The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has had a major impact on just about every profession in the United States, including those of us in the pet care industry.
Veterinarians, groomers, trainers and pet sitters like myself are really feeling the economic pinch caused by shelter-in-place/closure orders.
Some of us, like pet care personnel, are classified as essential by some states — and that does help because we can continue to work during the pandemic. But is that really a solution?
For one, we increase our chances of becoming exposed to COVID-19 when we go in and out of other people’s homes or have clients come to our facility.
This is a double-edged sword because all pet professionals would choose to be working if we could. Like everyone else, we have bills to pay.
How COVID-19 Has Affected Pet Groomers
Groomers are having a tough time — they’re not classified as essential by most states. Grooming isn’t just about “making my pet pretty,” though:
- Some pets need regular grooms in order to keep their coats healthy and clean.
- If nails are left unattended too long, they can cause serious problems.
- Even horses require regular grooms and visits from the farrier to keep hooves from becoming overgrown.
So, for some, going months without seeing a groomer isn’t a feasible option. Alicia Dean runs Sandwich Animal Grooming of East Sandwich, Massachusetts, and she concedes it’s tough.
“Well, obviously, I’ve had to shut down the shop until I get the go-ahead from the governor, as I’m a nonessential business — like every groomer in Massachusetts,” she said a few weeks ago. “I’m also not allowed to collect unemployment at this time because I’m a 1099 contractor.”
(The state only recently began accepting unemployment assistance applications for qualified self-employed and gig economy workers.)
“It has affected my business a lot because I was already doing one-on-one grooming with curbside service. No one came into the shop at all,” Dean says. “I am the only groomer at this salon next to a veterinarian, and I’m still getting calls and texts to set up grooms, yet I can’t.”
Dean says she is especially concerned about her special needs pet clientele. “I groom a lot of older pets, special conditions [and] aggressive pets, and I also do sedated grooms,” she says.
Despite the financial hardship, Dean is trying her best to remain upbeat. “All I can say right now is that it’s safest to stay at home for all us pet workers until this virus is behind us, and flatten the curve,” she says.
For Pet Sitters, “The Risk Is Just Too High — And Too Scary”
By definition, pet sitters like me take care of pets when their humans aren’t able to — that is, when they’re working or away from home. If everyone is home, there is little need for us.
“We will no longer need your services” is the text message Sarah Bence of Michigan says she got just as her months-long cat-sitting gig had begun.
“I lost $1,180 overnight,” Bence says. “And that’s for one single job, not mentioning every single other canceled gig.”
Some clients have offered for me to still come and walk their dog, but to do so would violate the social distancing protocols that are justifiably in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
We go in and out of people’s homes all day long. That means we’re touching door handles, locks, leashes, tables, chairs, the fridge if it’s feeding time and so on in multiple homes. This increases a pet sitter’s chances of exposure to COVID-19, so for now it’s safest for everyone to refrain from doing visits that aren’t absolutely necessary (e.g., you’re helping a first responder care for their pet).
If you are a pet sitter who is continuing to do visits, please be careful. Use sanitizing wipes or solution, gloves and a facial covering, and touch as few surfaces as possible — including the pets.
“COVID-19 has put me completely out of work, says Delayna Long, owner-operator of Furr Babyz Pet Care in Osterville, Massachusetts. “I have had some extremely loyal clients that kept me on as long as they could, but the risk for them and myself is just too high — and frankly, too scary.”
Sometimes pet sitters get contacted for jobs that in the normal course of things we would jump at, not just for the opportunity to grow our business but because we genuinely want to help people out. It’s what sitters do, what we love. Unfortunately during this time, it isn’t always an option.
“I had a woman contact me about watching her cat in case she would need to be hospitalized due to COVID-19,” Long says. “I battled with it for an entire day because I wanted to be able to at least give her the peace of mind knowing her cat would be OK while she was gone.”
“In the end, I had to say no,” Long says. “I have asthma and felt that it would just be too risky entering the house. I did, however, give her several other names of amazing pet care providers in the area, and apps to help her reach out to her community.”
Mary K., another local pet sitter, says despite losing “almost all” of her clients, she is doing everything she can to make ends meet. “As a single mom with no other income, I applied for temporary work at a local market.… I’ve been trying to stay positive and stay healthy, which is the best we can all do. I believe we can all get through this, we’ve just got to stay strong.”
But not all pet sitting businesses are sole proprietors — and those business owners have employees they’re worried about.
Just Around the Corner, a pet sitting and dog walking business in Plymouth, Massachusetts, had 25 employees at the beginning of March. But because of shelter-in-place/closure orders, “I have had to lay off the majority of my staff so that they can collect unemployment,” says the owner, who hopes that “once we are able to return to our regular schedule, most if not all can come back.”
For Dog Trainers, Too, “Business Is Way Down”
Rick Alto, a former federal special agent, is now a certified professional dog trainer who owns/operates ExFed Dog Training and serves on the board of directors for the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP).
As both the owner of a small business and a board member for IACP, Alto is concerned about how tough it’s been on those in the pet professions. The pandemic has “hit this business really hard, and it needs to be talked about,” he says. “Business is definitely way down.”
Alto does have a few clients in-house, since ExFed is a board and train facility, but not the number he would typically see this time of year.
He spoke at length about how pet professionals should be taking the opportunity to share with their clients what their cleaning and sanitizing protocols are and how they’ve changed due to the pandemic. The idea, he says, is that this might make pet parents and prospective clients more comfortable.
“Right now when someone drops off their dog, we practice social distancing by having the client hand me the leash from as far away as safely possible,” Alto says. “The client does not come inside the facility.”
“The dogs are immediately either wiped down or given a bath, and their equipment is sanitized. Any food or other items have to be packed in containers that I can sanitize on-site.”
Making It Through While Flattening the Curve
If you are a pet care professional whose business has been suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some things you can look into to help grow your business and make ends meet during this difficult time.
First and foremost, be flexible and open to change. “You’ve got to pivot. You’ve got to change your way of thinking,” says Rick Alto. “Do videos, emails, offer online courses, offer other products.”
Alto is an advocate of feeding raw, so he spends some time marketing that skill set. Others like myself could spend time creating new ways to reach clients, like setting up email blasts, making online videos, encouraging people to share their pet photos and stories. If we are CPR-certified, we might talk about how important that skill is. The pandemic will end, and it will only be to our benefit to come out strong.
In terms of supplemental income, there are a few options:
- We can pick up temporary work, as Mary K. has done. Most markets are still open and may be looking for help.
- Another way to supplement income is to sign up for Instacart shopping. A large number of retailers use Instacart to deliver their products to customers. Signing up will allow you to make money, practice social distancing and help out those who need it.
- You can also reach out to local businesses. Restaurants and local shops that typically don’t offer delivery services may need drivers. This is almost ideal as these restaurants will revert to their normal policy post-pandemic — but so will you.
Just remember to protect yourself. Use gloves and a mask/facial covering, and disinfect anything you need to come into contact with.
Assistance for Out-of-Work Sole Proprietors and Business Owners
There is help out there, if you know how to look for it:
Sign up for temporary unemployment assistance as soon as you are able to do so.
Typically, unemployment is not available to sole proprietors, but the CARES Act, a massive federal stimulus program in the United States, “expands eligibility to include the self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers, and other individuals who may otherwise be ineligible for unemployment compensation and cannot work for reasons related to COVID-19,” according to an insightful breakdown by Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP.
“Unemployment compensation for eligible individuals will be the sum of whatever their weekly benefit would have been at the state level plus an additional $600 per week. The $600 increase is referred to as ‘Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation,’ and is effective through July 31, 2020,” the firm notes.
This is an unprecedented move, so take advantage of it.
Small Business Administration (SBA) Loans
There are 2 federal loan programs available of note:
If you are a business with employees and you are looking to pay your staff during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than lay them off, then the PPP is a good choice for you. PPP offers low rates and even a significant amount of loan forgiveness — however, you will have to stringently account for how you’ve used those funds.
The EIDL is a little more flexible and may be a better fit for sole proprietors who have no employees except themselves. These loans offer low rates and long-term financing of up to 30 years with no penalty for prepayment. You are also offered the option to take an advance on the funds: up to $1,000 per employee.
These programs have a limited budget, so apply sooner rather than later.
Communicate With Lenders
Reach out to any of your lenders, such as your mortgage company or the bank that you pay your car payment to.
“If you can pay your mortgage, pay your mortgage,” advises the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But “if you can’t pay your mortgage, or can only pay a portion, contact your mortgage loan servicer immediately.”
Although forbearances aren’t ideal (you will owe the money at the end of a prearranged period, such as 30–60 days), it still buys you some time to put other plans in place, like collecting unemployment or taking out an SBA loan. As part of the CARES Act, “mortgage accounts in forbearance as a result of COVID-19 cannot be reported negatively to the credit bureaus by lenders,” according to Experian.
The catch? You’ve got to make the call — none of these assistance programs are automatic.
In this video, Bella Vasta from Jump Consulting, who coaches pet sitting businesses, talks about “pet industry COVID-19 survival” and shares some inspiration amid the pandemic:
How You Can Help Your Pet Sitter or Other Pet Care Professional
If you are a client of one of these businesses, there are a lot of ways to help out.
Some clients have continued to pay for jobs that had to be canceled. Several of my clients have done this, and I can’t express how grateful I am. Their generosity has helped me put food in my cupboards and keep the lights on.
Alternatively, you can buy gift cards or ask them if they’d do odd jobs for you that don’t require person-to-person contact.
The pet care industry is vital. We’re there 24/7 for you and your pets, and we want to still be there for you after this pandemic has run its course.
The struggle is unanimous among the pet care community — but so is a remarkable positivity. Everyone I spoke with for this article remained positive about and committed to doing their part to flatten the curve. It’s going to be tough for a little while, but we’ll make it through together.
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