SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday.

SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington on Thursday. Alex Brandon / AP

SBA Experiences Chaotic Rollout to 'Unprecedented' Stimulus Program

Lawmakers on both sides and business owners alike criticized the Trump administration for a rocky implementation of a new paycheck protection program.

The Small Business Administration on Friday rolled out a financial assistance program unprecedented in its size and scope, creating an operational quagmire that has led to widespread confusion and frustration. 

SBA is looking to disburse $349 billion to businesses with fewer than 500 employees as part of the stimulus package President Trump signed into law last week, a sum 290 times its normal annual budget. The agency is boosting its workforce to help administer the Paycheck Protection Program and other initiatives as it seeks to help businesses recover from the fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The agency received $562 million to carry out Paycheck Protection and other programs. Employers across the country are hoping for a hasty implementation for the paycheck program that will forgive any loan a business uses for payroll and some other expenses, looking to reverse the recent trend that has caused record spikes in unemployment figures. 

On Thursday night, just hours before the program was set to launch, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin posted guidance for business owners and lenders, as well as the finalized application form. At the White House, Mnuchin said teams were working until 4 a.m. and promised the program would be fully operational on Friday. Still, several major banks said they would not be ready to accept applications Friday morning. 

"We aren't accepting applications for this program at this time," JP Morgan Chase wrote on its website. "Please don't send us any SBA or Treasury Department forms." The bank eventually began accepting online applications Friday afternoon. 

One small business owner who spoke to Government Executive called the process “so frustrating” as he had “very little guidance” on how to proceed. 

“It’s total confusion,” the business owner said, adding he spoke to different people at his bank and received different answers. “The one constant is they have no guidance at all. They haven’t even been clear on how or where to submit applications.” 

Another small business owner shared a note from her bank that said it was unable to answer what documentation she would need and other questions, as it was still waiting for the information from SBA as of Friday morning. The bank will not make loans available until Monday. 

The business owner said her banker was “working to interpret these guidelines and build a digital intake solution that will simplify this process.” Her banker added, “We’re disappointed not to have received these guidelines sooner and understand how critical this program is to so many of our valued clients.”

The rollout also faced criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, said on Friday the size of the program and the speed at which SBA was implementing it meant “some early hiccups [were] to be expected.” He noted most big banks were “still ramping up.” He applauded community banks for already allocating $1 billion in loans by noon on Friday, but criticized institutions such as Bank of America for refusing to provide loans to individuals who did not already have business accounts with them. 

A group of Democratic senators including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee, sent a letter to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza thanking her for a productive phone call on Thursday but emphasizing they still had many unanswered questions, including the timeframe for the availability of loans, whether a hotline would be established for businesses encountering problems and if borrowers would need to fill out new paperwork to see debt forgiven. They praised Carranza for her "tremendous efforts" but requested frequent communication to ensure SBA was "implementing the programs according to congressional intent."

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Small Business Committee, said in a letter of her own to Carranza and Mnuchin that the program was already not "being implemented as Congress intended." Velazquez said initial guidance SBA put out created "more questions than answers about how borrowers and lenders could access [paycheck program] funding." 

“Not only is there confusion as to the implementation of the [program], we are concerned with recent reports stating that the guidance may in fact deter lenders from participating, which further puts small businesses at risk of accessing financial assistance,” the chairwoman said. 

John Arensmeyer, CEO at Small Business Majority, a network of more than 58,000 small businesses, said he tried to sound the alarm that the SBA system "is not designed for large-scale economic emergencies.” 

“While I am deeply troubled that banks have not received the guidance necessary to accept small business stimulus loan applications tomorrow, I sadly cannot say that I am surprised,” Arensmeyer said. “The infrastructure is not in place to execute assistance in a timely and simplified manner. Now, we are watching this play out in real-time tonight as small business owners with applications in hand nationwide are learning that the institutions that hold the resources necessary to save their business may be unable to accept their applications.”

Karen Mills, who ran SBA for four years under President Obama, told MSNBC banks were not prepared to implement the program and SBA was likely to get overwhelmed.  

“We’ve got this huge fire hydrant of money sitting at SBA and Treasury and the question is whether it’s actually hooked up to any hose that can get it out to small business owners,” Mills said. 

She added the next four-to-five days would prove pivotal.  

“The program is good, it’s designed to have fewer barriers, but the mechanism is not built for this,” Mills said. “I think we could have a very bumpy ride.”

Marie Johns, who served as SBA’s deputy administrator under Obama, expressed a more optimistic view, saying a few bumps in the road were not a “cause for concern.” She noted SBA rose to the occasion in 2009 during the economic recession to provide services to businesses. While scope of the current crisis is even more significant, she said she had spoken to former colleagues who are “working day and night” to get their new programs operational. 

“This is unprecedented,” Johns said. “It made sense to utilize a vehicle that was already in place,” she added, referring to SBA’s existing 7(a) loan offering, “but this stretches how the 7(a) program has historically been used and as a result it will take some time to get all the wheels on the bus and get it moving.” 

The payroll program is not the only operation on SBA’s plate in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. It is also providing advances on disaster loans and forgiving existing loans through the agency, among other initiatives. 

SBA is looking to hire many new employees to bolster its coronavirus response efforts. It has posted openings for IT engineers, data scientists and IT specialists, as well as contracting officers. Both postings noted they were “not an official vacancy announcement under the Merit Promotion System.” The Office of Personnel Management last month gave agencies expanded authority to use Schedule A hiring to bypass many of the normal restrictions. SBA said the positions would fill an “urgent need” to meet “current mission needs related to COVID-19 emergency.”

SBA did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.