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Small Businesses Say They're Still Waiting For COVID-19 Relief Funds


A lot of small-business owners are doing some very difficult math right now.

GREG HUNNICUTT: I paid my guys two weeks. Well, that was two weeks ago. I paid them for two weeks. Starting today, this week, they haven't been paid. It's going to be difficult to keeping people without some kind of relief since we really are not working.

KING: That was the voice of Greg Hunnicutt, who runs a construction business in Houston. He told us he's had to shut down almost entirely. Now, help was supposed to come for him and others like him within the federal government's $2.2 trillion relief package, but the launch has been a little rocky.

Neil Bradley is with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He's the executive vice president and chief policy officer. Good morning, Mr. Bradley.

NEIL BRADLEY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

KING: Let me ask - how do you think this process is going for small-business owners?

BRADLEY: Well, as you pointed out, it's a little bit rocky. But it's also unprecedented in scale and scope. You know, less than two weeks ago, we didn't even have a law. And now we have a law. We have a program stood up specifically for small businesses. And we have thousands of banks and lending institutions all across the United States actively processing loans for tens of thousands of small businesses. And so that's an enormous mobilization. We all wish it was going smoother, but it is really a herculean effort designed to save small businesses like that construction company that you just talked about.

KING: That's a fair point about the herculean nature of this. NPR has been talking to small-business owners. Dozens of them have told us about particular problems applying for loans. Some of them say they're still waiting to hear back from their banks. Some of them have said the website crashes. And several of them have said the banks have played restrictions - or placed restrictions that they just can't meet. What's behind the problems? Is it just the scale of the effort? Or is there something that can be done to fix this?

BRADLEY: It's a little bit - it's largely the scale of the effort and the unprecedented surge that came in immediately as the program opened. So, you know, understand this. A small business, you know, the first thing they do is they fill out an application. They get their paperwork together. They go to their bank. Their bank has to go through, has to process that paperwork. Then that bank has to turn around, and it has to submit a form that goes to the Small Business Administration so the loan can get assigned a number so it can get counted in this $350 billion fund. And then all that has to go back to the bank, and then the bank can kind of originate the loan.

So we tend to focus on the first step in the process. There's a lot of stuff that goes on after that, that each step has to be completed before that small business can get the money in their account.

KING: That's an optimistic take. It is so interesting - you know, we hear $350 billion. That's a lot of money. But for a small business who needs just a tiny percentage of that, it can be life and death. Let me ask you to that end - you know, at first, there were $350 billion to support small businesses. A few days after this launched, the president said he would like to add another $250 billion to it. What does that say to you about the depth of the trouble facing this country's small businesses?

BRADLEY: Well, it's tremendous. So at the U.S. Chamber, we just did a survey - the last few days of March - with our partners at MetLife. And what we learned was 1 in 4 businesses were already shut down. Another 40% of those who weren't expected to be shut down within two weeks. That's over half of American small businesses who've had to shut their operations. In addition, they told us that 1 in 4 can only make it less than two months before they have to permanently close.

And so, you know, it is a day-to-day cash basis. That's why this support is important. We know that businesses are right on the brink. And this money can't come fast enough, and that's why we're doing everything we can at the Chamber to both help small businesses get their applications in order - and we have guides that have been downloaded millions of times on our website to help them do that - and then help the banks get the resources they need to process this. Everything's got to work seamlessly. I don't know anyone that thinks that it's worked perfectly. But we have to keep redoubling our efforts.

KING: You know, millions of people, as you just said, have filed for unemployment in the past few weeks. How does the stimulus package help some of them get back to work?

BRADLEY: Well, so for those who are - who work for small businesses, those with generally fewer than 500 employees, this loan program that we're talking about directly encourages small businesses to keep their employees and bring back those who they've laid off or furloughed. That's how they qualify for the loan forgiveness. Small businesses can have their loan forgiven to the extent that they're using the loan proceeds to keep paying their workers. In addition, we expect some programs to come online today or tomorrow from the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to help larger businesses.

KING: Neil Bradley of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We've got to leave it there. Thanks so much.

BRADLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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