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'It's A Difficult Place To Be': Seattle-Yakima Construction Firm Preps For Mass Layoffs

PaintSmith Co.
PaintSmith does business in Yakima (pictured) and Seattle with around 130 employees. Most have been laid off since Gov. Jay Inslee mandated stringent measures to slow coronavirus spread.

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made it clear that his statewide “stay-at-home” order applies to most commercial and residential construction, staff at the PaintSmith Company in Yakima and Seattle had no choice.

“We made a lot of calls last night to lay off a lot of people,” said Justin Smith, who runs the company founded by his father, Robert Smith, in 1973.

Until this week, the company employed 130 people for jobs painting new offices, apartments, casinos and doing industrial coating. Now, fewer than 50 people are still on hand. Office staff is still at work, but reductions in hours and layoffs are possible there.

Like many decades-old businesses, PaintSmith has had experience with layoffs. After the 2008 recession, the company went from 80 employees to just 10. It taught Smith that his company can survive financial downturns. 

“I also know what I have to do to do that, and some of what we had to do was very difficult, letting go people that I really care about,” Smith said.

Credit PaintSmith Co.
Robert Smith founded PaintSmith in 1973, now with operations in the Seattle and Yakima areas.

Some of those laid off in the wake of the recession came back to work at the company, Smith said. He hopes the layoffs he’s forced to make now will be temporary.

Those still at work are on jobs for so-called essential industries like agriculture. Financially it may make more sense to shut down everything to keep costs low, according to the company’s chief financial officer, but it’s not an option Smith is considering. Customers in essential industries want work done and employees want paychecks.

While layoffs are devastating to the company and his employees, Smith knows it’s necessary.

“It’s a difficult place to be,” Smith said. “You both want to keep working for your company, for your customers and your employees, but you also want to limit the spread of a virus that you don’t completely understand. It’s the uncertainty of how long this is going to be that’s making it so rough.”

Smith says he’s working to help laid-off employees get unemployment benefits. For most, it’s their first time applying. On Friday, the U.S. House is scheduled to vote on a $2 trillion aid package with unemployment relief. It passed the Senate Wednesday

For small businesses, the Washington State Department of Commerce announced $1.8 million dollars in grants for rural counties Thursday. That grant money can also go to food and rental assistance for residents. 

Last week, 133,464 Washingtonians filed claims for unemployment benefits. The industry sector experiencing the highest number of new claims is accommodation and food services with 41,309 claims. State officials say those numbers may continue to rise in the coming weeks.