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How a banker, baker and cleaner survived, then thrived during the pandemic, and new challenges they face

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Photos of  Pilar Guzman Zavala, Ginger Martin and Sherry Rudolph
Leslie Ovalle, Tom Hudson
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Pilar Guzman Zavala owns and runs Half Moon Empanadas, American National Bank CEO Ginger Martin (middle), and Sherry Rudolph owns janitorial services firm Legally Clean.

WLRN has been following three businesses for more than a year as the regional economy recovers from COVID-19.

First, it was survival.

Today, it’s resilient optimism.

WLRN’s Sunshine Economy has been tracking the South Florida pandemic economic recovery for more than a year through the experiences of three business leaders — a banker, baker and cleaner.

As the third year of living and working with COVID-19 is underway, we did something we hadn’t done during all those months earlier – we brought the three of them together to meet and speak with each other.

It was a virtual setting — driven more by their busy schedules than health worries and by the virus-induced comfort with remote conversations.

They are optimistic about their growing businesses. They share the struggle to find employees. They have been raising worker pay while wrestling with inflation. And they’ve become more resilient.

“There was a moment in 2020 when I told my husband, ‘You need to find a new CEO.’ It was that bad,” said Half Moon Empanadas CEO Pilar Guzman Zavala during the recent virtual conversation. In early 2020, the company had 13 outlets, about 100 workers and ambitious expansion plans.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Most of its shops closed. Dozens of workers had to be laid off and the company pivoted to make meals for seniors under a Miami-Dade County contract. That kept its kitchen open, a few workers employed and brought in some sales.

Sherry Rudolph was busy with crews cleaning offices and homes. Then workers were sent home and people were uncomfortable with others in their houses during the early months of the pandemic.

“When something is in your heart and in your head — you don't have an option to quit,” she said. “It goes back to having the fortitude and the energy and the faith to keep things going.”

Rudolph switched her focus, seeing an opportunity as the real estate market heated up. She concentrated on cleaning newly constructed homes and buildings before people moved in. It helped save her small company.

Ginger Martin had most of her bank employees working from the office throughout the pandemic. A half dozen workers were remote for the first three months, and everyone was back in the office at American National Bank during the first summer of the virus. “As a community, we said, ‘We have to be available and accessible.’ So we just kept working.”

The bank processed tens of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program grants. Martin said one almost brought her to tears. It was a ministry that received two of the forgivable loans. Two years later, Martin was invited to participate in a board meeting. “I looked at their financial statements and realized if it had not been for PPP, this 70-year-old ministry would have gone under. And I tell you, I actually got teary-eyed.”

The journeys of these three businesswomen through the pandemic economy reflect the fast-changing nature of the virus, its evolving economic impact, and the tremendous uncertainty caused by the germ.

Now, more than two years after the pandemic began, the disease remains, but vaccines and treatments mean it is a very different pandemic. And a very different economy than before the germ — one with an extremely tight job market and fast-rising inflation.

SEARCH FOR WORKERS

Both Zavala and Martin said their biggest challenge today is finding employees. Rudolph’s challenge as the third year of the pandemic is underway is not people directly — it’s money to grow.

“I am going on my fourth director of operations in 12 months. That tells you how challenging it's been to be able to grow the company with the right people so that they can take on the operations of the stores and the product.” Zavala said. “It's been really hard.”

Martin had two loan officer openings last year and filled them. One of the new workers didn’t work out so she’s looking on the market again.

The bank had a record year of lending last year with more than $100 million of loans. And the pace continues this year.

“We have really strong demand. I've got a lot of excess liquidity that I would like to lend out,” Martin said. “I'm not threatened by not having (another loan officer), but it would sure be great for the bottom line if I did.”

Rudolph is going after new and larger cleaning contracts requiring more capital.

“With these larger projects, you need money for labor. You need money for equipment. You need money for supplies,” she said. The capital also would go toward insurance and bonding requirements for the bigger deals.

About 1 in 10 people who were working just before the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago have not returned to the job market in South Florida. There are more than 30,000 fewer people are available to fill jobs as the economy has snapped back. It has been a persistent feature of the recovery from the pandemic-induced recession two years ago — companies having trouble finding and keeping workers.

Zavala has used her current employees to recruit new workers, and the time-honored focus on company culture.

“I talk to each of my people to see what things I could do for them. I had to. (Other companies) wanted to steal them. No one left,” she said.

Rudolph uses the same technique to find employees. “People who work for me know other people that might be looking for work. A lot of times people like to work with people they know. So that makes a difference as well,” she said.

Rudolph also was able to keep most of her employees as business rebounded. “They pretty much stayed with me even when the work wasn't there. They were able to come back when I needed them and when the work picked up.”

Despite thousands of workers quitting with confidence of finding new work, Zavala and Rudolph have not experienced what’s been called the Great Reassessment.

“I understand that the work they do as laborers is hard and that I appreciate and acknowledge them,” Rudolph said.

PAY AND INFLATION

Each of the three business leaders are focused on worker pay. They have been forced to because of the tight job market and fast-rising inflation.

The rate of inflation has doubled in the past year. It started rising as the economy re-awoke after restrictions that were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 began to be lifted. People had stimulus checks and had been saving money. Factories had been pinched by the pandemic and supply chains were clogged.

Consumer inflation went from 4% last April to almost 8%today. Yes, Russia’s war in Ukraine has contributed to higher prices for energy, but inflation was climbing well before Russian troops invaded.

The higher price of gas is just one of the ways inflation has come calling for South Florida companies.

Last year, Martin budgeted 3 to 4% pay raises across the board at the bank she runs. This year, she is considering 4 to 6% pay hikes with plans to concentrate on staff level employees. “I think the staff level is the one that could use it the most.”

Rudolph has boosted hourly pay by $2-3. She’s also considering how to help with higher gas prices, which remain over $4 a gallon. “I have a crew that goes to Miami for me, and while I already have the gas included, I would definitely look at increasing that.”

The higher expenses have her thinking about raising prices for the first time since the pandemic.

Zavala also has raised wages and is experiencing higher costs of supplies for her empanada company. “It’s been a roller coaster with ingredients.”

It has led her to create a new position and hire a purchasing manager to concentrate on working with vendors. “Her job is only to literally check on prices, make sure we get the best pricing. That's helped us keep a little bit sanity on that side.”

The higher costs go beyond the rising price of beef and chicken going into Half Moon’s empanadas. Zavala has had trouble finding the type of white bag she usually uses to package the product.

“I think what Pilar and Sherry are talking about is the fact that (higher prices) are going to have to get passed on to the customer because the small businesses just can't afford to absorb all the additional costs.”

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.