Owners and executives from a half-dozen local businesses and nonprofits testified about how the COVID-19-related economic slowdown affected their operations and what steps they would like to see taken as the region emerges from the pandemic during a Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee hearing on Thursday.

They addressed a wide range of subjects, including mitigation efforts, unemployment benefits, training, proposed minimum wage increases and future economic projections, during the event – hosted by Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, 71st Legislative District, deputy chairman of the committee – at the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped.

The meeting in Johnstown capped the committee members’ two-day visit, which included stops at businesses, dining establishments and attractions.

“We’ve learned a lot in our time here in Johnstown,” House Majority Policy Committee Chairman Martin Causer said.

“To bring members out to the community, and see the community firsthand, and talk to the members in the community about all the great things that you have going on here, some of these things we want to replicate across the commonwealth. You’ve got a lot going on in Johnstown. We’re all focused on building and regrowing our community.”

Rigby said the activities provided an opportunity to “showcase what we have” in Johnstown and learn about issues facing businesses.

“I learned that we do have a workforce here,” said Rigby during a post-hearing interview. “I also learned that we’re having trouble finding people, though, to come out to work. I’m not sure what’s causing it, other than I think the benefits that they received – for some folks – based on a wage, they probably make a little bit more money staying home than they do working, so that goes back to what they discussed about the minimum wage, bringing that wage up. We’ve got to get people back to work. I think that will happen in time.”

Tara Bosserman (chief operating officer, Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped), Dr. David Stefanik (board chairman, Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped), Ed Sheehan Jr. (chief executive officer/president, Concurrent Technologies Corp.), Don Kasprzyk, (owner, The Boulevard Grill), William Polacek (president/chief executive officer/owner, JWF Industries), Matt Mlaker, (vice president, Mlaker Transportation) and Gary Poborsky (owner, GapVax Inc.) spoke.

No workers from those organizations or any other businesses testified during the 21/2-hour hearing.

“We set the tours up with the companies,” Rigby said. “And we asked to have testifiers the following day. It was really great to work with the business owners and the managers to find out what their needs are. Having the workers here would actually have been beneficial to us, as far as legislation goes.

“We were looking at what we can do to help them as they move forward, based on how COVID may have set them back. So we’re looking at post-COVID and moving forward. Were there things that we could have done differently? And, again, nobody’s playing Monday-morning quarterback. I think when this hit us, it was more of a reaction. We had to do something. But we want to make sure if we have to do something again we don’t make the same mistakes we made this last time.

“That’s really why we wanted to have the owners and the managers here, presenting to let us know, because they’re the ones that dealt with the financial blows, and they’re the ones that would see everything on the backside.”

Committee members toured the host site, along with CTC, JWF and GapVax, during which they were able to “talk with the employees firsthand and hear directly from them,” according to Causer.

Providing a quick synopsis about the area’s needs, Polacek told the committee, “You’re looking at what you can do for this post-pandemic. You need to help the small communities.

“Your community, our community has an opportunity to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever if we’re smart about it,” he added.

Bosserman explained how the association, which employs people with disabilities, approached the pandemic’s impact.

“When posed with the question of how our organization rebounded from COVID, I have two responses to that question,” Bosserman said. “First, we never looked at our organization as a company that would need to rebound, but focused on what we needed to do to keep our organization going during this time and keep it strong. Second, we moved through the process very slow and steady, working as a team to get the job done and meeting each challenge one day at a time, sometimes minute by minute, hour by hour.”

Participants discussed how the pandemic continues to affect the workforce.

Kasprzyk expressed concerns about being able to find employees.

“A major challenge for any restaurant is hiring, training and retaining staff,” Kasprzyk said. “It seems like every restaurant is hiring and cannot fill those positions. Years ago, my major concern was would there be enough guests to financially feed the staff, and now I worry fiscally will I have enough staff to actually feed the guests?”

Unlike a business such as The Boulevard Grill, many other organizations were able to have employees work from home when distancing was being encouraged to help slow spread of the disease that has led to the death of 430 Cambria County residents, approximately 27,000 Pennsylvanians and almost 600,000 United States citizens.

“I think we’ve seen an increase in productivity,” said Sheehan, when talking about employees working from home. “What I see going forward is it will be a hybrid model. I think there will be some people that want to come back to the office for a variety of reasons. Others will work with our line managers to determine what’s the best schedule for them.” 

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

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