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Big banks let small businesses down during coronavirus | COMMENTARY

Can I get a show of hands from all small business owners who were traumatized by your bank’s Paycheck Protection Program, PPP, loan application process?

As I suspected, there’s shaking, cracked hands; bitten down nails, pale and drawn faces, sleep-deprived eyes and new worry lines courtesy of your large business bank.

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Likely, my own nightmare has been experienced across the country. Small business owners heard about the forgivable loan program and reached out to advisers and bankers to be prepared to apply. I researched and compiled payroll forms, sales figures, health insurance invoices and assembled spreadsheets required for approval, following guidance from my bank, PNC Bank.

The PNC application portal was not ready when the PPP site went “live” on Friday, April 3, and I tried to access it. I rose early Saturday, got on my computer, and discovered PNC’s site was ready.

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But the portal demanded information in a different format than had been previously required. While I quickly massaged the numbers into this new format, the portal crashed several times, sending me scrambling to start over. Racing to complete the form, trying not to make any errors, I eventually signed the last form and uploaded my completed application.

I expected to be somewhat stressed out by the application process. What I did not expect was utter indifference from my bank.

My PNC business banker, who has worked with me for years during my almost decade-long tenure at PNC, first let me know he could not answer specific questions. He then let me know he could no longer help me at all. Any information had to come from the online portal. This portal was a static billboard: it projected no updated information, day after day, and offered no way to ask questions.

Practically every hour of every day, I went on the portal to see if my application had magically moved onto the next step. Each time, I was disappointed.

Many experts advised against applying to the PPP program through multiple banks because the SBA might flag and deny your loan, and to prevent double dipping, they said. After checking with my advisors, I decided to stay the course with PNC.

Twelve days later the first round of funds ran out. At 2 a.m. that morning, I got an email from “PNCcares@pnc.com” asking for information I had previously uploaded. Incensed, I emailed the requested information back. Hours later, there were additional requests for reports from a payroll service company. Explaining to the automaton at the other end of the ironic “PNCcares” email that I do not use a payroll company, and receiving no response, I watched my PNC portal remain unchanged. The money ran out that afternoon.

After dashing off emails to my U.S. senators begging for support with a second round of funding, I emailed the PNC regional president, Laura Gamble. She responded, and eventually discovered that I failed to initial three places in my application and missed a decimal point in another place. This was the putative reason my application was held up, my own fault! I immediately fixed the application and resubmitted it. Several days later I was finally rewarded with a change in the portal status: Application Complete/In Queue for SBA submission.

Congress approved funding and two days later the portal posted that my application had been submitted to the Small Business Administration for approval.

But, again, nothing happened after that. I never received any contact or saw updated portal movement showing loan approval. Evidently, PNC bulk-uploaded tens of thousands of applications and I was told it would be many days until funding notification.

Then, my accountant told me about another similarly mistreated PNC client that ended up applying for the PPP money through a small community bank. We got this new banker on the phone, and Harford Bank’s Mary Ann Bogarty politely took my application information, quickly entered it into the SBA system, and got our funds approved in 24 hours.

After a month of sleepless nights, worrying about my business being declared essential, the safety of my employees, the ability to continue paying my staff, and seeing my sales shrink to a third of their normal levels, I was further traumatized by PNC treating me like a pathetic beggar.

Getting approved for funds allowed me to do exactly what Congress intended: protect the paychecks of my hardworking team, without which, we might have had mass layoffs.

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If nothing else, this pandemic situation has given a clear demonstration of the value of working with smaller, caring banks, rather than larger banks who did little to help their smaller business customers, especially those of us in Baltimore.

Paula Fargo (paula@curryprint.com) is the owner of Curry Printing in Baltimore.

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