Epworth by the Sea President/CEO Joel Willis had to make the difficult decision to lay off all of Epworth’s hourly staff due to the corona virus.

Businesses small and large are taking a big economic hit from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but some nonprofit businesses are taking it as hard if not harder.

Epworth by the Sea, a 100-acre conference and retreat center on St. Simons Island, caters to hundreds of events and groups, large and small, throughout the year. COVID-19 has thrown all that into the bin for the time being, however.

“Our hourly staff are out of work. We haven’t had any business here since (March) 15,” said Joel Willis, Epworth CEO. “We have 50 employees at Epworth and then 30 or 35 employed by Aramark, our food service contract company. Aramark is eligible for unemployment, but our employees are not.

“Our salaried staff are working in shifts just to keep the office open and the grounds maintained. We’ve cut back operations, we’ve cut buildings off, we’re doing everything we can to reduce overhead costs.”

Epworth has similar assets and employees comparable to other for-profit businesses, but its nonprofit status rules out small business loans and unemployment benefits for employees.

“It’s just a tough situation for us. (We have a) big operation here and over 40 buildings to maintain. We’re a lot like Sea Island, but just a lot smaller scale. Still, the magnitude is even worse for us because we don’t have the benefits.”

A federal stimulus bill currently in the works offers a ray of sunshine, he said.

“The main concern we have is the stimulus, and if it includes not-for-profits like we are,” Willis said. “Right now, not-for-profits are not eligible for unemployment compensation.”

Other local nonprofits, like FaithWorks, rely entirely on donations and charity rather than revenue from providing a service.

FaithWorks’ mission is to provide for the needy. It does so through the Well, a day shelter for the homeless, and Sparrow’s Nest, a food pantry, both of which are located in downtown Brunswick.

The Rev. Wright Culpepper, executive director of FaithWorks, said difficult times have historically been the times the public comes together to help those in need.

“It’s a little bit too early to tell whether this is positive or negative for us,” Culpepper said. “(During the Great Recession of) 2008, when we went through that, we were afraid it would be a difficult time, but many in the community stepped up. We made new friends through that time of people who both support and volunteer.”

All of the Methodist-affiliated nonprofit’s services are continuing to operate, he said, albeit with new protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. People making donations are asked to do so through Sparrow’s Nest on Altama Avenue and to stay away from the Well for the time being.

On Friday, Culpepper said Sparrow’s Nest has seen a 40 percent increase in those that come to Sparrow’s Nest looking for food and a comparable increase in donations.

“It’s a day-to-day kind of thing,” Culpepper said. “We don’t intend to shut down unless we run out of food, and the community has been generous with food … In terms of money, it’s going to be some time before we see if we’re taking a dip.”

FaithWorks is most in need of volunteers due to many of their older helpers practicing social distancing and self-quarantine in light of the nationwide pandemic.

“They’ve taken a step back for safety reasons, and we understand that. We’re a little understaffed,” Culpepper said. “At the same time, had some who have taken hiatuses from work come in to pick up the slack.”

For more information on how to donate and volunteer opportunities, call Sparrow’s Nest manager Sabra Slade at 912-261-8512, ext. 110. Monetary donations can be addressed to FaithWorks at P.O Box 2902 Brunswick, GA 31520, and donations of food and supplies can be dropped off at the Sparrow’s Nest, 2911 Altama Ave. in Brunswick.

Over at United Way of Coastal Georgia — which aims to improve health, education and financial stability of county residents through community investment — president and CEO Virginia Brown said the nonprofit’s focus has shifted its focus in light of COVID-19.

“We immediately partnered with the Coastal Georgia Community Foundation to open the Community Emergency Needs Fund, a relief fund created after Hurricane Irma,” Brown said. “Our local community is contributing to the fund and we anticipate that contributions will increase in the days ahead.”

For more information on the emergency needs fund, visit coastalgeorgiafoundation.org.

“We call on the public to join us as volunteers, advocates and/or donors during our immediate response and long term recovery from the COVID-19 virus,” Brown said.

The Salvation Army in Brunswick has actually ramped up its operations, with its downtown shelter operating 24 hours a day as of Friday.

For more information, call 912-265-9381.

Some help is on the way for nonprofits, however.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion relief bill, which will go toward shoring up small businesses, supplying medical facilities and providing some money for American households.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, quickly drew a distinction between the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which aimed to keep hundreds of banks from folding in the wake of the recession.

“This is not a bailout. What we’re doing is trying to cover for liquidity,” said Carter. “This is not like ‘08, where it was the fault of bad business practices. Most of these businesses would be open if they were not closed by the government and by events nobody had any control over.”

Of relevance is around $350 million set aside for small business loans, Carter said, which can be forgiven if a business retains all of its employees through the COVID-19 emergency. While normally not eligible for small business loans, Carter said nonprofits can apply for loans provided by the relief act.

“The reason for the forgiveness of the load is because we want to maintain the employer-employee relationship, we don’t want people to be fired,” Carter said.

Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both Georgia Republicans, are calling the relief package historic.

“The United States is currently facing what could be the most serious public health emergency and economic crisis in our nation’s history,” Perdue said.

“It’s going to require extraordinary measures by all Americans to mitigate the long-term impact. While this Phase Three COVID-19 response package is not perfect, it provides historic liquidity to protect American workers and employers.

“This is an unprecedented time for all of us, but I have no doubt this country will rise to the challenge and emerge stronger than before.”

Loeffler acknowledges the bill is far from perfect.

“But I’ve heard firsthand from hardworking Georgians that this is the relief they need and they needed it days ago,” she said. “I’m extremely disappointed that the amendment to fix the unemployment insurance provisions failed and it’s disheartening that Democrats held this emergency stimulus package hostage to their big-government vision. After days of their delays, we are now taking action to protect our health care professionals, strengthen our hospitals and treatments, and support hardworking families and small businesses who are the heartbeat of America.”

Until the national health crisis passes, Willis said struggling nonprofits have no choice but to persevere.

“(Epworth has) been here since 1950,” Willis said. “We’ll still be here, it’s just going to be tough.”

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