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With Survival At Stake, Small Business Owners Frustrated By Aid Delays


Small businesses are fighting for survival. They're hoping for a lifeline in a new $350 billion rescue program, but they are frustrated over crashing websites and restrictions on who can apply. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Greg Hunnicutt has almost entirely shut down his construction business in Houston. At his one job site he has left, he's trying to keep his workers safe.

GREG HUNNICUTT: My plumber was in with his helper doing some work. No one else was there. He finished. My electrician is there now doing some work. It's just him and his helper. So I'm - what I'm trying to accomplish here is reducing how people interact.

KURTZLEBEN: When the new small business rescue program opened on Friday, Hunnicutt tried to apply online at his bank, Wells Fargo. He couldn't get through. I checked back in with him this week to see how it was going.

HUNNICUTT: Well, it's not.

KURTZLEBEN: Yesterday he hadn't heard back, and today he said the bank told him the application process hadn't started yet. His business needs the money.

HUNNICUTT: I paid my guys two weeks. Well, that was two weeks ago. I paid them for two weeks. Starting today, this week they haven't been paid. It's going to be difficult keeping people without some kind of relief since we really are not working, not making any money.

KURTZLEBEN: Administration officials have said that banks loaned out hundreds of millions of dollars on the program's first day, but Hunnicutt is one of dozens of small businesses that have reached out to NPR about difficulties in applying. Some, like him, are waiting to hear back. Others say crashing websites have stopped them from applying. At one point yesterday Chase had a note on its site asking businesses not to call. In addition, the program's structure may prove to be too restrictive, according to Stephanie O'Rourk, a partner at accounting firm CohnReznick. She spoke to NPR via Skype.

STEPHANIE O'ROURK: The problem is - with the program is that it doesn't align with the reality of the situation that a lot of businesses are going through right now.

KURTZLEBEN: For example, she says, three-quarters of the money must be used to pay workers in order for that portion of the loan to be forgiven. But for some businesses, nonpayroll expenses are so high that it could be hard to spend that much of the money on employees. Chelsea Altman is co-owner of five restaurants in New York City.

CHELSEA ALTMAN: So, like, in New York state or New York City, your rent is very high. So there is a chance that even with the 75% going to labor and then the other 25% is supposed to go to your rent, there's times when that won't make rent coverage.

KURTZLEBEN: All of this comes at a time when businesses are desperately in need of money. A recent survey from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that 1 in 4 businesses say they are two months or less from closing permanently, and 1 in 10 say it's one month. Washington knows the stakes are high. On Tuesday Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was going to ask Congress for $250 billion more for small businesses. Hunnicutt also knows the stakes go beyond the survival of his construction company.

HUNNICUTT: My fear about all of this is all these systems are going to get overloaded. You know, I had a conference call with my employees. I said, file for unemployment now because Texas unemployment is going to be overwhelmed, you know? And so, like, do it now just to get in, you know? No one, you know, was ready for this.

KURTZLEBEN: He told NPR that he's now seeking out other banks to try to get the loans.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEV SHERIDAN'S "ALONE IN BERLIN") 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.