Remarks By Vice President Harris In A Conversation With Small Business Owners And Frontline Workers
MS. ROMANATTI: So, welcome. Thanks for coming to Old Town. We consider ourselves to be the — the capital of small business community within —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. ROMANATTI: — within the D.C. Metro area.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, of course. Of course.
MS. ROMANATTI: We are a boutique yarn shop. So we sell yarn to knitters, crocheters, weavers, and spinners. We really specialize in small boutique stuff that you can’t find anywhere else. I’ve got yarns in the store you can’t find anywhere else in the country.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe that.
MS. ROMANATTI: And amazing —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I mean, look at —
MS. ROMANATTI: — local dyers.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah — oh, really?
MS. ROMANATTI: Yeah, she actually has a color named after you. I’ll show it to you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh! Okay! (Laughter.)
MS. ROMANATTI: (Inaudible.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Uh-huh. I’d like to see what that color is. Okay. (Laughs.)
MS. ROMANATTI: So we really — part of our business community building, so our classes our workshops and our “knitting help bar” — similar to an Apple Bar — where people can come in and get their —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Nice.
MS. ROMANATTI: — stiches picked up. And obviously, all of that all of that sort of changed last spring. So we’ll talk a bit more about that when you hear from my staff. So I guess I’ll pass it back to you to tee off the conversation so you can hear from us.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, let me say I’m so happy to be here. I’ve read about your business and what you do. I mean, it is the story of small businesses — right? — which is, it’s about a skill, it’s about a gift, it’s about a passion. And then it’s about sharing that with community, and doing it in a way that you bring the community in.
I know about how you host events. It’s — well, pre-COVID —
MS. ROMANATTI: Pre-COVID, yeah.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And it’s — this is the thing about small businesses, which is you really are part of the (inaudible) — part of the fabric of a community. Right?
MS. ROMANATTI: Yes. Yep.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But it’s part of the culture of the community. It’s a — it’s a gathering place. It’s a meeting place. And our small business owners are, really, not only business leaders but civic leaders.
But I was particularly excited because, you see, I was raised by a mother who said, “I’m not going to let you sit in front of that television doing nothing.” (Laughter.) And so I have crocheted more afghans in my — let me tell you. (Laughter.)
MS. ROMANATTI: Awesome.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And our daughter is a knitter.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yep. I know. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So I was very excited to be here and to see this. And — and thank you. And why don’t — let’s hear from everyone.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yeah. Maiah, do you want to start?
MS. DAVIS: Yeah. So my name is Maiah. I was born on a naval base in Adak, Alaska. So I’m the daughter of a Gulf War veteran. And like a lot of people my age, I haven’t been able to see my family in over a year, at this point.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: And I’ve been working here at Fibre Space for over two years. And what really drew me here was the community space, of course.
I left my previous very high-stressed, high-end retail job to come here because I was really — I really fell in love with teaching. And that is — a major aspect of working here is being able to teach, being able to teach on the floor, and also being able to teach classes. So that is something that I fell in love with. And, of course, this time last year, our entire business changed.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, right.
MS. DAVIS: And so we had to pivot extremely quickly in order to just keep our heads above water. So we switched from being a massive community space, where people could just drop in and just hang out for hours, into a web-based business, which is, of course, nothing that we ever wanted to do before.
But luckily, we had, sort of, a web frame already. So we were able to do that change pretty quickly. But it really has not been easy on us and the staff. So we had to deal with a lot of burnout from staff.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: And we had to just keep dealing with just learning jobs on the fly. On days where we just had to — our jobs were just changing constantly, so we had to learn these skills very suddenly and just — just keep thinking on our feet to keep the — keep the business running. So it’s been a really tough year for us.
Instead of just opening up our doors to the community, we’ve just turned into a place where we spend over half of our day just shipping out web orders constantly, which —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I bet that also challenged you in terms of thinking about how you do online —
MS. DAVIS: Yeah.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yes —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: — the work that you’ve been doing.
MS. ROMANATTI: — we’ve very dependent on the Postal Service.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah, right. God love —
MS. ROMANATTI: Which was a challenge. (Laughs.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: God love the United States Postal Service, by the way. Right?
MS. ROMANATTI: Yes.
MS. DAVIS: Absolutely.
MS. ROMANATTI: We love our Postal man. He is wonderful.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s exactly right.
MS. ROMANATTI: He (inaudible) in every day.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Among the heroes of the moment.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yes.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yes. And it is — they’re over-taxed, so — yeah, (inaudible) customers —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I know. And they keep showing up.
MS. ROMANATTI: — have been — it’s been difficult. Yeah.
