Alyson Leahy, assistant director of the Wausau River District that works with business owners in that city, said some small businesses have altered their business models, such as increasing online sales, to remain financially viable during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Alyson Leahy, assistant director of the Wausau River District that works with business owners in that city, said some small businesses have altered their business models, such as increasing online sales, to remain financially viable during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Bottom Lines Hurt by Labor Shortage, Higher Costs, and Some Customers Staying Away Because COVID Cases Continue

While some Wisconsin small businesses report having rebounded to where they were before the coronavirus pandemic began nearly two years ago, many entrepreneurs say they continue to face challenges amid continuing COVID-19 infections, a labor shortage, and supply chain disruptions.

During a roundtable event Tuesday at Downtown Grocery in Wausau convened by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, small business owners from the Wausau area discussed to what degree their businesses are bouncing back from financial challenges imposed by the pandemic. 

Those owners of businesses ranging from a grocery store to a restaurant/tavern to a ginseng grower told Barnes–one of 14 Democratic candidates for the US Senate seat currently held by Republican Ron Johnson–and Rosenberg they appreciate federal and state coronavirus relief funding. Some said they would not still be in business without it. 

But struggles for many small businesses continue, they said, despite what they deem a public perception that businesses are now doing well financially.    

“It’s not done,” Kelly Ballard, owner of Whitewater Music Hall and Brew Works in Wausau, said of the pandemic. “It’s not like (business) is just going to swing back to what it was like before the pandemic. It’s not there yet.”

Kelly Ballard, owner of Whitewater Music Hall and Brew Works in Wausau, left, discusses difficulties small businesses like hers continue to face as the coronavirus pandemic continues across Wisconsin with Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg, center, and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Ballard described difficulties obtaining federal and state coronavirus relief funds because of her company’s multi-business model. The company is a coffee house that also serves food and alcohol, hosts events, and houses nonprofit agencies.

Barnes acknowledged that differences between state and federal filing regulations for some assistance programs posed challenges for business owners. During the first round of assistance, much of the money went to large corporations already doing well financially, but the second round of aid disbursements was better managed and helped many small business owners keep their doors open, he said.  

Tyler Vogt, who owns Malarkey’s, Townies, and the Rib Mountain Tap House, said he was reluctant to accept coronavirus assistance money at first but used it to help pay for rent and to retain his employees. He said he is guardedly optimistic about a continued return to a larger customer base but isn’t sure about that as the pandemic continues. 

“I feel like things are up in the air,” he said. “I’m just waiting to see what is next.” 

The business owners described challenges finding enough employees amid a worker shortage in virtually all sectors. Higher costs of doing business also are prompting financial pressures as many businesses are not seeing as many customers as COVID-19 transmission remains high. 

One factor impacting the worker shortage is a lack of affordable child care. Barnes said he backs extending the expanded federal child tax credit approved by Congress last year that expired at the end of December. Many families used the extra money to help pay for child care costs, and without it some workers may be forced to stay home to care for their children. 

Expanding child care access “would be one of the biggest things we can do to help stabilize the economy,” Barnes said.