A new federal initiative to prevent layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic is so popular with small businesses that in less than two weeks it has run out of the $350 billion Congress initially allocated.
But that doesn’t mean all that money is now in the hands of employers. Owners of several small businesses that applied have told HuffPost they’re still waiting for the funds.
Sydney Ross, owner of two preschools in Palm Beach, Florida, said she applied for the special loan last week and is unsure of her status.
“We’re just still waiting and there’s no money and we haven’t heard anything, and that’s it,” Ross said.
As part of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economy Security Act, Congress boosted unemployment insurance, sent cash payments directly to household bank accounts, and created new bailout programs for businesses big and small.
The Paycheck Protection Program offers loans covering two months of payroll, plus some rent and utility costs, for any firm with fewer than 500 employees. If a borrower avoids layoffs during that time, the loan is forgiven ― meaning the program essentially offers to pay a company’s wages.
More than 1.6 million small businesses applied for the program’s loans, which are issued by banks and backed by the federal government. The Small Business Administration announced Thursday morning that it is “currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations funding.”
Congressional leaders have struggled to reach a deal to replenish the fund, opting instead for a high-stakes game of chicken that bodes poorly for prospects of broader coronavirus legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) warned Democrats this week that their continued opposition to a clean funding increase of $250 billion for the program would result in “pink slips and shuttered businesses” across the country.
More than 20 million Americans have lost their jobs and filed for unemployment in the last four weeks. Under the payroll program, companies that already laid off workers can still qualify for the loans if they hire them back by the end of June.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have held firm in their demands that a portion of the new coronavirus funds be reserved for underbanked and minority communities. They also want additional hundreds of billions in aid for struggling hospitals, states and localities.
“As has been clear since last week, Republicans’ bill which fails to address these critical issues cannot get unanimous consent in the House,” Pelosi said in a statement on Wednesday.
Democratic staff met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Wednesday and agreed to resume discussions on Thursday, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Although the Senate is technically in recess, the chamber gaveled in for a brief pro forma session on Thursday afternoon. In a brief speech on the floor, McConnell reported “absolutely no progress” in negotiations with Democrats over additional funding to the program.
The surge of Paycheck Protection Program applications is a testament to the suddenness and depth of the economic collapse from social distancing measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed nearly 31,000 people in the U.S. The uncertainty among business owners about the status of their applications may reflect the program’s rapid and chaotic start.
In a survey of businesses in the Washington suburbs she represents, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va) said Wednesday that roughly 100 firms had applied for payroll protection loans, and of those, only three had actually received money.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a key architect of the program, said companies should receive their loans within 10 days of approval.
“I think we have to have some perspective here,” Rubio told Bloomberg this week, noting that the initiative had started disbursing funds within 17 days of its inception. “I know of no other program with this reach that has moved that quickly.”
When Ross closed her preschools last month, she told her employees not to apply for unemployment insurance because there would soon be something better. She had read news stories about the Paycheck Protection Program, which received more funding than the unemployment insurance and direct payment provisions of the CARES Act.
Ross filed her application with Bank of America last week and is unsure of its status. Without the loan, she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to pay her 40 employees.
“Had the Paycheck Protection Program not been a thought or an alternative, then of course I would have told all of them to apply for” unemployment, Ross said. “Everybody was supposed to be taken care of in a different way that was appropriate for what they needed.”
In an emailed statement, a Bank of America spokesperson said the bank has received more than 350,000 applications and has “a team of more than 3,000 people working full-time to process those applications as quickly as possible, including reviewing documents to verify the information provided by each applicant.”
The aim of the program is to prevent workers from signing up for unemployment, instead keeping them attached to their employers, which lawmakers said is a better social policy. Even if a business is closed and its workers are at home, the program essentially will pay their salaries and save them from the alienation of joblessness.
Some firms got their money almost immediately.
Tanya Weinreis, owner of a chain of drive-thru coffee shops in Montana, said she received funds from Yellowstone Bank, a small lender with eight locations, the day she applied ― on the first day of the program.
“We were just quick about it,” Weinreis told HuffPost. But the bank may have been speedy, Weinreis said, because it has served her company for years and “they already had my taxes and things like that.”
Even if it works as designed, the program has critics. The Treasury Department has encouraged banks to restrict applications to banks’ existing customers, and the program’s first-come, first-served nature advantages firms with better access to lawyers and financial managers (like hedge funds, for example).
Sarah Crozier of the Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small businesses, said trying to save companies through banks will fundamentally disadvantage “those small businesses without relationships with lenders, those that have been systematically discriminated against in the lending system.”
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