As a small-business owner and a leader in the Minnesota Main Street Alliance, a network of business owners across Minnesota and the country, I appreciated the general sentiment the Star Tribune Editorial Board took recently in advocating for using Minnesota's large budget surplus to invest in both front-line workers and provide relief for businesses facing unemployment insurance tax hikes ("A balanced approach to solving a mess," Dec. 20).

However, I know firsthand that what our small businesses need often looks different from the policies pushed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

The problem the chamber presents is real. There is a giant deficit in the Unemployment Insurance (UI) Fund of $2.4 billion! Being saddled with additional costs understandably prompts fear for many business owners who are still navigating uncertain economic waters. However, not all businesses need help.

Data from the U.S. Commerce Department recently revealed that corporate profit margins are currently the highest they have been in nearly 70 years. Does Minnesota really need to buy down the UI rates for giant corporations like Amazon, which already receives gobs of tax subsidies that businesses like mine do not?

Furthermore, while the deficit in the trust fund is large, looking at the experiences of individual businesses says this moment doesn't call for panic for businesses.

Current law calls for a 15.8% increase in the UI rate a business pays, which ranges from 0.5% to 9.4% of wages. The exact rate a company pays depends on what is known as its experience rating, which increases as you lay off workers. It is important to note that the Legislature has frozen experience ratings since the pandemic as a way to hold harmless businesses that were forced to shut down.

So what does this look like in real life?

The UI rate for next year at my business is 0.78%, so the 15.8% increase means an additional tax bill of 0.12% of wages. This is still real money in what looks to be another difficult year, but not a primary concern that merits the use of a large portion of our surplus. And at this point, the unemployment tax rates have already been set and mailed out for 2022.

Rather than trying to somehow undo it or waiting until 2023, we should build a small-business agenda that addresses the real challenges we are facing.

With the omicron variant spreading, free, easily accessible rapid tests for employees would be a good place to start, and would help us operate a safe workplace.

At the beginning of the pandemic the federal government made tax credits available (FFCRA) to help us pay workers who have to stay home because of quarantine, but the program ended even though the problem did not. Instead of temporary tax credits, Minnesota should finally make Paid Family and Medical Leave available to everyone. No one should have to worry about how they are going to make ends meet because they have an extended recovery from illness or a new baby to care for.

Across the country, more than 10 million workers left their jobs in 2020 due to caregiving responsibilities, with Black and Hispanic caregivers facing disproportionate pressure to leave. Some 71% of adults with access to paid family medical leave said it helped them continue working, and more than half used the benefit during the pandemic.

Recent analysis from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) revealed that Minnesota has less than one available job seeker for every open position in the state. DEED's Job Vacancy survey shows that small businesses are hardest hit by this labor crunch. In addition to Paid Family and Medical Leave, investing in affordable child care and reducing the costs of health care are additional measures that will not only empower families, but bring people back into the workforce and help local employers compete for talent on a level playing field.

If policymakers are looking to help struggling small businesses with immediate financial support, they could provide grants directly to those businesses in an equitable way. This could be a much more significant help than moving funds to the UI fund and could be focused on businesses that are struggling during the pandemic.

There is plenty else we can do, but the primary point here is that investing in Minnesotans is good not only for our residents but our small businesses as well. Too often the chamber will use a legitimate issue, like UI taxes, to pit the needs of workers against those of businesses, but we can build an economy in Minnesota where both can thrive.

So that means yes, let's also make sure we support our health care workers and other front-line workers across the economy that have been stepping up and putting their own safety at risk to keep our community functioning. They are the ones who deserve the most support.

Danny Schwartzman is owner of Common Roots Cafe and Common Roots Catering in Minneapolis.