Why Were NJ’s Small Businesses Shortchanged By Federal Program To Offset COVID-19 Losses?


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This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

New Jersey businesses got more than $9.5 billion from the first round of a federal program aimed at helping small firms through the COVID-19 pandemic. While that’s a lot of money, New Jersey has one of the smallest percentages of state businesses getting assistance in the nation.

An analysis of the Paycheck Protection Program by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that New Jersey and New York, the two states hit hardest by the viral spread, ranked nearly last in terms of the percentage of all businesses — 18% — that got an award from the first round of the government’s main small-business assistance program. Only California and Nevada have smaller proportions, 15% and 17%, respectively.

Reveal’s report hinted that politics may have played a part in the distribution of these loans or grants:

  • The 10 states where the greatest percentage of businesses got loans included eight that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and all five states without stay-at home-orders as of April 23.
  • The nine states and District of Columbia where the smallest percentage of businesses got loans — including New Jersey and New York — included seven that voted for Hillary Clinton and five that put in place stay-at-home orders as of March 23.

No comment from feds
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is overseeing the initial $349 billion round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that was exhausted by April 16 and a second round that opened Monday with another $310 billion available, declined to comment on the question of potential political influence. PPP is part of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion stimulus and relief bill Congress passed in late March.

“We’ve seen massive issues with the PPP from day one,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ3), who was named Wednesday to the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis that is overseeing the federal response to the pandemic and the economic impact it has had on the American people.

Whatever the reason, the Reveal analysis shows that the 33,519 New Jersey businesses that got a 1% loan of up to $10 million, which could become a grant if they meet certain conditions that include keeping staff on their payroll, represent just 18% of the total number of businesses in the state as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau. The average award to a New Jersey firm lucky enough to obtain assistance was about $284,000 in the first round.

There were a number of now well-documented problems with the rollout of the PPP, including an overwhelming number of applicants, computer difficulties and confusion over application requirements. Many banks also appear to have favored their best clients, which made it hard for the average small business to get a loan. A number of large, high-profile companies — including Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Los Angeles Lakers — wound up getting loans but reported returning the money after public outcry.

No relief for needy businesses
Several of the state’s congressional representatives complained about problems with the program preventing truly needy small businesses in New Jersey from getting relief.

“While Congress allocated billions of dollars in the first stimulus bill for small businesses, the Trump administration failed to ensure the funding was distributed fairly to the businesses it was meant to serve,” said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ6), adding that House Democrats fought for an additional $60 billion in the second round of funding specifically for smaller lenders to help mom and pop businesses. “I remain concerned that the administration is not upholding congressional intent and as a result, many New Jersey small businesses may not gain access to the funding they desperately need.”

It is impossible to know right now who has gotten funding because the SBA still has not released details about individual businesses that got assistance, although a spokeswoman says the administration plans to do so as soon as possible.

Kim decried the lack of transparency to date.

“Small businesses in New Jersey have been hard hit, and a program that has been burdened by bureaucracy and isn’t transparent to our taxpayers isn’t what we need right now,” he said, adding that as a member of the House select committee he “will be working to shine a light on where the money has gone so we can make sure our taxpayer dollars are being well spent.”

Eileen Kean, New Jersey state director of the NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business), said one member who has a strong relationship and existing loan with his bank had a good experience getting a PPP loan. But that was the exception, rather than the rule.

“It was really, really difficult,” she said. “Most small businesses don’t necessarily, especially if they’ve been in business for a while, don’t have existing business loans … For most of the people it was nothing.”

Another chance
Business owners were happy for another bite at the apple and, in particular, that the SBA set aside eight hours Wednesday beginning at 4:00 p.m., during which the administration accepted loans only from lending institutions with less than $1 billion in assets, to give the truly small business owner a chance at getting money.

“We really see that as being fair,” Kean said.

A coalition of about 70 pro-business groups organized by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association wrote the state’s congressional delegation last week recommending a number of changes to improve the PPP, including greater flexibility in using the funds, expanded timeframe for the loan forgiveness period and distribution of funding directly to businesses, rather than banks. The organizations pleaded for additional kinds of assistance, as well, given the dire circumstances in which many businesses find themselves.

“Time is of the essence, which is why we are asking that you act expeditiously to address additional funding needs, the shortfalls of the CARES Act, and to take action on new measures that will assist in our recovery efforts,” they wrote. “The immediate closure of large parts of our economy by this pandemic has resulted in unprecedented hardships.”

The total $9.5 billion in PPP loans to New Jersey businesses in the first round was the 10th largest allotment to a state. Firms got another $381 million from two other SBA loan programs, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan and EIDL Loan Advance programs, according to the administration. Counting all three programs, New Jersey businesses have so far gotten $9.9 billion in federal assistance, the 11th highest among states.

You can see the full chart of NJ Spotlight’s analysis of federal aid to small businesses here.

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