The current state of the greenhouse at Valerie Locher Horticulturists in Housatonic, one of many seasonal businesses affected by COVID-19. Photo courtesy Valerie Locher Horticulturists

Stories of decline in the South County’s service sector during pandemic

COVID-19 has not only disrupted the average service worker, but the seasonal one as well.

Berkshire County — While many essential businesses are grateful to continue operating through the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also seeing a decrease in available work. Between keeping customers and employees safe, business owners are facing large downsizing and changes to how their businesses can be run.

As of April 9, 6.6 million people in the United States lost their jobs, according to government reports, and many of them have since filed for unemployment. In fact, the week ending March 28 resulted in an increase in initial claims of 32,971 due to COVID-19.

With this increase in unemployment, many service work business owners are finding it difficult to keep afloat with the decrease in work that has followed. Bonnie Wells, who has owned her own house cleaning service in the Berkshires for 15 years, has noticed a severe downturn in clients.

Wells typically cleaned 15 to 20 houses a week, but has since downsized to three or four homes. There are many reasons for the sudden decline in work, including Wells’ elderly clients worrying about her exposure to the virus as well as their own. Wells has also tried to avoid any clients who may have recently entered the Berkshires and haven’t yet quarantined for the recommended two weeks.

A large part of Wells’ business came from Airbnb and rental changeovers. However, with a decrease in travel, many bookings were cancelled, and other clients are having a hard time coming up with the money to pay Wells for her services after their own layoffs.

The decrease in clientele has “been absolutely detrimental,” said Wells. While she has managed to stay afloat regardless of being forced to move some of her bills around, the dynamic of her business has significantly changed.

Currently, Wells and her two subcontractors are required to wear masks and gloves as well as confirm that all of their clients have been abiding by the government’s guidelines and staying in quarantine. Managing to maintain a supply of cleaning equipment has become difficult as well.

“I’ve had to change my cleaning supplies not only for a stronger disinfectant, let’s say, but because I can’t get what I usually use” due to stores selling out too quickly, said Wells, who is required to bring her own supplies to the majority of her jobs.

Precision Autocraft in Sheffield. Photo: Janey Beardsley

When the pandemic finally slows it “will really make it or break it for my business because I thrive off of the summer. So if it doesn’t turn around before summer bookings can happen, then we’re going to lose out on that season, too,” said Wells. If summer bookings fall short, Wells may have to lay off her subcontractors, which could result in searching for a new job herself.

While COVID-19 has proved to be a disincentive to allowing others into your home, autobody shops are experiencing a similar decline in activity. “The work has slowed because no one’s allowed to move around much and travel much,” as well as concerns regarding any mechanic’s exposure to the virus, said Kathy Andrus, owner of Precision Autocraft in Sheffield.

Already Precision Autocraft has seen a huge decline in vehicles coming in, which has resulted in cutting staff back from its typical 13 or 14 employees. A big concern of Andrus’s is getting those employees back if they find employment elsewhere during the pandemic. “We’re hoping that everyone will want to come back when things pick up,” said Andrus.

While employment is down at the autobody shop, safety is still “a huge concern.” In order to make Precision Autocraft as safe as possible, the establishment will remain open during its typical operating hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but customers are not permitted inside the building. Instead, they “have to call, and we have to put the sanitation and safety measures in place to begin any process, estimating or anything with the customer,” explained Andrus.

COVID-19 has not only disrupted the average service worker, but the seasonal one as well. Valerie Locher of Valerie Locher Horticulturists in Housatonic says the pandemic has completely affected her gardening business.

The greenhouse at Valerie Locher Horticulturists during a typical spring. Photo: Jenna Brazie

Locher, who has run her business for 43 years, normally begins preparing for the season at the start of April, but has postponed opening until April 20.

This has led to the difficult decision to focus primarily on maintenance instead of planting because “I can’t produce my crop in my greenhouse … I have to have people helping and I can’t guarantee them social distancing, so in my mind, it’s not safe to have employees at this time,” said Locher. With limited space in the greenhouse, employees staying 6 feet apart isn’t feasible.

Once Locher’s employees are able to work outside, social distancing will be less of a concern. However, already Locher has had to cut clients, and clients themselves have asked for limited maintenance, if any at all.

“We lost a huge client. Jacob’s Pillow is canceled, so that immediately has an effect,” said Locher. Jacob’s Pillow, a renowned dance center for learning and performances, has been forced to cancel its season after 88 uninterrupted years because of COVID-19. It was one of Locher’s biggest clients, with six gardens and around 40 plant containers.

Although service work seems to be decreasing as people are avoiding contact with others and opportunities are cancelled, Locher still encourages everyone to “stay safe. Make sure your people are safe … and still try to do what you love doing.”