Last week, Matt Swihart sounded optimistic.
The coronavirus pandemic had forced him to lay off about 90 employees from Double Mountain Brewery in Hood River and Portland. But the brewmaster had a plan. First thing Friday morning — as soon a new small-business lending program opened — he would apply for a government-backed stimulus loan and rehire as many people as possible.
By Monday morning, he was alarmed.
“It’s so frustrating,” he said. “I can’t sleep. It’s awful.”
So far, his application had gone nowhere.
The launch of the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program set off a race among business owners desperate to apply for forgivable loans that would allow them to temporarily retain or rehire workers. But many banks weren't ready for the crush of applications, hampered in part by the administration's 11th hour release of its final rules.
Swihart said his bank informed him on Saturday that it was only taking loan applications from single-owner entities. Swihart is Double Mountain’s primary owner, but the brewery was started by a group of family, friends and other investors. He’d have to wait up to a week for a different application.
That was a startling notion. Swihart knew that many of the 30 million small businesses around the country were also vying for help. He started contacting other lenders.
“I’m reading things in the news that suggest that the funds will be evaporating quickly and may not be available,” he said. “So, I’m panicking a bit that we might get shut out of the system.”
That fear is real for many business owners. Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the Portland area, announced it had reached its $10 billion lending cap by Sunday night.
US Bank, Swihart’s primary lender, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
The Paycheck Protection Program was designed as a lifeline for small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. It allows them to apply for low-interest, unsecured loans of up to $10 million through their regular banks or other lenders approved by the Small Business Administration. The loans are guaranteed by the federal government and should be forgiven if business owners meet certain conditions, including using 75% of the money to retain or rehire workers.
The emergency program had a rocky launch.
“It’s been really confusing,” said Stephen Green, director of operations for the footwear design academy Pensole. “It’s definitely an exercise in ‘build the plane, fly the plane without any wings.’” He spoke from his vantage point as a former commercial banker and a vocal advocate for small businesses.
Green said he understands the rushed rollout.
“There’s an urgency, I believe, to help businesses,” he said. “But when you’re doing a business such as this where banks are lending their own money and hoping to get a guarantee on that money, it’s ripe for confusion, mistakes and errors.”
He noted that banks are treating the program differently, namely by adopting different requirements about which clients they can serve.
“The experience has definitely been different with each bank so far,” said Matt Jacobson. He’s applying for loans from four separate banks to support his four businesses, which include Portland’s Bar Dune, Wayfinder Beer and the Sizzle Pie pizza restaurants.
“I was definitely very frustrated on Friday when I learned that there were some banks, like Bank of America, that were taking applications actively when we weren’t even given access to a portal or any of the proper paperwork to start the process,” he said.
Jacobson said he submitted one online and two paper applications over the weekend. On Monday he was still waiting for the fourth bank to open its process.
Timing remained a point of confusion for Jacobson, who has laid off at least 170 people.
“My goal is to hire back everyone we can, as soon as we can,” he said.
If he’s approved for loans, however, he may have to pay staff to stay home. That’s because there’s no telling when Oregon’s bars and restaurants will reopen to the general public.
“If it comes to it, that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “But then we’re hoping there’s still money to keep them on when we actually need them.”
Some business owners, including Dara Westling and her husband, did successfully submit loan applications Friday morning. The couple owns two Bishops Cuts/Color franchises in Vancouver. They applied online through Bank of America, where they have a credit card.
As for approval:
“We have no idea,” Westling said. “We got a confirmation that our application went through. There was a very clear message to not call any of the branches, because nobody was going to be able to help us.”
She said it would be “amazing” if her small business could use a Paycheck Protection Loan to rehire its 15 employees. But even though she submitted her application early, she was unsure where she stood among other businesses in the queue.
“It’s really stressful because ‘up to 500 employees’ — those are bigger businesses than us,” she said. “And if banks are incentivized to process larger loans over smaller loans, we’ll be in the back of the line.”
Nationwide, the coronavirus pandemic decimated more than 10 million jobs in March. Many in the Northwest business community feel the government’s small business loan program — even at $349 billion — doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s never gonna be enough,” said Stephen Green. “I don’t think there is enough when you start looking at the monumental nature of what’s going on right now. We’re going through unprecedented times.”
Matt Swihart of Double Mountain Brewery checked in Monday evening. Still no word from his bank on when he could apply for help.