(The Center Square) – The federal Paycheck Protection Program is meant to help small businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic, but many Georgia business owners are frustrated by the lack of clarity and constantly changing guidelines for using PPP funds.
“We’re inundated with phone calls – all day,” said Nathan Humphrey, Georgia state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “We are getting a lot of questions about what is required for them to do for loan forgiveness. They’re worried about spending the money, if they don’t do it the right way, if they don’t do it in the allotted time, and all the requirements on them that they need to know about. They’re a little hesitant with the money. They’re really worried about that.”
After the first round of PPP funds – $349 billion – ran out within two weeks of the program's launch, Congress approved another $310 billion for a second round of relief.
In Round 1, 48,332 Georgia businesses got $9.5 billion in loans. Through May 1, as part of Round 2, the U.S. Small Business Administration has approved 64,784 loans to Georgia businesses, totaling $4.7 billion.
PPP loans can be forgivable – essentially making them a grants – if the money is used according to guidelines from the SBA. The guidelines keep changing, however.
“It’s a big concern," Humphrey said. "It’s changed so fast they can’t keep up with the changes. They want clear rules for them to follow, like, if I do this, then it’s forgivable. If I don’t do this, then it’s not. That’s really what we’re working to get from the SBA.”
In Gainesville, Brint Fanizza requested his application for a PPP loan within minutes of the program going live April 3. Fanizza’s business, Specialty Product Sales Inc., manufactures and distributes scissors and tweezers, but production has come to a halt because of the pandemic.
The application process took weeks, Fanizza told NPR last month. After he submitted forms and uploaded documents, Bank of America called him three times to ask whether he had submitted his paperwork. It also ran a credit check three times. On April 26, Fanizza still was not approved for the loan.
“There was a lot of confusion and conflicting stories from our business account manager on how the application was being processed,” Fanizza told The Center Square.
Fanizza’s PPP loan finally has been approved, and he said the funds will be helpful.
“We are actively interviewing for positions that we are going to start at a minimum of $14 an hour to $20 an hour, when we were doing $12 to $16,” Fanizza said. “I am optimistic of our future.”
Nate Shaffer, a banker and owner of Wiley’s Championship BBQ in Savannah, was approved for a PPP loan and received the funds well over three weeks ago. He has not touched the money.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Shaffer told the Center Square. “We stay in touch with the SBA pretty much daily. The guidance is ever-changing. This was rolled out at such a fast and furious pace that there was really no clear, concise direction for how this was going to work for small businesses.”
Wiley’s is scheduled to begin dine-in service May 11. Finding staff to reopen is another challenge. When restaurants began shutting down because of restrictions from the response to COVID-19, Shaffer had to lay off 75 percent of his employees. They have told him they aren’t interested in coming back.
“I'm competing against the government,” Shaffer said. “The response is, ‘I'm actually getting more money being unemployed than when I was working for you.' You can understand. A server gets, let’s say, $2.50 an hour, plus tips. Why would you come back to that knowing businesses have been affected when you can get $900 a week?”
Meanwhile, Wiley’s has continued to operate through curbside service, and Shaffer has diligently kept up with new guidelines from the governor’s office, SBA, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Department of Labor.
“I could have opened last week. I’m continuing to do curbside because I want clarity,” he said. “It’s a very scary time. I feel that this is actually going to hurt some of the smaller businesses rather than help them. So for me, I will sit on my PPP ... And I'm probably gonna have to wind up saying, 'The PPP is not for me. Here's the money back.' ”