Indian-American businesses among highest suffering sectors of economy see some hope in $2.2 trillion relief package

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The once vibrant Jackson Heights neighborhood with its scores of Indian stores operated and where festivals and celebratory events were held on a regular basis looked like this when thousands attended the July 13, 2019 Chatpati Mela organized by Chhaya Community Development Corporation, in Jackson Heights, Queens. (Photo: courtesy Chhaya CDC). Today the picture is starkly different.

Indian-American businesses dominate the sectors worst hit by the corona virus as it spreads its tentacles around the United States. From hotel-motel owners to restaurants and trucking companies, beauty salons, and smaller sectors like wedding planners and all the related suppliers, and even parts of healthcare such as chiropractors and physical therapists, are suffering the dire consequences of this pandemic.

Having to shut down for more than two weeks already, and looking ahead to another four weeks of desolate stores and vacant business properties, they see their future as bleak …  but not for long.

They see a ray of hope in the $2.2 trillion relief package announced by the Trump administration, allocating some $350 billion to companies with less than 500 employees through the Small Business Administration.

For more information on the details relating to businesses employing less than 500 people, visit the Small Business Administration website sba.gov. (https://www.sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources)

Stock photo Dreamstime: Mithaas, an Indian restaurant on Oak Tree Road in Edison/Iselin in New Jersey.

Indian-Americans are estimated to dominated some 50 percent of the hospitality industry in this country. Those hotel and motel owners are by far the most affected with most establishments shutting down, and/or scrambling to register with the governments to secure contracts for isolating COVID-19 patients and even health care personnel.

Early on, the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, AAHOA, noted the impact. “In every state, city and town, America’s hardworking hoteliers and employees are hurting from COVID-19. Tell your state and local leaders to support hoteliers now!” it appealed, adding that the organization “is working around the clock to ensure that the concerns of America’s hoteliers are heard loud and clear in Washington, D.C.”

Several Indian-American entrepreneurs Desi Talk spoke to, from grocery store owners, medical and media businesses, to representatives of trade associations, lauded the $2.2 trillion package.

“It is an excellent package and very helpful for businesses which are shutting down,” noted Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of Desi Talk, and also owner of a string of allergy and immunology clinics in the tri-state area. He noted how the Indian community has mostly small businesses, and how even relatively big grocery chains like Patel Brothers, had decided to close for ten days on grounds of public safety. “Our community is hardest hit and it will take another couple of years to recover,” Dr. Parikh said, even as he acknowledged this was the largest ever aid package in the history of the country.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s extension of mandatory closing for non-essential businesses until April 30, and the 3.3 million insurance claims as of March 29, 2020, were worrisome. “The package is a good first step but not enough even according to the President. More is needed,” Dr. Parikh qualified.

“It is a good program because this is the first time they are worrying about small people – with $350 billion for small business,” said Mahesh Patel, vice chairman of the Indian Business Association based in  Jersey, where he conceded, “The situation is very bad with two weeks of . all stories being closed except some grocry stores, and now being extended by four more weeks.”

Most devastating was how suddenly things changed. Initially, no one was taking the virus seriously according to some of those interviewed. But now customers are not coming into stores and foot-traffic is at a standstill.

Though it appears that the SBA’s mandate to support small businesses is going to take time, Indian-American employers are girding their loins and readying to apply for any assistance they can get to recover or rebuild and possibly innovate and change.

Especially when combined with the immediate cash assistance from the federal government to families now without means of support, businesses realize they have some breathing space to examine the regulations and do the necessary paperwork soon as they get more details.

Stock photo Dreamstime: New York, NY USA – June 2, 2018 – Curry in a Hurry – Indian Food, NY NY

Priti Pandya Patel, president of the Asian Indian Chamber of Commerce, is at home with her two grown sons and her husband. She is working the phones so that AICC, a 25-year old organization, can extend support to the small businesses who have many questions as they seek help. She is sure Indian-American small businesses are going to take advantage of the $2.2 trillion corona-relief package. “It will help us to hae a softer return when we come back to business,” she predicted.

The AICC has a diverse membership ranging from healthcare to financial services, to brokers, architects and manufacturers, numbering approximately 250, with a reach of more than 2,000 businesses, Pandya Patel said. All Indian businesses are suffering, particularly those in the restaurant, retail, and beauty salons industries in New Jersey. Those in banking and finance can still work from home.

