As COVID-19 causes unprecedented disruptions to businesses and workers, the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center and Pikes Peak Workforce Center hosted a free webinar March 20 to offer resources, evaluate best practices, and discuss actions being taken across the country to help businesses weather the storm. 

About 740 people from around the state registered for the Small Business Emergency Response Roundtable, which featured experts from city, state and federal offices that work to support small businesses.

The Business Journal has compiled some of the most useful guidance and tips from the roundtable.

ECONOMIC INJURY DISASTER LOANS

Steve White, lead lender relations specialist for the U.S. Small Business Administration, explained the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans, available now in Colorado.

White said all small businesses, some small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture, and private, nonprofit, non-charity based organizations that have been impacted by COVID-19, may be eligible. 

To qualify, applicants must demonstrate substantial economic injury as a result of the pandemic, and White said the loan is specifically for businesses that are unable to obtain credit elsewhere.

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The loans would provide a maximum of $2 million to help meet financial obligations and operating expense that could have been met had the disaster not occurred.

The term and loan amount will be based on demonstrated financial need as detailed in the loan application. Interest rates will be capped at 3.75 percent with a maximum term of 30 years (see Operations and General Tips below). 

For more information, and to apply, visit choosecolorado.com. 

LAYOFFS AND UNEMPLOYMENT 

For business owners struggling with workforce decisions, Karen Hoopes, statewide coordinator of business development/rapid response at the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment, talked about what businesses can do to avoid layoffs.

Hoopes suggested businesses — if they haven’t already — should consider allowing employees to work remotely, which has the dual advantage of protecting employees’ health while allowing the business to retain them.

“If you don’t have a telework policy, this would be the best time to develop one,” Hoopes said.

For those who have suffered from a significant loss of business and need to reduce staffing, but still want to retain the employees, Hoopes suggested the state’s Work-Share Program — a short-term compensation plan — might be an option.

“It’s a layoff aversion strategy and it’s also a program that’s managed by unemployment insurance that allows you to reduce the hours of two or more employees by 10-40 percent, to better align your staffing levels with your production needs,” Hoopes said.

“So once you’re in an approved plan, unemployment pays a portion of the wages while your business pays a portion. And during that whole time you’re in the Work-Share plan, your business would continue to provide the employee benefits it would normally provide, such as health insurance and vacation pay.”

Lindsey Behringer, who works in the employer services section of CDLE’s Unemployment Insurance Benefits Office, said that generally, decisions on Work-Share plans are made within one week.

“Statutorily we are required to have it approved or denied in 30 days, but we think that’s way too long for getting a response back to folks,” Behringer said. “So we are doing our very best to get a response within that week, so you have certainty for yourselves and your workers.”

For details on the Work-Share Program or to apply, visit: colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/layoffassistance.

For businesses that must temporarily close but want to bring back employees in the future, Hoopes said a temporary layoff could make sense.

“When the employees file their unemployment insurance claims, they would just indicate they were job-attached, meaning they will be called back to work and not permanently laid off,” Hoopes said.

“Employees are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits … the eligibility requirements would be that they’re able to work, they’re available for work, and are actively seeking work in the case of a permanent layoff.”

If a business is eligible for a job-attached status, Hoopes said its employees would receive a maximum of 16 weeks of unemployment benefits and the business owner would need to call them back to work within 16 weeks of when they filed their unemployment insurance claim.

If a business has to close entirely, employees who meet basic eligibility requirements could receive a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, though they must be able to work and actively seek employment throughout their benefit period.

OPERATIONS AND GENERAL TIPS

Cory Arcarese, Pikes Peak SBDC’s lead consultant on disaster relief programs, has worked with businesses in times of disaster before, particularly those impacted by flooding and forest fires.

Drawing on those experiences, Arcarese gave tips for business owners on applying for government assistance, as well as using lessons learned during the pandemic to improve their businesses in the long term.

Arcarese said businesses applying for SBA disaster assistance loans should make sure their financial records are ready to go before applying, and that all the business’ affiliate companies are disclosed.

“That was one of the main reasons some of the rejections came through [in past disasters],” Arcarese said. “And if you do have outstanding taxes, make sure those plans are in place and you disclose them as well.”

Businesses should also consider grant applications, she said, as grants could affect whether they receive a disaster loan. 

Business owners should review these documents with their SBDC consultant or someone with the SBA prior to submitting.

Arcarese also suggested businesses should take a look at their operations, ensuring they’re positioned to accommodate change. 

In sales, for instance, for a business to sell its products online, it will need to have SSL certificates in place to begin taking online payments. 

Arcarese also suggested businesses use the pandemic as an opportunity to bolster customer engagement, re-evaluate cybersecurity policies, and update operating policies, which may not cover things like employees working from home.

Adding disaster-related employee policies, she said, could save businesses from headaches down the road.

“It is a time we need to start looking at applying for some of these SBA loans and grants and things like that, but it’s also a time to look at every aspect of the business to make sure everything is shored up,” Arcarese said, “so as we get through this, we come out as better business owners on the other side.”