LINCOLN – A year and a half after the start of the COVID pandemic, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce is continuing to find fresh ways to support businesses for their current and future needs.
NRICC’s mission is to strengthen the economic climate, and President and CEO Liz Catucci is in charge of carrying out that mission.
“The biggest issue our companies are facing, big or small, all of them are having staffing issues,” Catucci said. “I think a lot of us thought or hoped that when the extra stimulus ended that the market would be flooded and that we would have 40,000 people come back into the job market and so far, I know it’s kind of early, but we haven’t really seen that kind of effect yet, that hasn’t occurred.”
Catucci said she believes it was not just the extra stimulus funding that kept them out of work. Factors such as child care, transportation, or whether they have been home and they see that the job they can work remotely and have more of a flexible schedule rather than having to sit at a desk from 9-5, all play a part in it, she said.
“It’s been 18 months and people have really adjusted to this kind of life where they may not have to go into the office every day and have flexibility,” Catucci said. “People have really seen the other side of it and they are questioning how we lived beforehand and how in some ways it is forever changed.”
NRICC has members of all sizes, from large corporations such as Fidelity and CVS, to small businesses such as a hair salon or mom and pop shop with fewer than five employees. Throughout the pandemic, they have been seeing a trickle-down effect where the smaller businesses that serve the larger businesses are hurting, said Catucci. Because all issues are happening at once, every business is hurting in some way.
“What I find most interesting is the trickle-down effect that has kind of occurred, where no fault of the corporate companies but a lot of them have yet to be back at work, it’s actually affecting the local economy,” Catucci said. “For example, if a big company in northern Rhode Island has all the employees in the office, then they’re dining at the restaurants, they need their coffee machines up and going, so it’s that trickle-down effect where those businesses are really still hurting and suffering from the effects of COVID.”
For example, Charlie Lombardi, mayor of North Providence and owner of Luxury Cleaners, shut down his location near Fidelity Investments in Smithfield after losing so much business as Fidelity employees worked from home in their sweatpants.
Catucci said her organization is seeing their big companies still trying to navigate COVID as new variants emerge. They have found businesses to be going through peaks and valleys. One day a business owner will think that COVID is getting better and that they will be able to go back into the office, and the next day they find out that the Delta variant has pushed them back.
“It’s just this constant up and down and it’s a lot of insecurity I think,” Catucci said. “We hear it all the time and our job at the Chamber is to take all of the information and see if we can guide, help, be a resource, provide some type of solution and support.”
The Chamber recently hosted an in-person job fair in conjunction with the Rhode Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which both organizations found to be successful.
“Now we’re going to do it again but it will be virtual this time as we see the numbers climb and we’re seeing people get hesitant and nervous,” Catucci said. “We’ll again be doing it with the Hispanic Chamber, but we’ve also brought in Rhode Island College so we’re excited to work with them in this capacity and try to connect the job seekers with employers.”
According to Catucci, many employers are questioning how they retain the employees that they have or how to recruit new employees.
“It’s not what it was, people have different expectations and so we’re actually going to start providing some education starting in October,” Catucci said. “We have some seminars, we’re bringing people in to just again provide information to these employers about what they can do to retain, attract, and recruit, and what people are really looking for now when they look for a job. I think a lot of it comes down to flexibility.”
Catucci said flexibility can be difficult in some sectors of the workforce, such as manufacturing where one can’t work from home.
“It’s such an interesting dynamic and I feel like we’re in the middle of it. There’s not really any perfect solution, but we’re all still adjusting and learning, and even at the Chamber we’re struggling with that too,” Catucci said.
She said a large part of their job is building relationships with people.
According to Catucci, the Chamber has seen difficulties to be more dependent on the particular industry the businesses are in and how they pivoted, rather than their size.
“We’re right in it with everybody else,” Catucci said. “We’re seeing both sides of it, but across the board, small, mid, and large, all of them are still suffering.”
When looking toward the future, Catucci said it is hard to predict what will happen because information is still new, there is so much information being thrown at people, and because so many people are on one side of the fence or the other on how life should move forward.
“I try to look at the positives and I look at the vaccination rates in the state of Rhode Island and we are in a good state, we’re trying to increase it but I think that there is still that fear of the unknown,” she said. “Personally I hope it ends soon, but I think we’re going to feel these long-term effects from it for a while.”
While there are many negative long-term effects, Catucci said there are also many positives. Some of these include the usage and advancement of technology and what people have found they can do with it and how they can better serve others through it. Catucci said she believes companies will continue in a hybrid model, keeping some aspects of a job online while other aspects will move back or stay in-person.
Catucci said the Chamber is a resource for any and all businesses to use, whether they are a member or not.
“My goal is always to say that whenever a business runs into an issue no matter what it is, their first thought is to fix it,” she said. “We might not know how to fix it, but we probably know the people that can help and that can help solve their problem.”