KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Small businesses have weathered turbulent periods during the pandemic. Now, they're bracing for a possible freight rail strike.
“Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back," said Jeff Huff, co-owner of re:mporium, a furniture store near Kansas City's Crossroads area. “We’re worried and concerned about it, but at the same time, we know that we have diversified ourselves. We’ve been able to make some changes in order for us to continue to be efficient, to be able to provide products to our customers.”
One change Huff may not be able to control is the lack of available lumber from tractor-trailer floorboards which are used to make furniture.
"The reclaimed lumber is something that’s coming from tractor trailers which are on the road longer," Huff said. "It has gone from me being able to get eight to 10 bundles of lumber at a time to two to three. Less than a half. My suppliers are saying, 'Ok, I can allow you to have this much,' instead of saying, 'I really like you to take a full load.'”
Larry Wigger, an economist with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says labor constraints are the driving issues behind a potential rail strike.
“I don’t think we’re really aware of how much of the stuff we buy moves by rail," Wigger said. "Some 43% of the trade we do here in the U.S. at some point in the supply chain moves by rail."
Wigger adds moving items by truck costs three times as much compared to rail if suppliers have to shift entirely to trucks because of a strike.
There's concern over how a rail strike will impact the economy and the price of goods; although, Wigger says the answer depends on how long a strike lasts.
“If we’re talking weeks or months or we don’t know when it’s going to end, then we got to address your business models," he said. "You got to build some of those cost increases into the price of your product, so it really is critical how long it goes."
Business owners like Huff are urging customers to remain patient if a strike happens. Meanwhile, he remains ready to pivot.
“Even with the best-laid plans, sometimes you have to make adjustments along the way," Huff said.