Some Small Businesses That Got Aid Fear the Rules Too Much to Spend It

When a $192,000 loan from the federal government’s small-business aid program arrived in his bank account last month, George Evageliou, the founder of a custom woodworking company, felt like one of the lucky ones.

Under the program’s rules, Mr. Evageliou has eight weeks from the day he received the cash to spend it. But nearly three weeks after the clock started on April 14, he hasn’t used a penny.

His quandary? If Mr. Evageliou wants his loan to be forgiven, he must spend three-quarters of it paying the 16 workers he laid off from Urban Homecraft, his Brooklyn business, in late March. But bringing his workers back now, when they can’t work in their fabrication shop or install woodwork in clients’ homes, won’t help his business. And if New York City remains shut when his eight weeks are up in mid-June, Mr. Evageliou would have to lay off his employees again — something he wants to spare them.

The government has “made this so hard to use,” he said. “It starts to feel like a lose-lose situation.”

The $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program was meant to extend a lifeline to small businesses battered by the pandemic, allowing them to keep employees on the payroll. But it has been dogged by problems. Countless small businesses couldn’t get money, and hundreds of millions of dollars instead flowed to publicly traded companies.

Now many of the small businesses that did get loans are sitting on the money, unsure about whether and how to spend it. That’s compromising the effectiveness of a program meant to help stabilize the country’s reeling economy.

Some owners don’t see the point of hiring back workers when business is so slow. Others chafe at having to use the money within eight weeks, when they would like to keep the financial cushion for longer. And many of the owners are confused about whether they have any flexibility. They would rather use the cash to retool their operations for an altered world or buy protective equipment for workers, but the rules require them to spend it on specific expenses, like payroll.

Owners also say they are afraid of running afoul of the program’s rules, which are complicated, ambiguous and still evolving. Accountants, lawyers and lenders are struggling to understand the nuances and offering clients tentative guidance.

“It’s chaos,” said Howard M. Berkower, a New York lawyer who advises corporate clients. “It’s impossible for businesses to have any degree of comfort that they’re following the rules when the rules are still being written.”

The $2 trillion CARES Act, which created the program, specifies that small businesses — generally those with fewer than 500 employees — can use the loan money to pay employees, but also for rent, utilities or interest payments. The loans will be forgiven if they are spent on those expenses within eight weeks and the business keeps paying the same number of employees, at the same rate, as it did before the pandemic.

The Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration, which is running the program, added a restriction: For a loan to be forgivable, businesses have to spend at least 75 percent of it on payroll. Otherwise, the rules say, the borrower will pay interest of 1 percent on any portion of the loan that is not forgiven.

But what’s unclear is what happens if borrowers keep all the money as a loan to be used later or if they must spend the entire sum within eight weeks, with an economic turnaround still months away.

Take Jodi Burns, the owner of Blazing Fresh Donuts in Guilford, Conn. Ms. Burns could use the loan she got — an amount under $50,000 — to hire back her eight employees, but she would be paying most of them to stay home, since the bakery is open only 12 hours a week these days. She would prefer to hold on to the cash beyond eight weeks; her hope is that it becomes a low-interest loan she can use for payroll and rent when her shop is open longer.

Ms. Burns doesn’t know whether she can do that. She has called her local S.B.A. office, small-business advisory organizations, a law firm and her lender to ask for guidance, but no one has given her any assurances. Moreover, having signed documents requiring her to use the funds for purposes allowed under the paycheck program’s rules, Ms. Burns is nervous about misusing them.

“I don’t accidentally want to commit bank fraud,” she said.

Many lawyers are telling small-business owners that they think the loans can be used broadly, although no one is certain. Some bankers are reasoning that since the aid program is based on existing S.B.A. programs that are more flexible, the pandemic loans will be, too.

“As long as they’re using the funding for the operating expenses of the business, our interpretation — and we think it’s clear — is yes, you can use it as effectively a working capital loan,” said John Asbury, the chief executive of Atlantic Union Bankshares, a community lender in Richmond, Va.

