May 13, 2020

Multnomah County has relied on numerous partners to ensure a comprehensive response that meets the emerging economic needs of businesses and individuals in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. During a briefing to the Board of County Commissioners on May 11, representatives from several of these partners provided snapshots of how they are supporting business owners and residents through this unprecedented economic downturn.

According to County Chair Deborah Kafoury, while Multnomah County has stepped up for the community during these unprecedented times — adopting an eviction moratorium, adjusting the way they deliver their services, committing to maintaining the social safety net in next year’s proposed budget — local partners have been crucial to understanding and helping people navigate sudden financial hardships and preparing the region for its eventual economic recovery.

“These organizations have been working from the early days of the emergency to find ways small and large to soften the blow and offer a helping hand to the many people who need it,” said Chair Kafoury.

Unemployment sharply rises across state, County

Despite disruptions to daily routines, changes to how people work, or whether or not people can work at all, Oregonians who can have demonstrated a broad commitment to staying home to save lives during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Those efforts have begun to pay off locally, as the Portland metro area makes progress towards meeting the state’s benchmarks for relaxing restrictions to gradually and safely reopen.

However, these drastic life-saving measures have come at a high cost. Christian Kaylor, a Workforce Economist for the State of Oregon’s Employment Department, shared unemployment numbers that reflected the depth of our current economic crisis.

Through the seven weeks leading up to May 2, the Employment Department received 261,000 unemployment claims, which represents about 13 percent of all employment in Oregon. Certain industries were hit especially hard, Kaylor said, including food preparation and service-related jobs, where 40 percent of employees have filed for unemployment; personal care (like hair stylists and tattoo artists); production (or manufacturing); and healthcare support.

In Multnomah County, the state saw unemployment claims start to shoot up in the third and fourth week of March: from 898 claims in the week ending on March 14 to 12,091 claims in the week ending April 4, a 13-fold increase. At its height, Multnomah County represented one in every four claims in the state, though that rate has dropped to one in eight the last two weeks.

Kaylor also shared that he will be receiving more County-level data, as well as more detailed information that breaks down claims data by race and ethnicity, in the coming weeks.

Wood Village assisting community members

Wood Village Mayor Scott Harden shared that his city has been able to expand a program that provides direct relief to community members who are unable to pay their utility bills, helping them avoid utility shut-offs.

A version of this utility assistance program has been in place for over a decade, helping individuals pay their water and sewer bills. However, because of the increased financial strain during the pandemic, the program has expanded to also pay for light and gas bills. Small businesses are now also eligible for assistance, he said. The city has provided close to $10,000 in aid already.

“We are working very hard to make sure life is as normal as possible and that the things that people have been able to take for granted in the past — water, lights, gas, all of those things necessary for survival — are things they can still take for granted,” Harden said.

Understanding small businesses’ challenges 

The Board of County Commissioners also heard from several organizations working with small businesses to understand their needs while providing guidance, advocacy, resources and relief.

Raihana Ansary, the Governor's Metro Regional Solutions Coordinator for Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, shared what her program — the Oregon governor’s grassroots approach to community and economic development — was hearing from small businesses. 

A survey issued in partnership with Business Oregon, Travel Oregon and Oregon Small Business Development Center Network to small business owners captured how COVID-19 was impacting small businesses across the state. More than 69 percent of the 5,000 respondents were owners of small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The survey showed a number of sobering findings, including:

  • Uncertainty and the inability to plan are the biggest challenges facing Oregon businesses during COVID-19.

  • The next biggest challenge is a decline in sales. Forty percent of responding businesses have temporarily closed during the pandemic, while another two percent have permanently closed.

  • Decreased sales is the top-reported impact of COVID-19, with 72 percent of respondents citing lower sales. Nearly 30 percent of businesses saw revenue drop by 90 percent or more last month compared to April 2019. Revenue declined more for women- and minority-owned businesses. 

  • The next-highest impact is decreased hours for workers. Seventy percent of businesses reported that they have either closed or laid off employees, or will have to do so by July if economic conditions do not improve.

  • Only 33 percent of businesses reported having workforces that could work remotely. 

Jen Mason, President of the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce of Oregon, spoke further about the impacts of COVID-19 on the small business community, particularly those owned by people of color. While many small businesses owned by people of color in Oregon were thriving just a few months ago, the crisis has proven to be a catastrophic event.

