help me fill gaps over the last couple months. "
Members of the Township Council and leaders in the business community say they’re having frequent discussions, trying to find ways to help.
Jason Gleason, executive director of Montclair Center Business Improvement District, said some businesses need short-term workforce help. Others need access to capital. Some are struggling with supply chain shortages or access to critical goods such as food because of rising prices.”
“So, every different business sector has a different set of needs,” Gleason said. “And having a centralized source sort of aggregate what each business needs, or even what each business sector set of needs are, is necessary at the moment.”
Some of that work is being done through the small business subcommittee of Mayor Sean Spiller’s COVID-19 Task Force, he said. The same subcommittee and a Township Council committee of Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock and Councilman Peter Yacobellis were both forces behind the recent launch of LoveOurMontclair.com, a directory and spotlight for local businesses. The site was an outgrowth of an earlier campaign to promote Montclair businesses in the pandemic.
Gleason said meetings have included Wyman, as well as leaders from other business communities in the township – Zina Floyd, president of the South End Business District, and Paul Giordano, president of Uptown Montclair. Representatives of Montclair State University’s school of business have taken part as well. And Gleason said he’s met with representatives of the Watchung Plaza and Walnut-Grove business areas to further discuss next steps that might help the collective business community.
Yacobellis said members of the council’s small business committee have been meeting with business owners frequently in the last few weeks. The mayor’s task force has sent the governing body some proposals for consideration, he said in an email, but he didn’t specify what those were.
“Additionally, I’ve conveyed to county, state and federal officials the need for support in three areas,” Yacobellis wrote. “Funding, testing supplies for small business and help with synthesizing information from the CDC, FDA, OSHA, NJ Department of Health to help small businesses navigate all of the information that is out there and distill it onto a single guide.”
Yacobellis also said the council will discuss creating a director of economic development position, to focus on the challenges small businesses face.
“I think the council should consider free 15-minute parking at meters through February as a way to help,” Yacobellis wrote. “Let’s hope some federal, state or county dollars come into the picture to help us help our businesses.”
Councilman Bob Russo, in an email to Montclair Local, also advocated for finding ways to get grant dollars to Montclair businesses, citing a previous $100,000 business relief fund.
“Federal, state and county recovery dollars should continue to be directed to struggling shops like the Montclair Bread Company, and I will personally be shopping there again this weekend and urge other residents to do the same,” he said.
Wyman said Yacobellis had been to the bakery to talk about the efforts and connect Montclair Bread with the task force discussions; she mentioned Russo’s stopping by as well. She said she's been helping the task force compile lists of specific ways to help, "like rapid tests for our employees, help with parking issues and above all else, communication from the town."
"We're all operating on our own with no direction," Wyman wrote. "Councilman Yacobellis seems to be very [busy] putting out fires as they arise, but it can't make up for the fact that there's no real leadership."
Guerriero had been among the business owners who’d said he felt like local leaders hadn’t done enough – saying he’d seen few signs of them supporting businesses personally, complaining of what he described as poor communication from government, and criticizing the Township Council for continuing to charge people to park at meters that failed en masse this fall due to an issue with cellular service (drivers could still pay through an app). Most meters are now working.
He closed his Montclair shop “indefinitely” earlier this month, consolidating its staff with his still-open Caldwell location for now. He said since being interviewed for a Montclair Local story earlier this month, he’s spoken to Yacobellis, but hasn’t heard from other council members about getting help with the downtown.
“I have spoken to the BID and they are very receptive, but they can’t do anything without the town’s backing to change things," he said.
Through Montclair Mutual Aid, an organization created to facilitate neighbors helping neighbors, he’s connected with people who’d be willing to cover shifts due to staff shortages, he said. But he’s been worried the work could be too complex or that having temporary volunteers handle food might be a health code concern, so the offers haven’t panned out, he said.
For his part, Guerrero said he’s been offering pay raises and other incentives, particularly aimed at getting more long-term workers. It’s been tough to keep students working, because the stresses of school alone in the pandemic are significant, and because families pull them out of work to keep them focused on their schoolwork, he said. During the pandemic, he said, most workers have been seasonal, making it tough to keep up a well-trained staff. In addition to higher base pay, he’s been offering extra pay to employees who can close on Saturdays and over holiday weekends.
“We are trying to fill gaps in our schedule with incentives, but overall we will see an increase of over 30% in payroll, but have no choice because we need staff in store and there’s absolutely no demand or reason to work,” Guerrero said. “Over the last 10 years less and less young people carry jobs anymore.”
He said pay at the gelato shop was always above average, and described his shop as a fun place to work. But logistical and practical issues – like parking – remain a concern, he said.
“Even at $15 an hour, you need to work 2.25 hours to pay a parking ticket.”
Spiller, earlier this month, said the township is constantly reviewing options to help the business community. He cited the past $100,000 grant, work by his task force to lobby for modified outdoor dining rules, town hall meetings on seeking state and federal grants, work with the BID to secure more grants, waived permit fees for sidewalk cafes and offered, and a temporary suspension of parking restrictions in the early months of the pandemic. He said his door is open to those who want to talk about other ideas.
In response to an email message this week seeking information any any new developments to help businesses, he cited many of those same efforts, but added:
“My colleagues on the council and I will continue our efforts in this and in every regard with relation to the pandemic.”
Wyman, in her guest column, said she “threw in the towel” a few weeks ago, amid constant staff outages. She closed her doors temporarily at the start of the year but has since reopened.
This week, she elaborated on her concerns about leadership from the township. She said she's yet to meet Spiller – "The only time I saw his face was in passing as he was entering the MC Hotel to host his fundraiser. "
"It seems that the mayor and others are hanging their hats on the $100,000 in grants the town provided for small businesses," she wrote by email. "The fact is, only 100 businesses received $1,000 each two years ago. Anyone who has run a business, or even bought groceries for their family, knows how quickly that $1,000 went."
Wyman's business was among the recipients, and she said she was "incredibly grateful, don't get me wrong, it definitely helped at the time, but I don't think my kids would be happy if I didn't ever give them another birthday present because I got them what they wanted two years ago."
Gleason said he hopes the several meetings taking place can yield more concrete results. He said solutions won’t come overnight, but he is confident the talks are heading in the right direction.
For Wyman's part, she said she's working with other business owners on gift card packages for Valentine's Day.
"The #LOVEourMontclair promotions the town, the BID and the task force provide for us are great, but they need to be transitioned into real sales," she said. "I think we are making progress in the right direction by working together to get the word out."