BENSON, Minn. — The COVID-19 pandemic struck just as Stony Ridge Foods in Benson started work on a major expansion.

Needed equipment has yet to arrive, and the pandemic has put the expansion behind schedule.

Keeping up with the regular schedule has been challenge enough. With a young workforce, this employer of 13 has workers who have to tend to young children whenever they’re unexpectedly sent home from school with fevers or coughs.

And in one case, an employee who is the primary caretaker for a parent missed nearly a month’s work when the parent tested positive for COVID-19. It happened right at harvest, when this business is processing dry edible beans raised by farmers in the region.

Given her chance to tell U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar the help her business needs most, Stony Ridge Foods co-owner and co-manager Jessica Wrobleski emphasized two points.

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For one thing, making rapid COVID-19 tests available so that employees know when it’s safe for them to return to work would be “huge,” she told the senator.

Secondly, when it comes to the big picture, Wrobleski urged Klobuchar to work for a pandemic relief package that helps all of the players in her small community that are affected by the pandemic. She told the senator how the local health care staff is keeping up with incredible demands and how small restaurants and other businesses in Benson are feeling the economic impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

Benson has a great hospital and staff, Wrobleski said, adding: “We’re lucky to have (it) in our community.”

Klobuchar hosted the video conference Monday to gather input from a variety of businesses in Swift, McLeod, Noble and Becker counties. Klobuchar said negotiations in Congress were trending toward a compromise on a relief package prior to the election, but stopped.

She did not offer an assessment of the prospects for legislation by year’s end, but she emphasized the importance of reaching an agreement by then.

While Klobuchar said she believes a relief bill would be passed after President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, she pointed out that it would take another month or more after approval before any funding would reach those who need it.

“Best way by far, no doubt, is to get something done now,” she said.

Klobuchar said overall for the country, there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the newly announced vaccines for COVID-19. She said another relief package would be a temporary fix, stating that "everyone knows we can’t keep doing this.”

But she said there is urgency in providing help. She cited one study that found 800 small businesses a day are closing across the country.

“We’re not going to get our economy back if we let all of these businesses go down,” said Klobuchar.

The economic stimulus provided earlier by Congress was very important, according to the business managers who joined the conference. Michelle Daggert, president of Lakeshirts in Detroit Lakes, told how employment at the custom apparel decorating supplier fell from 740 to about 40 as a result of the pandemic.

It's now back above 500, and finding employees is proving "really difficult," Daggert said.

Diana Anderson, CEO of the Southwest Initiative Foundation, told the senator how the pandemic has increased economic disparities in the region, and how racial minorities and immigrant communities in Willmar and Worthington have especially struggled.

The experiences of the employers varied.

Tyler Stilson, president of 3D CNC, Hutchinson, Minnesota, told how demand for the company’s precision machined parts has remained strong throughout the pandemic.

Randy Simonson, chief strategy director with Cambridge Technologies, of Worthington, Minnesota, described how important the federal support for livestock producers was to the economic viability of the company. It provides vaccines and health services to the livestock industry.

The participants said they supported a new relief package, but one tailored to different needs at this point. Most cited the need for the availability of rapid testing as the virus spreads.

Stilson noted that eight of 22 workers at the company’s Hutchinson plant are currently not available due to either testing positive for COVID-19 or the need to quarantine.

All of the employers said the pandemic has only exacerbated a challenge that was present well before the virus arrived. Finding employees remains difficult.

“We had an ad running in the local paper for a month,” said Wrobleski. Finding people who want the jobs is very hard, she said.