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County health director, business officials talk about local COVID-19 response

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THURSTON COUNTY –– County Public Health Director Schelli Slaughter and business figures from the community gathered in a virtual meeting Thursday to discuss the resources available to local businesses responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and resources available to local businesses if the pandemic continues to worsen in the greater Olympia metro area. 

“If we continue to see concerning trends, the next thing that would happen is our health officer would consult with the secretary of health and what it would look like if we needed to dial things back,” Slaughter said during the “Declassified” virtual meeting Thursday afternoon. 

Because of rising cases statewide, Gov. Jay Inslee halted Washington’s counties from progressing into Phase 4 of the “Safe Start” plan, hoping to curb the number of confirmed cases before local jurisdictions open up even more. The growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases will keep Thurston County in Phase 3 for now, Slaughter said during the meeting. 

“I expect Thurston County and other counties in the State of Washington will continue to stay in Phase 3 for the foreseeable future,” Slaughter said. “We’re going to be in it for the long haul here.” 

Various resources exist for local businesses, according to Sean Moore, program manager at Washington Center for Women in Business (WCWB). Services like cash flow planning and other types of what Moore called “business resiliency training” are all offered through the WCWB, he said. 

“Many organizations did not have their books in order coming into this crisis,” Moore said. “They didn’t have accounting systems in place, they didn’t have charts of accounts, they hadn’t even done their taxes for 2018 yet. So part of business resiliency training is to get your house in order, and when you have those things in order, you’re much more prepared for events like this.” 

Preparing for other types of emergencies like the pandemic involves cross-training employees, using online data storage and utilizing remote communication tools, according to speakers at the meeting. There are methods of saving on payroll expenses, too. 

“Staff up in a way that employees don’t have one specific role that no one else can do,” said Kaylee Purcell, director of the Center for Business & Innovation. “Spread out those hours so you can save yourself some payroll cost and cross-train so folks can step in and take things on a little differently.”

Moving online so no one goes to the office to access company files, using online communication platforms to keep in touch and finding other ways for everyone in a company to work remotely for longer than anticipated can also be valuable for businesses as they react to staying in Phase 3 for possibly a lot longer. Because this might also affect how a company can retain long-term employees, some employers might need to take advantage of a shared work program started by TEDC. Speakers described this as a way for managers to reduce an employee’s hours while also ensuring employees get paid for full-time work. 

“If you’ve got two employees who are at 40 hours a week and you don’t have the capacity to bring them back at full-time status but you don’t want to lose them, you could reduce their hours and that kicks in for unemployment,” Purcell said. “So unemployment covers the difference for these folks. They’re still able to make wages, but they’d only be working for you part-time.”

Employers do have to keep these employees on the company’s benefits package to qualify for the EDC’s program. This allows employers to save money on payroll expenses. 

To explore more options for local businesses, visit the WCWB website or the Thurston Economic Development Council.

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