Anna Tsantir, owner and original cleaner at Two Bettys Green Cleaning, needs a financial lifeline.
This is not a predicament for which she prepared or that she deserved.
The coronavirus that caused a health crisis and an instant recession has idled several million Americans and few hundred thousand Minnesota workers over two weeks.
Around Minneapolis last week, commercial corridors downtown, the West Bank and the South Side were quiet. Welna Hardware on Bloomington Avenue, staffed by five workers, did a normal business. Grocery, convenience and hardware stores are keeping food and home supplies available to everyone.
But the owners of many small businesses like Tsantir have been forced into making hard choices they didn’t see coming.
Tsantir, who three years ago was the Small Business Administration’s Women-Owned Business of the Year, last week laid off more than 120 valued employees and contractors.
The business nose-dived when, spooked by the virus, Two Bettys cleaners didn’t want to visit customers’ homes — and customers also wanted to reduce visitors. The commercial side of the business, accounting for 5% of revenue, wasn’t enough to overcome the sudden loss of the residential work.
In the 13 years since starting Two Bettys, Tsantir reinvested in the business and the employees. Tsantir paid $15 an hour to new employees while they trained, and then she offered first-year pay that reached $20 an hour plus benefits.
With Two Bettys structured as a so-called S-Corp business, Tsantir pays taxes on all profits, even if she doesn’t take them as compensation.
“I’ve left a lot of money in the business,” she said. “In fact, I owe $15,000 in  taxes on money that I left in the company. I had a reserve but not enough. I had to lay off and furlough people. This happened very fast. If I’d used the reserve to pay people for another week or two, I’d be dead.”
Rick Aguilar, son of Mexican immigrants and owner of St. Paul-based Aguilar Productions, said the sudden downturn is disproportionately crushing female- and minority-owned businesses and workers who have driven growth in the last decade.
“They are generally family-owned businesses,” said Aguilar, a former board chair of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “There are a lot of restaurants. And Latinos working in the kitchen. And it’s not just the Twin Cities. It’s also Worthington, Willmar and other regional centers.”
Help is on the way, federal and state authorities say.
But the best estimate is that it will take at least two weeks for the Small Business Administration to start approving low-interest disaster loans. The unprecedented $2 trillion federal stimulus has hundreds of billions for business relief, including no-interest short-term loans. The airlines and hotel companies helped craft it. Bite-size pieces are still weeks away from Two Bettys and other shuttered small businesses.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is rolling out a $30 million emergency aid package for small businesses. And federal and state bank regulators have urged well-capitalized lenders to “work constructively” with existing and new borrowers.
Park State Bank, with offices in Minneapolis and Duluth, already is making flexible-term loans from a $30 million fund it created for struggling businesses, CEO David Saber said.
“We’ve already closed on a couple of loans and there will be others that range from $150,000 to $2 million,” said Saber, who began his career as a Federal Reserve analyst. “We’re trying to differentiate ourselves in terms of speed and structure. We have to give borrowers some flexibility … within regulatory guidelines.
“We are a well-capitalized bank and we’re putting that capital to work. The phone is ringing. We can close loans within a few days. Some may be a few weeks. We’re encouraged. We may need to ‘bridge’ four to eight weeks for some businesses. It could be three months or a year for others.”
Tsantir, daughter of a Greek immigrant, avoided debt in her business other than a mortgage on a small warehouse several blocks from her modest Minnehaha Avenue headquarters.
A few regular customers are continuing to pay weekly, even though they are not being cleaned. That helps, she said.
She now is starting to focus on an outside financial lifeline to save her business.
“I’m still paying health care and benefits of those I furloughed,” Tsantir said. “I’m doing everything can so I can call back those 60-some furloughed employees first. That’s my hope.”