“We foresee that many of these businesses owned by people of color will not survive. We do not believe this is an exaggeration,” said Mason. She illustrated the severity of the fallout by mentioning an independent contractor she knew whose monthly business income suddenly dropped from $15,000 to $2,000. 

Mason highlighted several barriers that people of color-owned businesses face to obtaining relief. A local city offered small business relief funds on a “first come, first serve” basis, sidelining many business owners who did not have the connections to learn about the opportunity early. Many of these businesses are also lightly banked or unbanked, leaving business owners of color without the relationships with financial institutions to navigate the challenges of and potential remedies for uncertain times.

“Many of these businesses are on the verge of failing. And while some have received assistance, we encourage future assistance to be grants rather than loans, with an equitable process that prioritizes people of color,” said Mason.

Providing small business relief

Kimberly Branam, Prosper Portland’s executive director, spoke about the economic development agency’s Portland Small Business Relief Fund, which has awarded small grants and no-interest loans to COVID-impacted businesses to provide interim relief and allow them to retain their employees. 

Prosper Portland’s commitment to using an equity lens to drive their selection process was rooted in their recognition that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, as well as individuals already experiencing poverty, are disproportionately affected by economic crises, Branam said. Without an equity lens, people of color are at real risk of being shut out of opportunities: the first round of the federal Payroll Protection Program, which did not have an equity component, showed that 75 to 95 percent fo Black-owned businesses received no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.

So far, the Portland Small Business Relief Fund has distributed 133 grants of $2,500 to single-employee businesses and 147 grants of $5,000 or $10,000 to businesses with more than one employee. Of the 280 total grants, 90 percent went to businesses owned by people of color and 61 percent were awarded to women-owned businesses. Eighteen loans have also been dispersed.

Ansary, the Regional Solutions coordinator, also shared that the Oregon Legislature, in partnership with the governor, has allocated $10 million to provide assistance to small businesses that have been adversely affected by COVID-19 and have not received federal assistance under the CARES Act or other federal emergency pandemic funding. The goal of this program is to aid small businesses with 25 or fewer employees, to reach historically underserved populations and to keep businesses operational.

Metro Regional Solutions has partnered extensively with Greater Portland, Inc. — which coordinated regional economic efforts before COVID-19, but has since pivoted to supporting community partners’ regional response efforts — to bring together stakeholders from across business sectors to inform the state’s reopening and recovery planning. 

Andrew McGough, Executive Director of Worksystems, Inc., said that his organization awarded 38 grants of up to $10,000 to help community-based organizations avoid layoffs and transition to remote work. Worksystems also purchased 350 laptops paired with free internet services for 19 organizations to distribute as needed to job seekers in need.

Preparing for a new future

McGough also spoke about how Worksystems is serving people in need of work now, as well as preparing to serve members of the workforce who will have to navigate a dramatically different employment landscape.

To best help people in need of work right now, Worksystems set up a COVID Workforce Response phone line that connects people to workforce services and resources while traditional access points like libraries and WorkSource centers are closed. 

“We have this massive network of community-based organizations that provide one-on-one case management, career counseling and navigation services, and we’re trying to figure out how we pivot those organizations to a more remote service provision alignment,” he said.

Multnomah County residents can call 503-714-5989 to find general assistance, unemployment support, information about TriMet’s low-income fare, job information, and Spanish-language assistance.

According to McGough, both workers and employers will face new challenges as the community reopens and recovers from the crisis. A post-pandemic economy will likely require new skills and services “across the spectrum from laid-off and dislocated workers,” and the need for subsidized work will increase and become an increasingly important strategy.

“As we think about what we do with people when they are unemployed and there's no work, it is often better to pay people to work than to pay them to be idle,” said McGough. “If you think of the [Works Progress Administration] and those programs that used to exist, we think it might be a strategy.”

Worksystems is laying the groundwork now to be in position to help job seekers when the time comes for the Portland metro area to reopen and recover. Key among a number of strategies, McGough said, are expanding online services and training capacity, advocating for federal, state and local investments in workforce development, including subsidized employment, training and support services; and developing a comprehensive regional economic development strategy that aligns regional workforce and economic development resources and activities