With Washington maintaining an ongoing State of Emergency declared in March 2020 by Governor Jay Inslee and now planning to fully reopen June 30, the past year has been a mixed bag for industries such as grocery and retail. While some employers were able to navigate the ambiguous and often contradictory health guidelines issued by state agencies by temporarily relying more on online sales, others continue struggling to refill positions after record-setting unemployment.
Washington Food Industry Association (WFIA) CEO and President Tammie Hetrick told Lens that the full effects of the economic lockdown may not be known until later this year. Starting in July, unemployed workers will have to apply for jobs in order to retain benefits, while a $300 per-week unemployment benefit from the federal government is set to expire in September.
“Right now, my employers are saying they can’t even get people to apply for jobs,” she said, adding that the challenge now is whether grocers can fully open due to low staffing.
It’s a similar situation in the retail industry, as many stores spent 2020 either closed or at limited capacity. Washington Retail Association (WRA) Vice President Mark Johnson told Lens that members are experiencing a worker shortage due to a variety of issues ranging from lack of childcare to unemployment benefits outcompeting offered wages, or other employers enticing workers with better pay.
“It’s so competitive,” Johnson said.
The effect of the lockdowns on different retailers depended on their business model, with online retailers enjoying a boost in sales while physical retailers were deemed “unessential” and kept closed.
“It was the Tale of Two Cities with the initial shutdown last March,” Johnson said. “It was very difficult for a lot of them to work through and layoff their entire workforce or put them on pause for several months.”
Among those forced to temporarily close was Seattle-based furniture store Bedrooms & More. Owner Ben Garfield, who is also a WRA board member, told Lens that while the physical store was unavailable the operation resorted to increased phone and online sales after tweaking the website.
He said that while online sales are higher now compared to last year, it “never really became a huge part of what we do. It would have been neat if we could have just shifted the dollars to online … as much of an effort as we put into it, it didn’t manifest that way. There’s always online that’s willing to represent something better than it is, and it’s certainly not a game we’re going to play.”
That sentiment may be felt by many consumers. Johnson noted that as the restrictions have eased, shopping centers and outlet stores have regained popularity. Occupancy rates in shopping centers have also remained high.
“We’re seeing malls just packed now,” he said. “We think there’s a lot of pent-up demand. There’s (also) a lot of people that aren’t online shoppers.”
To many employers, the reopening comes as a relief after months of purchasing personal protection equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and masks. Additionally, businesses struggled with uncertainty as Inslee implemented his Roadmap to Recovery that placed counties in different “reopening” phases depending on COVID-19 cases in those areas. In April, Inslee pushed Pierce County back to Phase 2, a move that drew criticism from a variety of local officials.
“Pierce County being rolled back wasn’t a good thing,” Johnson said. “A number of my members have multiple locations across the state. In some counties they’re at 25 percent (capacity), other counties at 50 percent (capacity). You have to shift resources and products and personnel all over the place. We think it (reopening) can’t come soon enough.”
Hetrick said that “one of the biggest challenges we’ve had since day one hasn’t been the governor’s announcements or mandates, but the guidance we get to go with it.”
When Inslee announced masks would no longer be required for those who are fully vaccinated, Hetrick said they had to seek clarification from the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). “What does that mean for us as grocers? Nothing is as simple as it seems for us.”
She added that during the lockdowns confusion arose over how to implement Inslee’s restrictions. “L&I would tell us one thing, the Department of Health (DOH) would say something different, and the Liquor Control Board would be issuing the citation. I got them on a call together and said ‘We need to clarify this.’ I feel like we’ve been able to vet that out. When L&I makes changes, we confirm with DOH and Liquor Control to make sure they’re all on the same page.”
Garfield said that while his company experienced the same difficulties, in the end the business now employs more people than before the pandemic started. “We’ve been very fortunate. We have a good HR person who was staying on top of every announcement. As a WRA board member, I was getting really good information and support from the WRA.”
Meanwhile, other businesses in both industries struggle to stay afloat. Among them is the only grocery store in Point Roberts, owned by Ali Hayton, which is not scheduled to reopen until July. Point Roberts is accessible only by ferry or crossing through British Columbia, where the border between it and the U.S. remains closed. As a result, the grocery store has lost many of its regular customers.
“She’s not even sure if she can keep her doors open,” Hetrick said. “She has been so frustrated.”
Now, a potential issue for businesses is how to handle concerns over worker-employee interactions when vaccine status is unknown. Garfield said all workers at his business have been vaccinated and so for them, it is not an issue.
As for grocers, Hetrick said that she hasn’t heard any complaints or apprehensions. “People are so used to masks now that I think the ones who aren’t as comfortable are still wearing. People are self-regulating where they feel the most comfortable – thankfully, the governor didn’t mandate that we be the enforcers. Everybody as a society is kind of learning where their comfort zone is. We’re still going to have these horrible fights, but I get the feeling it’s getting under control.”
Moving forward, Hetrick said greater preparation is needed if businesses are going to respond better. “Let’s really start talking about this and be more prepared. We had to keep our doors open but were the last ones to get any masks and cleaning supplies. That can’t happen again. We have to be getting those PPEs as soon as possible. I do think we are more coordinated though. If we do see an uptick (in cases), I do think we’re more prepared for it now.”