But officials at Treasury and the S.B.A. won’t confirm that interpretation. Asked repeatedly if companies can simply hold on to the money for now because paying employees doesn’t make sense to them, an S.B.A. spokeswoman would say only that the funds must be used for purposes “consistent with the Paycheck Protection Program.”

Ryan Hurst, a partner at RKL, an accounting and advisory firm, said the program had been put together hastily and remained murky on critical issues. “Every day I’m sitting at my computer, hitting refresh multiple times a day, hoping we’ll get more guidance from Treasury and the S.B.A.,” he said.

Since the S.B.A. has not provided lenders with customized application forms, many banks are using a generic document with provisions that do not apply to the paycheck program.

Dutchess Maye, the owner of eduConsulting Firm, an educational services provider in Raleigh, N.C., received a contract from her bank that made no mention of having her $20,000 loan forgiven.

Ms. Maye, who plans to use the money for payroll, balked at signing a legal document that didn’t seem to describe the forgivable loan she thought she was getting. Her business has no debt, and the idea of incurring any — especially as the economy is nose-diving — spooked her.

“I felt it was predatory,” she said.

She called her lender, which assured her that the loan would be eligible for forgiveness, but the representative she spoke with told her that the bank had no idea yet what the process would be. In the end, reluctant to risk missing out on badly needed aid, she signed. But Ms. Maye plans to set $20,000 from her savings aside for a few months as a reserve.

“I had to have a backup plan in order to take the money, in case I have to pay it back,” she said.

Coyote Ugly, an international chain of honky-tonk bars made famous by the 2000 movie of the same name, is sitting on its loan money. The company’s American bars have been closed since mid-March. Bartenders and security staff were laid off immediately, but the bars’ managers were kept on.

Through a small Louisiana bank, nine of the company’s bars in the United States applied for loans “because they were there,” said Jeff Wiseman, Coyote Ugly’s general counsel. At the time, executives figured the economy might reopen before the loans came due, in which case the money could be used for payroll and overhead like rent.

The bars’ loan applications — ranging from $40,000 to $120,000 — were approved in mid-April. By then it had become clear that Coyote Ugly would not be serving customers for a long time. Some locations might never reopen.

On April 18, Liliana Lovell, the company’s founder and chief executive, told managers that most of them were being furloughed. Some were furious to be let go just as the company was granted the federal loans.

Ms. Lovell and Mr. Wiseman acknowledged those grievances, but said Coyote Ugly hadn’t had much choice. They didn’t see the point in paying managers to sit around in empty bars, and in any case the funds would be exhausted within a couple of pay cycles. Their understanding was that if Coyote Ugly used most of the money for purposes other than payroll, like buying personal protective gear or cleaning supplies, the company would have to repay the loans with interest, further weakening its precarious finances.

And so the hundreds of thousands of dollars remain deposited in Coyote Ugly’s bank accounts, unused.

“It’s important for us to sit and wait,” Ms. Lovell wrote in an email on Thursday to the laid-off managers.

Even borrowers who are happy with their aid see it as a temporary fix.

Erik Anderson is a co-owner of a string of high-end hair salons for men, Scissors and Scotch, which has locations in several Midwestern cities. He and his partners, along with their franchisees, all got relief money and used it to pay employees, rent and utilities at their stores while they remained shuttered.

Now, some of the states where Scissors and Scotch has locations are slowly reopening. But fewer stylists can work in the salons at once, and fewer customers will be allowed in. Everyone has to wear a mask. The salons’ aid money will help supplement their stylists’ earnings, since few, if any, of them will be able to work full 35-hour weeks.

Mr. Anderson’s understanding is that he is not allowed to use money from the small-business program for work like reconfiguring his spaces, he said. He hopes more aid will be coming if he needs it — or his company may not survive.

When the loans run out, Mr. Anderson asked, “what are we supposed to do then?”

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