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Massive influx of coronavirus-relief money saves jobs throughout Philly region

The findings demonstrate the vital role played by PPP in protecting workers’ livelihoods and keeping the economy afloat in the pandemic’s initial onslaught.

A Honeygrow restaurant on City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd. The Philadelphia-based chain reported saving 500 jobs through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, among the most of any company in the region.
A Honeygrow restaurant on City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd. The Philadelphia-based chain reported saving 500 jobs through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, among the most of any company in the region.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The massive federal Paycheck Protection Program passed as part of last spring’s coronavirus-relief bill saved as many as a third of all the jobs in the Philadelphia region, new data show.

The figures released by the federal government on Tuesday underscore the stakes that are in play now as lawmakers in Washington wrangle over whether to renew the stimulus.

An Inquirer analysis shows that businesses in Philadelphia and its seven surrounding counties in Pennsylvania and South Jersey kept 787,000 workers on the payroll because of the aid, despite the business shutdowns imposed this spring to slow the pandemic’s spread.

That’s works out to 33.4% of the total workforce of 2.4 million for the region that includes Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania, and Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington Counties in New Jersey. The analysis compared the job savings reported by borrowers to the U.S. Treasury Department with workforce figures from the U.S. Census.

The findings demonstrate the vital role played by the PPP loans in protecting workers’ livelihoods and keeping the economy afloat in the pandemic’s initial onslaught. The program gave nearly $10 billion to 81,000 businesses throughout the region under an arrangement through which the low-interest loans would convert to outright grants provided that employers used them to rescue jobs.

“The Paycheck Protection Program provided much-needed relief to some local businesses, and on a scale of which the city would never have the resources to do,” said Philadelphia Commerce Director Michael Rashid. “However, it’s clear that all businesses — especially small neighborhood and minority-owned businesses who are disproportionately impacted by this crisis — need more relief.”

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With coronavirus cases on a dramatic climb and the winter cold poised to end outdoor dining or other activities that have kept some businesses in operation, the focus is increasingly on the intensifying debate between President-elect Joe Biden and the Republicans over how much new federal stimulus aid should be provided.

“The number of saved jobs is informative,” said Mitchell Gerstein, a senior tax adviser with the Isdaner & Co. accounting firm in Bala Cynwyd. However, “without another stimulus bill, many of those saved jobs will not last, leading to more furloughs, layoffs, business closings and bankruptcies.”

The program has not been without its problems. The Small Business Administration’s inspector general, part of the agency that runs the program, said in October there were “strong indicators of widespread potential abuse and fraud in the PPP.” Thousands of companies that received PPP loans seem to have been ineligible, because they were too large, were created after the pandemic started or were listed in a federal “Do Not Pay” database for owing money to taxpayers.

Other firms also may have received more money than warranted based on the number of employees and compensation rates, the inspector general said.

Authorities have opened hundreds of fraud cases, but experts say they may be hard to prove because the program ran on the honor system and had few requirements especially in the beginning.

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The Small Business Administration released the records more than seven months after federal lawmakers devised the $659 billion program of loans that turn into grants for businesses when they use the money to get at least 60% of their staff back to work. The program was open only to firms employing fewer than 500 workers.

An earlier release of the data, made public in July, identified by name those borrowers whose PPP loans exceeded $150,000, but giving their loan amounts only in general ranges, from $150,000 to the maximum of $10 million. The agency released specific figures for all loans under $150,000, but kept the names of those borrowers secret.

The version of the records released Tuesday, however, identified all borrowers and listed their precise loan amounts. The release came after a judge ordered their disclosure last month in response to a lawsuit by media organizations.

Among the new revelations in the data are the identities of the region’s five biggest recipients, who all received the $10 million maximum.

They included contractor J.J. White Inc. in Philadelphia; architecture firm Nelson Worldwide LLC, also in Philadelphia; Xanitos Inc., a janitorial services provider in Newtown Square; and Advanced Call Center Technologies LLC in Berwyn, a telemarketing firm. The fifth, Rose Casual Dining L.P., a Newtown-based Applebee’s franchisee, also got $10 million, while an affiliated company, Delaware Valley Rose L.P., received $4.8 million.

The new data also include updates in the counts of jobs that companies reported having saved with their PPP allocations, which The Inquirer used for its analysis of the program’s impact on the region.

Some faulty data in the earlier release, as found by The Inquirer, persist. About a third of the region’s loans are listed in the new release with blank spaces where numbers of retained jobs are supposed to have been filled in, or with zeros in those fields.

Also, no businesses reported retaining more than 500 jobs, and that figure appears with an unlikely frequency. An SBA spokesperson did not respond to a request to explain why answers repeatedly appeared to be capped at 500 jobs.

Despite those limitations, the data shed light on the dramatic impact that the program has had on regional employment.

In Philadelphia, employers received $2.1 billion from the program, aiding the retention of 173,000 jobs, more than a quarter of the city’s total workforce.

In the region’s other counties, the program’s impact was even more profound. Bucks County saw the highest percentage of jobs saved — 45% — with the $1.4 billion that its employers received.

The analysis also suggests that a majority of employers in each of the region’s counties took advantage of the program. Overall, the government gave out the 81,000 loan across a region with a census count of 130,000 employers. Some borrowers, however, received several loans, applying for each via an affiliate.

Seen by sector, the program saved the most jobs at the region’s restaurant businesses, a function of both the industry’s size and its ongoing vulnerability to impacts from the pandemic.

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Owners of full-service restaurants, whose dining rooms have been shuttered or left to accommodate reduced numbers of guests, reported having saved 48,000 jobs, the most out of any business type, with $284 million in loans.

Quick-service restaurants, including fast-food spots as well as more upscale “fast casual” joints, came in with the third-highest number of jobs retained, 21,192, with $102 million in PPP support.

Between those sectors in the number-two spot, with 29,000 jobs saved using $221 million in stimulus funds, are home-health aides.

Among the restaurant businesses saving the most number of jobs are Philadelphia-based salad-and-stir-fry chain Honeygrow LLC and City Tap Holdings LLC of Conshohocken, which owns restaurants in Center City and University City.

The Applebee’s franchisees, Rose Casual and Delaware Valley Rose, also reported retaining 500 jobs each, as did owners of McDonald’s and Taco Bell restaurants and other fast food franchises.

Still, Ben Fileccia, a leader of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said members of his group are looking warily toward the winter, when the outdoor dining that has been sustaining many restaurant owners will disappear.

They’re looking for more government help, he said.

“It’s our only lifeline,” Fileccia said. “We really hope there’s something soon, but it’s so bleak for the operators and all these employees who are going to be out of work in the next couple weeks.”

» Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines: