Small business owners and entrepreneurs across the state are feeling the impact of the devastating storm that ripped through the Eastern seaboard last Friday.
To connect them with the resources they need to get back in business, the Charleston Area Alliance held an informal information session on Tuesday, July 3, during which they heard from experts and representatives of federal, state and local governments on storm-related issues.
“Business will play a major role in our state’s recovery in the days and weeks ahead,” said Alliance Senior Vice President JoEllen Zacks. “Most immediately, businesses are a source for critical supplies, such as food, water and gas, desperately needed by our residents. They also provide jobs for West Virginians who now, more than ever, are counting on a paycheck to care for their loved ones. Finally, businesses generate taxes that fund vital public services.
“Getting businesses back in business to serve their communities and put people back to work is critical,” she said.
Tania Hotmer, external affairs manager with AEP, kicked off the event by updating the company’s ongoing efforts to restore electricity to the thousands without power in its service area.
Hotmer said that the company is working around the clock to ensure that all power is restored in the area. She discussed the steps the power company takes to fix the problems.
Hotmer said the state is going through a trying time and people need to help each other out. “As the days continue to come, please be good neighbors to one another other,” Hotmer said. “It’s not a time to be proud. It’s a time to think about the health and safety of yourself and your friends and neighbors.”
Charleston City Manager David Molgaard, and representatives of Senator Jay Rockefeller and Representative Shelley Moore Capito highlighted national and local efforts underway to respond to citizen and business needs.
Mychal Schutz, a partner with Dinsmore & Shohl, and Frank Baer III with Commercial Insurance outlined the important liability and insurance issues arising out of a storm of this magnitude.
Their number one piece of advice? Get a copy of your insurance policy to see what is covered.
“It may seem basic, ” Schulz said. “But at least you know what is covered.”
An outline of Schulz’s presentation can be found HERE.
Eric Kinder, an employment law attorney with Spilman Thomas & Battle, highlighted payroll and other personnel issues that may result from the storm.
Kinder said businesses are not obligated to pay hourly employees while their businesses are closed; exempt salaried workers, however, may be entitled to compensation. He urged business owners to reach out to their lawyers or other experts for guidance.
Kinder also emphasized that businesses are required by law to pay workers on their regularly scheduled payday even if their computers are down or business is closed. People are counting on that money, he said, adding that federal and state authorities are swift to penalize businesses who miss payroll.
When it comes to absences, Kinder said that “this is not the time to be a stickler on exactly the way employment policies are written, especially as it relates to leave, absenteeism and tardiness. If they are addressing a crisis at their home, don’t have power or the have a family member who needs medical attention, give them the time off.”
Yesterday is not too early to respond to technical and IT issues, said John Calvert of Advanced Technical Solutions. “Delay is the deadliest form of denial.”
He urged businesses to learn from this experience and put together a strategy to protect computer and other assets today.
Tim Gibson of Merrill Lynch also expressed urgency about banking and financial concerns. He said businesses should call vendors and others to whom money is owed to update them on the situation and work out payment options if necessary.
“Don’t ruin your credit over this this,” Gibson said.
He also advised business owners to reach out to their bankers and third party payroll administrators. If you know you’re going to have a problem with Friday’s payroll, don’t wait to Friday to ask for help.
Matthew Sutton with Charles Ryan Associates reminded attendees that the public and employees will long remember how businesses treated them during the disaster. There are companies in Louisiana that still are experiencing public backlash from actions they took during Hurricane Katrina, he said.
Sutton said that crisis communication is founded on a simple principle: tell the truth. This is a small state and community, and word will get around fast if you are not upfront with your employees and customers, Sutton said, He also urged business people to monitor social media outlets to track discussion about their companies and respond to false information or baseless rumors that may be in circulation.
West Virginia Small Business Development Director Kristina Oliver reminded attendees that they are not alone and provided contact information for businesses that need advice.
Although most of the discussion was serious concerns, speaker brought about some positive news.
Charleston City Manager David Molgaard said the city is still hosting Fourth of July celebrations tonight starting at 8 p.m. at Haddad Riverfront Park.
“Come down if you want to relieve yourself of the stress that your feeling,” Molgaard said. “We have got a good program for you this evening.”
In the wake of the storm, news broke today that the state’s two food banks have run out of food. This has created a severe situation in the state.
Monetary contributions can also may be mailed to:
WV Volunteer Foodbank
710 Central Ave.
Charleston, WV 25302
For a Disaster Disaster Recovery and Assistance guide from the WV Small Business Development Center (WVSBDC), please click HERE. For other helpful links from the WVSBDC, please click HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.
Also, you can find a Resource Guide, which contains helpful phone numbers for emergency and non-emergency related issues HERE.