Some Utah companies getting PPP loans reported having zero employees

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Surrounded by other small business owners, Doug Jardine owner of Color My Nails Salon, talks about the impact COVID-19 is having on small businesses, during a news conference at his salon in Midvale, March 25, 2020.

More than 50,000 Utah businesses have tapped into federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, an infusion of cash to help them cover employee salaries and avoid layoffs during the pandemic-induced economic slump.

So why did some of them tell the government they didn’t have any employees?

Records released by the U.S. Treasury Department show that 30 Utah businesses received millions of dollars in loan money — despite writing on their applications that they had zero workers to pay.

One of these was a Utah seed company that received between $1 million and $2 million, according to the records. Another was a debt collection agency based in Draper. A building contractor that helps finish home interiors took in between $5 million and $10 million, the Treasury records indicate.

The reason that these businesses reported few or no employees doesn’t appear to be nefarious: Company representatives chalked it up to oversights and clerical errors. But it sheds light on the complicated and high-stakes process that businesses had to navigate as they sought after sorely needed federal aid.

For instance, a representative of Arctic Circle said his company actually has about 800 employees in its corporate offices and across its chain of burger and milkshake restaurants. However, he surmised that business representatives accidentally left that information off the lengthy application they had to complete in order to qualify for the relief.

“It may be one of those fields that didn’t get filled out properly,” Frank Christianson, the company’s chief financial officer, said, noting that Arctic Circle representatives were working with a bank to secure the loan.

While the money has been helpful, Christianson said, it’s difficult to say how many jobs the relief has preserved. However, Arctic Circle hasn’t been forced to lay off any employees and has been able to refill vacant positions during the pandemic, even with a significant drop-off in business toward the beginning of the crisis.

A spokesperson for the Small Business Administration (SBA), which helped oversee the loan distribution, said companies weren’t required to list the number of people they employ, even though there was a space on the form for the information. But they will have to come up with that number eventually.

“They will have to provide it in order to receive forgiveness because they will have to show their lender how many employees they have and how much they paid them,” said Christopher Chavez, an agency spokesman.

However, some of the discrepancies could relate to the federal government’s own record-keeping, with one of the zero-employee businesses claiming it never received a loan at all.

Chris Hatton, chief executive officer of Danville Services Corp., said his company withdrew its application after learning it was ineligible. Still, the Treasury Department data indicates Danville Services, which runs day programs and provides residential services for individuals with disabilities, received between $5 million and $10 million.

“We desperately need the funds,” said Hatton, whose company employs more than 1,200 people in four states including Utah. “That would’ve been a really nice relief.”

Because some of the company’s caretakers have fallen ill during the pandemic, Danville’s overtime costs have gone up significantly, and Hatton said he’s had to bring in expensive contract nurses on several occasions. The temporary closure of Danville’s day service centers have also delivered a financial blow, he added.

But he said the federal loan standards set a low revenue cap for his industry category, which covers businesses that serve people with disabilities. Because Danville Services pulls in annual revenues above the cutoff, it wasn’t eligible for a PPP loan, and Hatton said he withdrew his application.

Hatton says his company likely reported zero employees on its loan form because of glitches in the application process. He explained that the website for seeking a PPP loan kept crashing, so he had to fill out the application over the phone with a financial adviser.

Laurel Day, owner of the Roy-based Day Financial Services, said she did get a PPP loan, but not the $1 million-to-$2 million amount reported by the Treasury Department. She said her firm, which has two full-time employees, only received about $30,000.

“Not nearly enough to help you for any period of time,” said Day, who started her business in the early 1970s.

Day said she’s keeping her fingers crossed that the federal government will release another round of stimulus funding as the pandemic drags on. A second wave of PPP small-business loans is one of the elements being negotiated.

In determining the correct loan amount, businesses were supposed to start with their total payroll for calendar year 2019 and subtract any salary that exceeds $100,000. With this number, they then calculated their average monthly payroll and multiplied that amount by the time period covered by the PPP loans, according to SBA guidance.

Businesses had until Aug. 8 to apply for the aid, with the federal government agreeing to forgive loan money that was used to make payroll during the covered period.

Economists, business leaders and officials have credited the massive stimulus program with buoying the economy as the nation grappled with the arrival of COVID-19, a public health crisis that forced many businesses to temporarily shut their doors. That’s despite the confusion and public relations challenges that swirled around the program in its early days, when many small businesses struggled to access federal relief that was supposedly meant for them.

By mid-June, Utah’s banks had provided nearly 50,000 loans worth about $5.5 billion in PPP funding, state officials reported. More than 70% of the small businesses eligible for the relief had secured it.