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Chain Restaurants Take Advantage Of Paycheck Protection Program


One of the tools Congress created to help prop up the economy is called the Paycheck Protection Program, PPP. It was meant to help small businesses. Last week, it ran out of money after less than two weeks of operation. Today, congressional leaders in the White House are discussing an emergency funding package that would add money to that small business fund, among other things. Emily Flitter covers banking and Wall Street for The New York Times and joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

EMILY FLITTER: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: There've been lots of reports of big corporate chains getting this money that was intended for small businesses. Shake Shack, which has almost 200 U.S. outlets, announced that it's returning a $10 million federal loan, so those restaurants who need it most can get it now, they said. So begin by just telling us who benefited from this program and how that compares to who it was intended for.

FLITTER: So some small - very small businesses did get money. I know anecdotally just from talking to people who went through the entire process successfully. But a lot of the money went to larger businesses - Potbelly Sandwich Shops, which I'm sure you're familiar with in D.C., a company called Wave Life Sciences, which is a biotech company that was incorporated in Singapore. These companies are larger than, you know, your individual restaurants and ice cream stands that really have zero margins and needed this money desperately.

SHAPIRO: Yes, so why did this fund that was intended for small businesses get slurped up by so many big companies?

FLITTER: Well, there are a lot of different reasons. First of all, some companies actually paid law firms to get them through the process. And they had, you know, the extra organization and extra help, whereas very small businesses had to do all of the paperwork themselves. I mean, some of them didn't even have an on-staff accountant to get their payroll numbers together. But it also had to do with how banks were taking applications. So take the example of JPMorgan Chase, the largest lender in the BPP. They gave out $14 billion. They were accepting applications through two different businesses, their commercial bank, which handles larger companies, and their retail consumer bank, which has a small business, you know, banking aspect to it. Fewer companies applied through the commercial bank than did the retail bank. And those companies got their applications processed faster. And they are larger. They have stronger relationships with the bank.

SHAPIRO: Now, JPMorgan Chase has come out not looking very good here. What do they have to say about this?

FLITTER: Well, they posted a detailed statement last night - I mean, detailed for a bank - that sort of explained what I've just said - that, you know, they were having to handle applications through different parts of their very sprawling business. That has not left people satisfied, though. In fact, two different lawsuits were filed against them over the past two days accusing them of prioritizing customers based on how much they could earn in fees from processing these loans.

SHAPIRO: Meanwhile, Congress is trying to take another crack at this. How confident are people you're talking with that this new package being negotiated now will have protections in place to keep this same problem from happening again?

FLITTER: Well, it's anybody's guess how members of Congress work out the details. And it's really going to come down to that. But I think that the businesses are concerned that it's going to be like this for the second round, that they're going to have to fight all over again with larger, better-equipped businesses for the money. And they're concerned about even, in some cases, getting a call back from their bank.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, the businesses that didn't get the funding they were hoping for - what are they saying they can do now?

FLITTER: Some of them are closing. Some of them are, you know, trying to hang on for as long as possible. But this really was make or break for some of the people we've been talking to. And unfortunately, the help didn't come fast enough. And they're having to close.

SHAPIRO: Emily Flitter is a reporter from The New York Times covering banking and Wall Street.

Thank you so much.

FLITTER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.