With PPP funds slow to arrive and programs rules so confusing, small businesses fear they won’t make it through pandemic

It is supposed to be a lifeline for small businesses struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis, but for some the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a federal loan program intended to help businesses during the pandemic, has brought more confusion than comfort.

BOSTON — It is supposed to be a lifeline for small businesses struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis, but for some the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), a federal loan program intended to help businesses during the pandemic, has brought more confusion than comfort.

Local business owners tell 25 Investigates the rules attached to the loans make them risky while others say they have been unable to get any money.

The PPP first went live on April 3 and the nearly $350 billion set aside for it quickly ran out. Then late last month Congress authorized additional funding.

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Diane Cohen, owner of the Minuteman Diner in Bedford, was among the first round of PPP applicants. Cohen, who is fighting to keep her business and dreams of owning her own diner alive, inaugurated the Minuteman Diner in January, just two months before the coronavirus outbreak forced restaurants to switch to take-out only.

“Oh, yeah. It was eight weeks. We were only open eight weeks after a very anticipated opening,” Cohen told 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel.

Now the Minuteman Diner is offering To Go family-style trays of food for people tired of cooking at home. Business is down 75% and making payroll is increasingly difficult, said Cohen. She wants to keep fighting for her employees and to keep her dream alive, but she does not know how much longer she can last.

Cohen said she applied for PPP on April 5, two days after the program opened, through Bank of American where she has had accounts since 1993. More than a month later, she is still waiting for funds.

A Bank of America spokesperson tells 25 Investigates applications are being reviewed and approved manually and the bank is processing more applications than any other bank.

“My landlord has bills to pay too. I mean, all the fixed bills, they don’t stop. You know, payroll, gas, electric and rent,” Cohen added.

PPP is a forgivable loan program for small businesses with 500 employees or less. It is supposed to cover up to eight weeks of payroll costs, mortgage interest, utilities and other fixed expenses.

To avoid repaying the loan, business owners are required to rehire all their employees and return them to work almost immediately.

“Right now I’m under the gun,” said David Dos Santos, CEO of Best Fitness, a small health club chain with locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York.

Dos Santos was approved for PPP three weeks ago, but is worried that the funds will run out before business and revenue are at full capacity once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

“We're going to be in the same place in 10 weeks. We’ll have to lay everybody off because we won't have the money to keep them,” he said, referring to the PPP rules that require the funds be used within a set time of approval.

Under the rules, Dos Santos must rehire employees even though his fitness centers are still closed.

“It should be from when your business opens, when it's allowed to open by the state. That should be the clock when it starts to tick.”

David Lewis, the CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources consulting firm, said the Small Business Administration has failed to offer important PPP guidance that was supposed to be released more than a week ago.

”Think about this as a 25-piece puzzle. And you open the box, you know what the picture looks like. But you realize you only have 16 pieces in it,” said Lewis. “They haven't issued the form that you're supposed to complete on the back end of the loan that specifically says how loan forgiveness ability looks.”

An SBA spokesperson told 25 Investigates additional PPP guidance will come by the end of next week. SBA data shows 95,705 PPP loans have been approved in Massachusetts and $14.7 Billion in funding has been approved so far.

Federal lawmakers are now weighing changes to the program and calling for more oversight of the SBA and the banks administering the loans.

In an emailed statement the regional SBA office told 25 Investigates:

For the latest guidance on using the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, please visit SBA.gov and Treasury.gov regularly for newly released information. On the homepage of HOME.TREASURY.GOV click on the RED stripe “CLICK HERE to learn more about PPP” and it will take you to TOOLS FOR BORROWERS and PROGRAM RULES.

We are expecting final guidance on PPP loan forgiveness to be issued by 5/15/20 or sooner.

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