Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter.
In the frenzied scramble for federal disaster relief funding, Brianna Hagner thought she had gotten an early start.
After her Montgomery County house-cleaning company’s work dried up because of the coronavirus, she applied for a loan from the federal Small Business Administration. Then, after the massive stimulus package sweetened the deal — offering up to $10,000 in advance, no strings attached — she applied for that money, too.
Cash — and fast — was exactly what she needed as money stopped coming in and bills started piling up. The loan advances do not have to be repaid, and the SBA said the funding would arrive within three days.
Then, a week went by with no money and no updates.
Small business owners across Pennsylvania, reeling from the economic fallout of efforts to contain the coronavirus, are waiting anxiously on these emergency advances. But with the SBA overwhelmed by the demand, frustrated applicants complain about long hold times, confusing — sometimes contradictory — information from agency representatives, and pervasive uncertainty about whether the program will deliver.
“It’s given a lot of business owners false hope,” said Hagner, who’s based in Boyertown. “Honestly, it’s just been a mess.”
She doesn’t know when she might see the advance, how much she stands to receive, or whether she’ll get anything at all.
“I’m just hoping that what’s in my bank account will last until something can come through,” she said.
Before the coronavirus struck, the SBA offered long-term, low-interest loans to businesses experiencing economic harm because of natural disasters, like hurricanes or flooding.
Under normal circumstances, loan applications take about a month to process. To get money out the door faster, federal lawmakers assigned $10 billion to create an emergency grant program, offering forgivable loan advances of up to $10,000 that small business owners could receive while their underlying loan applications were being considered. The law says business owners should receive the money three days after applying.
But more than a week after applications opened, many Pennsylvanians are still waiting. Both of Pennsylvania’s senators say they have heard complaints from constituents about delays in getting the advances.
Christopher Hatch, a spokesperson for the Small Business Administration, said advances began going out this week.
“We are ramping up to meet one of the largest projects of its kind in American history, and are working as hard as we can to ensure the loan applications of America’s hard working small business owners are processed as quickly and accurately as possible,” Hatch said.
On Friday, the SBA’s website promised applicants, “Funds will be made available within three days of a successful application.” By Monday, that had been quietly walked back; funds would now be “available within days.” By Tuesday evening, it simply read: “Funds will be made available following a successful application.”
“We’re rolling out a lot of programs in a short period of time and trying to push that down through a very large bureaucracy,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
“Was that overly optimistic?” he said, of the three-day approval process. “Yeah, I think you could say that now.”
Applicants say it’s difficult to get a clear answer when they call the SBA for updates.
“It was a simple form to fill out,” said Tina Persing, who owns a permanent cosmetics company in Sunbury, Northumberland County. “The only issue is just the communication afterwards.”
Persing said an SBA agent told her Monday that they would be in touch next week, but didn’t say when she would actually get the money.
“It’s all kind of up in the air as this point,” she said.
The owner of a small consulting firm near Pittsburgh said the first time she called to check on her application, an agent told her she’d have the advance within three days. But when she called again, that afternoon, someone else told her it would take three or four weeks instead.
There’s also been widespread confusion over how much each applicant stands to receive.
A newsletter sent out by the SBA Massachusetts District Office on Monday said that advances would start going out this week, with businesses receiving $1,000 per employee, up to a maximum of $10,000.
Hatch, the SBA spokesperson, confirmed that the agency is using this formula to distribute the money — a change not all applicants have been told about yet.
In the absence of clear guidance from the SBA, panicked business owners swap updates and rumors on Facebook and Reddit. On Twitter, disgruntled applicants have started a hashtag calling the program a hoax.
For Dave Evasew, the week and a half since he applied has brought difficult decisions, heated phone calls, and hours spent waiting on hold.
His dance and gymnastics center has been shut since the second week of March, when Montgomery County had the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. Nonessential businesses there were urged to close even before Gov. Tom Wolf issued his statewide shutdown order the following week.
Evasew applied for a disaster loan on March 20. After the stimulus bill created the forgivable advances, he applied for one the day the program launched.
That was last Monday, when Evasew said an SBA agent told him to keep checking his bank account: The advance could arrive at any time. When he called again on Thursday, another agent told him it would arrive the following Monday. On Tuesday, he said, an SBA supervisor told him that agents aren’t supposed to give applicants estimated timeframes at all.
He still hasn’t received any of the money.
Evasew had been counting on the advance to cover last month’s payroll. Now, he said, those checks will bounce.
“I would have made my decisions differently if people had told me the truth from the beginning,” Evasew said.
Earlier this week, growing increasingly desperate, he contacted his congresswoman, Democratic Rep. Madeleine Dean, asking for help.
In response, he got an email from a staffer, noting that their office has received several similar requests. The rollout of the program, the staffer wrote, has been “at best, abysmal.”
100% ESSENTIAL: Spotlight PA provides its journalism at no cost to newsrooms across the state as a public good to keep our communities informed and thriving. If you value this service, please give a gift today at spotlightpa.org/donate.