SBA Loan Program Starts As Small Businesses Make Urgent Applications

The frenzy began even before most banks opened. By 9 a.m. on Friday, banks had already processed 700 loans totaling $2.5 million for small businesses as the spigot opened on a federal emergency relief program. But that was just the beginning. By early afternoon that number had ballooned to $1.8 billion. And by evening it was $3.2 billion in loans that will go to more than 10,000 small businesses desperate to save themselves.

It was all part of a scramble by small businesses around the country to stay alive by grabbing a piece of a Treasury Department program to pump $349 billion into the sputtering U.S. economy. Small businesses, which employ nearly half of America’s private-sector workers, are hemorrhaging, and the loans are meant to help them retain employees or rehire those they let go because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But business owners found that applying for the money was harder than they had anticipated. Lenders had received guidance from the Treasury Department only the night before, just hours before they were to start making loans. On top of that, banks imposed their own rules on which businesses could and couldn’t borrow. And many lenders, including JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest, didn’t have their websites ready for borrowers until later Friday.

For small-business owners, many of whom have run out of cash to pay salaries and rent, time was everything. Fearful that the money will run out — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the loans would be on a first-come, first-served basis — they flooded banks with calls and emails as they tried to get to the front of the line.

“I’ve been up all night,” said Jeremy Resnick of Jacksonville, Fla., who runs several businesses, including a real estate brokerage and a chain of ice cream stores. “They put out these rays of hope for people, and the reality behind it isn’t there.”

The frenzy played out against the backdrop of yet another grim unemployment report. On Friday, the Labor Department said employers shed 701,000 jobs last month — the biggest monthly drop in more than a decade, ending a landmark 113 months of job creation. And nearly 10 million people applied for unemployment benefits over the previous two weeks.

Some of their former employers view the relief program, called the Paycheck Protection Program, as a potential lifeline. Companies with fewer than 500 workers have slashed millions of jobs in recent weeks as restaurants, bars, retailers and other Main Street businesses across the country were ordered to shut their doors.

The program offers such companies loans of up to $10 million, which can be forgiven if the business uses the money to retain workers for eight weeks or rehire for positions it cuts in the wake of the pandemic. The Small Business Administration is backing the loans, but customers must apply through banks or other lenders.

Bank of America was the first big bank to begin taking applications, and it had around 10,000 by early Friday, Brian Moynihan, the bank’s chief executive, said on CNBC. By evening, its loan requests totaled $22 billion, a spokesman said.

But many Bank of America customers were dismayed to find that the lender would not work with them because they had only accounts, and not loans, with the bank. The bank said it was accepting applications only from customers who had both “a pre-existing business lending and business deposit relationship” as of Feb. 15.

That eliminated Tamara Alexander and her business in Houston, which provides behavioral therapy for children with autism. With 13 employees, Ms. Alexander is struggling to stay afloat with just a trickle of clients who can connect over video chat.

She went to her Bank of America branch Friday morning with high hopes. But although her banker had assured her the day before that she could get a loan, she was told that only those with an existing loan or credit card would be eligible.

“We kind of bootstrapped our way to our business — thankfully we haven’t needed to acquire any debt,” Ms. Alexander said. “The one bit of help we need, we can’t get. And coming from our own bank, it’s just so stressful.”

Dean Athanasia, the head of Bank of America’s consumer and small business group, sent a memo to employees on Friday pledging to “enhance” the program soon “to accommodate more and more of our small-business clients.”

But even customers with previous loans were struggling. Melissa Perri, who runs a software consulting firm, ProdUX Labs, in New York that employs six people, has for years had a business bank account and a $42,000 line of credit with Bank of America, she said. But when she tried to apply on Friday, she got a message that said she was denied because she didn’t have a credit card.

“I was pretty frustrated,” she said. “I said: ‘I have multiple accounts with you, and I’ve been banking with you for years. How is this possible?’”

