Small businesses leave $130 billion in emergency relief untouched — and ask Congress to rethink the aid

Jessica and Richard Fierro are among more than 4.5 million small business owners who tapped into the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program — the massive federal effort to keep the backbone of the US economy afloat amid the coronavirus-driven recession.

But like so many others, the owners of Atrevida Beer Co. in Colorado Springs, Colorado, have an urgent message for lawmakers as applications for the small business emergency rescue program close Tuesday night: Access to money with more flexible terms is needed, and fast.

“It didn’t solve the problems,” Rich Fierro told CNN in an interview. “What it did was sustain us for a few more months.”

The program, as it was drafted in the earliest days of the pandemic and resulting shutdowns of businesses across the country, was intended to do just that — serve as a bridge for small business owners who watched their revenues vanish into thin air through no fault of their own.

The program was designed to bridge the shutdowns and help businesses keep employees in their jobs — and in turn, the loans taken out would be forgiven, essentially shifting into a grant. But now business owners like the Fierros are watching the virus spike across the country with trepidation — and growing recognition that a short-term fix isn’t the right recipe for survival for small operators ravaged by the pandemic.

“It’s such a fluid situation that no one really knows when it’s gonna start to kind of die down,” Jessica Fierro told CNN. “And then when we do start to see it die down and it starts to peak right back up.”

What to do with $130 billion

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are keenly aware that more needs to be done — and they have starting capital to do just that. The small business program is likely to shut its doors to applications with more than $130 billion in allocated funds left untapped.

“My concern is that the money that’s unspent now is the money we are arguing should be held over and used for a new round of assistance to small business,” said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. “So as long as that deadline is open, you can’t do that.”

Rubio, the chair of the Senate’s Small Business Committee, led the drafting of the program and has worked to address implementation issues throughout its nearly three months of existence.

The reality of ongoing crisis has shifted the dynamics away from the original intent of the program, he said.

“My sense is the greater need right now is in companies that have received that assistance but now need new or different kinds of assistance,” Rubio said.

There have been some calls to extend the deadline for applications, but given the depth of the economic crisis, there’s general agreement that based on the way the initial program was structured, it simply won’t be enough. The hit has been particularly acute for front-line service industries like hotels and restaurants, where 67% of job losses originated through May — even as those industries received more than 40% of the funds disbursed, according to a report by S&P.

The small business program served to deploy more than $513 billion in loans to businesses, but as the shutdowns wore on, the structure of how that money must be used for the loans to be forgivable changed. A requirement that 75% had to go toward employee salaries was dropped to 60%, and the timeline in which it needed to be used — eight weeks — was expanded to 24 weeks.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made clear Tuesday that he supports repurposing the unused funds.

“I think that should be done,” Mnuchin said during a House Financial Services Committee hearing.

Negotiations are already underway

There are already new proposals in the works, some of which would allow the smaller, hardest hit businesses to tap into a second round of funding. A proposal from Senate Democrats including Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Ben Cardin of Maryland and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire would do just that.

Rubio has indicated he’d like to keep any next round of funding within the existing program structure — which took weeks to refine amid an initial rocky rollout and a series of shifting rules.

“We’ve created this channel to deliver aid and it would make all the sense in the world to continue to use it,” Rubio said. “And for those who already would receive PPP loans, it should be pretty simple to deliver additional assistance since we have all our paperwork and information.”

A specific focus has been on better targeting aid to minority communities — which were disproportionately shut out in the program’s initial stages — as well as the service and hospitality industries, which were the first affected by the pandemic and likely will be the last to return to any semblance of normal.

Along those lines, one proposal under consideration in bipartisan discussions is longer term loans for the hardest hit businesses, as well as those that make a majority of their revenues in lower income communities, according to a draft obtained by CNN.

“The pandemic has gone on for longer than we anticipated when we first drafted the bill,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who’s a key negotiator on the program, told CNN. “Restaurants, for example, that are still not allowed to have in-house dining in the Portland area had been very grateful that PPP gotten them this far, but now they’re running out of money.”

There are broader proposals as well — one in particular that the Fierros have been keeping a close eye on.

Sens. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, have introduced a wide-ranging bill to expand access and flexibility to the hardest hit businesses, one that would offer loans covering up to six months of expenses. Part of that money would be forgiven based on the percentage of revenue lost in 2020. The rest would be repaid over seven years.

While it hasn’t moved fully into nascent negotiations for the next round of stimulus yet, its early introduction was designed to push it into the talks.

“We wanted to get into the conversation,” Young told CNN.

New shutdowns loom

The Fierros do as well. In fact, they played a role in the bill’s creation. Rich Fierro, an Army veteran with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan who holds two jobs (he is a defense contractor, as well as his role at Atrevida), all while going to school, attended a Bennet town hall and began discussions with him about what was needed for his business to survive.

“It’s not in the next 30 to 60 days — it’s just not the question anymore for us,” Rich Fierro said. “It is about six months to a year, how do we maintain with a 50% patronage.”

As it stands, Senate Republicans have made clear they will start to work on their next stimulus proposal — of which small business funding will be a central piece — in July. Its final shape, with competing proposals and ideas, is still very much an open question.

One thing that isn’t is the current environment as states start to shut down restaurants once again and the virus resurges in areas around the country.

“You know, we’re both owners, I’m the head brewer, my husband’s there 90% of the time, my daughter works front of the house as well,” Jessica Fierro said. “So it’s scary.”

As they look to Congress, however, for Atrevida Beer Co., the Fierros and so many small business owners just like them, there is clear agreement that something, anything, needs to get done — and soon.

“There’s a lot of hard work being done by folks that are not asking for handouts, that are not running around asking for anybody to solve their problems,” Rich Fierro said. “What we’re looking for is the opportunity to continue to fight to get to where we want to be.”