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The pains and patience of small businesses seeking coronavirus aid

A sign of a car wash that says "Closed for Corona"
Tyler Scott
Michigan Radio
Emergency loan programs for small businesses quickly ran out of funding as entrepreneurs grapple with the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Congress is working on another coronavirus aid package that’s already passed the Senate and reportedly includes more than $350 billion dollars for emergency small business loan programs that were depleted of funding after more than a million businesses nationwide applied for forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.

But to get some of the money, entrepreneurs have to navigate a cumbersome application process. And there's no guarantee of success.

Debra Hibbeln is a dentist and partner at her own practice in Rochester Hills. Dental offices are closed except for emergencies, and Hibbeln knows it's going to be awhile before things go back to normal. 

"I don't think it's going to be like flipping a switch,” Hibbeln says. “Especially for dental because we create all kinds of aerosolized micro droplets which is exactly how (the novel coronavirus) is spread."

In the meantime, the bills still have to be paid.

"We still have, you know, probably at least $10-12,000 of carrying costs every month that we have to pay, even though we're not allowed by executive order to be in our office."

Even businesses that can stay open are feeling the economic slowdown prompted by the pandemic. It's why Congress created emergency loan programs specifically to help small businesses. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is intended to help small business owners pay workers – theoretically keeping them at-the-ready for whenever restrictions on the economy are lifted.

But Hibbeln says applying for a PPP loan is a confusing, time intensive process – she says she went to three different lenders before she was able to submit an application.

"There's a lot to navigate. It's a lot to figure out," Hibbeln says. "I finally found someone to, you know, allow me to put in an application. I got my application in about three or four hours after they ran out of money."

The PPP was overwhelmed with applications and ran out of money last week. The U.S. Senate has approved a bill that would put about $300 billion more into the PPP, and the U.S. House is expected to vote on it Thursday. The Small Business Administration says once the expansion is signed into law, which it’s expected to be, pending applications like Hibbeln's will start to be processed. The expansion will also include at least $50 billion for another small business loan program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which also depleted its funding.  

Hibbeln says she has enough cash on hand to pay bills at the beginning of May, “but that’s it.”

Hibbeln said she successfully applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Advance through the Small Business Administration. After submitting her application directly through the SBA, Hibbeln says she received no further communication until about $9,000 appeared in her bank account. Advances of up to $10,000 from that program don’t have to be repaid.

More than 43,000 Michigan businesses have been approved for more than $10.3 billion in PPP loans, while the SBA reports more than 19,000 businesses in the state have been approved for more than $90 million in EIDL advances.

Despite those numbers, members of Congress from Michigan sent a letter to the Small Business Administration complaining that smaller business in Michigan have had difficulties accessing the PPP program, and stating concern that Michigan ranks “in the bottom third of states receiving small business loans under the PPP compared to the number of businesses that are eligible.”

Rochester Regional Chamber of Commerce President Alaina Campbell says a lot of entrepreneurs have an independent, boot-strap mindset. She says entrepreneurs aren't used to asking for help, or taking on debt, and they're definitely not used to wading through the bureaucracy of brand new government programs. 

"You know how to run your business. And you know how to do it well,” Campbell says. “But it's a really scary thing to figure out how to fill these different forms out and things, I mean, you apply for the PPP and they ask for all these different things that you're not quite sure what they're talking about."

Critics have faulted the Small Business Administration for giving PPP money to big, established companies.

And some members of Congress, including Michigan's Representative Elissa Slotkin, are asking the Small Business Administration to make sure the next round of funding prioritizes smaller companies.

“We wanted to make sure that the SBA… knew that this time around with this additional $300 billion they're going to be getting, they have to make sure that they're not just giving to some of the most familiar or the largest businesses," Slotkin said on Tuesday during a tele-town hall with constituents.

Alaina Campbell from the Rochester Regional Chamber of Commerce expects more business owners are realizing they're going to need help to survive the coronavirus outbreak or possibly be forced to permanently close their doors. 

There's some expectation that when the new round of PPP and EIDL assistance is approved, it could run out just as fast as the first time. However, it’s possible the second wave of PPP and EIDL funding could reach more small businesses.

Brian Calley, the President of the Small Business Association of Michigan, and former Republican Lt. Governor of Michigan, says the size of approved PPP loans started to get smaller before the PPP ran out of money, a possible indication that more mom-and-pop size businesses were getting through the application process.

“My expectation is that this $300 billion… will probably go further, deeper, into the very small businesses compared to the original allocation,” Calley said on a SBAM video conference on Tuesday.     

“That’s the hope,” said Slotkin, who was also on the call.

Timothy Spaulding says the day before PPP applications initially opened, he was prepared to apply. He was unsuccessful, and says his lender seemed “unprepared” to help businesses get access to the PPP. Spaulding is Vice President of a commercial flooring dealer and installation business based in Lansing called Seelye Group Ltd. He says he’s waiting for more PPP funding so his pending application can be processed. In the meantime, he’s continuing to pay his employees full pay.

“It leaves you a little unsure because you don’t know how far in line you are,” Spaulding says. “That program’s going to run out of money just as fast the second time as it did the first time.”

Spaulding says he doesn’t like relying on the government to fix his problems, however he says government is the reason he’s currently out of work because of Michigan’s stay-home order.  

PPP loans are forgivable if businesses meet certain benchmarks, like spending most of the money to pay workers. Jason King is CEO of Outdoor Adventures, a resort and campground company with locations across the state. King says he laid off his employees, about 20 total, then hired them back when he received a PPP loan.

King says his employees were grateful to get off unemployment insurance, but because of social distancing measures in effect, there’s not much work for them to do. King says he’s received “no guidance” about how to meet the reporting requirements to get the loans forgiven.

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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