A group of Loudoun’s women business leaders joined Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) for a roundtable discussion Friday morning at Morven Park in Leesburg.
It was a timely discussion, at the tail end of Women’s History Month and also shortly after the one-year mark of COVID-19’s economic impacts. The women joining Kaine represented industries all impacted in different ways by the pandemic.
Stacey Metcalfe, who joined Morven Park as its executive director and CEO earlier this year, noted the significance of Friday morning’s meeting place—the home of Gov. Westmoreland Davis and Marguerite Inman Davis from 1903 to 1942. She pointed to the example of Marguerite Inman Davis, who served as Virginia’s first lady during the last pandemic, the 1918 Spanish flu. Inman Davis felt it was important that women around the state be engaged in war work, Metcalfe said, and she worked to sew silk bags filled with gunpowder during World War I. During both the war and the onset of the pandemic, there was, as there is now, a need for frontline workers, so Inman Davis volunteered as a nurse on the pneumonia floor of a makeshift hospital. She was also an entrepreneur, selling boxwoods from the Morven Park gardens, and she established the Westmoreland Davis Foundation to preserve the Morven Park property following her husband’s death in 1942.
“I’d like to think Marguerite Davis is so excited that we’re sitting in her ballroom today,” Metcalfe said to the other women gathered.
In beginning the discussion, Kaine acknowledged the challenges faced by just about everyone globally in the past year, and said COVID hit close to home for him as well, with both he and his wife contracting the coronavirus and two of his three adult children laid off work at some point last year.
“This has been a time where challenges have affected everyone but they haven’t affected everyone equally,” he said.
The job loss in the U.S. alone is significant, Kaine said, with 10 million fewer people working today than before the pandemic.
He pointed to Congressional successes with passed stimulus packages and the most recent round of Payroll Protection Program funding, and applauded the quick development of the COVID-19 vaccine, although he admitted vaccine rollout has been difficult. But he acknowledged that financial relief comes too late for some businesses, and not soon enough for some individuals struggling to pay bills.
But Kaine came Friday prepared to listen to his women business owner constituents, who all shared challenges from the past 12 months.
Sally Garcia, owner of Maid Brigade, noted that her cleaning service business is not something that can transition to teleworking. Garcia said she lost eight employees once schools closed last March, and has struggled to fill staffing shortages as many prospective employees are still forced to stay home to watch their children. She said she has had to turn down work and new clients because of these staffing shortages.
“We need to find a way to open schools so [the employees] can get their careers back,” she said.
Angela Mitchell, president and CEO of Leesburg-based ARM Consulting, said there have been lower than expected opportunities on federal government contracts, particularly for women-owned businesses. She said there needs to be a bigger set-aside for women-owned businesses, particularly for technology contracts, and suggested federal procurement officers look at changing that. She said the PPP loan helped her company make payroll, and she was able to retain most of her staff.
Kirsten Langhorne, owner of Langhorne Custom Homes, said her business didn’t slow down, it accelerated. However, she and other home builders have struggled with supply chain issues and staffing shortages. She compared the former issue to “a heating bubble about to burst,” and said these supply chain issues are related to both tariffs and a supply slowdown. She also spotlighted mental health issues among workers.
“I’ve seen a hit to quality and productivity at work, and I am sure that’s related to the pandemic,” she said.
Andrea Johnson of Temple Training put the focus on physical health. She said her business was able to pivot from in-person to virtual sessions, but said she saw how many people let their health take a backseat as they dealt with the stress of last year.
“When people have to prioritize their lives, fitness falls to the wayside. It’s sad when I hear gyms are shut down when people really need it,” she said.
Alice Frazier, president and CEO of Bank of Charles Town, applauded the extension of the latest round of PPP funding, and said that “will make a huge difference to businesses that really need it.” She said BCT alone has processed more than 800 PPP loans, totaling more than $80 million. She in particular pointed out how essential the relief directed to restaurants is, as they have been among the hardest hit industries, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, and also employ many people.
Tina Johnson, president and CEO of Johnson Promotions & Events, also comes from a hard hit industry, as events, meetings and festivals were canceled last year. She shared that her business went from 13 full-time employees and 23 temporary staff members down to five.
“It’s been really tough,” she said.
Morven Park was also impacted by the all but elimination of events in 2020, Metcalfe said. While the grounds stayed open to encourage area residents to get fresh air and enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic, the property’s staple polo events, festivals and weddings had to be canceled. Metcalfe said the organization got creative and offered elopement packages for weddings, with options for 10-person indoor or 25-person outdoor weddings.
The business leaders gave Kaine several suggestions of areas to look for improvements. Mitchell suggested taking a look at the reimbursement rate for telehealth doctor visits. Those rates increased during the pandemic, but were so low pre-pandemic that most health practitioners did not get into the practice of offering telehealth appointments. Mitchell said telehealth options were essential in reaching patients in “transportation deserts” as well as disenfranchised communities.
Focusing on programs and funding for mental health, and reopening schools were also echoed throughout the forum. On schools, Kaine pointed to the funding directed for schools in the American Rescue Plan. He said many jurisdictions may be able to use some of that funding for expanded summer school programs in 2021 and 2022. Reopening schools will help employees get back to work and many businesses able to more fully move forward, he said.
Kaine posited that expanded summer school could prompt an important study on whether localities should explore moving towards year-round schooling, a practice employed by about 10% of public schools nationwide.
“Maybe like with telehealth we don’t want to go back the old way,” he said.
The group also discussed a minimum wage hike. Mitchell said considerations need to be made for businesses dealing with the impacts of an increase to the minimum wage, and suggested either a tax credit or funding to assist them.
Kaine said there are still many questions to be answered on the minimum wage hike, including whether there should be regional variations. He expressed support for a minimum wage increase, which would be the first since 2006, and said he believes there is consensus to be found in the House and Senate.
Friday morning’s discussion began a day of touring Loudoun for Kaine, who visited several women-owned businesses throughout the county, including Temple Training in Leesburg, Catoctin Creek Distilling in Purcellville, and Mom’s Apple Pie in Round Hill.