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Biden's economic advisor assesses state of small businesses

Rhett Buttle, Public Private Strategies Founder and National Business Advisor to President Joe Biden, joins AMS+ to analyze the state of small businesses in the U.S. and the Biden administration's COVID-19 policy proposals.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: America's vaccine rollout is giving a huge boost to the US economy as the drop in coronavirus cases is allowing local governments and businesses to successfully reopen. So joining us now, Rhett Buttle, Public Private Strategist Founder and National Business Advisor to the Biden campaign. It's good to have you here.

And a two-part question for you. What is it, 47% of this economy is powered by small businesses? Because we had a guest on at the top of the hour from the Chamber of Commerce who was saying that the pending PRO Act would hurt small business. So what do you want people to know going forward, especially from the perspective of small business?

RHETT BUTTLE: So that's right. I mean, look, two out of every three new jobs in this country are created by small business. Just under half of Americans are employed by a small business. They're a crucial piece of the puzzle. I think what we're seeing in the research and what we hear from small business owners right now is that investment is the most important thing that they need to get their businesses back up and on track.

Access to capital is a huge part of that. We saw the PPP help with some of that. The Biden administration came in, made that a little bit more equitable for small businesses and business owners of color, which was really helpful. And just this week, we saw the roll out of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which is-- the funds there are going fast, and it's really helping a critical part of our sector.

And so if you think about workers, you think about your local restaurant, help is here, and help is on the way. And so a lot of that has been good news, but there's more work to do. And we need more investment to make sure that consumers have money in their pockets. For small businesses to thrive, we need those consumers to be spending money. And that's really where our focus has been.

SEANA SMITH: And in order for small businesses to thrive, really, right now, we need more and more people to get vaccinated. I know you have the Reimagine Main Street Initiative that's helping small businesses lead the way on this. I'm curious just what you found so far just in terms of small businesses, the roles that they're playing in this and what feedback they are getting from their workers?

RHETT BUTTLE: Yeah, and so it's-- it's a really great initiative. We launched Reimagine Main Street. And part of that initiative, we've been focused on providing education and resources to small business owners about vaccinations. And part of that is just because of the critical role small business owners play in our communities.

They're trusted messengers. People turn to their employees about where to get information. And so we thought, you know, these folks can be vaccine leaders. And so we did some research, and we saw that small business owners see this attached to the livelihood of their business. The faster the vaccines roll out, the faster their businesses can get up to speed.

Quite frankly, they're getting these questions from their employees. So we've been trying to help arm them with the tools that they need to be responsive to their employees and their communities. And so far, we've seen a lot of positivity to this idea that small business owners can be leaders, vaccine leaders in their communities and help their employees and get communities get vaccinated so that we can get our economy up and going more quickly.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Are you hearing from these small business owners and operators about staff that might be apprehensive about getting the vaccine? And how do you counsel them to assist those people to get the inoculation?

RHETT BUTTLE: So really, we want everyone to make the decision that's best for themselves. And for business owners, most of them are taking a educational approach, which is I'm providing you, my employees, with some educational tools. I'm trying to give you science-based data, which is really important.

But most of them are taking the approach of letting their employees make their own choice. And that seems to be working. That doesn't mean that employees don't have questions. But obviously, at the same time when they talk to their employer, get their questions answered, hear about the scientific data, that really tends to allow folks to think about getting the vaccine and really allows them to then think that it makes the best decision.

We're also seeing them play an important role with their communities. So as business owners are speaking out and talking about the importance of vaccination, people are seeing the business owners respond to that, and it's also driving a lot of positivity in communities, as well, across the country.

SEANA SMITH: Rhett, any sense of how many small businesses are requiring their workers to get vaccinated?

RHETT BUTTLE: We don't know by the numbers. We did ask in our survey. We did a fairly large survey. We had over 3,000 employer respondents. And we saw somewhere between 10% and 12% were thinking about requiring it. A lot of those folks were in fields where it kind of made sense to have a mandatory requirement.

But most folks are taking this more educational and incentives-based approach. We're seeing lots of large employers do that as well. And we really think an incentives-based approach is where we're at and allowing employees with the research, the data, and the scientific information to make the decision that's best for them and their families.

ADAM SHAPIRO: So what happens next once we have them vaccinated? Small businesses are still not out of the woods, or are they?

RHETT BUTTLE: So vaccination's just one part of this. You know, we really think about this in three ways. So the first piece is getting that access to capital to small businesses they need. When small businesses, they say cash is king, and that's true. And the government's helping there. We're also seeing the private sector step up and make resources available to businesses.

Piece two is this vaccination piece so that we can get people-- workers back into jobs and get businesses open and things like that. And then piece three is really building back better and really thinking about the sort of large investments we need to make. So partially there, there's a policy play. So I think there's a stimulus package and an investment package that Congress is considering right now. We think that would be really helpful to getting the economy going in the right direction.

And then another piece is digitization and really helping small business owners think about how do they go online and expand their customer base here at home and abroad? So it's really a multifaceted puzzle that we're thinking about here as sort of this Build Back Better program. But we're along the way. We have some work to do. But I think we're all encouraged by what we're seeing.

SEANA SMITH: Rhett, do you think we're on the other side of this? And why I asked this is how many, I guess, small businesses that are struggling right now do you potentially see still failing over the next couple of months?

RHETT BUTTLE: Yeah, I mean, so the sad story is not all business owners are going to make it out of this crisis. We saw too many, obviously, not make it already, and there's some that are still struggling. I think we've seen a lot more positive signs in the last few months. We haven't seen the complete-- I don't think we will really understand sort of the complete damage that we've seen. We're out in the field, actually, right now with some additional research to get a better understanding of what this looks like, so we'd be happy to come back and report that back.

But the other piece that we're seeing, and some of your earlier guests were saying this, is, you know, in some ways, this actually-- actually created an explosion of entrepreneurship. And so that is one sort of glimmer of-- a glimmer of hope in what has been a really difficult year. We're seeing all sorts of new businesses pop up, and that, to me, is sort of the heart of the American spirit. We're an entrepreneurial country by nation, and we're seeing some of that flourish even coming out of COVID-19.