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Seattle Restaurateurs and Chefs Voice Concerns Over Aspects of Federal Stimulus Bill

Some believe independent restaurants may be left in the dust, since small businesses are defined as 500 employees or fewer per location

The Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on a clear, sunny day
Congress passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, which was signed into law Friday.
Shutterstock

Relief for those impacted by COVID-19 looks to be on the way, in the form of a federal stimulus plan — but it remains to be seen whether independent Seattle restaurants will fully benefit. On Friday, Congress voted to pass a massive $2.2 trillion stimulus bill intended to assist workers and businesses across the country who are most affected by the pandemic, and President Trump signed it into law. The bill includes a section called the Keeping Workers Paid and Employed Act, in which small employers will be eligible to draw from a pool of $377 billion in loans that will be forgiven for those who use the money to hire workers.

But the fine print could cause issues for independent Seattle restaurants. First is that the act defines small businesses eligible to receive loans as any company that employs 500 employees or fewer per location. So large chains are theoretically drawing from the same pool as mom-and-pop shops.

The bill also states that the businesses looking to obtain loan forgiveness must hire back all their employees by June 30. If they do not, the forgivable portion of the loans decreases by a certain percentage. It’s worth wondering whether restaurants will qualify if Washington’s current stay-at-home order is extended well past the current April 8 cutoff, as Gov. Jay Inslee indicated it might be, and are unable to hire back their temporarily laid-off workers in that timeframe.

Earlier this week, a coalition of area chefs and owners called Seattle Restaurants United pleaded for the House of Representatives to make modifications to the bill. The campaign — including chefs Renee Erickson, Mutsuko Soma, Edouardo Jordan, Tom Douglas, Kristi Brown, Brian Canlis, and many others — focused primarily on the definition of small businesses, with the employee cap of 500 per location. The hashtag #sizematters made the rounds across the country, as independent owners worried that they may be left with scraps if large chains draw from the same pool of money as they do. Many of these concerns are shared widely across the industry.

“The amount of aid for those larger groups would be disproportionate,” says Geo Quibuyen, co-owner of Hood Famous Cafe and Bar, which closed temporarily during the pandemic, but is planning to ramp up again soon for delivery. “As independent restaurants, we feel we have concerns that aren’t making it into the national conversation.”

“There should be a division between smaller and bigger restaurants,” says Melissa Miranda, owner of Beacon Hill’s Musang, which has employed 25-50 workers and has now transformed into a community kitchen. “We’re looking at things down the line. What’s the aftermath look like? A lot of the bigger restaurants have the manpower to figure it out.”

Chad Dale, co-owner of chef Erickson’s Sea Creatures restaurant group, says that the protections for workers in the stimulus bill is essential and “applauds the effort.” But he is concerned about the timeframe: His company, which employed around 350 people before the coronavirus crisis hit and had to lay off most of its workforce, may not be able to hire back all those workers if Washington’s stay at home order continues well into the spring. “I would hope that the bill could be amended, in that case,” he says.

There’s much still unknown about the ultimate impact this bill will have on the restaurant industry, in Seattle and elsewhere. But despite the fact that the stimulus has been passed without altering the Keeping Workers Paid and Employed Act, Seattle Restaurants United plans to continue the fight, not just as an advocacy group but also has a system of support.

“We’re reaching out to the margins,” says James Beard Award-nominated chef Chera Amlag, who co-owns Hood Famous with her husband, Quibuyen. She says some of that effort means speaking with owners in the Chinatown International-District and helping with translations, if necessary, so smaller restaurants know what they may or may not be eligible for in terms of stimulus benefits.

The coalition is also a way of developing a strong network of chefs who are going through similar challenges, and may have advice to share.

“We check in on each other,” says Miranda. “I’m really grateful for that.”

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