The president of Oregon Business & Industry lays out how the trade group plans to aid recovery from the pandemic-driven downtown.
As head of the state’s largest business advocacy organization, Sandra McDonough has become a voice for businesses struggling to stay afloat. With entire sectors closed down, McDonough worked with legislators and business owners to create a path toward economic recovery.
While COVID-19 has been the primary concern for the business group, new awareness around racial inequality and executive action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions have also topped its agenda. McDonough discusses how employers and government can come together to meet the challenge of a wounded economy, and lays out a path for businesses to recover.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How have you seen the businesses you represent adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Employers understand our economy will not return to normal until we get the virus under control. Business owners understand better than most because they’re the ones that have had to shut their doors or change operations.
Employers have changed operations to manufacture personal protective equipment, ensured flexibility for working parents, instituted work-from-home practices, installed new safety equipment and procedures at the work sites, and complied with the myriad new safety rules and recommendations from the federal, state and local governments.
What is Oregon Business & Industry doing to support its members?
We have argued for support for the people hardest hit, both by the virus and the economic fallout of the pandemic: the unemployed, the shuttered businesses, the parents struggling to do their jobs while also caring for kids while schools are closed.
For the past 11 months, our primary focus has been to ensure that Oregon employers know what is going on with the virus and what they need to do to prevent its spread. We have advocated for laws and rules that keep businesses open as much as is safely possible and keep workers earning a paycheck.
We have had a great working relationship with Gov. Kate Brown and elected leaders, Democrat and Republican, throughout this pandemic.
What sort of private-sector solutions are going to be critical to defeating the virus?
We need to make sure the vaccine rollout is successful, and frontline workers — those people who can’t do their jobs on Zoom from their dining room tables — get vaccinated as soon as possible.
We all have to work together to make sure Oregonians feel safe going back to normal — shopping, eating out, attending events. Just as important is a concerted effort to support those who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
What areas need special attention because of disproportionate impact?
We know the restaurant and lodging industry and the people who work in it have taken the worst economic hit. We know minority-owned businesses have had a particularly difficult time. Black, Indigenous and communities of color have experienced a disproportionate share of job losses and COVID-19 exposure.
What impacts have the Black Lives Matter demonstrations had on Oregon employers?
We have to assist minority-owned businesses as they look for opportunities to grow and hold a stronger position in our state’s economy. I have been impressed by the willingness shown by so many Oregon business leaders to open their minds and hearts to a sometimes-tough conversation and own that they have to be part of the solution.
Oregon’s business community is looking introspectively to determine what we can do to contribute to this conversation and be part of the important change that is taking place. How do we create equitable workplaces, work environments that are respectful and free from bias, as well as support marginalized communities and end historic injustices?
Support from state and federal government continues to play a crucial role in stabilizing the economy. How can government best support businesses?
What business needs from the government now is simply room to breathe and recover. We can’t afford new taxes, and noncritical regulatory changes should be off the table. This has been a head-spinning year for businesses. We have never seen ordered closures like the ones we experienced in 2020.
At the same time the pandemic forced business closures and job losses, Oregon started implementation of unprecedented business tax increases. The business tax burden in our state is increasing 41% between 2019 and 2022. It has been hard and costly. Our focus must be on beating the virus and reviving our state’s troubled economy, and for that we need a healthy business sector.
The Biden administration and Gov. Brown have made environmentally sustainable business a part of the recovery. How can we ensure Oregon is a leader in the sustainability sector?
Oregon businesses are innovating for a more sustainable future by developing products and services that businesses and consumers around the globe deploy in their efforts to address the environmental challenges of our time. Oregon has a long history of being a leader in sustainability, and our creative business community will help ensure that continues to be the case.
Other business organizations have been critical of these efforts. How can the transition to a net-zero carbon economy avoid harming business?
We must look for balance. Oregon’s economy has been devastated by the COVID-19 recession. Our priority must be getting employers and their employees back on their feet as quickly as possible, and that means supporting job growth however we can.
We need our legislators and regulatory agencies to be mindful about what it will take to recover and grow Oregon’s economy, and that means avoiding noncritical regulations and new costs during this challenging time.
At the end of the day, it is possible to both address environmental concerns and protect the economy, so long as we constantly think about striking the right balance between economic impacts and environmental regulations.
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