U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. CREDIT JONIERNST.COM
By Katharine Carlon
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst called for patience as small businesses await dispersal of nearly $350 billion in emergency relief, cautioning that working through kinks in the new federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) might take some time, and promising that additional help is on the way.
The program for businesses employing 500 workers or fewer, part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, is off to a somewhat rocky start since launching April 3, with computer system crashes, unclear guidance and overwhelming demand slowing the processing of the forgivable loans meant to give the business community a lifeline.
“We do understand there are hiccups in the system and every day I’m on the phone with the [Small Business Administration] and the Treasury Department to work out those issues,” Ms. Ernst said during a Tuesday online Q&A hosted by We’re in This Together, a joint collaboration between the Iowa City Downtown District, Think Iowa City, the Iowa City Area Development Group and the Iowa City Area Business Partnership.
“Patience is a virtue,” she added. “We want it done as quickly as possible, but please understand this is a $350 billion package and those rules were really pushed out in a matter of one week.”
Ms. Ernst spent the majority of the half-hour session reassuring business owners, nonprofits and others that the federal government was working hard to push out money as quickly as possible, adding that the CARES Act would not mark the end of relief for the financial crisis ignited by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are very focused on the immediate needs right now … but we do understand that this will last longer than four weeks or eight weeks, and the recovery period will be much longer,” she said. “We do understand that long-term, we may have to go back and either make corrections … and also look at what we’d consider as far as a Phase 4 package or possibly even a Phase 5.”
Ms. Ernst said that given the unprecedented times and great need in the business community, she expected the appropriated $350 billion to be drawn down quickly.
“We already know we need to go back in and refill those coffers,” she said. President Donald Trump has already signaled support for additional small business funding in upcoming relief bills, which Ms. Ernst said would almost certainly include more funding for frontline emergency workers and those working in the health care industry.
A Phase 4 or 5 bill could also fuel infrastructure improvements to help boost the economy, an idea Ms. Ernst said enjoys broad bipartisan support, as well as support for organizations left out of the CARES Act, like 501(c) (6) business associations, including chambers of commerce.
Ms. Ernst pleaded with employers of all kinds to discuss with their lenders ways to keep employees on at full pay without cutting hours, stressing the PPP was intended to “provide them with the dollars necessary to keep those employees whole” rather than resort to cuts or layoffs.
“We do see those businesses where they’ve scaled back hours of employees, or they’re not making up the difference for those employees,” she said. “Please, please, go to your local lender, talk through this program … we want you to keep those employees in place, but we don’t want those employees to struggle either. If that employee was working a 40-hour week, we want them to be paid for a 40-hour week. That’s why we put the program in place.” CBJ