This story was originally published by The Seattle Times on Oct. 21, 2020.
By Benjamin Romano, Seattle Times business reporter
For many business owners struggling to survive the pandemic’s upending of office work, news that downtown Seattle’s biggest employer had extended its work-from-home policy by six months is yet another blow.
Many small businesses have already adjusted to the absence of Amazon workers — along with those of many other downtown companies — and their appetites for coffee, food, an after-work drink and other services. But scores of others have succumbed, and business leaders said that without help, more will fail in the coming months.
“We’ve already endured six months, with some help from the government,” said Justin Young, owner of Flow Fitness, with locations in South Lake Union and Fremont. “I don’t see us being able to do another six months” without additional support, or an easing in state limits on the number of customers in the gyms.
Both seem unlikely in the near term, as Washington state has seen a surge in new cases, and “Congress has been unable to advance new relief measures.
Amazon on Tuesday told employees, including 55,000-plus corporate and technology staff in Seattle and Bellevue, they had the option to work from home through June — six months beyond the January date most recently targeted for return, and 16 months since the tech and commerce giant first implemented the policy.
Amid the pandemic’s turmoil, some new patterns emerged downtown this summer, including an uptick in the number of people choosing to work in the office at least some of the time.
Weekday daytime worker visits to downtown Seattle in August and September were up more than 18% from a low in April, though still down by about two-thirds from a year earlier, according to an analysis of data from Placer.ai, which tracks people based on cellphone location data, cited by the Downtown Seattle Association. And in a recent DSA survey of 179 businesses, 44% of respondents said at least a quarter of their employees were already back at the office or worksite, while 38% said they expected to have at least half of their workers back on site midway through 2021.
An Amazon spokesperson said that anecdotally, the number of people coming into its buildings has been increasing, though she could not provide an estimate. (The majority of Amazon’s employees, in its fulfillment centers and logistics operations, have no option of working from home.)
“We have invested significant funds and resources to keep those who choose to come to the office safe through physical distancing, deep cleaning, temperature checks, and by providing face coverings and hand sanitizer,” a company spokesperson said.
Amazon also continues to employ the contract front-desk staff, janitors, security guards and other personnel who keep its buildings functioning. In some cases, they are performing new tasks. Shuttle drivers are making food deliveries and reception staff support temperature checks, she said.
DSA president Jon Scholes said many companies and building owners are doing a good job to make their facilities as safe as possible for those employees who do need to, or wish to, return to the office. Continuing to do so is important for the near-term health of downtown, he said.
But companies and facilities managers face a moving target as they try to make their work sites safe for employees and stay in line with public health recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday that spending a cumulative 15 minutes in a day within six feet of a person infected with Covid-19 should be considered “close contact” — even if each exposure was brief. The prior definition of “close contact” was 15 minutes of continued exposure.
Scholes said that already more than 130 street-level retail, restaurant and services businesses have closed their physical locations in downtown Seattle permanently.
“I expect, unfortunately, that we’re going to see more if one of two things don’t change. Either one, another federal stimulus bill is adopted and provides direct relief to the small businesses, or two, more employees come back [to downtown offices]. I don’t think we’ve stabilized the situation in any way,” he said.
Scholes said that Amazon’s timelines may not directly drive the decisions of other office employers, who instead will focus on the engagement and productivity of their own workforce.
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But particularly in technology, where major companies and startups continue to recruit from the same talent pool, work-from-home timelines and employee flexibility are watched more closely.
Microsoft earlier this month said that for most employees, working from home up to half time is “now standard,” with manager approval.
Manny Medina, founder and CEO of Seattle-based startup Outreach, which makes software for sales teams, said his company decided last month that “we prioritize employee well-being and have committed to a work-from-home policy through July 2021.”
The 600-person company has kept its offices on Elliott Avenue open to employees who feel they need it, provided they’ve taken a coronavirus test within three days and follow other safety rules. On average, 15 employees a day are using the space, spread across three floors. That’s one of several steps the company has taken to allow flexible work situations, including encouraging greater use of an unlimited paid-time-off policy.
Whether the modest uptick in downtown worker numbers will continue into the dark, rainy winter remains to be seen. Prospects for the spring and summer beyond are less certain still, but that’s where some are placing their hopes.
Marc Chatalas is co-owner of six area restaurants, including the Cactus location in an Amazon-owned building in South Lake Union. He said his restaurants have continued to improve their off-premises service options and have benefited from more customers dining in, particularly on the outdoor patio. Some customers have found it easier to visit the neighborhood in the absence of Amazon’s daily workforce, he said.
“Our business, we’re going to make it to June,” Chatalas said. “But the expectation is that things are going to come back around that time. And we need it to. If it doesn’t, then that portends greater issues for us in the future.”
Amazon, which made a point of fostering independent businesses to serve its corporate workers, has granted rent concessions that are crucial to the restaurant’s viability.
“Thank God that there are companies that are doing well during this pandemic, and I’m fortunate that my landlord is one of them,” he said.
Young, at Flow Fitness, said the state’s coronavirus restriction limiting larger gyms to 25% of their usual capacity is the bigger issue right now. He said that despite the absence of the Amazon workforce, he has largely been able to keep the gym near its reduced limit — but that’s not enough for a sustainable business.
“We need restrictions to be eased or lifted,” Young said. “Amazon coming back alone wouldn’t help us.”
Young, a South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce board member, also worries about the neighborhood’s long-term future. He said he’s afraid that Amazon will move jobs out of Seattle to avoid the new city business tax on pay to employees earning $150,000 or more a year, which is highest on companies such as Amazon, with at least $1 billion in local payrolls.
“Even with the recovery, we’re not going to see as much of a bounceback,” he said.
Benjamin Romano: 206-652-6593 or email@example.com; on Twitter: @bromano.