In recent years, the Latino Chamber of Commerce has worked to help grow small businesses — 300 of them — in the Milwaukee area, primarily on the south side.
Many are front-line, service-focused businesses, such as restaurants, barbershops and grocery stores. As such, they are especially vulnerable to health and economic challenges tied to COVID-19.
“You have small-business owners that are trying to run their own businesses, which are their only source of income and were forced to be closed, so the economic impact is much higher in our community,” said Nelson Soler, president of the Latino Chamber.
In early March, Marta J. Chavez, owner of Unique Cuts on South 27th Street, was in the process of opening a second location.
Chavez imagined herself managing two hair salons and barbershops, but when Gov. Tony Evers issued his stay-at-home order, and non-essential businesses were forced to pause operations, she decided not to renew her contract at her original location.
In effect, Chavez ended up moving her shop instead of running two.
“The pandemic hit me when I had both businesses,” Chavez said. “Now I only have one, because I saw that things were going to be critical.”
Chavez has owned Unique Cuts for nine years. Regular clients aren’t coming to get a haircut as often as they used to and it’s been challenging to attract new ones.
Chavez has been able to tap into a loan through the Latino Chamber, as well as a grant to keep her business running.
The Latino Chamber received funding from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation for the Mas Fuerte loan program — in English, “stronger” — and other grants, which helped business owners who were not able to access the first round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
“What I spend is really only for things I need for the business, I try not to spend money on anything unnecessary,” Chavez said.
Soler said many of the businesses the chamber helped launch came about in response to a person not having a job, or not being able to work due to immigration status. He and others said a spirit of entrepreneurship is common in the Latino community.
“I think it’s a driver internally in us,” he said. “If you go and work for a corporation and if you’re first or second generations, there are values that are misaligned or you are not satisfied with the culture of the organization and you resort to finding other choices.”
Even before COVID-19, minority business owners faced challenges such as discrimination, lack of access to capital and issues with equal competition.
“On top of that, you get COVID, so that escalates those issues,” Soler said. “What COVID showed to us as human beings is the inequities between the larger population and the minority populations.”
That inequity has been seen in the COVID-19 numbers themselves.
As of Monday, those identifying as Hispanic or Latino in Milwaukee made up nearly 32% of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases but only make up 15% of the population, according to the Milwaukee County COVID-19 Dashboard.
Dr. Jorge Ramallo, who works at the Sixteenth Street Clinic, a health and community center, attributes the high number of cases to the number of essential workers in the Latino community.
“They work in grocery stores, in manufacturing jobs, construction, the food industry,” Ramallo said. “These are people that are not able to just take some time off work or start working from home using video because it is not an option for them.”
Employees at El Rey Supermarket had to adapt to changes quickly.
“I think with all businesses, we were just trying to understand and adapt with the recommendations provided by the city and the CDC,” said Nelson Lang, general manager of the Oklahoma Avenue location.
In March, as coronavirus fears led to empty shelves, El Rey employees stayed on the job.
“We take pride in the services that we offer during COVID and before that as well,” Lang said. “Pride in providing our neighborhood and community with groceries and servicing them with what they need.”
Managers at the supermarket also had to train the staff on safety precautions, conduct regular screenings and urge workers to keep themselves safe.
Said Lang: “We remind them, even though we are not able to tell them how to live their lives outside of work, the reality is we all have a responsibility to each other to behave safely out of work because our livelihood, our wages, our salaries all depend on each other acting responsibly.”
Local businesses adapt
Fabiola Estrada’s family owns Guadalajara, a Mexican restaurant on South 10th Street, and takes great pride in its business.
“It’s a blessing to be able to provide jobs for others,” Estrada said.
At first, they remained open only for carry-out orders. Now they are trying to navigate the economic fallout from the pandemic as they operate on reduced hours.
As revenue decreased and costs increased, due to such things as buying cleaning equipment, their first priority was keeping up with payroll. The biggest challenge has been figuring out how many hours they need to stay open to break even.
Estrada applied to the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans for small businesses, to help with payroll. They were able to keep all 12 full-time and part-time employees.
“We were cautious about what we applied for and made sure that we didn’t get into something that we didn’t need or wasn’t to our benefit,” Estrada said. “We were very leery about taking any of the grants or additional help.”
Because her family owns the restaurant building, they were able to stay open.
“Had we had the need to pay rent, there’s no way you can maintain the rent and the payroll,” Estrada said. “We’re at the point where we are breaking even, on a good day.”
Initially, the family thought about closing down to wait and see what happened.
“But we’ve been around for so long and the idea of not being able to serve this community and our customers was just not going to sit right with us,” Estrada said.
Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa, who represents the area, hopes to find a balance between keeping the businesses afloat and keeping workers from getting infected.
“These are tough times in our community that we find ourselves in and we want to make sure that they survive and that we make it through this, Zamarripa said. “They are the job creators, they are the future.”
Daniel Valdez, a painting contractor, had to abruptly cancel appointments when one coworker felt sick. After getting tested himself and having his workers get tested, Valdez and two other employees ended up testing positive.
After more than three weeks of quarantine, Valdez was able to resume sending workers out. Some clients rescheduled and others canceled completely.
With the guidance of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, Valdez changed the way he operates his business to ensure that his workers and clients are safe.
“This affected us economically,” Valdez said. “At the end of the day, this affects us all economically and emotionally.”
Jessica Rodriguez is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.