UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
Kayla Nelson (ph) is from Lafayette, Ind. - a city of about 70,000 people.
KAYLA NELSON: It's a very small-knit town.
VANEK SMITH: And Kayla says Lafayette is big on manufacturing - makes a lot of car parts. Kayla, in fact, works in one of those factories. She drives a forklift for Subaru. At least, she did. In March, Subaru rounded up all of its employees and said it was shutting the factory for now, told everybody to go home. Kayla's husband works at Subaru, too, got laid off the same day she did. And suddenly, the two of them had no income, and they have a lot of expenses.
NELSON: I have five boys (laughter). Our oldest is 13, and my youngest boy, he is 2.
VANEK SMITH: Kayla and her husband needed money coming in. So right when they got home, they went to Indiana's unemployment website, put in their unemployment application. That was on April 2.
NELSON: A week went by. I'm like, OK. I have some savings saved up. Two weeks went by. I'm like, OK, it's starting to get a little bit ridiculous now. But now it's like, OK, it's May now. We are going to have to pay rent next month. We don't have any income coming in. We don't know when we can go back to work. We have five mouths to feed.
VANEK SMITH: It's been more than six weeks, and Kayla and her husband still haven't gotten their unemployment checks. And we've been hearing a lot lately about people like Kayla, people who are just waiting on unemployment benefits and small business loans - things that were built into the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that Congress passed in March.
But in between these trillions of dollars and all of the people waiting for relief, there are these middlemen who - just in the last few months - have gotten saddled with this new totally unprecedented task - getting all of this money to the people who need it, fast.
There are all these small banks trying to process millions of loans that they've never dealt with before. And there are state unemployment offices, many of which are running on shoestring budgets, sometimes with just a few dozen employees. As of last month, these little operations have become a lifeline for 36 million unemployed Americans.
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VANEK SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, two stories from PLANET MONEY's sibling podcast, The Indicator, hosted by me and Cardiff Garcia - two looks inside systems that have sprung up to push these huge heaps of money from the government to the individuals who need the cash; basically, like trying to smush a 50-foot pile of money through a 10-foot doorway.
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VANEK SMITH: Kayla Nelson and her husband have been waiting for their unemployment checks for six weeks. Meanwhile, Kayla's husband got sick with COVID-19. Some of her kids have been showing symptoms, so she is trying to quarantine people, care for people, cook, clean, keep the kids doing their schoolwork, keep everybody inside, and on top of that, when we called Kayla last week, she told us she's been spending hours on the phone with Indiana's unemployment office every day.
NELSON: Just calling the 1-800 number will drive you crazy. You're just waiting and waiting and waiting. And then once you finally get on the phone with them, either, one, they hang up on you, The call is dropped, or two, they don't have any information to give you.
VANEK SMITH: Kayla tried to email, thought maybe that would be faster.
NELSON: Emailed 90 different claim...
VANEK SMITH: Oh, God.
NELSON: ...Agents, and I only got a response back from one. Our family, we are really in crisis, and I keep getting a runaround with unemployment.
JOSH RICHARDSON: My name is Josh Richardson. I'm the chief of staff at the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. We operate the state's unemployment insurance program.
VANEK SMITH: Josh has been working there for more than a decade. He was there during the Great Recession, when things got so bad they had nearly 30,000 people applying for unemployment in one week. So when Indiana announced a statewide shutdown, there was this one thought that went through his head.
RICHARDSON: How do we possibly staff up to process benefits that people need in the timeframe in which they're going to expect them and need them?
VANEK SMITH: Just a few months ago, Indiana was seeing record low unemployment. The staff was lean, but it was more than adequate to handle the 2,000-odd people filing for unemployment every week. They had about 50 people answering phones and around 100 people processing claims. But Josh thought, if we get up to the Great Recession high of nearly 30,000 people a week filing for unemployment, we're not going to be able to handle that with our little staff. And then, the claims started coming in - 3,000 people, 5,000 people, 10,000 people, 20,000. Josh couldn't believe what he was seeing, and the numbers kept climbing to 50,000, 100,000 people. And then it kept climbing.
