Grant Company leaders Jason Augustus, Lisa Stadeli, Mike Grant and Christiane Kraemer meet at the firm’s office in 2018. Business is continuing, but the future is uncertain as the coronavirus economic effect will echo into the next year or more, said Kraemer. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Grant Company leaders Jason Augustus, Lisa Stadeli, Mike Grant and Christiane Kraemer meet at the firm’s office in 2018. Business is continuing, but the future is uncertain as the coronavirus economic effect will echo into the next year or more, said Kraemer. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Along with claiming lives and ruining health, primary concerns of the church, COVID-19 also has ransacked small and medium-sized businesses worldwide. The church recognizes that when businesses suffer, human beings suffer, too.

Pope Francis said in 2018 that the welfare of workers and companies go hand in hand.

The U.S. Catholic bishops teach that business is a moral ground.

“Workers, owners, managers, stockholders and consumers are moral agents in economic life,” the bishops wrote in their 1996 statement “A Catholic Framework for Economic Life.” “By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life and social justice.”

During the coronavirus lockdown, business owners have been forced into consequential moral decisions day after day.

At Heitzman Body & Paint in Beaverton, which has had four generations of a Catholic family at the helm, it was grueling to lay off 50% of the workforce. Lisa Thomson, president of the company, hopes the downturn will be short and temporary.

Like many owners, she knows that in the long run keeping the business open will help the most employees. But layoffs are hard on everyone.

“It stinks to lay people off,” Thomson said. “I feel I have families to take care of.” The company was able to save some jobs with a federal Payroll Protection Program grant.

Thomson, a member of St. Cecilia and Holy Trinity parishes, said her faith gives her perspective.

“I know I am not alone,” she said. “It brings me peace and calm. We will ride through this.”

For the first time in 30 years, Pacific Seafood has laid off workers. About 20% of the force of 2,500 are out temporarily, many using earned leave to stay afloat. The company is continuing to pay health benefits.

“New realities are setting in,” said Frank Dulcich, head of the multinational company that his grandfather began in 1941 as a simple fish market near St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland.

When restaurants and hotels came to a screeching halt amid stay-at-home orders in March, 90% of Pacific Seafood’s business abruptly stopped. The company in turn had to put vessel captains on hold.

It was all hard for a CEO famous for treating workers well. A fifth of Pacific Seafood profits has long gone back to employees.

Dulcich was able to prevent even more layoffs by pushing retail sales and moving workers to that project. Still, it was grueling.

“It’s horrible and it’s emotional,” said Dulcich. “These people who come to your teams are essentially saying they like you and they trust you to make good decisions for their livelihoods. It took 35 years to build this company up and six weeks to dismantle part of it.”

Then several workers at the company’s Warrenton plant tested positive for COVID-19. Dulcich shut the operation down while a professional team disinfected it.

“Without my faith I could never have gotten through this,” said Dulcich. “God can give this to us and he can take it away. On the journey we have to do this right.”

Pacific Seafood predicts that 40% of restaurants are likely to close for good, meaning ongoing struggles for the whole food industry. Still, Dulcich is optimistic about the future. He and his team are transforming the business to use technology better. He predicts a more nimble company that can make good decisions faster.

Sheridan Fruit Company, a Southeast Portland wholesaler and caterer, has been forced to make major adjustments but is surviving.

The wholesale part of the business, which depends on restaurants, has almost disappeared. Before the pandemic, 14 trucks a day would roll out to make deliveries. Now it’s down to two trucks and most drop-offs happen at private homes.

Sheridan leaders laid off 21 of 89 employees. “We had to do it but it was sad,” said Anne Torchia-Barwick, administrative services manager.

Torchia-Barwick also feels deeply for restaurateurs who must sit on their hands.

“They are such good, good people,” she said. “They are just struggling, and there is not a lot of help for them.”

Sheridan had large stocks of food it donated to feeding sites. For employees who remain, the company has purchased masks, gloves, face shields and sanitizers to help thwart spread of the virus.

“It’s just really scary but I see a lot of goodness come out of people,” she said.

Torchia-Barwick, a member of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Southwest Portland, said faith has been helpful amid the pressure.

“You just hope that you can do the right thing,” she said, adding that she prays for employees and business partners. “It’s not just about business, but about some good people.”

So far, no one has canceled a job on the Grant Company, a construction firm based in Mount Angel. The outfit has three big projects going now and soon hopes to get going on a parish center for St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland.

But Christiane Kraemer, chief project manager, worries about next year. Budget managers may not be in a mood to build or renovate then.

Kraemer remembers the Great Recession with a shudder.

“Yes, 2008 was awful,” she said. “We barely made it through. What we have now really is scary.”

There is a lot for business owners to think about. For worker safety, the Grant Company has added handwashing stations on construction sites and obtained masks for workers, who tend to have plenty of space between them anyway.

The firm’s leaders worked hard to get in an application for the Payroll Protection Program and succeeded. That has prevented layoffs.

And Kraemer knows that if her business withers, other companies get hurt.

“If we stop buying lumber, the mills shut down and then the loggers have to stop. That means the chain saw shop doesn’t have as much business and then it’s the gas station.”

Like many businesses, Di Loreto Architecture of Northeast Portland has sent workers home with laptops to do their jobs. The IT crew made sure everyone could connect to the main server and to each other. The staff meets weekly and also holds video meetings with clients to keep projects moving forward.

The new workflow has taken time and some expense, but technology has allowed business to continue.

Still, a number of new projects stopped as nervous clients applied the brakes. The workload has shrunk by about two-fifths.

To keep income going to staff, owner Chris Di Loreto signed up for the State of Oregon’s Workshare program so that individuals receive a prorated amount of unemployment for the hours they don’t work. Di Loreto continues to pay all benefits.

“If the pandemic is not resolved by the end of summer, then it may be a problem,” said Di Loreto, a member of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland. “But, in architecture, I often have no idea what is happening six months out, so it’s not really too different.”

Jeremy Chase of Laurelhurst Distributors, an RV equipment provider in Southeast Portland, has avoided laying off any of his 16 employees. Many are using vacation time because business has slowed. But

Chase, a University of Portland graduate, knows he needs to stay open because some people are living in RVs and a pandemic is no time to have your refrigerator, or some other essential gear, go haywire.

“We are an essential business,” Chase said.

To prevent infections, he has halted deliveries and has no-contact pickup procedures. He keeps workers well separated and provides masks.

Like many small businesses, Chase fears his customers will shift to Amazon.

“The trick is trying to stay in business but keep people safe,” he said. “It’s a tough situation.”