Alongside the federal stimulus package, Indian-Americans can also avail of state and county level supports, loans with low interests, some grants, that don’t have to be paid back. Add that to landlord forgiveness and it may not be extremely debilitating, those connected to the Indian-American small business sector contend.

“We have about 600,000 plus Indian businesses around the United States,” noted K.V. Kumar of the Indian American International Chamber of Commerce. Like most other business and social/community organizations, IAICC has also cancelled its annual gala as it ramps up efforts to meet members’ needs. At the moment KV, as he is popularly called, is fielding calls from businesses and even students, asking for information, and IAICC is directing them to the right agencies and personnel who can best meet their needs. Because of the coronavirus, the organization has delayed plans to expand membership by year end to 10,000, and now expects to meet that goal by the end of 2021.

The corona virus relief package is good even if a little late, Kumar says. And the funds for small business are not restricted to employees but also those wh oare self-employed or consultants, and have a family income of $150,000, or individual income of $75,000, with different one-time allocations for couples or single persons. That is expected within three weeks, Kumar noted. Apart from that there is the unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, paid famil leave, plus the temporary lifting of penalties for student loans till Sept. 30, 2020. Add to that taxe payment deferred to July end 2020, and tax relief, plus Medicare and Medicaid, food assistance, etc., he says, should go a long way to help those hurting from the shutdown.

“For small businesses in our community, it will be a great help, because there is a paycheck protection of up to $10 million or 2.5 times the payroll account,” noted Kumar, who in the past worked for the SBA. “So it’s like free money coming into these small businesses, especially if they continue to pay their employees for 8 weeks or more, and the loan gets written off.”

Scores of hotel and motel owners are, restaurants, are bleeding, note the leaders of various associations helping the vulnerable. One grocery store owner who did not wish to be named, said 70 percent of the workers at the store did not wish to work at this dangerous time.

Chairwoman of AAHOA Jagruti Panwala assured independent hotel owners in her Facebook webcast. “We are a resilient industry and we will get thought his together,” Panwala said, adding that though the hotel/motel industry had taken a “huge hit” in these “uncharted territories,” the organization is working to find ways to mitigate costs. “Our advocacy team is working with the White House and Congress to face the liquidity crisis,” she said.

Swetal Patel, spokesperson for the Patel Brothers company, grocers who have stores around the United States, noted the decision to close stores for 10 days till April 9. “It is a very tough situation that everyone is facing right now. We have to take it one day at a time. For us, business is secondary. Priority is maintaining the health of our staff, our families, consumers and the general public,” Patel told Desi Talk.

Asked if any had been laid off, Swetal Patel said, “Our hourly employees will be paid for the time they take off. And once we reopen, it is back to business. All of our staff will be very well taken care of,” he emphasized,

Think Out-of-the-Box

The ability to be agile and look for alternative business models during this down period, these experts say, is a heartening characteristic of Indian-American businesses.

Pandya Patel, who has been in the healthcare sector as a clinician and then a consultant and administrator, says she is excited by some of the examples of innovative solutions.

“We have to find different ways, out of the box,” she stresses. One client, a sign maker, on losing his business, reached out to her and is trying to secure a contract with the state to provide signage for makeshift hospitals for corona virus diagnosis and isolation of patients; another is reaching out to hospitals to offer pulmonary rehab; dance associations are going over to tele-dancing.

“This is a great time to have a game plan and reach out, especially when everything is becoming tele …. So anything we didn’t think was possible, is an option. Thank God for technology! Pandya Patel exclaimed.

“Some businesses are being very innovative,” said Kumar. Among the many he has spoken to is a restaurant that has turned completely to home delivery. “I am very proud of our businesses.”

The Indian Business Association is planning to hold a series of meetings with experts to inform those wanting to avail of the stimulus package. By end of this week, the IBA hopes to be able to help businesses fill the forms; talk to the banks which are going to participate in the SBA program, especially the “Paycheck Protection Program”;  have accountants who can interpret the small print and details involved.

Mahesh Shah owns a building on Oak Tree Road, has some pharmacies, a hotel, and an auto repair company. “So many of my employees have been working with me for 20-25 years. I cannot let people go. You’ve got to invest some money,” to save them as well, Shah indicates.

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