At least two small business owners in Decatur say the federal government's expanded unemployment benefits have become counterproductive, but an advocacy group said there are Alabama residents who need the extra money as Congress debates an extension of the program.
Mark Whitt, owner of three Whitt’s barbecue restaurants in Decatur and Caddo, said the additional $600 weekly that unemployed workers have been receiving from the federal government is detrimental to small businesses like his because it reduces the incentive to work.
He said because of a shortage of workers he was forced to temporarily close his restaurant on Spring Avenue Southwest. He said he had workers leave and not come back to work after one of his employees was asymptomatic but tested positive for COVID-19. He said some people are working a short time and quit showing up.
“People come to work four or five hours and then disappear,” he said. “They can draw more money from the federal government not working than I can pay them working. We’re advertising for workers, but no one wants to show up for work. There’s no incentive to work.
“I feel the $600 extra was good for a short time, but it’s time to stop it.”
Unemployed workers in Alabama have been receiving the weekly $600 federal benefit, approved under the CARES Act, in addition to $275 in state benefits, but the federal program expires Friday. Congress is negotiating a new package of aid related to hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with House Democrats wanting to extend the current expanded unemployment benefit and Senate Republicans wanting to reduce it.
Alabama Arise, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income Alabamians, is urging Congress to extend the weekly $600 federal supplement.
“We don’t want to see a sunset on this provision based on an arbitrary time limit,” said Alabama Arise Policy Analyst Dev Wakeley. “If the $600 supplement is taken off the table, there are about 350,000 Alabama renters pressured to make ends meet who could be evicted.” He said that will lead to homelessness and despair in the state.
Wakeley said Congress needs to offer a comprehensive plan that will help small businesses stay open during these times.
“A small business shouldn’t have to close its doors and business, and individuals should not be financially stressed because of a pandemic,” he said.
Paid 'not to work'
Whitt said cashiers at the restaurants’ drive-thru windows start at $8 an hour.
“We have about five people cooking and cutting at the Spring Avenue location for the other two restaurants,” he said. “We’d be open tomorrow if we can get the help. We just can’t get people to show up for work. People are afraid to work and get paid more not to work.”
He has a target date of early September to reopen the Spring Avenue restaurant, which has been there since 1976. He said he needs 13 workers to get through the day at that restaurant.
He said his overall business is down 25% to 30% because of the pandemic and its effects.
His restaurant is not alone. Across north Alabama fast-food restaurants and small businesses have help wanted signs on their doors.
At Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q on Sixth Avenue Southeast, General Manager Paul Collins said the shortage of workers has his dining room closed.
“When the government is paying you $600 a week because of COVID-19 and then $275 a week in unemployment, why would anybody want to work a job?” Collins said. “We don’t have the staff we need to open the dining room.”
He said another factor is the lack of work-release inmates available because of pandemic precautions. He said they have been an integral part of the staff.
He said business is down between 40% and 60% at times.
Enrique Salcido, owner of Las Vias Mexican Restaurant on Sixth Avenue Southeast in Decatur, said his business has been lucky to avoid layoffs but he did cut staff hours from March 20 to May 11 when Gov. Kay Ivey and state health officials ordered restaurant dining rooms closed and only to-go orders could be filled.
“We’re a family business, too,” he said. “In March, when dining in was ordered closed, we didn’t lay anybody off, we just alternated our staff’s hours.”
He said his full-time staffers were cut from 20 to 10. “We haven’t had any problems keeping workers,” Salcido said. “Our staff has been loyal."
He said business is down about 25% to 30% this time of year. "Maybe people are afraid to get out," he added.
Not taking handout
A local car saleswoman said she was selling furniture in Madison when nonessential businesses were ordered closed in March.
Alexis Calvert of Decatur said she was thankful for the $600 federal benefit in addition to her weekly $275 state unemployment, but she is wary some people are taking advantage of the federal program.
Calvert said she collected the $875 a week for about a month until Hyundai of Decatur called her for a job. A couple of weeks later the furniture store asked her to return.
“While on unemployment, I could have stayed home and made more not working, but that’s not right. I don’t like that people are turning down jobs and making money staying at home doing nothing," she said.
She said the program allowed her to pay her bills because she was laid off due to the pandemic.
“I’m glad the program was offered when I was not working,” she said. “It was a great plan, but people do abuse it. Now just about everything is back open, and I believe people should go back to work.”
Alabama Arise's Wakeley said the U.S. Department of Labor is working to get people off the unemployment rolls, including those believed to be cheating the system. He said some cancer survivors and those who have diabetes could be in danger being back in a workplace during the pandemic.
“People shouldn’t have to go back to work if their lives are at risk,” he said.