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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Small biz rescue off to spotty start; some banks not ready

NEW YORK (AP) — The federal government’s relief program for small businesses was off to a bumpy start Friday, with few businesses able to apply and some big banks saying they weren’t ready to process applications.

Millions of small businesses are expected to apply for these desperately needed rescue loans from the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which was put in place to help them retain workers and pay bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

The program is being overseen by the Small Business Administration but banks are the ones who handle the application process. Some large lenders like Wells Fargo, Huntington Bank and Bank of America, said they were ready to go. Others like JPMorgan Chase said they wouldn’t accept applications on Friday, citing lack of guidance from the Treasury Department.

Even those who were accepting applications were limited in who they could accept. Bank of America said the loans were available to customers who had business deposit accounts and business loans with the bank. But glitches in the bank’s system stopped customer Marty Martinez from applying. The owner of digital marketing company Social Revolt Agency in Dallas was told he was ineligible. He contacted the bank, but was also considering looking elsewhere.

“If I don’t get in line quicker than the next person, then I have to wait even longer to get my team back to work,” said Martinez, who has laid off five staffers as his revenue plunged.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took to Twitter Friday morning to tout the opening of the program, saying “community banks had already processed over 700 loans for $2,500,000.” But some banks said they needed more guidance from the government before accepting applications.

MidwestOne, an SBA-preferred lender based in Iowa City that has dozens of branches in Iowa and four other states, said it was waiting for more answers before proceeding. The bank warned customers that submitting an incomplete or incorrect application could delay their loans, and said the best way forward was to wait until “regulations and forms are complete.”

Going into the program’s launch Friday, the banking industry has been trying to temper expectations about how many businesses will get the cash they need on Friday. Banks large and small will have to process these loans as quickly as possible in order to get their customers a slice of the program.

The banks have moved employees into new departments — a logistical challenge given many employees are working remotely — just to potentially keep up with the flood of applications. Not only that, but thousands of their employees are either sick or quarantined because of the virus.

The program is part of the $2 trillion relief package signed into law last week, which was billed as a way to help local businesses that often form the fabric of communities stay afloat. The program will give businesses low-interest loans of about 2.5 times their average monthly payroll. The loans will be fully or partially forgiven if businesses show that the money was used to retain or rehire employees and pay some overhead expenses through June 30.

While Congress could approve more money later on, the program as it stands is expected to run out quickly. That could mean applicants who have the financial and legal expertise of a larger organization might be able to maximize their benefits, not leaving much for smaller businesses, especially those who wait or have problems applying.

Congress made the program as wide as possible. An expansive definition of “small business” in the law means that it will be open to much more than just Main Street shops as lenders start processing applications. Bankers recommend applying for the loans through the bank they already have accounts with to speed along the process as quickly as possible.

Independent contractors and the self-employed are not eligible to apply until April 10 under guidance from the Treasury Department. By then, banks could be overwhelmed with applications.

“It’s hard for me to say this: There is only $350 billion in this fund. Every big restaurant and hotel chain is going to be going after this money. It’s not going to last,” said Ron Feldman, chief development officer at ApplePie Capital, which has been helping businesses get ready to apply.

“If you want to get this loan, speed is your friend,” Feldman told 2,000 franchise industry officials on a conference call this week.

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Ryan J. Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa. Ken Sweet and Joyce Rosenberg reported from New York.

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