Small banks battle to get CARES Act cash to small businesses : Planet Money Many banks have changed the way they work, as they hurry to get billions in CARES Act cash to small businesses.
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Small Banks' Corona Crunch

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Small Banks' Corona Crunch

Small Banks' Corona Crunch

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: And I'm Adrian Ma, a reporter at WBUR in Boston. A couple of months ago, Congress passed the CARES Act to provide emergency funds for coronavirus response. And one of the biggest pieces of that act was the Paycheck Protection Program.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. So those are emergency loans which are supposed to be forgivable if employers spend most of that money on their employees. And in the past month, small businesses who are just on the brink of closing and, in a lot of times, in desperate straits have been racing to get even just a bit of that money.

MA: According to the Small Business Administration, or SBA, more than 4 million PPP loans have been processed so far. And that has put a lot of strain on the people in charge of issuing those loans, the bankers. I sort of think about it like this. What is happening right now to so many small businesses is like the financial equivalent of a building fire. And bankers are sort of like the firefighters, connecting their hoses to this big pool of money in D.C. called the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP. They help business owners figure out the paperwork to get the loan. They send it off to the SBA. And once it's approved, they distribute the cash.

VANEK SMITH: So these bankers - they're actually extremely popular right now.

MA: And you know, a lot of them don't all work for big behemoths like Bank of America or JPMorgan Chase. In fact, roughly a third of the money issued in the latest round of PPP funding came from smaller banks. After the break, we'll hear from employees at one small bank who've made some major changes to get these emergency funds to businesses who desperately need it.

VANEK SMITH: Brookline Bank in Massachusetts is what people in the banking industry would consider a small bank. They've got around 30 branches. And during a normal month, they do around 75 business loans. During the past few weeks...

KEVIN NOYES: It's gotten crazy. It's gotten really crazy.

MA: Kevin Noyes is a regional manager for the bank, which has issued more than 1,100 Paycheck Protection loans since early April. And despite the craziness, he still gives off a vibe that might be best described as relentlessly cheerful. Like, he often ends his sentences with an affirming yep, yep.

NOYES: I got up at 5:30. Yeah. And I was here by - between 6:30 and 7. Yep. Yep.

VANEK SMITH: Man, I would not sound like that if I got up at 5:30.

MA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: But Kevin does. And he has been living and breathing PPP loans, trying to make sure those applications get processed as quickly as possible.

MA: And with banks all around the country trying to do the exact same thing, this has not been easy. In recent days, the SBA's online system, where the banks file loan requests, has often been jammed up.

NOYES: The system, I would imagine, was getting hundreds of thousands of loans being put through at the same time.

VANEK SMITH: This was causing some big problems. But Kevin and his colleagues actually found a way around this rush. They file applications in the middle of the night.

NOYES: Start them around 11 o'clock. We had a team of people that were really happy to do it. And they would start at 11 and finish around 4, and we got ours through without any problem.

MA: So that took care of the filing part, but then the bank had another problem. It didn't have enough people to process the loan applications, so they essentially drafted a bunch of employees from other departments in to help. Niny Phommachanh was one of them.

NINY PHOMMACHANH: It kind of sprung up. You know, I kind of got, like, a few days' notice. And then all of a sudden, we all just kind of dove in headfirst without really knowing what we were getting ourselves into.

VANEK SMITH: Niny normally works in the marketing department, but she's currently doing data entry on the bank's PPP loans. And while she says, yes, she does miss her old job, she says she feels like this one is just crucially important to the bank's customers right now.

PHOMMACHANH: They need this money to keep them afloat. And if I can be, you know, a cog in that wheel, then I'm proud to do that.

MA: After she's done with an application, someone needs to send it to the customer. And that is Lindsay St. Pierre's job.

LINDSAY ST PIERRE: Hey, Adrian.

MA: Hey, Lindsay. How was your day?

ST PIERRE: (Laughter) It was busy. It's always busy.

MA: As a business banking officer, Lindsay works with customers to answer their questions, help them fill out paperwork.

ST PIERRE: It sounds simple, but when you have, you know, a couple hundred at a time coming in at the same day, it's not.

MA: You know, by the way, when I reached her, it was 10 o'clock at night. And she was still on her computer putting the final touches on a virtual stack of approved loan applications.

ST PIERRE: And so what I do is I go through them and review. Then I just make sure that everything's signed correctly and, you know, dated and all that fun stuff.

MA: Like, how many are down, and how many do you have to go?

ST PIERRE: I've done around 40. I have about 60 or so left.

MA: And Lindsay says the past few weeks have pretty much been like this.

ST PIERRE: I think I looked at one point. In 30 days, I sent, like, 1,800 emails. It was crazy. It's just so much back and forth. I'm like, I think I'm getting arthritis in my fingers just from typing all day long.

MA: Have you ever had to work this much before?

ST PIERRE: Not like this. It's more - it's strange because it's mentally draining, especially when we're really racing against the clock to make sure these people get their funding. If I drop the ball on one, that's a whole business that could, you know, potentially go under.

MA: And that is why Lindsay has been working as much as 14 hours a day lately. She says it is a lot to carry on her shoulders, especially because she's carrying something else. She's pregnant.

ST PIERRE: I'm due in 10 days. So (laughter)...

MA: Oof (ph).

ST PIERRE: Yeah. I'm ready (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: In spite of that stress, Lindsay says she knows that a lot of people are relying on her. And in some cases, the stakes are actually really personal.

ST PIERRE: A lot of these businesses are people that either I go get my car fixed at or restaurants that I go to. So a lot of them really do hit home.

MA: Do you get to tell the customer that they've been approved?

ST PIERRE: Yes.

MA: Is it, like, a celebratory moment? Is it like you're Oprah and you're like, you get a loan?

ST PIERRE: (Laughter) Definitely - definitely for the first round because the funds ran out so quickly. So with that first round, telling people that they got it was amazing.

MA: Since the second round of PPP funds became available, Lindsay has been able to give more customers some good news. And as of last week, there was still money left in the program.

VANEK SMITH: Which comes as a little bit of a relief because the first round of PPP - nearly $350 billion - was used up in less than two weeks. But so far, we are three weeks in to the second round of funding - about $310 billion - and there is still money left for the businesses that need it.

MA: Yeah. And there are a few reasons this might be happening. For one, bigger businesses got their money earlier, so loans have been smaller this time around. Also, many businesses are leery about taking a PPP loan because either it doesn't meet their needs, or it's not super clear about how the forgiveness part of it will work.

VANEK SMITH: And of course, the last thing that these stressed businesses want to end up doing is owing more money to the bank.

MA: For Lindsay's part, she says she gets it. The program is complicated. And if there's one thing that stresses her out about all this, it's the worry that a customer that really needs the money might not get it.

ST PIERRE: So that's why I'm trying my hardest to make sure that if somebody - you know, if they come in and they don't have the resources of a CPA helping them or a payroll company - you know, it's so easy for some people to get this application completed. And some people, it's really, really hard. Somebody owning a mom and pop shop down the street doesn't fill these out every day, and I don't want them to miss out just because of that.

VANEK SMITH: Today's episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin, edited by Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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