As this year’s U.S. Senate race in Maine was getting into gear, Republican Susan Collins looked more vulnerable than she’s been since she took her seat in Washington in 1997. Her votes to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and pass Trump’s tax cuts for the rich tanked her approval ratings and gave her opponents political leverage to dislodge her.
Then came COVID-19, and now the political calculus has shrunk to a much simpler kind of math, like how many times the fatality figure will double between now and Nov. 3. And in terms of Maine’s economy, either the government will add some zeroes to everyone’s bank balances or voters will subtract Collins from the Senate.
So Collins picked a cause to champion: saving small businesses. It’s a canny move for a politician representing Maine, where all business is small business: firms with fewer than 100 employees make up nearly 99 percent of all enterprises in this rural state and employ a much higher percentage of workers than the national average.
“Every day, I am hearing from small businesses in my state that are on the verge of going under as a consequence of the coronavirus,” Collins said on March 18, when she introduced a small-business relief bill she’d crafted with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “Our plan would help make sure that businesses that were thriving before the pandemic as well as their employees are able to make it through this crisis.”
Meanwhile, in Saco, Emily Foran was panicking. After over a decade working for a marketing agency in San Francisco, Foran had returned to her home state and, in 2013, established Broad Creatives, a graphic design firm renting space in the historic Pepperell Mill, in Biddeford, the city across the river that’s been revitalized in recent years by creative enterprises like hers.
“This pandemic has hit us hard,” Foran subsequently wrote in an e-mail to Collins and her other representatives in Congress. “[I]n a matter of three weeks I saw my booked projects for the year go from being ‘down 35% or so’ to completely gone.”
While Collins and Rubio were staging their press conference, Foran was filling out an application for the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. By the end of the following week, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed, which includes $376 billion for workers and small-business owners like Foran, who also operates a boutique stationary shop called Three Little Words.
“I felt a great sense of relief when the CARES Act passed,” Foran wrote in early April, “because I was under the impression it had several provisions to help people like me. However, I am writing to inform you that none of those are actually working.”
Nearly three weeks have passed since Foran applied for disaster aid, and “I still have no idea if the SBA loan will be approved for me, be enough money for me, or if they even received my application,” she wrote in the e-mail, which she shared with Mainer. “There is NO WAY to effectively follow up” with the SBA.
Last week, attention shifted to another part of the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The PPP, which Collins and Rubio authored with two other senators, is now the primary federal relief program for small businesses, responsible for distributing about $350 billion of the $376 billion in the CARES Act. But as business owners are now discovering, the loan program is convoluted and quite limited. Its main selling point is that the loan will be forgiven if employers keep workers on the payroll, at their normal wage, for at least eight weeks after the loan is originated.
This provision has already drawn strong criticism from the hospitality industry and small-business owners like Joe Walsh of Green Clean Maine, a cleaning service based in Portland. They say they have no way of knowing whether it’ll make financial sense to keep workers on the books and resume full staffing levels by the end of June, assuming they’re even allowed to operate by then.
Walsh is trying to organize fellow business owners to reform the PPP. “Unfortunately, for those of us that have had to close, [the PPP] brings us very little help,” he wrote in an April 6 Facebook post. “Mostly what we are getting is a loan, while those that have been able to remain at or near full staffing levels will get basically a grant.”
Self-employed people like Foran wouldn’t have that problem. Instead, they face a slew of other problems, beginning with the nearly impossible task of finding a bank willing and able to even accept their application for a PPP loan.
Foran banks with Wells Fargo for her business needs. They sent her this message when she tried to apply for a PPP loan just days after the program began: “Given the exceptionally high volume of requests we have already received, we will not be able to accept any additional requests for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program.”
The other financial institution Foran has a relationship with, Maine-based PeoplesChoice Credit Union, is not authorized to issue SBA loans. Many well-established Maine banks and credit unions cannot participate for the same reason, and big banks like Bank of America won’t even look at your application unless you were a customer before the crisis began.
Self-employed people like Foran are now eligible to receive unemployment benefits from their states. But not the state of Maine — at least, not yet. The Maine Department of Labor doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to handle those claims, and can’t even give applicants an estimate of when they might be able to apply.
“Finally, the stimulus checks,” Foran wrote to Collins et al., referring to the one-time payment of $1,200 to individuals who make less than $75,000 a year. “I think my family will qualify for those, but I learned that they might take up to 20 weeks to be received,” she wrote. “We don’t have 20 weeks; frankly we don’t even have two. … What are we supposed to do?”
The answer, according to Collins, appears to be keep banging your head against the wall. On April 6, she tweeted that 1,816 Maine employers had been approved to receive $510,891,620 in PPP loans. Those figures only heighten the anxiety of entrepreneurs like Foran, who’ve been blocked from every avenue of relief for the foreseeable future as the bills keep rolling in.
“In 10 years of self-employment I have always turned a profit, supported my family, and paid the very taxes supposedly funding this stimulus package,” Foran told Mainer. “It is infuriating that the CARES Act is being touted as help for American families and small businesses; as you know, that’s not what’s actually happening.”