Dispatches from a Pandemic: The owner of this small business pleads for help — and explains why disaster loans aren’t the answer

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On Monday, Philadelphia required all “nonessential” businesses to close. That included my business, The Monster Minders, Philly’s largest professional dog-walking service.

I watched our only source of family income vanish in a matter of hours. Overnight, 20 of my employees watched their jobs disappear indefinitely.

We fully support the science behind social distancing. However there is no “work from home” option for dog walkers — and the millions of workers in the restaurant, service, event logistics, nonessential retail, gyms, salons, and child-care industries. While everyone else is complaining about difficulties of working from home, we (and our employees) are wondering if we’re going to have enough money to pay our rents or mortgages.

Normally, we’re in hundreds of homes each day, caring for our clients’ best friends. In our 15-year history, we have completed over half a million dog walks. Nearly all of our revenue goes to payroll. Our walkers — all employees with benefits, not independent contractors in the gig economy — start at $18 for an hour visit and more than $10 for a half-hour visit.

On Monday night our operating revenue dropped to nothing. We have a few amazing clients who have offered to keep paying for walks for a while, but how long with that generosity last?

We will be paying employees their accrued time off over the next two weeks, but after that, what are we as business owners to do? Pay our workers? How? Service industry companies can’t generate revenue when we can’t provide services.

I haven’t yet laid off any workers. I’m still trying to figure out the best option so that we can restart as soon as the city lets us and not lose our staff.

But if this goes on for months, it will decimate our business. Like any high-touch service company, we are as much a recruiting company as we are a service company. After all, we can only walk dogs at scale if we have dog walkers to do so. Our clients love our employees, and our business model is our compassionate and experienced walkers. To lose them would be nothing short of devastation.

‘That is not sound business advice’

So far we have seen little in the way of practical help for small businesses and their employees beyond “tell your employees to apply for unemployment and you take out a low-interest disaster loan.”

Honestly, taking out a loan is a risk we are not comfortable taking. We have no idea what sort of landscape we will return to when this is all over. Will we come back to 90% of our previous business if this ends in two months? If this goes on for four months, will 50% of our clients be laid off themselves and unable to rehire us? If this goes for a year, will we have any clients or employees left? Will we have to start from scratch with nothing but our reputation?

Two weeks ago, a bank would not underwrite a loan without a clear business plan. Right now, none of us can do any sort of business forecasting for what our revenue is going to look after this Covid-19 pandemic recedes, but we’re being told to take out loans. That is not sound business advice. It’s the government passing the buck to the very job creators that employ millions of Americans.

How can we comfortably take out a loan without knowing when we’ll be able to generate the revenue needed to repay the loan? Will it be three months before we can jump-start services? Will we lift restrictions in May only to be hit with a second wave of virus outbreaks and be forced to cease operations again? Will we need to take out a second loan if that happens? Will we have to wait for a vaccine for any sort of normalcy? I fear it could take years to get our business back to where it was.

Business owners do not qualify for unemployment

The small businesses of America need to be bailed out. We won’t be doing stock buybacks (ahem, airlines) or generous bonus packages for executives (ahem, Wall Street). A cash infusion would allow me to give my fabulous team of employees (and myself) a paycheck while services are on pause indefinitely.

The Senate’s proposed relief package would let businesses with fewer than 500 employees apply for loans to help cover payroll, salaries, rent and more, and that those who keep their payroll levels from March 1 to June 30 could have any of the money used to pay pre-existing debt and payroll costs forgiven. I’m watching this development closely and I hope the government can come to an agreement on a package that works for the realities we are facing. We cannot risk more than we already are at such an uncertain time.

Business owners do not qualify for unemployment, and we are at risk of losing our home, all of our savings and our retirement. Small businesses and their workers are being asked to sacrifice everything for the greater good and we’re willing to do so because lives are at risk. But we need support.

Entrepreneurs are brave. We risk everything for a dream we believe in. To make our dreams a reality we often put all of our eggs in one basket. We are resilient and face challenges regularly, but this is unlike anything we have ever dealt with. While we can pivot, the devastation has been so immediate and so complete for many companies that it would require tearing down the very fabric of our business model to start something new. And just over half of us say our businesses won’t survive beyond the next three months, according to this survey.

Service industry companies, child-care providers, retail stores, restaurants and event logistics companies are the forefront of the initial devastation. But trust me that we won’t be the only ones hit. There will be second and third waves of devastation as marketing companies watch their clients (like us) slash their marketing budgets. As the manufacturing industries take a hit, all the companies that support them will start to feel the effects too. As companies like ours pull back from nonessential vendors, they, too, will watch their revenue plummet and be forced to cut costs. It will ripple throughout the entire economy.

The only difference between the millions of small businesses of America and the airlines is that we don’t have lobbyists on our side. Collectively small businesses, like ours, employ nearly 50% of the American workforce. How great is that risk?

We need immediate support so I can pay my fantastic employees and we can be poised to immediately jump back into action as soon as these restrictions are lifted. Allow me to care for my employee’s lives in the only way I can right now — with a consistent paycheck and the promise of a future job. It’s really that simple.

Carrie Ruddell Maria is the owner, founder and CEO of The Monster Minders in Philadelphia.

Now read: A small business struggles to open amid the coronavirus pandemic — ‘we have to focus on what’s in front of us’

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