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Businesses Are Struggling To Use Paycheck Protection Program Money


Saving jobs is at the heart of Congress' coronavirus small-business rescue program. But as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, even when some businesses receive the money, they're not sure how to use it.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The Paycheck Protection Program sounds simple - give small businesses money to keep people on payroll. But Adam Markowitz says it hasn't been simple at all.

ADAM MARKOWITZ: It's a mess - just the calculation of who counts for payroll, what counts for payroll.

KURTZLEBEN: Markowitz works at a Florida accounting firm and spoke to NPR via Skype. He rattled off a list of how what payroll means has changed since the program was created.

MARKOWITZ: There was a point that independent contractors were going to count towards payroll costs. They no longer do. There was a point that FICA tax was going to count towards employee costs. It no longer does.

KURTZLEBEN: Those details might not mean much to a layperson, but they are extremely important to small businesses. The PPP loans are forgivable, meaning they won't have to be paid back. But they only can be forgiven if 75% of the money is spent on payroll. The Small Business Administration has yet to say exactly how forgiveness will work. This matters a lot for small businesses trying to survive, like the Brew Drinkery bar and restaurant in Granbury, Texas.

CHRISTIAN PIATT: We had only been in operation as a storefront for 51 days when we got closed down. So it has shrunk our runway, so to speak, down to almost nothing.

KURTZLEBEN: Christian Piatt is co-owner of the brewery and restaurant with 40 beers on tap. Its doors are shut to customers, so now he's wondering - how should he use his $34,000 loan?

PIATT: And I understand, in principle, it's encouraging us to get people back to work. But in practice, when you have a retail storefront that is not being allowed by local authorities to operate in the way that we had before, there should be some consideration to account for that.

KURTZLEBEN: When the brewery and restaurant closed, he was sitting on a lot of beer, food and kombucha, things that will eventually go bad. But under the program's rules, he wouldn't be reimbursed for any of it. So Piatt asked his banker what to do.

PIATT: And he said, the way I would think about it was you are becoming an extension of the unemployment office at this point.

KURTZLEBEN: Meaning he'd wind up spending most of his money on his workers, even if they weren't putting in that many hours. And Congress did pass the program with workers in mind - 26 million of them have filed for unemployment in just five weeks. Michael Strain, an economist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, says the payroll rule is needlessly complicated. But he also thinks keeping workers employed right now is important.

MICHAEL STRAIN: It's important because it creates a situation where those businesses don't have to search for new employees when the economy reopens and where workers, who otherwise would be unemployed, don't have to search for a new job.

KURTZLEBEN: Even if there's not much work to do, he says, the point is to make it as easy as possible to jump-start the economy again.

STRAIN: The idea is, really, to freeze the economy where it was on February 1 and then unfreeze it as close as possible to that February 1 situation.

KURTZLEBEN: For Piatt at Brew Drinkery, there has been a little bit of a thaw. This week, they opened for delivery and curbside pickup. Now he's looking forward to welcoming customers inside again.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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