These small business owners are doing whatever it takes to stay afloat
Washington (CNN)Two weeks after the Los Ocampo taqueria in Minneapolis reopened for take-out service in May, looters broke in, smashing the windows, stealing inventory, and breaking the security cameras.
“I think we were just coming back out of that first slump from the pandemic and now we’re in a different one after the social unrest,” said Julian Ocampo, who runs Los Ocampo and six other restaurants with his family.
The restaurant, like others on Lake Street, where most of the damage occurred in Minneapolis, remains closed, and business is down at Ocampo’s nearby stores, too.
Across the country, the pandemic has been especially hard on black and Latinx business owners, according to research from Robert Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The number of black business owners fell 41% between February and April, Fairlie found, while about 36% of immigrant business owners and 32% of Latinx owners stopped working during the lockdowns. By comparison, the number of white business owners declined by 17%.
Minority-owned businesses tend to be in industries where demand was hardest hit by the pandemic, like restaurants, coffee shops, barber shops and salons. Black communities have lost jobs at higher rates since February, depressing demand.
But minority-owned business also had a harder time getting help from the federal government’s economic response to the pandemic, including the Paycheck Protection Program that makes forgivable loans to small business owners.
“The early days of PPP really left out the lenders best positioned to help businesses owned by people of color,” said Dafina Williams, senior vice president of public policy at the Opportunity Finance Network, which represents community development financial institutions, known as CDFIs, dedicated to serving low-income people and communities that are missed by traditional lenders.
Missing out on federal aid
When the small-business relief program launched in April, there was a mad dash to obtain funding and it turned out that many of the country’s smallest businesses missed out. Larger companies that had existing relationships with bigger banks were more likely to get their applications processed before the pot ran dry just two weeks later.
“If you didn’t have your books ready to go on the cloud. If you didn’t have all your tax forms ready to send in. If you didn’t hear about it, or your English isn’t so great, then by time you got all those pieces together the money was gone,” said Mihailo Temali, the founder and CEO of Neighborhood Development Center, a Minnesota based CDFI.
Smaller, family-run businesses, including Los Ocampo, had better luck once the government released a second round of funding for the loan program. It still has about $100 billion left.
In late April, the Small Business Administration also dedicated a window of time for smaller lenders to access its online system without having to compete with thousands of bigger banks and dropped a lending threshold that shut out the smallest lenders. It eventually set aside $10 billion specifically for CDFIs — but that didn’t happen until May 28.
At that point, CDFIs had approved more than $7 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans. But the administration hasn’t released data on who’s received the money.
The federal government also expanded an emergency loan program for small businesses and some states set up their own lending programs. In Minnesota, businesses hurt by the pandemic could take out a small loan, half of which is forgivable.
Yet, even with those supports, not every business owner in need has been able to get financial help, said Nasibu Sareva, the executive director of the African Development Center, a separate Minnesota CDFI.
The group works specifically with African immigrants, many of whom are unbanked. Language barriers make it hard to understand the US financial system to begin with — nonetheless a complex maze of new resources. The move from in-person assistance to Zoom calls during the pandemic made it even more challenging.
“Just understanding the whole shebang of the PPP was really tough, let alone for African immigrants,” Sareva said.
The African Development Center didn’t have the capital available to make loans under the federal small-business relief program, but helped owners get their documents together and then referred them to another community lender. Nasibu said the state program was less complex, but of the 400 applications the group received, only about 100 were eligible. That money ran out within a month.
At the national level, small business advocates are pushing Congress to do more. The Paycheck Protection Program loans, which covered eight weeks’ worth of payroll and some other expenses, helped businesses survive at first but they’ll need more support as the reopen. Another spike in coronavirus cases could lead to second wave of city and state shutdowns keeping businesses closed.
The Opportunity Finance Network say community lenders are going to need access to a lot more capital. It’s calling for Congress to make a $1 billion investment in the Treasury Department’s CDFI Fund.
A Democratic proposal for another stimulus spending bill, which passed the House last month, included that funding. But Republicans, who control the Senate, called that measure dead on arrival and appear in no rush to approve another aid package. In June, Congress passed changes to the small business loans, giving recipients more flexibility while still qualifying for forgiveness.
More than $6 million has been raised from donations for the Lake Street businesses and the Minnesota legislature is considering a $300 million package to help damaged businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But it remains to be seen whether it will be enough. While insurance can cover the cost of the damage, Nasibu said some of his clients had stopped paying their premiums as they struggled to pay bills over the past few months.
The Ocampo family has hired back whoever wanted to work, but it’s still only about half of the 150 employees they had at the start of March. Not everyone feels it’s safe to come back to work, despite the masks and gloves.
“Bigger places like us, we’ll bounce back. We have the contacts and resources. It’s the smaller places need the most help,” Ocampo said.
“I don’t know how long it will take, but I know people will come back to Lake Street,” he added.
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