NEW YORK (AP) – Small businesses hoping for more leeway in using coronavirus loan money were disappointed as the government released instructions for seeking forgiveness for the loans.
Forms the Small Business Administration released late Friday didn’t address two concerns shared by many owners about the $659 billion Paycheck Protection Program. According to the instructions, loans can still be forgiven in full only if the money is spent within eight weeks of receiving it. And businesses must use at least 75% of it for workers’ pay, with the remaining amount limited to rent, mortgage interest and utility expenses.
Many small businesses say the eight-week period is too restrictive. Those who laid-off workers are afraid they’ll have to let them go again if business hasn’t returned to pre-virus outbreak levels at the end of the eight weeks, a situation likely for many restaurants whose revenue is down due to social distancing requirements.
“Small businesses need flexibility on when the eight-week period should start or need to have the covered period extended to more than eight weeks,” the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a trade group, said in a statement.
One option owners have asked for is to have the eight-week period start when laid-off staffers are rehired.
Other owners are worried about having to cut staffers’ pay when the money runs out.
“We brought people back to full pay, but I warned them that I can’t guarantee that we will be able to keep everyone at full hours,” says Leslie Saul, owner of an architecture and design firm that bears her name in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Many owners are also unhappy about the restrictions on how they can use the money. Restaurant owners, for example, say they need to use some of the money to buy food and other items to be able to reopen. While technically they can do that, they could not get forgiveness on the money spent on unapproved items. Some owners, fearing they won’t get forgiveness, have said they’re considering not using the money.
The Paycheck Protection Program, part of the government’s trillion-dollar coronavirus relief package, has given out more than 4.4 million loans worth $544 billion as of late Friday. The loans have been given out in two rounds; in the first, the average loan was $206,000 and in the second, it is $70,622 as more money has gone to the smallest applicants.
Loan forgiveness was a key factor in many owners seeking loans. They don’t want to have a debt burden, especially if their revenue is down, leaving them less money for loan payments.
The forms released Friday did clear up some matters. While the eight-week period runs from the day the loan money is disbursed, owners with biweekly payrolls can instead use the start of their pay period to get the clock running. And owners cannot be penalized if staffers refuse to return to work, a situation many employers are facing; many laid-off staffers have been reluctant to return to work for fear of contracting the coronavirus or they prefer to remain on unemployment.
The SBA appeared to be leaving the other issues for Congress to decide. A $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill the Democratic-led House passed last week gives owners more time to rehire workers and more discretion over how to use the money. Although the bill is expected to die in the Republican-led Senate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, tweeted Sunday that he hopes Congress will change the requirement before the first loan recipients reach the end of their eight-week periods. That will happen in early June.
In not budging on the issue of how the money must be spent, the SBA also went against the findings of its own inspector general’s office, which said in a report earlier this month that the agency, not Congress, created the requirement that 75% of loan money must be used for employee pay.