Small business owners stuck in loan limbo as new government programs stumble

Small business owners say they are frustrated with the rollout of coronavirus loan programs that promised quick cash but have become mired in technical and regulatory snafus.

“It’s super confusing,” said Lance Lawson, co-owner of Space519, a clothing and retail boutique in Chicago. “We have real bills to pay, and I want to get my employees back on. They’re all on unemployment. Every day counts.”

Lawson said that his revenue has dropped from $250,000 a month to zero and that he has applied for help from six government programs, including an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, from the Small Business Administration. Promised funds within days, he’s still waiting a week later. Meanwhile, he has watched government officials tout the program’s immediate success and seen key language changing on the SBA website.

“All of the banks I work with are ‘in process’ with their portals for PPP, so I have applied through a broker that got me a previous SBA loan,” Lawson said. “But even they seem in limbo due to SBA guidance issues.”

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He’s worried about paying the health insurance for his employees and their families, some of whom have pre-existing conditions. His store tries to use only small vendors whose merchandise isn’t available in department stores or on Amazon. Those businesses are relying on him to pay his bills to keep their own doors open.

“It’s a fire, and every day you have to throw more logs on it. There’s no logs left,” Lawson told NBC News.

Government officials acknowledged some issues with the new assistance program but said they were part of the inevitable growing pains of a nationwide relief program launched in the midst of a crisis.

“Community banks have been responsive, and the larger banks are stepping up,” President Donald Trump said Monday afternoon at a coronavirus task force briefing. “Bank of America was right up there at the beginning. JPMorgan really came through. The community banks have been fantastic.”

Larry Kudlow, director of Trump’s National Economic Council, said Monday in an interview with CNBC: “It got off to a terrific start. The glitches will get worked out.”

Jennifer Kelly, an SBA spokeswoman, said that as of 9:30 a.m. Monday, the program had guaranteed nearly $38 billion to nearly 130,000 applicants at over 2,400 lenders.

“The system is up and running. We continue to process, approve, and guarantee billions of dollars of loans per hour,” Kelly said in a statement.

However, just because the money has been approved at one stage of the process doesn’t mean the full amount is flowing into small business owners’ bank accounts.

Some community and large banks have begun executing funds. But the bulk of the cash from the big banks, subject to tighter regulations implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, cannot be disbursed until the SBA has finalized some technical guidelines — shutting out the majority of eligible businesses.

According to senior banking executives, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have collectively received over $60 billion in applications. Wells Fargo has already maxed out its loan capacity, set at $10 billion as part of ongoing regulatory constraints. Citi has yet to launch its online application portal.

“As each hour and as each day goes by, we worry more and more,” said Alex Perry, owner of Right Way Signs, a sign manufacturer in Illinois.

While he was able to file a PPP application with his existing SBA-approved lender last week, he is concerned about how much longer his company, which has already laid off 80 percent of its workers, can survive without a loan.

“Right now it’s just really a waiting game, and the experience has not been great,” he said of the application process.

“It’s about another four weeks before we have to make that difficult choice, that Plan B,” Perry told. “To be honest with you, I don’t know what that Plan B is right now.”

One large bank also reported that a single loan took more than an hour to process, requiring over a dozen attempts by several experienced employees before it went through.

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While some kinks are being worked out, other major issues remain. The SBA hasn’t yet told banks what language to put in promissory notes when distributing funds, running the risk of the loans’ being invalidated. And an Amazon Web Services system that would automate the manual submission of applications isn’t up and running yet.

Despite the snags, “the majority of CBA members are now taking applications, and some are already funding loans,” said Nick Simpson, a spokesman for the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group representing large retail banks. “We expect both those numbers to go up in the coming days as banks continue working around the clock to get this new program firing on all cylinders for small businesses and as we continue to work with SBA on receiving additional necessary implementation guidance.”

Lawson, of Space519, said he isn’t just fearful that the business he has built over the past 10 years and its employees and vendors could suffer. He’s worried that the people are getting the wrong information about the problems with the program.

“Most Americans think this is all rolling out and checks are flowing based on what the White House is saying — and that’s certainly not the case,” Lawson said. “We’re hanging on by a thread.”

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