Karen Edbrooke is thankful her bra and swimwear store, Big Girls Don’t Cry, has been able to reach new heights amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite torrid conditions across the retail sector.
But being the owner of a growing business amid the COVID-19 pandemic has created all sorts of challenges. Unable to access many government support programs, Edbrooke has been left to pick up the bill for making the business COVIDSafe all on her own.
“We’ve always had strict hygiene policies in place, but we’ve really upped the ante,” the business owner tells SmartCompany.
Things work a bit differently at Edbrooke’s Brisbane store these days.
The team cleans all the common areas across the store for every customer that cycles through, steam cleaning every garment that’s been tried on.
Back at headquarters, glass desk partitions have been installed to separate staff working in the office, and new computers have been bought for those working remotely during the pandemic.
All in all, when the dozens of boxes of personal protective equipment (PPE) are also accounted for, Edbrooke estimates she’s spent upwards of $50,000 on coronavirus-related costs since the pandemic began, every dime of which has come out of her own pocket.
“It’s a big price tag. It’s been really hard to finance our growth while putting everything else into play,” Edbrooke says.
Edbrooke isn’t alone. Throughout the pandemic, almost every operating business in Australia has been required to make changes to their day-to-day operations to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Orders of new equipment, hours of training and planning to remap operations have engrossed the lives of small business owners for months.
SmartCompany spoke with business owners to find out what being COVIDSafe has cost them, and the impact the pandemic continues to have on their companies.
We found some businesses are spending thousands of extra dollars each month on a mix of equipment, cleaning services and other costs they wouldn’t have incurred if it wasn’t for the pandemic.
There are also a range of non-financial costs associated with running a business through a pandemic, including the hours of time taken to understand government rules and falling productivity as the pandemic causes upheaval in the lives of workers.
‘Every time it’s touched, we clean it’
Jenny Folley is the managing director of national co-working business @WORKSPACES, which runs six offices across Victoria, NSW and Queensland.
Folley estimates her business has spent upwards of $20,000 on the six separate COVIDSafe plans that cover the offices in recent months, with bills split across cleaning, equipment and staff training.
“Our staff wipe down communal areas every 50 minutes and all other surfaces every time they’ve been touched,” Folley tells SmartCompany.
Folley has bought all the usual suspects: masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, but also picked up the bill for a range of other amenities, including single-use sugar and coffee satchels.
Temperature checking equipment was purchased for each office to facilitate screening for anyone that entered, and in some cases, Folley is going above and beyond state-based COVIDSafe rules.
Under arrangements that differ for each state and by each industry, businesses are putting together COVIDSafe business plans that cover everything from how they’re complying with social distancing to what PPE they need to operate.
In some states, such as Victoria, these rules are more stringent, but Folley says its easier to simply comply with the tougher rules nationwide than try to maintain different arrangements in each state.
All this has happened against the backdrop of a sharp drop-off in tenants, which has caused Folley’s business income to plummet.
“Our income has decreased, but our costs have increased … I’ve spent hours researching all the different rules and we’ve been buying [PPE] equipment from suppliers at elevated prices,” Folley says.
Folley’s experience is shared by other business owners SmartCompany spoke with for this story.
Essentially, as individuals, businesses and even governments rushed to purchase all available PPE in March, prices soared, leaving companies with little option but to pay up.
Deep cleaning runs up $2,400 bill
Anushka Bandara, the owner of Melbourne-based app development business Elegant Media, says the biggest single cost brought about by the coronavirus crisis has been deep cleaning, times two.
Bandara has moved offices twice over the course of the pandemic, and has purchased deep cleaning services at a cost of $1,200 each time, with a two-day turnaround.
“They cleaned the office four-times over,” Bandara tells SmartCompany.
Bandara estimates he’s also spending about $500 a week on a mix of PPE, cleaning and other costs associated with the pandemic.
“Small businesses are suffering, at the end of the day, we need more clarity [from governments] and more notice about changes in rules,” Bandara says.
Hours and hours: Being COVIDSafe takes time
For many business owners, financial costs come in addition to the time investment needed to ensure their operations comply with government rules.
In the week Victoria imposed stage four restrictions on businesses in Melbourne, Signed On managing director Andrew Zsembery spent more than 20 hours bringing his business into compliance with new rules.
“It would have taken 20 hours between myself and an administrator to type up all our procedures, review government guidelines, document them, and then implement the policies and worker permits,” Zsembery tells SmartCompany.
Zsembery says the latest time sink was in addition to dozens of hours he had already needed to invest in making sure his business has remained COVIDSafe throughout the pandemic.
The business owner also estimates he’s spent about $800 on masks, hand sanitiser and gloves to ensure his business has enough to last them until at least Christmas.
Sagar Sethi, founding director of digital agency Xugar, estimates he’s spent more than 100 hours researching COVIDSafe rules and implementing new procedures across his business.
“This is the new reality. We’ll have to deal with it until we find a vaccine,” Sethi tells SmartCompany.
As an IT company, the main change to Sethi’s operation has been a sharp increase in cleaning, which is now done daily instead of weekly, increasing cleaning costs five-times over since the pandemic began.
Staff health biggest concern in a COVIDSafe world
Chris Christofi, co-founder and chief executive of Reventon financial and property group, estimates he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on coronavirus-related expenses during the pandemic.
As with most businesses SmartCompany spoke with, costs are split across protective equipment and other expenses incurred as a result of the pandemic, including hardware to assist with remote working.
“You have to make sure everyone has a safe environment,” Christofi tells SmartCompany.
“That means ergonomic chairs, PCs and systems with teams.”
But despite experiencing a rise in costs after his revenue plummeted 80% during the pandemic, Christofi says he’s lost much more money in productivity and worries about the mental wellbeing of his staff.
“It’s not going to kill me. I’ve lost $4 million in revenue in three months, but I can make the money back later.
“The mental well being of my team is my biggest concern … locking people up in their homes is not good for people.”
COVIDSafe costs: What did we learn?
Every business SmartCompany spoke with was happy to do their bit to curb the spread of coronavirus in their communities, but remains worried about the long-term impact the pandemic will have on their businesses and staff members.
The pandemic has put pressure on small business revenue and costs, even in cases where companies are growing, as cashflow becomes more important than ever ahead of a forthcoming recession.
Some of those we spoke with said productivity was an emerging problem for their businesses, mainly because the pandemic has changed the way many of their workers live, and that they fear this will ultimately become their biggest cost.