By Russ Mitchell
The Los Angeles Times
Restaurants. Shoe stores. Dog groomers. Dry cleaners. An estimated 30 million small businesses serve customers throughout the U.S. — or did, before the coronavirus pandemic forced many to close their doors.
Now they are desperate for cash and struggling with a balky rescue program.
In an attempt to prevent economic implosion in the face of massive unemployment, Congress authorized $350 billion in loans to small businesses. That includes the Paycheck Protection Program of forgivable loans to small businesses that agree not to lay off workers for eight weeks.
But, the government program ran out of money Thursday, and congressional leaders remained at a standoff over how to replenish the funds.
The Senate met for a brief session Thursday afternoon — the last opportunity it had to approve more money until next week. Since no action was taken, the program will remain depleted at least through this weekend.
“Small businesses are still waiting, uncertain how much they’ll get or when it will be,” said Holly Wade, director of research and policy analysis at the National Federation of Independent Business. The trade group has mobilized to help small business owners through the crisis.
Lena Swann first picked up clippers 30 years ago, as a teenager, learning her craft from handlers who worked with show dogs. “That’s how I learned to groom every breed,” she said.
Swann built a mobile grooming business and, by 2008, had a storefront in Emeryville, near Oakland, named All About the Dogue. She attracted a loyal clientele.
“We opened up before Petco came in with their own grooming service. Petco came, Petco closed — and we’re still here,” she said.
Swann employs four workers: a full-time groomer, a part-time groomer and two bathers. Before the virus hit, the shop groomed about 20 dogs a day.
Swann is still paying her employees. “I don’t want to put them on unemployment,” she said. But she’s not sure how long she can continue.
“The number of dogs we did a day are necessary to bring in the money to pay the bills,” she said, including $4,500 a month for rent.
Her workers qualify for direct payments of $1,200 promised by the federal government, but they are still waiting.
Swann is seeking a $47,500 PPP loan, but the process has been painful. The second the PPP opened for applications on April 3, Swann was at her computer, trying to call up the relevant page at Wells Fargo, her commercial banker.
“I made several attempts,” she said. “It just crashed and crashed. I tried to call them. No answer.”
A man from her Wells Fargo branch finally called her back to “check in to see if you need anything.” She said she needed a PPP loan. “We ran out of money,” she said the bank rep told her. “Log on later today; it will open up again, keep trying.”
Finally, she was able to file an application. Now she’s in “the queue.” Where in the queue, or even what it means to be in the queue, she has no clue.
Meanwhile, Wells Fargo is sending her emails suggesting she try other banks in her neighborhood.
Asked about such problems, Wells said a cap on lending limited responsiveness to PPP applicants. That cap, imposed by the Federal Reserve after the bank was found to have created millions of fake bank accounts, was temporarily lifted on April 9.
For now, Swann has been able to raise about $8,300 from a GoFundMe campaign she set up, with the goal of raising $15,000. She knows she’s lucky to have a customer base that can afford donations.
Still, she said, “It’s a mess. It’s truly a mess.”
Danny Justman manages Pawnmart Jewelry & Loan in Norwalk, Calif., which has been in business since 1978. Pawnshops serve as a lender of sorts for the down and out.
“It’s a real need,” Justman said. “A lot of these people need cash but have no access to credit.”
Like Swann, Justman tried to apply for a loan April 3 — in his case, $89,200. Like Swann, he was getting nowhere with his main banker, Wells Fargo, so he looked elsewhere.
He tried US Bank, where Pawnmart also has accounts, but was turned down flat because, he assumes, he runs a pawnshop. “Thanks for considering US Bank,” the rejection message said. “Unfortunately you’re not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program.”
He tried again, with a different industry code: secondhand stores. This time, his request went through, but he was told by email to be patient, that everyone is in a holding pattern as thousands of businesses apply.
The bank said he would be informed when it was possible to fill out an application. He’s still waiting.
Pawnmart’s 13 employees are still being paid, Justman said. He doesn’t want to say how long he can hold out, but at some point his cash will run low. Some of his regular customers, he knows, are desperate.
The fact that banks are overwhelmed doesn’t surprise Justman, but “they’re taking a poor posture on this, treating these as if they are regular loans” even though they are guaranteed by the SBA, he said.
Vicki Broach chairs the board of the First Congregational Church of Riverside, which has a congregation of about 300 and two part-time and two full-time employees, including the pastor. She’s befuddled about why it’s taking so long to get a $20,000 PPP loan.
The church’s regular banker said it wasn’t participating in the loan program.
“I tried to file through Wells Fargo, which is my (personal) bank. I did get in the queue,” she said. “But they keep sending me emails that say ‘still in queue, still in queue.’”
She turned to a local bank, which asked for a number of documents Wells hadn’t asked for, such as articles of incorporation. “All the banks ask for different records. Everyone wants something different,” she said.
If there were a common application with a consistent set of required paperwork, small businesses could apply at more banks, making it easier to find someone that will grant a loan, said Broach, a retired lawyer.
“These loans are guaranteed,” she said. “It shouldn’t be an issue” if the goal is to get cash fast to businesses who need it.
She has talked to administrators at churches around the country who’ve tried to apply and has yet to hear of any that has received a PPP loan.
“We can go a couple months here,” she said, “but then we’ll be flat broke.”