MS. DAVIS: Yeah. And so, now luckily we’re going to be open again to the public, but we’re now in the position where we’re still at the frontlines of the pandemic but have no — no prospects of getting the vaccine anytime soon, as retail workers and as service workers. So it’s still very high stress being in a — this sort of market, in this sort of position. So —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, the President announced yesterday: So, by the end of May, we will have enough vaccines for everyone. And then we just want to make sure everyone gets them, and with a sense of urgency.
Yeah. Well, thank you for — you keep coming back, though. Right?
MS. DAVIS: Yes. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You kept coming back.
MS. DAVIS: Yes.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s the thing. That’s the thing. And we’re going to get through this.
MS. DAVIS: Absolutely.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And it’s people like you who help us get through this. Right?
MS. DAVIS: Yeah, we’ve worked non-stop throughout this entire pandemic. We basically never took a day off here. So, yeah.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Maiah.
MS. DAVIS: Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Hi.
MS. KNARR: Hi, I’m Beth.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Hi, Beth.
MS. KNARR: I’m originally from Omaha, Nebraska. And I am married to a State Department employee who is a huge Warriors fan, so he wanted me to tell you, “Go Warriors!”
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, yay! Go Warriors! (Laughter.) Okay.
MS. KNARR: And I wore my (inaudible) — I knit this sweater in Warriors blue for when we watch the games together.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You’re kidding me. I got a — I got a jersey from Curry. (Laughs.)
MS. KNARR: Amazing.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I’ll have to show you. I’m so — and it’s “49.” I’m like, “That’s not his number.” And then I realized it was my number. (Laughter.)
MS. KNARR: Yeah, so I’m a full-time yarnista. I’ve been here since October 2019. So I was just getting on my feet in the store when COVID came around, and I’m a fifth-generation knitter, because I also come from a nice Midwestern family that does not let you sit in front of the TV without being productive.
I’m also the mom to a very sweet, very high-energy, almost three-year-old.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, boy.
MS. KNARR: So when the pandemic started, he had just started at a new daycare that promptly had to shut down. And the reason he’s in daycare is I work here full time, my husband works full time as well. We need daycare to be able to have our full-time jobs, and I need a full-time job to be able to pay for daycare in this area. And so when his daycare shut down, we had to come together as a family to figure out who’s going to do this childcare role.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.
MS. KNARR: And I’m very fortunate that my mom made the sacrifice, like so many moms have made throughout history, that my mom took a hiatus from her job so that she can provide full-time childcare and I could still come to work.
And so then, because Danielle was able to get support from the government to keep our business open, to keep paying employees —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That was the PPP — yeah.
MS. KNARR: — to keep us open. Even as we were shut down to — even as retail was shut down, we were able to continue to pay my son’s preschool tuition that we were not using because we didn’t want to put — all of his teachers are women with families —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. KNARR: We didn’t want them to leave work either. So because we were still getting paid, we were able to be sure that they were still getting paid. And when money is invested in small businesses in a community like this, it stays in this community, and it helps the full community during times of crisis.
And now that we’re back open to the public, my mom is living with us. She’s no longer helping out with childcare as much; she’s just, you know, enjoying being grandma again. But we’re very much, as Maiah said, on the frontline of this. We deal with people every day, and we love dealing with people. It’s why we got into this business. But it is very terrifying to think I could be the one that brings this home to my family, to my mom —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.
MS. KNARR: — who is over 65; to my son, who is just about to turn three and have his second pandemic birthday. We’re not having a party (inaudible).
So we’re very excited about the news about the vaccine because we want to be here. We want to help people. We have being seeing a lot of new knitters during this pandemic because we’re at home doing things. It’s a great stress relief.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Inaudible.) Yeah. Yeah. It’s also therapeutic. Yeah. And you create. You create.
MS. KNARR: And so — yeah.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. KNARR: And so we’re here to help, but we all have families that we go home to, too. So if we can all work together to keep our communities safe and can keep our communities viable through these small businesses, it’s very much appreciated by my one little family and by lots of families beyond that are touched by it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You know, Beth, you’re — I did a meeting last night with a bunch of members of Congress. And the way — it’s exactly what you are talking about in your story. There’s a — there’s a — there’s a really, I think, fantastic circle of connection. And that goes to a working woman — right? — so, women in workforce. And if she is a mom, requires for her to go to work every day, childcare. So then, when we talk about childcare, there are two points: availability and affordability. Both points you made.
And then if we’re talking about childcare, we have to talk about childcare workers. Your point, also. And are they being paid and valued for what they do? And then, interestingly enough, a lot of women-owned businesses are childcare.
