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Sunday Focus: How will CARES Act help local businesses?

NATCHEZ — By email, by video and by blog posts, Natchez business leaders are reaching out in every conceivable way to inform local business owners and employees about the benefits available from the federal government.

A little more than a week ago, President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The $2.2 trillion relief package offers a variety of measures to support individuals and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.

Only a week old, the treasury department, banks and others were scrambling to finalize the rules and regulations for many of the provisions in the law.

Local business organizations such as the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce, Concordia Chamber of Commerce and Natchez Inc. are equally scrambling to get out the latest updates from the federal government.

“We are learning daily,” Natchez Inc. Director Chandler Russ said Friday. “We are trying to put that information in front of the business community as we get it.”

Russ said the Natchez Inc. website has direct links to the forms and applications necessary for those who want to take advantage of the law.

Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Debbie Hudson said the chamber is also trying to help local businesses make sense of the new law.

Friday morning, the chamber hosted a virtual Friday Forum on the CARES Act on Facebook. Silas Simmons partner Peyton Cavin detailed major provisions of the CARES Act and answered questions from those who watched the video live online.

“Peyton helps give (local businesses owners) a familiar face versus somebody in Washington, D.C.,” Hudson said.

Hudson said in this time of uncertainty, the Chamber has tried to become a go-to source of information, not just for Chamber members but for the business community as a whole.

How can the CARES Act help local businesses and employees?

“There are several major items in the CARES Act that we think are beneficial to business and industry in the region,” Russ said.

For self-employed workers who have been directly affected by the pandemic, Russ said expansion of the unemployment benefits will be significant.

The Paycheck Protection Program and the Emergency Economic Injury Grant program are two important options for local small businesses to consider.

In either case, Russ said he advises people to work with their existing bank or a local CPA to help determine which programs are best for them and their businesses.

Unemployment benefits

 The CARES Act dramatically expands the amount of unemployment insurance provided to workers who’ve lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

“The extension of benefits under the CARES Act is huge,” Russ said.

Unemployment assistance will now extend to self-employed workers, including independent contractors, freelancers, farmers and gig workers. Self-employed workers with a limited liability company (LLC) or S corporation qualify.

Individuals will need to prove they’ve lost work as a direct result of the pandemic, including reasons such as being diagnosed with COVID-19, being mandated by a health official to quarantine, providing care for someone diagnosed with the virus, providing care to a child who can’t attend school because it’s closed, being scheduled to start a new job that’s now closed or quitting a job as a direct result of the pandemic.

Paycheck Protection Program

The Paycheck Protection Program, Russ said, is the first item that he encourages people to consider.

The program is for businesses looking for money to cover the cost of keeping employees during the economic downturn.

Nearly $350 billion in funding is available for this program to provide interest- and tax-free loans for small businesses that maintain their payroll during the emergency. 

The program officially opened Friday, but many banks were still finalizing details before opening the program to customers.

“It will be on a first-come, first-served basis,” Russ said. “Once they go through the money it is gone. People need to make sure their applications are in.”

Payments on the loans can be deferred for one year. If the employer retains its workers for the duration of the eight-week coverage period, the loans would be forgiven.

In this way, the loan acts more like a grant if the business retains its staff and payroll. The maximum loan amount is 2.5 times the entity’s monthly payroll and the loan cannot exceed $10 million per organization.

If a business was forced to lay off employees during the eight-week timeframe, the forgivable amount of the loan would be reduced proportionally based on the change in payroll. 

Any business with 500 employees or fewer is eligible — including nonprofit organizations, self-employed individuals and independent contractors. Entities that have applied for an EIDL are eligible for the Paycheck Protection program as well.

Economic Injury Disaster Loans & Emergency Economic Injury Grants

The CARES Act includes $562 million for loans and $10 billion for grants, which are currently available and can be applied for online through the Small Business Administration.

These grants provide an emergency advance of up to $10,000 to small businesses and private nonprofits harmed by COVID-19 within three days of applying for an SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).

The SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans are up to $2 million with interest rates of up to 3.75% for companies and up to 2.75% for nonprofits.

The Emergency Economic Injury grants are available from Jan. 31-Dec.31, 2020. The grants are backdated to January to allow those who have already applied for EIDLs to be eligible to also receive a grant.

Companies, nonprofits, self-employed people, independent contractors, cooperatives and employee-owned businesses are all eligible.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.