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By Mary Alice Murphy

Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce Steve Chavira introduced Rob Black, New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry president and chief executive officer, as featured speaker at the chamber virtual meeting on July 29, 2020.

Black noted that NMACI is a statewide business advocate and serves as the statewide Chambers of Commerce executive association.

"We make sure we're representing businesses across the state," Black said. "We represent the state as the Chamber of Commerce. My priority for my so far two years as president and CEO has been to serve the local chambers across New Mexico."

He said he worked hard to get a package of funding for small businesses. "We were concerned about having enough votes to pass it during the special session, but when the vote came, the representatives only gave six negative votes in the House after the local chambers worked with their representatives. We've facilitated the distribution of thousands of masks to our local chambers. We've hosted statewide calls on the payment protection plan. Our focus has been to identify resources available. I reached out to local chambers when the governor closed all telephone stores. With people not going to work, if your mobile phone breaks during a pandemic, what are you going to do? The emergency health order set hotel occupancy at 25 percent. Many workers in the Permian Basin are living in hotels. That order would have made many homeless. We work with the federal congressional delegation. I also work with different states' chamber executives. We meet once a week. We've been proactive on what we would like to see in the next stimulus round. We would like to get your feedback."

"What we want is liability protection for schools, for first responder and health care resources and businesses. It is included in the Senate Bill, but not in the House Bill. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small said she would support it if it included requiring the business follow COVID-safe practices. We want a second round of PPP, and we want to streamline the way to get the loan waived. If a person is laid off, what is going to happen with unemployment insurance? With our formula staying the same for a year and a half, after that, we don't know. The state is applying to borrow $400 million to help businesses, so business employment insurance is likely to go up, as much as 10 percent."

He said his office continues to work with the governor's office on a daily basis, if not more often, on a variety of issues. "We are talking about how to deal with unemployment insurance, around border issues, people going on vacation and the 14-day quarantine. We are trying to clarify who will pay and if the employer will pay. We are working with Workforce Solutions. The employers have to pay sick leave, but they can get it back at the end of the quarter. We hope to get the governor to change paying for the quarantine time if a person goes for recreational purposes, the business won't have to pay for quarantine. If it's for a business reason, then the business will pay for quarantine time. But we have to figure out how to work that out."

Chamber Board Member Bruce Ashburn asked how all this affects non-profits.

"Even if it's a non-profit, under the CARES Act 2, the employer is required to pay up to 80 hours of sick leave a year," Black replied. "I think maybe they can monetize it as a tax credit and wait to get it at the end of the quarter. The Family Medical Leave Act allows people to take unpaid leave for up to three months."

Chamber member Priscilla Lucero, Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments executive director, said the issues she's been seeing include people not understanding how to get unemployment benefits, "and that when they are asked to go back, they have to go back. If they don't understand it all, they all end up with bad feelings. Some people also have trouble understanding that if they are a one-person business, they can qualify for help."

She said those on unemployment may have also lost their medical insurance, so medical services are at risk, especially if they get sick with the virus. "Not until you're in it, do you understand it. If you choose to go out of town on vacation, it's your responsibility to quarantine when you return. But if you test positive, you get paid for quarantining."

Chavira said he is seeing a big divide between people, those who really want the businesses to reopen, and those that don't want them to reopen, because they are frightened.

Board member Jeannie Mitchell said she has had problems with her employees. "Several do not want to come back to work or they only want to work for 16 hours a week. I'm taking every precaution at the motels, with masks and gloves and proper sanitizing products. I terminated one employee, but he somehow managed to get unemployment. We are at 50 percent capacity, and cases in the county are not declining. I'm having to cut hours again, which means I'm working more. It's very challenging. Can we just uninstall 2020?"

Chavira said he had had a couple of business owners tell him their employees are angry because they wanted to reopen. "There is so much uncertainty in the environment, we can't plan."

Black said restaurants are a case in point. "They got permission to reopen partially, ordered supplies and food and then got closed again. The food spoiled. It's challenging when the rules keep changing. We raised the issue with Torres Small. I will continue to convey to her that unemployment is the real issue."

He said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is doing a tracking poll every two weeks. "In May and early June, we saw people ready to go back to work. Since July, those numbers have nosedived. We are seeing people being more fearful."

Kieran Holloway of T-Mobile, which is about to open a new outlet in Grant County, said: "We're trying to stay as supportive of the community as we can. We want to see how we can help."

Chavira began his regular meeting report. "The last time we had our meeting, we were talking about the virtual Fourth of July parade."

Black asked if he could speak and said: "That's another issue we are working on – better internet connectivity."

Ashburn said PNM has been a great supporter of NMACI. "Two areas I'm concerned about are the micro-businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The government is not getting the information to them. I am also concerned about the restaurants. The governor cannot keep changing things. It takes capital to buy food and it has expiration dates. We need a consistent message."

Black used a metaphor to say: "Coronavirus is like building a plane while you're flying it. The governor received a $50 million grant for small businesses. It's unfortunate that it has taken so long to get to the businesses. By Aug. 7, a business has to put forward an application to the state to offset its COVID-19 expenses. You need to identify the businesses to get the monies to the most impacted. It's a loan program that will roll out next week. You can take the money and pay down other debt, and then pay this loan back. It's about trying to get information out to folks. Work with Steve or call me."

Chavira returned to his report and said. "The virtual parade was 36 minutes long and has had 1.600 visits. The creativity in the community was fantastic. I thank Curtis (Clough, Silver Schools associate superintendent) and the schools for their help and the Silver City Museum for the place to park the virtual parade. It will continue next year, as we already have ideas for it."

Board President Sabrina Pack advised those on the call to call Chavira or one of the board members "if you have needs and concerns."

When Clough was asked what the news is on the schools' reopening, he replied: "The way it feels is that the rules change every 30 minutes. Our plan right now is that we will go online at first but will be ramping up to reopen the schools sometime after Labor Day. My biggest announcement is that we have just changed the parent communication system to Parent Square. We may be able to announce out to the community, too, and use the platform with businesses." He confirmed that Lesliette and Laura had gone above and beyond for the virtual parade. They did an excellent job. We'll keep you informed on the schools."

With no other announcements, the meeting adjourned. 

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