Coronavirus: If You Can’t Work, What Can You Do?

By: 
Judy Kramer
County Reporter
It is pretty much impossible to cut and style someone’s hair from a social distance of six feet. So a lot of hair stylists have empty stations where there used to be customers glad to get appointments. It is difficult to appraise someone’s house when you are not allowed inside, and there are many other jobs held by town workers who are struggling to manage with reduced or lost incomes due to safety precautions put in place during the COVID-19 crisis.
President Trump did sign the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (the CARES Act) on the afternoon of March 27, 2020, that included a broad lending program for small business owners.  But, the term “small business,” depending on the industry, is usually applied to businesses with 500 or fewer employees and they are usually only eligible for unemployment benefits if they pay unemployment insurance for employees. Many self-employed workers in Missouri small towns, like those in Benton County, are sole proprietors or have only one or two employees, do not have unemployment insurance, and are presently deemed ineligible for unemployment benefits in Missouri’s unemployment insurance office.
The CARES Act did extend unemployment benefits to Sole proprietors, independent contractors, and eligible self-employed individuals stating that they are eligible for loans subject to some documentation requirements to substantiate eligibility. But, those who tried to apply for benefits in Missouri (and some other states) were stymied by denials for coverage if they were even able to access the website where they could apply for a grant or loan. 
The launch of new unemployment application systems and a surge in the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in recent weeks had made applying for benefits frustrating and self-employed workers in the local area have been sharing their grievances with each other. They described waiting hours to contact someone about unemployment benefits, and going online to file a claim at uinteract.labor.mo.gov, only to have the site shut down. 
On April 15, the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced that self-employed and contract workers who lost work due to COVID-19 should apply for unemployment benefits. It was stated that they have to be declared ineligible for regular assistance before they qualify for the new program. But, that announcement came a little too late for Tracey Davis of Lincoln, a hair dresser in Lincoln.
Davis has been researching all the news he can about the CARES Act, to find out why there are so many problems for self-employed workers affected by COVID-19. He said that Missouri kept self-employed workers out of the system until April 15 when they were told to apply for benefits. Then, the money for this type of unemployment insurance ran out on April 16.
Davis said his salon could qualify for a loan of $10,000 up to $29,000, so the first $10,000 was a grant. He applied for the grant, was approved, and then this happened.
“The money is gone,” said Davis. “Millions of Sole Proprietors’ small businesses received nothing from the CARES Act. In reality, the American government cannot make or print enough money to cover that bill. Millions of businesses are trying to get money out of that same pot. Even if the Congress decides to work together, Democrats and Republicans  put more money in that pot called...Coronavirus Relief Bill CARES Act. It will be gone within five days. When I called the phone number last night on my receipt from filing of the $10,000.00 grant CARES ACT, the woman who answered the phone said, ‘Don’t worry that your CPA put in the wrong email address, you’re not gonna get any money from the CARES ACT in the next three weeks because the money is gonna run out before 3:00 tomorrow afternoon.’ And guess what? It did.”
Davis had previously spent 10 hours a day in his salon, while his partner worked in their animal sanctuary attached to the back of the building. Davis’s salon business paid the bills for the sanctuary that shelters the ‘throw-away animals’ he had rescued and he now questions how they are going to be fed.
Davis said there are millions of sole proprietors in this country and they are the largest group of workers in the nation. He said that small towns are being affected greatly by COVID-19.
“When this is over, statistics will show that there was no help to small towns,” said Davis. “We were tossed a crumb for small business, but no small businesses are getting help.”
Lynette Poe is a house appraiser in Benton County. She feels that she is fortunate to still be doing some work, but mostly drive-bys because some people don’t want anyone inside their homes. She said that her husband is a contractor whose business has also slowed down. 
“Wells Fargo has put a moratorium on loans,” Poe said. “And apparently there may be a change in the law allowing for appraisals to occur after house sale closings. I get letters from FHA and Fannie May discussing changes that are happening, but you can’t count on anything because everything is fluid.”
Poe said that at first the CARES Act allowed for grants up to $10,000 for small businesses. But, she says that now a small business can only get a $1,000 grant per employee. She has two employees who are not qualified for the grant, so if she applied she would only get $1,000 for herself. 
“Just think, if a small business with 499 employees could only get the maximum grant of $10,000 that wouldn’t be very much money for that many people,” said Poe. “Grants are usually forgiven, but loans have to be paid back, and once work is back to normal, you still have a loan to repay.”
Lisa Powell, owner of Main Street Spirits, is having more business success than most because her business has been deemed an essential operation and she has a drive-through window that makes her customers feel safe. 
“I am staying busy, maybe even busier than usual,” said Powell. “I wish it was under better circumstances, but I am blessed and don’t have to shut down. I used to see some of my customers about once a month. Now that many are not working, I see them more frequently.”
Powell said that customers may come into the store, but she never allows more than nine people (including herself and any salesmen or distributors) inside. She is also very careful to clean the place with Lysol and Clorox wipes and uses hand sanitizer after serving each customer.
“I have incredible customers,” said Powell. “Some are elderly or have health issues and I don’t want them to get sick!”
Powell has two employees and has been in business since December 2016. She said that each customer knows what he or she wants and there is no one product that is sold more than others.
www.stltoday.com reported on April 16 that the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations put out a news release stating that Missouri will start processing unemployment claims from gig and self-employed workers hit by the economic downturn as soon as next week.
CNN reported on April 19, that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says he’s hopeful that an agreement with Democratic congressional leaders could be reached Sunday on a small business package stalled in Congress. Mnuchin said he believes another small business package could allocate $300 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, $50 billion appropriated for disaster loans, $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion to invest in testing.
As of press time (April 20), Katy Boyd in U.S. Senator Roy Blunt’s office notified the Benton County Enterprise that Congressional leaders are working with Secretary Mnuchin to finalize an agreement to provide more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program.
"More than 99% of businesses in our state are small businesses. Making sure these businesses are able to get back up and running quickly will be key to getting our economy back on track. Congress took an important first step by passing the CARES Act, which provided immediate relief for businesses and employees. Two overwhelmingly popular programs in the CARES Act - the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program - have helped small businesses keep employees on the payroll and cover other expenses. One of my top priorities is making sure that Congress is able to get additional emergency funding to businesses as soon as possible. I'll continue working with all levels of government - federal, state, and local - to ensure small businesses have the resources they need to overcome the challenges they face in these difficult times." - U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.)
 

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