MS. KNARR: Yes.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So it gets to — right? So it gets to women-owned businesses, which of course gets to the support of small businesses. It’s a — you just outlined it with your one story in such a beautiful way, like all the dimensions of you coming to work, and coming to work in a women-owned business that probably also serves a lot of the women in the community.
MS. KNARR: Yep.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Like, it’s just a really interesting ecosystem when you think of it that way, which you just outlined so beautifully. Yeah. Thank you.
MS. POTTS: Good afternoon, Madam Vice President. I’m Maurisa Potts. I own a small boutique marketing communications firm here in Old Town called Spotted MP. And I serve women-owned businesses, like Danielle, and sharing their communication and their stories that have been going on. And I’ve been with Danielle since she’s opened the store a decade ago.
But when you touch on women-owned businesses, I — it hits, really, home. I’m also a mom to a 12-year-old son, I’m a wife, and I’m running my own small business here in Old Town, as you know, as a black-owned business owner.
But during this time, a majority of the women are — a majority of the businesses in this town are women owned. And during this past year, I have been on the ground and assisting these women-owned businesses with telling their stories of their impact and the challenges and the innovation, as well, that has been happening. There’s, you know, women that, like Danielle and myself, where we have to bring our kids in to work —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.
MS. POTTS: — while we’re trying to make (inaudible) —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Where is she? Where is she?
MS. POTTS: We’ll get her in a minute. She’s with Maddie.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Maddie! (Laughter.)
MS. POTTS: She’s so nervous.
Yeah, so there’s, you know, so many women here that have to — are forced to bring their kids into work just to try to make a sale.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. That’s right. Right.
MS. POTTS: — to just having to close a business on a day — off day because they don’t have child — childcare, or just having to make deliveries — you know, online deliveries, you know, to their customers with their kids in their car.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right. Right.
MS. POTTS: I mean, this is just examples of what some of these women-owned businesses here in Alexandria have — are having to face. And the seat that I have to sit in to communicate these challenges and even help with these women businesses to try to work together.
But, you know, community is so important. And I know as a woman-owned business owner, we thrive off of that. And the — the — to be inside retail and create those events and those safe spaces where we build community is what we’re all about here as women-owned businesses.
And so just having an online presence is just not an option because, you know, it’s our livelihood that we have to have for the vitality to thrive, because it’s been extremely challenging here — for the women here that own — run the businesses.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You know, it’s interesting: I — I have traveled, especially before COVID, a lot around the country, and — but women-owned small businesses around the country are describing exactly the same thing.
There was — there’s a group of sisters that, for example, they have a juice bar in — but all over the country, anyway — and just that: no childcare because of COVID, and bringing their kids in to work. And it might be a storage room, it might be the back room, and then setting them up with a laptop because you got to just make everything work and, to your point, be innovative. But it really does also highlight how much in so-called “normal times” women are juggling. And — and it might be their children. It might be that they’re in what we call that “sandwich” situation — right? — generation where it’s their parents and their children. And it’s a lot. It’s a lot.
You know, we — so, we are — it got voted out of the House, and we’re now hoping that the Senate passes our American Rescue Plan. And a lot of it — and the way the President and I think about it — is that we have to understand who, to your point, are the folks who have been sacrificing so much on the frontlines and really are part of not only the economic engine, but, to your point, the vitality of community.
And so we have, for example, as part of the American Rescue Plan, $15 billion that goes just into small businesses. We’ve been paying a lot of attention to the fact that, during COVID, two and a half million women have left the workforce. And we are afraid almost maybe some of them permanently, until we work all this stuff out, right? That’s why we’re also pushing for the $1,400 relief check.
But it’s also about — to the point of everybody’s story — seeing how this pandemic has really highlighted the fissures and the failures of the system even before. Right? When we don’t have a system that says everybody should have paid sick leave, paid family, right? A system that says we should value people for the work they do, understanding if they are helping the economic engine run, because they’re taking care of the children of working people, that they should be, you know, given the value and the dignity that they deserve for what they contribute to families and to communities and to all of society.
But that’s part of what we’re doing in pushing for the American Rescue Plan.
Also, vaccinations, we know — we made an announcement yesterday — the President made an announcement: priority for educators before the end of March, and educators understanding that it’s bus drivers, and it’s the cafeteria worker, and it’s the teachers and the support staff.
But there’s a lot here. And — and part of, again, what we’re doing is we want to make sure everybody knows about the American Rescue Plan because a lot of it is about making sure that we get support to schools. And — and we also have a real attention, as a priority, to what we also need to do that is about eventually growing around universal pre-K, and so that your baby — (laughs) — can have those options.
MS. ROMANATTI: So, some of the challenges that are, kind of, benefits that we had in the spring of last year, that sort of kept us going: We did receive a PPP loan right at about the time when I needed to start laying off staff — because we were closed to the public. And that allowed me to keep everybody on board.
