In Rhode Island, helping constituents and employees access critical services

State Senator Josh Miller juggles dual roles as legislator and business owner during the current pandemic. This piece is part of an occasional series exploring how our members are addressing the effects of the coronavirus outbreak in their states.

April 15, 2020

Hallway in Rhode Island Statehouse

The Rhode Island General Assembly has cancelled its sessions and committee hearings through April 17. Credit: David Biette

As the Rhode Island General Assembly suspended its session in mid-March amid the spread of COVID-19, Senator Josh Miller was working tirelessly to help his constituents stay safe, while providing for the nearly 80 employees who work at his two restaurants in downtown Providence.

After Governor Gina Raimondo issued stay-at-home orders on March 28 and called for the cancellation of major events in the city, Miller closed down one of his restaurants, the Hot Club, located on the Providence waterfront, and laid off its staff of 40 people. He let go all but five employees at his other eatery, the Trinity Brewhouse, which saw pedestrian traffic slow to a trickle after nearby convention centers, sports venues, and theaters went dark.

“We’re very event driven and it really has an impact on us,” said Miller of the executive orders. The decision to make layoffs was wrenching for Miller, who still considers his entire staff to be part of his business family. “A lot of people have been working for me for over 20 years,” he said.

Miller, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, spends much of each day helping his employees, and his constituents, navigate public assistance programs available to them, including unemployment and food stamps, and troubleshooting to ensure that people with essential jobs can find daycare for young children.

As he juggles his responsibilities as policymaker and business owner, Miller is among scores of state officials who are playing pivotal roles amid the current pandemic, as they advocate for services and funding to keep their constituents safe and their economies afloat.

Accessing funds for small businesses

During regular calls with his colleagues in the legislature, the state’s congressional delegation, and business leaders, Miller said that two critical issues have emerged for the local community.

One concerns questions about the timetable for using funds accessed through the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), authorized by the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act package that Congress enacted law last month. The PPP, administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA), is a loan designed to provide incentives for small businesses with 500 or fewer employees to keep their workers employed. SBA will convert loans to grants if at least 75 percent of the money is used to keep employees on the payroll at a business’s pre-pandemic level for eight weeks after the money is disbursed. The money can also be used for rent, mortgage interest, or utilities.

Miller said one challenge is that as the economy reopens, the restrictions on businesses could be lifted gradually, hindering many from operating at full capacity, which will make it hard to work within the requirements of the program. He and other lawmakers are pushing to extend the timeline to maximize the benefits to businesses.

Business interruption insurance

Another top priority is finding a way for insurance companies to cover business interruption claims due to COVID-19. Most business interruption insurance policies are triggered when there is physical damage to a property, such as losses due to a fire, that temporarily close down operations. They typically exclude revenue losses stemming from major events, such as war, or a global pandemic, whose underwriting costs would be prohibitive.

Given the magnitude of the potential claims associated with COVID-19-related closures, many insurers have argued that the associated payouts could bankrupt the industry. Miller said that during a recent conference call with several hundred Rhode Island businesspeople, members of the state’s congressional delegation, and Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee, there was general agreement that such support would need to be included in a “phase four” stimulus package that many lawmakers are pushing for. “There would have to be some sort of [federal] subsidy for the insurance companies that are paying out,” said Miller.

Several states, including Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, have introduced legislation that would compel insurers to retroactively cover business interruption claims due to COVID-19. Miller said that he plans to introduce legislation once the Senate reconvenes.

Maintaining critical services

According to Senate rules, members can only vote on bills on the chamber floor, so remote voting is out of the question, unless there is a rule change. The state’s fiscal year ends on June 30, so officials are working to figure out a roadmap to reconvene before then.

Once the Senate does resume business, Miller hopes to continue with legislative efforts to improve access to healthcare that he has long championed, and address issues around substance abuse disorder. The loss in revenue from the current pandemic will likely lead to discussions on extending the budget to a two-year cycle so the losses can be spread out over a longer period, he added.

“We don’t want the revenue loss to impact access to human services, or unemployment, or access to healthcare,” he said.

Miller credits his work in the legislature, and knowledge of how to navigate public assistance programs, with giving him the skills to help his employees and constituents access the services they need in this time of crisis. His work in the restaurant industry has instilled in him a profound understanding of how critical the support is for so many people.

“There isn’t a silo, because I bring the experience of how important that social safety net is to my legislative responsibilities,” said Miller.

Planning amid uncertainty

At his brewpub, Miller hopes to be able to sustain enough business to keep a few people employed until the restrictions on public gatherings are lifted, though the drastically reduced operating hours barely enable him to earn enough revenue to cover expenses. The five-person staff at the brewpub offers curbside takeout five days a week from a limited menu. Revenue has plunged by 90 percent. “It’s not a revenue-maker in any way, shape, or form,” said Miller.

In the interim, he hopes to continue to provide for his employees in other ways. Any staff member that needs a meal has an open invitation to stop by. “We make a to-go meal or a meal that they can sit in the corner and eat,” said Miller. Curbside pickup is offered at a 50 percent discount to medical personnel, first responders, and the unemployed.

Miller said that going forward, there could be an uptick in business from medical staff if the nearby Rhode Island Convention Center is used as an overflow hospital for COVID-19 patients. Governor Raimondo has reportedly made a tentative deal to utilize the space if hospitals run out of room.

Miller said that regardless, if he secures PPP funding, that should enable him to stay open.

The biggest challenge is the uncertainty about how long the restrictions will remain in place, he said.

“We don’t know what to plan for. That’s why we talk among ourselves both on the legislative and on the business side every day; because it changes every day,” said Miller. “We make adjustments every day on what we think will help people get by.

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