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Small business relief program launches, hits snags

NEW YORK – The federal government’s $349 billion relief program for small businesses got off to a rocky start Friday as hundreds of thousands tried to apply for desperately needed loans.

Many small business owners ran into bureaucratic or technological road blocks. Some even discovered their bank wasn’t yet prepared to accept applications, and when they tried another bank were told that only established customers were being accepted. A major trade group for small businesses complained that too many of its members were “shut out” from getting loans.

Still, some did succeed in at least getting the process started. Bank of America alone said 75,000 small businesses had applied for $7 billion of loans. Once the bank handles the application, it goes to the Small Business Administration, which said Friday afternoon that it had approved more than 12,460 loans valued at $3.9 billion. But it was unclear how much if any money had actually been sent to the businesses.

The Paycheck Protection Program was put in place to help small businesses retain workers and pay bills during the coronavirus pandemic and is part of the $2.2 trillion economic package passed by Congress just last week. Because of the tight timeline, some banks were ready to start accepting loans while other banks, large and small, complained they hadn’t received the details of the program from the Treasury soon enough to be ready for the launch Friday morning.

For customers, that led to exchanges that ranged from the frustrating to the nearly ridiculous.

Tamra Kennedy, a Taco John’s franchisee who owns nine restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa, said she will run out of money within days without a loan, which she expects to be around $550,000. She said she has used “every penny of reserves” to retain her 125 employees even as one restaurant has been ordered closed and the others are doing limited business.

On Friday morning, US Bank repeatedly told her it was not accepting loan applications and offered no clear time frame.

“I maybe have 5 to 7 days left as an operator to really figure out if I can continue to keep my team on,” Kennedy said. “The clock is ticking.”

Ted Stein, who operates a small software business in West Virginia, filled out an online form Thursday through PNC Bank, saying he was interested in applying. On Friday, a bank representative told Stein he was unaware that the form was on its website. After Stein explained to him where to find it, the representative told Stein the bank wasn’t accepting applications and that he should keep checking his online account for guidance in the coming hours and days, Stein said.

“It was almost comical, but heartbreaking. It’s tragicomedy, I guess,” he said.

Even those banks accepting applications were limiting them to current customers. Bank of America, for example, said the loans were available to customers who had business deposit accounts and business loans with the bank.

The program is billed as a way to help local businesses that often form the fabric of communities stay afloat. It 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.

As owners began applying, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of 500 businesses showed the dire circumstances many face without a cash infusion. Fifty of the businesses said they were less than a month from permanently shutting down, and two-thirds said they were three to six months away from a permanent shutdown.

More than 100 businesses had already temporarily shut down when the survey was taken between March 25 and 28.

Many of the hardest-hit businesses have been restaurants, retailers, gyms and hair and nail salons forced to shut down to try to stop the spread of the virus. But millions of other companies have lost revenue as their customers and clients have either closed or cut back their spending amid the economic uncertainty.

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.

The Federal Reserve is also expected to establish a “Main Street Business Lending Program” that could complement the Treasury’s program, but the timing is unclear.

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

A small business advocacy group, the National Federation of Independent Business, criticized banks that weren’t ready to accept applications or that created conditions that prevented some owners — for example, those who weren’t established customers — from applying.

“Small business owners have had their applications filled out. When they run into error messages or their applications not being accepted, the frustration is palpable,” said Kevin Kuhlman, the NFIB’s senior director of government relations.

Addressing such complaints on Fox Business News, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “I know there were a lot of hard working small businesses that could not get their loans processed. There is plenty of time. There is a lot of money left.”

Jane Gideon tried to apply through Bank of the West, which said it wasn’t ready to accept applications, and an online lending website, to no avail. Gideon, owner of Incendio International, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, was frustrated and concerned after a day of phone calls and futile website visits. She said she would try again Monday.

“I suspect the money is going to go fast, but am holding out hope I can get an application in before it’s all gone,” she said.

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

Marty Crutsinger contributed to this report from Washington.