We also received the EIDL disaster loan, which gave us some working capital, which was wonderful.
So spring was — my daughter was obviously home from school, all of a sudden. So balancing my daughter at home, constant barrage of messages on grants to apply for and loans to apply for, and figuring out that process — because that was a whole new world.
We were also really lucky this building was purchased with an SBA 504 loan. So that — that payment was deferred for a series of months, thankfully, through that — through the SBA.
And then my bank, which is a local regional bank, also deferred our loan payments. That’s really how we stayed in business over the spring.
And then we also — the City of Alexandria took their CARES Act money and invested it in small businesses. So we received two grants from the city: one to completely overhaul my website, because our web store — there’s a lot of tiny objects in here.
So our web store was not set up to do this, so that was a huge benefit.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And they came in after March of last year?
MS. ROMANATTI: Yeah, this money came in — we received the grant in, I believe, November. We were in the second round of that grant money. We also received a second grant from the city to expand our outdoor space so that we could try to replicate that community gathering space outside where it was safe, because the lounge that once was in here, we couldn’t use. Our customers couldn’t be here.
But even with all of that, you know, retail sales — even with COVID in 2020, retail sales online — web stores — was only 20 percent of consumer spending.
So, in a small business, that’s more like 5 to 10 percent of their income. So shifting to online does not replace what happens in businesses like this, where people are here buying because they don’t need yarn; they want to have an experience. And so we really can’t get back what we lost until we can be fully open again.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And so much of your business is tactile.
MS. ROMANATTI: It’s all tactile. You have to be able to feel it and really see the colors.
So our biggest concerns right now are, obviously, safe reopening of schools, which would help customers, staff, and myself. We’re fortunate that the Campagna Center, a local nonprofit, is offering full-day childcare. It is a huge expense on our family — over $1,100 a month. But it gives my kid some normalcy. She’s with other children. And I’m able to run my business.
We are only a team of five. There’s three people here each shift, which means if we have a COVID case, my entire staff is gone. So I am working from home so that I can at least be here and get the doors open for a couple hours. But that’s a huge concern.
When the Families First Act runs out at the end of March, I am no longer covered to pay that staff. So having that extended beyond March is really crucial.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We’re fighting for that.
MS. ROMANATTI: We need to be able to pay —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We’re fighting for that.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yeah, we need to be able to pay them without it being a huge burden. Because to pay five staff members who are not here is obviously an enormous burden on our business.
So those are sort of the priorities, you know, beyond what they mentioned about vaccines as well, obviously, because we’re directly working with the public every day. Those are, kind of, the things that we’re most nervous about headed into the next few months. So —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We are all nervous about that —
MS. ROMANATTI: Yeah.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: — which is why we have to get this act passed. And it is — you know, some people say “stimulus.” No, this is literally about relief for people who need it right now. But I don’t need to tell you all that. I don’t need to tell you that.
And it is about everyone. It is about, you know, ju- — it is about working people. It is about families. It is about small-business owners, community leaders. You know, and I do think that it’s going to be interesting to see how history will talk about this moment.
But one of the things I’m certain of is that history is going to talk about the angels walking among us that maybe we didn’t see them before, but we see them now, and we will call them heroes. And it’s going to be our small-business owners. It’s going to be our working parents. It’s going to be the people who came to work every day not sure, you know, what kind of risk you were taking, but you knew you were performing a very valuable service for others. It’s going to be the Postal worker.
MS. ROMANATTI: Yeah. We love our Postal workers. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right? It’s going to be —
MS. ROMANATTI: So good to us. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. We’re going to talk about really incredible heroes, right? I like to say, you know, who — we didn’t realize, but now that we look closer, we can see they were actually wearing a cape. (Laughter.) Right?
So — well, thank you for sharing this. And this is really — it’s just — it’s wonderful. And I’ll tell you, the President and I feel so very strongly, in particular about our small businesses.
I don’t need to share with you, but for the rest of everybody, 50 percent of America’s workforce works for a small business or runs a small business.
And, you know — and it’s the place where you can go, where — you know, I’m going to sound like a commercial for a very old TV show — but where everybody knows your name. Right?
MS. ROMANATTI: Our customers are across the street (inaudible). (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah, but it’s true — where they can, kind of, you know — or if it’s the local restaurant, where they can see you had a hard day. And you don’t even have to look at the menu; they just put down in front of you what you like to eat. Right?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. It’s so much a part of the fabric of community.
So, thank you for sharing this with us.
MS. ROMANATTI: Thank you for coming.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you so very much. Thank you all. Thank you.