RICHARDSON: Yeah, it was like 120, 130, 140.
VANEK SMITH: One hundred forty thousand people filing for unemployment in one week - that's almost five times what Josh had seen during the Great Recession.
RICHARDSON: Just realizing that this was just really different than what we were expecting and what we were built for.
VANEK SMITH: Hundreds of thousands of people were calling, and Josh had 50 people answering phones. He started hiring as fast as he could, but people had to be vetted and trained. And in the meantime, all of these weird problems started cropping up.
RICHARDSON: You started to see these reports of people saying, well, I've been, you know, waiting four hours, and I was hung up on. And so, you know, you start to investigate. How in the world are people getting hung up on?
VANEK SMITH: Josh looked into it. And it turns out, a lot of cellphone carriers have call time limits.
RICHARDSON: Most of them, I think that we've seen many with four-hour hold limits. And so if that person...
VANEK SMITH: People are on hold for four hours?
RICHARDSON: They are on hold for four hours. And it's an extraordinarily long time and even all the longer when you've been waiting for four hours and the call automatically gets dropped.
VANEK SMITH: There were also all these reports of people calling and the number just not working at all. Turns out, there are actually limits on how many calls per second one phone line can accept.
RICHARDSON: So even when we had the recording to say, sorry, we can't answer the phone, the number of calls per second exceeded our ability even to connect them with the recording.
VANEK SMITH: They were getting more than 60 calls per second. In the last eight weeks, Josh has brought on hundreds of people. He now has roughly 650 people working with him. But they're trying to assist 640,000 Indianans who've lost their jobs. Josh says hold-time is down to around two hours, and he says he is working all the time. He doesn't take breaks. He says whenever he tries to, all he can think about are the people who haven't gotten their money yet - people like Kayla, who says her family's situation is getting more desperate by the day.
NELSON: We barely have enough to pay the rent and still have money left over to support our family if we don't get any relief. Everybody is dependent on the government right now. Me and my husband never had to depend on the government. We've been working for years (laughter), so to go from being our own backbone and our own source of income to just waiting, and you don't know when it's coming, I was very like - I was at my lowest yesterday. I was over it. Like, I quit. (Laughter) I was over it.
VANEK SMITH: Josh Richardson says he and his team are working as fast as they can, trying to get money out to the people who so desperately need it. Still he says, he knows that for a lot of people - people like Kayla - it's just not fast enough.
RICHARDSON: We sort of get the, hey, you guys should have been more prepared. You should have seen this coming. And there's no point in arguing that out. All we can do is try to get better. You know, it's going to take a while.
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VANEK SMITH: After the break, we take a moment to pour one out for the bankers - just a little bit, just the right amount. Stay tuned.
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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.
VANEK SMITH: Kevin Noyes is a regional manager for the bank, which has issued more than 11,000 paycheck protection loans since early April. These are the federal loans which are supposed to be forgivable if employers spend most of that money on their employees.
In the past month, small businesses on the brink have been racing to get a piece of that money. And a lot of those loans are not being processed by, like, big behemoth banks like Bank of America or JPMorgan Chase. Roughly, a third of the money issued in the latest round of PPP funding came from smaller banks. So WBUR's Adrian Ma spoke with Kevin in the middle of a very hectic week.
ADRIAN MA: 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.
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: Starting 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 (laughter), 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 a computer putting the final touches on a virtual stack of approved loan applications.
ST PIERRE: So what I do is I go through them and review. 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 (laughter). 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: Woof (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 have 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.
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VANEK SMITH: Big news - PLANET MONEY is now on TikTok, and we have made a TikTok about a stock market chill session. You should go check it out. We're also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We are @planetmoney.
Today's episode was produced by Leena Sanzgiri, Camille Petersen and Liza Yeager, was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin and edited by Paddy Hirsch. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith, and this is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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