Posted 7:01 a.m. Monday, Nov. 2, 2020

Ryan Johnson, a UWL alum and local business owner, says he is proud to employ so many UWL students, especially amid a pandemic. “We hope and think that we’ve become an employer of choice for many UWL students, and we love that,” he says.

Alum Ryan Johnson keeping students employed amid pandemic

As a UW-La Crosse alum and local business owner, Ryan Johnson is proud to have employed so many past and present UWL students.

And never has that been more true than during COVID-19.

“We hope and think that we’ve become an employer of choice for many UWL students, and we love that,” says Johnson, ’01 , who owns Howie’s on La Crosse, State Room, Animal House, The Crow and Big Al’s — in addition to a real estate business. A majority of Johnson’s nearly 300 employees attend UWL.

“For students, there’s without a doubt a lot of financial stress that is happening,” he notes. “We’ve had to change how we do things because of restricted hours and limited capacity, but we’ve purposefully kept a healthy number of staff on hand.”

Johnson says it’s key to take care of his team members.

“If we had a cook or a bartender or a server who wanted to stay on and become a delivery driver, for example, we wanted to go that route instead of Grubhub or anything like that,” he explains.

Johnson says his top-line sales are down approximately 50%. He’s hardly alone.

Some local business owners have spent the past several months under water, wondering when things will turn around, he says.

“A lot of people had the understanding that this would be a month or two, and then we’d put it in the rear-view mirror,” Johnson says. “Now people have accepted that this is going to be around for a while, and we need to get used to living with it. But people are definitely feeling the hit from this.”

Concerns about money and the length of the pandemic are also common among students, especially those who rely on off-campus jobs to cover living expenses or help pay their way through college.

Louise Janke, director of financial aid at UWL, says students are in financial distress.

“Many students work for employers or businesses that now have limited their hours due to COVID,” Janke, ’84  and ’87, notes, adding that nearly 3,400 UWL students have received an Emergency Financial Aid Grant through the CARES Act. “We are also seeing that students are not able to work, as they live with someone who is at (a heightened) risk of getting the virus.”

Amanda Gasper, coordinator of UWL’s It Make$ Cents Money Management Center, says the problem predates the fall semester. Many students were already strapped for cash after a difficult summer.

“What my students are seeing within their consultations is that, with COVID, it really changed how much money students could make over the summer,” she says. “Summer is the longest and most important time for students to work and save, and many of them are behind because of it. They have resorted to putting things on their credit cards to help in the meantime.”

Johnson knows many of his employees live paycheck to paycheck, and that shutting down his properties would hurt not just his bottom line, but theirs as well.

The size of his staff should allow the businesses to function even if some employees have to quarantine or isolate. But Johnson hopes it doesn’t come to that, and that health and safety protocols keep his staff and his customers safe.

“As business people, you have to realize that there are some things bigger than business,” he says. “Family health is one of them. The impact we have on people’s lives is another — providing paychecks and purpose, and giving them tools that they can take into the next chapter of their lives.”

Supporting students in need

The UWL Cares Emergency Fund, previously known as the Angel Fund, was established in 2008 to provide students with monetary relief during times of difficulty and uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the fund has issued 59 individual support payments to students, totaling more than $25,000.

The fund is supported by alums, staff and faculty, community members, and friends of the university. Created in honor of former university professor and administrator Maurice O. Graff, it makes a profound impact on many students’ ability to afford basic necessities while pursuing a college education.

Give to the fund by visiting this link and clicking on “Support our students.”

Here is what some current and former students are saying about the recent support from UWL Cares:  

“I cannot accurately put into words how thankful I am for the monetary support from the UWL Foundation and the positive impact it had on my safety and stability during these trying and uncertain times. In May, I graduated with a doctorate degree from UWL and was unable to find a job due to COVID-19, placing me in a very unstable situation considering I had no income to pay rent or bills, did not receive a stimulus check, and was not able to apply for unemployment. Your support of the UWL Foundation is paramount in situations such as these and is very meaningful and purposeful to not only me, but other students in similar situations. Thank you.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how much of an assistance to me that this $400 will be for me. Thank you and the Foundation greatly for helping me in what seems like an absolute low point of the school year.”

“Thank you so much for reviewing my request. I am blessed to have amazing support through UWL always, but more importantly during this unprecedented time. I cannot thank you enough. I greatly appreciate the help.”