When Josh Heinzl, owner of Josh’s Toys and Games, had to close his retail stores in Nashua, Manchester and Salem because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he immediately sought a financial lifeline through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) that would allow him to continue paying employees until he could reopen his stores.
The process got off to a promising start when his bank, Bank of America, sent him an email in late March stating he could pre-apply and when the money became available the bank would submit his application. Heinzl said he dutifully prepared the loan application and submitted it with the required documentation.
“On April 3, the day the applications opened, Bank of America would not return our calls,” a clearly frustrated Heinzl said during a Thursday telephone conference call with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and other small businesses and nonprofits. “We called multiple times the following week and were told the few times we were able to get through — after we waited on hold for hours — they were approving applications in the order they were received. But there were no other updates they could give us.”
Heinzl went on to say he learned a few days later through news reports the funding, which is available through the Small Business Association, had run dry.
“If the program is first come first serve and it ran out after two weeks, and I applied first thing before day one, how did I not get funded?” Heinzl asked. “It looks to me [like] we were lied to.”
Others on the call with Shaheen shared similar experiences of trying to navigate the PPP loan program and trying to understand its conditions, which some said were unwieldy and did not address their needs.
According to Shaheen’s office, nearly $2.6 billion in loans has been distributed to 20,511 small businesses in the state as of May 1. But plenty of other businesses and nonprofits have been unable to obtain loans to help them survive during the public health crisis.
Shaheen promised to take the complaints and concerns she heard to a Senate oversight committee hearing next week and likely propose some changes to the program.
Another applicant on the teleconference call was Taryn Fisher, owner of the Keene Fine Craft Gallery, who tearfully told Shaheen she would be closing down the small art gallery she opened in Keene last year at the end of May because she could not secure financial assistance through any of the programs.
Fisher’s gallery did consignment for about 160 artists. The business, which had a small loss in 2019, did not pay wages in February this year and had just $2,700 in payroll expenses.
“The Payroll Protection Program just did not work for me,” Fisher said.
Fisher told Shaheen that if she had been approved for the $10,000 grant through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which she applied for three times but never heard back from, she would have been able to cover rent at her gallery until she found a less expensive location to keep the business going.
“ ‘Your three applications are in; stop applying,’ ” Fisher said she was told by her local SBA representative.
Shaheen heard similar stories from others who said the government’s desire to help, while well-intended, was misguided, did not address their needs in the right way and came with a process that was often unresponsive.
Steven Peterson, owner of Mainstream Security Services in Merrimack, said the only employees left at his business are family members who can’t be paid with PPP funds. He is not eligible for the $10,000 EIDL emergency grant but did apply for an traditional disaster loan through the SBA. After more than four weeks of no word, Peterson was told Monday his company is in line for loan processing and someone will get back to him.
“Within three or four weeks, I am going to have to shut down because I can’t pay the bills,” Peterson said. “There was a lack of thought into some of these things and there appears to be no guidance, no communication. It really is troublesome.”
The PPP money is designed to cover existing payroll over eight weeks, which begins when the loan is approved. Several call participants suggested, and Shaheen agreed, the borrower should be given some flexibility on that timeframe if they don’t need the money right away.
But it was the stories of long waits on the phone, lack of answers from lenders and cumbersome loan and repayment requirements that were mentioned most often.
Ash Fischbein also tried to navigate the process to obtain financial assistance through the EIDL program before he had to shut down his restaurant, Hobbs Tavern and Brewing Co., in Ossipee. When he called the SBA he was told he was caller number “twenty-five hundred and so and so, and if you wanted to wait it would be a couple of hours.”
Fischbein opted to wait and was pleasantly surprised to move up the line “pretty quickly” and thought the process would be “efficient.”
After three hours, he finally heard the phone ringing and was getting ready to speak to a human.
“Great, I made it through,” Fischbein said. “It rang three times and then hung up. That happened three times and I spent over six hours.”
Just days ago, Fischbein was approved for an $187,000 PPP loan, but he is troubled that 75 percent must be spent on payroll in order for the loan to be eligible for forgiveness. Since the restaurant is closed, that will be difficult.
“That is just unrealistic,” said Fischbein, who needs money to buy inventory for reopening and pay electric and gas bills.
Fischbein is also worried about a potential monthly loan payment of $10,500 for two years if he fails to meet the requirements for loan forgiveness. He asked Shaheen to recommend a process to convert the loan to long-term debt so the payments are more realistic. He also asked that any updated guidelines to PPP loans be applied to loans that were approved through the program before any changes were made.
As for Heinzl, he said he has been told his PPP funding is secured. He wants to spend on paying vendors because he has no sales, but he has no proof of the approval.
“I have nothing to show for it,” Heinzl said. “There is no timeframe available, no confirmation number; I don’t have any of that.”