Bank of America said on its website that a “business credit card, line of credit or loan” would all qualify. That should have made Ms. Perri eligible. A spokesman said the bank would look into her case.

Other large banks imposed similar requirements.

JPMorgan Chase said it would take applications only from people who had a business checking account with the bank as of Feb. 15. A notice on Wells Fargo’s website said it, too, required an existing business checking account. Citi has not yet announced its rules; a spokesman said it was reviewing the program’s rules and planned to start accepting applications “as soon as possible.”

Hundreds of business owners complained on Twitter that they were ineligible for their bank’s program or that it had not yet started accepting applications. The National Federation of Independent Business said many feared they would be shut out of the aid effort.

“This has the potential to be the last straw for many small businesses and their employees,” it said.

Adding to the pressure: Many expect the program’s $349 billion lending pool to run out unless Congress allocates more money. “If we run out of money, we’re going to go back to Congress and get more money for small business,” Mr. Mnuchin said on the Fox Business Network on Friday.

The Treasury Department had hoped to bring nonbank lenders into the program, but as of Friday, the government had not even released an applic
ation that would let financial technology companies apply to participate, industry executives said.

Stephen D. Steinour, the chief executive of Huntington Bank, a lender in Columbus, Ohio, said his staff had worked all night to get the bank’s website ready to start taking applications online by late Friday afternoon.

Mr. Mnuchin said banks would be able to approve applications and send borrowers money “the same day.” Mr. Steinour said he thought a same-day turnaround would be possible in a few weeks, but not immediately. He expects to have his bank’s first batch of approvals — and borrowers’ checks — ready by early next week.

Lenders struggled with operational issues throughout Friday.

Chase’s website for the program returned error messages at times in the morning, leading many aspiring applicants to assume it was overwhelmed with traffic.

A Chase spokeswoman said that the site had not crashed and that it was taken offline for updates. The bank started accepting loan requests shortly after 1 p.m.

One would-be borrower was Anne Lanier. She and her husband had been working the phones since Thursday looking for a bank to lend them $11,000 to keep paying the five employees of their Brooklyn bar, Black Rabbit, which closed on March 16.

Without immediate help, the couple will be out of business. But the last time they borrowed money for the bar was 13 years ago, from a local bank that has long since discarded the paperwork.

Lenders that Ms. Lanier found on the S.B.A.’s website said they were dealing only with existing customers. The couple turned to Chase, which provides them a business checking account. On Friday afternoon, they submitted a preliminary loan request with their business name, tax identification number and contact information, and received a message saying a Chase representative would contact them. At the time of this article’s publication, they were still waiting.

Some of the features that were supposed to make it easier for banks to quickly ramp up lending through the program may actually make it harder for people who need the money to get it.

Participating banks are protected from liability for some things that regulators would normally punish them for, like not performing a thorough-enough background check on a borrower who later turns out to be a criminal. But they aren’t completely exempt from having to look into customers’ profiles, and one way they can avoid having to do too much extra paperwork is to lend only to existing customers.

That barrier is causing problems for small businesses that have not borrowed money recently. It is an even bigger problem for minority-owned businesses, which struggle even in good times to get banks to lend to them.

“Small-business lending already has a discrimination problem,” said Amanda Fischer, the policy director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Another fear is that the program will be overrun by fundamentally healthy businesses eager to have the government cover up to two months of their payroll costs. Borrowers don’t have to document a hardship like a sharp sales drop; they simply have to affirm that “current economic uncertainty” makes the aid necessary to support their “ongoing operations.”

Despite the paycheck program’s chaotic start, Mr. Steinour of Huntington Bank said he hoped it would play a vital role in salvaging tens of thousands of businesses that would otherwise collapse.

“This is an extraordinary program, and to have it all put together in a week was a phenomenal, around-the-clock effort,” he said.

Alan Rappeport and Nathaniel Popper contributed reporting.

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