Emergency Aid Faces Delays as SBA Deals with Unprecedented Demand

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Apr 8, 2020

While on paper the $10,000 emergency grants to small businesses were supposed to have been available in three days, on the ground this has been far from the case, as the rush of new applicants overwhelm capacities, leading to major delays and confusion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In normal times, the Small Business Administration (SBA), which has been tasked with distributing the emergency aid, gives out about $2 billion worth of Economic Injury Disaster Loans over the course of a year. Now, because of the CARES Act, the 4,000-person agency must oversee the provisioning of $10 billion of these loans over the course of mere days, something it was never equipped to do. As a result, while the statute says that the money should have already been in people's hands, the agency itself has revised its projection from "within days" to "a week to 10 days." This is despite hiring an outside mortgage company to help it process 2,000 applications a minute, as well as adding 7,000 additional people to help staff phone lines. Beyond that, business owners face confusion over the amounts they might be getting: while headlines have focused on the $10,000 figure, the SBA is now saying that grant amounts will be based on operating expenses, particularly where it concerns payroll.

Small business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, which the SBA is also overseeing, but which are administered by banks, have also hit unexpected snags connected with the scope and scale of the task ahead, according to the New York Times. Prior to the global pandemic, the SBA gave out an average of $30 billion worth of small business loans per year. This annual figure has now become a daily expectation from the thousands of new applicants rushing to take part in the program. While the White House said that 178,000 loans totaling $50 billion have already been authorized, the Times said only a fraction of these funds have actually reached their intended recipients.

While many banks would like to get those funds to people, they themselves have had to contend with the SBA's aging technology, which is groaning beneath the weight of thousands of new applicants. Banks are reporting trouble even getting the SBA's online portal to load, as the site has been subject to crashes since the program first opened. Those trying to reach the agency by phone aren't faring much better, with bankers reporting waiting for hours before getting to talk to someone.

Even when an application is approved, banks are still hesitant to release the money due to possible legal liabilities. The Times noted that while the SBA requires that banks use a specific form to close the loans, this form is outdated and contains language contradictory to the current terms, which has prompted banks to use their own forms, but this has in turn led to concerns that the government won't take kindly to this solution, which could lead to recriminations in the future. Meanwhile, smaller banks are reportedly running out of capital to give out these loans, as there is no real plan in place for how to recoup their costs.

Beyond the SBA, lenders have pointed to another federal agency they believe has a hand in the delays: the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), according to Bloomberg. FinCEN, since 9/11, has imposed strict anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing rules on banks, which, the banks say, is the reason why many of them are prioritizing their own customers. Under current regulations, banks must verify client identities through documentation such as driver's licenses and Social Security numbers, which must themselves be checked for possible fraud. For businesses, banks must identify each person who owns more than 25 percent of the company, as well as any person with control of its operations, which usually involves getting corporate documents on top of the individual information. Banks are reporting that these rules can extend the application process for individuals by up to two hours, and for businesses by up to a month. They are asking FinCEN permission to do the verification process after, not before, the loan has been approved, but so far there has been no movement on this front.

Many other provisions of the CARES Act have been faced with similar implementation difficulties. For example, while the bill greatly expanded both the size and the eligibility pool for unemployment benefits, state governments have found themselves unready to meet the major surge in demand, according to Marketplace. Part of this unreadiness is due to the lack of processes in place for those who previously had not been eligible, such as independent contractors: For instance, in California, the application requires people to submit W-2 information, which has stymied many potential beneficiaries. This is on top of technological issues that have led websites across the country to crash amid surging demand, and while these crashes have slowed as of late, they are still very much a problem.

Meanwhile, the $1,200 direct payments to individuals could be delayed by up to five months, as the IRS, responsible for distributing the funds, encounters major logistical challenges with disbursing so much to so many. The IRS will first need to send 60 million direct deposit payments in mid-April to the people who have bank account information on file with the agency. This is estimated to take about three weeks. But then the real challenge begins, when it starts sending out paper checks in May, as it will need to send out about 100 million checks at a rate of about 5 million per week, possibly adding up to about 20 weeks. These checks will be issued starting with people with the lowest adjusted gross income, and ending with those with the highest. To expedite matters, the IRS expects to create a portal later this month or in early May to let people update their direct deposit information and check on the status of their payment.

These challenges come at a time when the government is working out the details of yet another relief bill that could be as high as $1 trillion, on top of the $2.2 trillion already appropriated by the CARES Act. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the proposed legislation's main aim will be to boost relief even further, with more direct payments to individuals, more unemployment insurance subsidies, more food stamp aid and more funding for the small business Payroll Protection Plan. There has also been talk of extending further aid to state and local governments, particularly for towns of fewer than 500,000 people. The White House expressed support, in principle, for certain measures called for, particularly more direct payments and more funding for small business loans, although it added that it would like to see infrastructure spending as well.

Congressional Democrats have also called for a further $500 billion in spending, separate from the other relief bill, which would provide $250 billion in more small business loans (of which $125 billion will go to community lenders), $100 billion for hospitals and community health centers, $150 billion for state and local governments, and a 15 percent increase in food stamp benefits. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R -Ky,) said previously that he wants the Senate to vote on additional small business aid this week, but it is unknown what he thinks of the other provisions.

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