COVID-19 Keeps NACS Busy on the Government Affairs Front
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — In almost 28 years of working in government relations on behalf of the convenience store industry, Lyle Beckwith has never encountered as serious a situation as the impact of government restrictions on consumers and businesses designed to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Normally, most of the activities of NACS’ government relations staff revolves around issues affecting the profitability of convenience stores. “Now, we are working on survival. This is a much more serious situation,” Beckwith said in an interview with Convenience Store News from his home office, nee kitchen, in Virginia.
NACS’ first priority was ensuring that convenience stores would be included in the government’s list of essential businesses that could remain in operation. “At first, only grocery stores and gas stations were considered essential, but we said what about convenience stores that don’t sell fuel,” explained Beckwith, who serves as senior vice president of government relations for NACS. Shortly afterward, convenience stores were added to the list of essential businesses.
The next priority was the federal stimulus package. Unfortunately, that didn’t go as well for convenience stores. The package, hammered out between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, limited relief to companies with fewer than 500 employees, which effectively meant it only applied to chains with approximately 32 or fewer stores. “We said, what about all the 50-, 60- and 70-store chains that are left without any relief?” said Beckwith.
NACS tried to get the NAICS Prefix 72 exemption that restaurants were able to obtain, which granted relief to restaurants as long as they had fewer than 500 employees per location. “We said they need to expand that exemption to other retailers such as c-stores,” Beckwith recounted. Although lawmakers appeared to understand the need, he said “there was just no stomach to change it. They wanted to narrow the scope of who would get aid, not expand it.”
The good news for c-stores is that franchisees do quality for the small business relief as long as they have a Small Business Administration franchise identifier number.
One of the top issues facing convenience channel retailers right now is the threat of unfounded lawsuits against retailers alleging that someone contracted COVID-19 on their premises. Liability shielding for essential businesses is a major concern. “Every company is concerned about liability,” said Beckwith. According to published reports, more than 900 COVID-19 related lawsuits have been filed already against operating businesses.
He noted that NACS has formed a coalition with other businesses, including truckers, grocers, farmers, etc., to obtain liability protection for essential businesses. Since tort reform legislation has been so difficult to get passed by Congress over the years, the relief being sought pertains only to COVID-19 related liability protection.
NACS Treasurer Kevin Smartt, CEO of Bonham, Texas-based Kwik Chek Food Stores, which has 47 locations in Texas and Oklahoma, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of NACS. The purpose of the meeting was to examine liability protections related to the pandemic.
Besides Kwik Chek, Smartt also operates McCraw Oil Co., a fuel wholesale distributor; McCraw Transport, a fuel delivery firm; and Texas Born, a food product company — all essential businesses that have remained open.
Smartt testified that “while it’s extremely difficult to prove where COVID-19 was contracted, we know that some plaintiffs’ attorneys will look to take advantage of the crisis and file claims against businesses who stayed open.”
He asked the Judiciary Committee to protect essential businesses that were asked to keep operating to serve their communities and first responders against claims that the virus was contracted by a customer or employee on the premises or due to the continued operation of the business. He also asked that protections cover employers that take precautions, and that the liability protections be tailored so that they do allow true “bad actors” to be sued.
NACS is leading a coalition of associations and groups whose members are recognized by the Department of Homeland Security as essential to the nation’s infrastructure. Thirty-six associations submitted a letter for the record stating their support for a policy that protects essential businesses from unwarranted liability, according to Beckwith.
NACS is also supporting legislation being proposed in the House by Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) and Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.) that would provide a four-month federal tax holiday to essential convenience store and grocery store workers. The association is leading a grassroots push to support upcoming legislation to include a payroll tax holiday, as well.
Another upcoming issue for NACS to address is handling workers’ compensation claims in the current environment. “We’re keeping workers’ comp separate from the liability issue right now,” said Beckwith. “We’re focused on liability right now, but I anticipate we will address workers’ comp in the near future.”
Other federal issues NACS intends to get involved in are SNAP hot foods waivers, and fuel issues around summer/winter fuels and the Renewable Fuels Standard.
For all the importance around the federal issues created by COVID-19, Beckwith acknowledges that the biggest issue might be the patchwork of different local requirements that businesses have to abide by. “One town may require that everyone wear a mask, but not the adjoining town,” he said. Others have different limits pertaining to the number of people allowed inside a store, he added.
“These are very challenging times for the industry,” he said. “We’re all trying to do the right thing, but this is a very unique situation under very unclear guidance from the government.”