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Choosing Between Paychecks And People Isn’t Simple For Small Business Owners In San Antonio

An eating area alongside the San Antonio River Walk.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
An eating area alongside the San Antonio River Walk.

As businesses in San Antonio take down those big, hand drawn signs that say “closed for quarantine,” they’re grappling with the lingering possibility of a second wave of COVID cases.

One small business that never closed its doors has been navigating those same fears for two months, and has struck an uneasy balance between safety and economic survival.

Stephanie Fothergill is the operations manager at a business that installs and repairs air conditioning and heating systems. It's not frontline pandemic-response work, but it's the kind of basic service that needs to continue even during a lockdown.  

The business operates out of a small office attached to a garage filled with pipes, filters and grates. Just a handful of employees work there, including Stephanie's twin sister and her sister's husband.

Back in March, Stephanie said, "We decided to go ahead and have our guys start wearing masks inside occupied homes."

Their technicians frequently enter a customer's house to do a repair, which had suddenly become risky.

"We have one employee that’s 71 and another one that's 65. We're trying to make the decision, having them work — is this helping them because they're still getting a paycheck, or are we sending them out to slaughter?" she asked.

As the economy starts back up while the virus lingers, small businesses are increasingly navigating this tradeoff. Stephanie and her coworkers approached the question carefully.

"We decided, you know, you guys, it's up to you. Do you want to work? And if you don't want to work you will still get paid. You know, you're more important to us then getting the job done."

In part, her company is able to provide paid time off thanks to a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program. The employees who are still working, however, are feeling the anxiety of posing a potential risk to their own family.

"One of our guys has a girl with a heart condition. His little girl's only 3. We have another employee whose dad lives at his house and he's older and has breathing problems, lung issues," Stephanie says.

They took cautionary measures like stocking up on protective gear, and screening customers before entering their home, to decide whether it's safe. 

Still, like much of the country, Stephanie's coworkers are divided on how concerned they feel about going into public. "I have some guys that are taking it really seriously," Stephanie said. "I have some guys who still believe it's a hoax. A lot of the construction workers we work with, they're all kinds of good old boys. They're tough guys. They don't want to believe that anything can happen to them." 

For now, Stephanie says, they’re finding a balance between staying afloat financially and staying safe. As other businesses reopen, she doesn’t expect the worry she’s feeling now to go away. 

"You know, I have three college kids at home," she says. "Two of them work in call centers, and my daughter works at Starbucks. So, I felt like our risk level was so high. I was like, it'll be a miracle if we don't end up with it."

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Ben contributes reporting and audio mixing to a number of podcasts at Texas Public Radio including The Shakeout, Petrie Dish, and Worth Repeating. In previous lives, he made podcasts at New Hampshire Public Radio, worked as a science news reporter, and briefly entertained a career in marine biology.