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American small businesses are on edge of extinction event — and Congress is not doing enough

Royalty-free stock photo ID: 711609931 Female business person reading email on computer screen at work on internet.

Rent is due. Payroll is due. Vendor invoices are piling up.  The shops are closed and there is no money to cover basic operating expenses for millions of small business owners struggling to cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 virus.  To save our loved ones from the virus, we must stay home. To save small businesses and their employees, and to prevent a prolonged recession, we must get them immediate cash assistance that doesn’t turn into mounds of debt later.  But that’s not what the Trump administration has in mind.


What is clear from the Senate bill first proposed last weekend, Senate Republicans put forward a non-starter proposal that put corporations first. It gave big corporations billions in taxpayer dollars without restrictions on executive salaries, stock buybacks and layoffs. The bill that passed late Wednesday night brought much of the accountability sought by Democrats, but it’s still clear the biggest priority for the Trump administration is big corporations. They got the biggest total pot of bailout money ($450 Billion), and a handful, like Boeing, will get their own billions ($17B) special to them. Compare that to the $10 Billion in grants allocated to the entirety of small businesses, and access to a comparatively smaller $350 Billion in loans.

Small businesses across the country have been loud and clear about what they need, calling for job retention grants to keep employees on payroll and accessing their health care—whether they are working or not, and support for fixed costs, like rent. Second, we need a significantly expanded safety net for those already laid off, and third low- or no-interest forgivable small business loans could be used to fill in the gaps.

The Senate finally passed a bill Wednesday night that would have all those elements for the first time, but woefully underfunded the most necessary piece: immediate grants to small businesses.

The reality is small businesses simply cannot take out loans to cover payroll with no revenue coming in, the risk is too great. And structural inequities in our lending institutions mean women and small business owners of color are less likely to get loans, and if they do access them, they are small and on worse terms. We need a solution that is in touch with our shared economic reality. The last thing business owners who have been forced to close their shops will want to do is take on more debt—especially when that debt is sponsored by a government we don’t trust. This will mean more and more layoffs, as small businesses try to stay solvent.

Without employment, our population lacks access to critical, life-sustaining benefits. In the wake of coronavirus, people are not only losing their jobs, they’re losing critical job-related benefits, including health care—their last line of defense against the disease. The shortcomings of our country’s worker protection and health care systems have been laid bare by this crisis. We must protect the health and safety of all workers, including workers on the front lines of this public health emergency, but we can’t do so unless we’re keeping them employed.

Since the effect of loans will be more layoffs, we must therefore continue to shore up unemployment, and make it available for all workers, including the undocumented. The expansion to include self-employed and gig workers is a major victory. These wages are what will fuel small businesses when we’re on the other side of this. But this must be implemented immediately. We must make sure these systems interplay with state systems so that furloughed workers are not left waiting in line in overburdened programs with already skyrocketing unemployment claims.

Our most immediate need is to expand the small business grant program. This will help keep employees on payroll much more effectively than the loan program, and it will keep small businesses out of debt. This third package passed by the Senate—and set to receive a vote by the House as early as Friday—is a start on which we can improve; it included critical expansions for our health care system and unemployment. It must advance in the House and be signed by the President. The provisions laid out in this bill need to be put in place quickly and with true equity of access. And we must ensure, in partnership with the Small Business Administration, the small business support this package does offer is implemented quickly and in a streamlined way that reduces any burden on already struggling small businesses.

We are at the edge of an extinction event for our small business economy, Main Street businesses led us out of the last recession and they need the right support to play that role again.

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