So many businesses are rushing to get loans through a special Small Business Administration coronavirus relief program that some banks are struggling to keep up.

“We got thousands of applications,” said Dan Fitzpatrick, president of Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, which normally processed a few hundred SBA loans a month.

The $350 billion Payroll Protection Program is part of the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that President Donald Trump signed into law late last month.

“I have to applaud the government for moving swiftly with this program. This really helps," said Amol R. Kohli, president of the Cherry Hill restaurant development and management company AARK Enterprises, who has applied for a loan and is waiting to hear.

Kohli declined to describe the size of the loan, but said he doesn’t need the maximum $10 million loan allowed under PPP. He only needs enough to keep key staff on payroll at 17 Friendly’s restaurants in Philadelphia, South Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and Florida during April and May until, he hopes, he can re-establish sit-down service.

He had to close three mall stores entirely, but said most of his landlords have been willing “to work with us” until the PPP money arrives to keep 14 restaurants open with small crews providing takeout, typically at less than 20% of normal sales.

The loan, under PPP rules, will be “forgivable” — covered by U.S.taxpayers — if Kohli spends the money on worker pay and occupancy costs.

The new program required a new all-electronic system to speed the loans. Citizens’ Fitzpatrick said major lenders and the SBA had to build online systems in just one week. “The two-page application is very straightforward," Fitzpatrick said. “But they are also asking for pretty significant amounts of tax records. So we are getting some applications in with five electronic attachments. As you can imagine, keeping it organized is a big undertaking. And we need to get it right.”

Like other SBA lenders, Citizens is taking PPP applications only from current clients. If you don’t bank with an SBA lender that is pushing the new program, you’re put in the back of the line. The plan is to add other applicants “after we service existing clients,” said spokesman Frank Quaratiello.

ADP, Paychex and other automated payroll systems are expanding their own software to make it easier for small employers to collect PPP records, Fitzpatrick said.

Like many banks, Wilmington-based WSFS Bank is currently targeting PPP applications to its current business customers. WSFS reported “a high volume of applications” Monday from its largely Pennsylvania- and Delaware-based clients.

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“We have lots of interest from small businesses we serve. They’re our first priority,” said Candice Caruso, director of government guaranteed lending at WSFS.

“We launched today and are actively entering applications as we receive them," Caruso said Monday. "All of our customers are directed to our website and we have gotten loan confirmations.”

Not everyone qualifies.

Gus Drakopoulos is disappointed: The operator of the V-Lounge “gentleman’s club” near Philadelphia International Airport, Drakopoulos hoped for PPP money. But “the banks are taking the position that, because we are in the adult nightclub business, that we are not eligible for this loan,” he said. (Banks are taking a similar stance against backing marijuana-related businesses, a lender said.)

Drakopoulos said PPP lenders are relying on a 1990s-era SBA exclusion for “businesses that are of prurient sexual nature.”

Those are “old rules,” and shouldn’t apply to his 35 employees, who had hoped to expand into the next-door Sin City club this month. “Donald Trump said this is a relief package especially for the hospitality industry," Drakopoulos said. "My employers are bartenders, waitresses, waiters, bar-backs, line cooks, busboys, managers, assistant managers.”

He has no plans to have taxpayers compensate dancers: Performers at the club are “independent contractors,” he said.

Wells Fargo started taking applications with other banks on April 3 — and then announced on April 5 that it was closing its own online portal for Small Business Administration loans, saying the giant bank had maxed out of its target of $10 billion in commitments already.

Some bank websites are crashing due to high demand or aren’t yet functioning.

“I spent the better part of 12 hours on Saturday trying to complete our application with PNC,” said Anne Buchanan, who owns Buchanan Public Relations in Byrn Mawr, who said she normally “loves” the bank.

“It was a disaster, primarily because the bank rushed to get its portal up, launching something that was riddled with programming errors,” she said.

PNC customers took to social media such as Twitter and called that bank’s PPP application program a “dumpster fire.” For a good part of the day, the portal would not allow Buchanan to upload any of the documents required for an SBA loan.

“And worse, the application – which was fairly long and complex – timed out after 15 minutes and wouldn’t save any work. I would be nearly through the application” which involved uploading dozens of documents, “and it would freeze up. Nothing could get it going again. And then, it would kick you off and make you start all over,” Buchanan said.

“I get it. The banks were in an unwinnable situation, racing to get something up with minimal and conflicting guidance from the SBA. But, boy, did it create for a painful and stressful day for many of us. And PNC stayed pretty unresponsive until later in the day, when it began acknowledging issues with its platform.”

She was finally able to complete the application on Saturday night-- but has no idea if the delays will hurt her ability to secure funds.

PNC issued the following statement: “We opened our Paycheck Protection Program online application late Friday night to PNC’s small business clients, and have had a tremendous response, with tens of thousands of applications submitted over the weekend and this morning. We appreciate how patient our customers have been as we continue to work with them to complete their applications and adapt to guidelines, which are being set by the SBA. We will continue to work through the process to support our many business clients, their employees and our communities during this challenging time.”

A weekend survey of Businesses for Responsible Tax Reform’s small-business network found that most respondents tried to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan Friday, the day the program went live. But most were not able to submit an application because lenders were waiting for further program guidance from the federal government and were unprepared.

About one-fifth, or 21%, of the more than 500 respondents said they can wait only a week for loans to arrive before their business fails. A full 75% said they can wait for a month or less before their business fails.

 

Grant Geiger, founder of EIR Healthcare in Center City, applied for a PPP loan on Friday with Wells Fargo. “We have a local banker, he was open to communication," he said. "But he had no idea what to do with our application. I don’t really blame Wells, they’ve tried their best.”

EIR, which designs hospital facilities, submitted an indication of interest for the roughly $100,000 loan to cover payroll, but not a formal application yet. EIR’s revenues were on track for $6 million this year, and it has seven employees in Philadelphia.

“They said they’d get back to us in a few days,” Geiger said.