Small businesses need help now more than ever. Let's look at what the government has done to assist them and some suggestions for what it could do to keep these pillars of the community standing.
Small businesses are an integral part of the U.S.economy. Companies with fewer than 100 workers employ about 33.4% of the U.S. population. There are countless impressive small business statistics you can read to appreciate how important it is to help them survive. This is especially true in light of the fact that the majority of small businesses have said they can only operate under the current conditions caused by COVID-19 for about three months, according to a new Goldman Sachs survey.
In addition to encouraging consumer support of small and local businesses, there are steps the government has taken and can take to continue to prop them up. Small businesses can buckle down and cut costs in bad times, but there are four costs a business always faces: taxes, wages, rent and commercial debt. If a small business can receive help with these expenses, it will go a long way to help them weather the storm.
What the government has already done
Because things are moving fast, this is what some governments have already done as of the morning of March 30.
1. Passed a $2 trillion stimulus package
On Friday, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This package provides $350 billion for Small Business Interruption Loans, which are meant to help small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees) make payroll and cover other expenses. Small businesses may take out loans up to $10 million and cover employees who make up to $100,000 per year; loans taken for this purpose may be forgiven if the business does not lay off its employees. To be eligible for a loan, a company must maintain an average monthly number of employees during the covered period that is no lower than the number it had before the crisis began. Companies that have laid off employees may qualify for forgiveness if employees are rehired by April 1, 2020. You can read more about what's in the coronavirus stimulus package for SMBs here.
With things changing so fast, you can check the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website for live updates.
2. Extended the tax filing and payment deadline
The U.S. Treasury Department extended the upcoming April 15 tax payment deadline to July 15, giving many individuals and businesses an extra 90 days to pay without penalties or interest charges. However, tax returns and extensions must still be filed by April 15. All individual taxpayers qualify for this extension and do not have to file any special paperwork or requests, as the payment deadline will be automatically extended. Individuals owing up to $1 million in taxes (regardless of filing status) and corporate filers with tax debts up to $10 million can defer their liability for 90 days. This extension also applies to quarterly estimated payments normally due on April 15, but it does not include an extension for June 15 quarterly estimated payments as of now.
It's important to note that this is a federal Treasury Department decision, meaning that some state filings and payments may still be required by April 15. While many states have already delayed filing and payment obligations, some states have yet to make any moves.
3. Made SBA loans more available
The Small Business Administration's Economic Injury Disaster Loans offer up to $2 million in low-cost loans to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that businesses are struggling to afford because of the disaster's impact at an interest rate of 3.75% for small for-profit companies and 2.75% for nonprofits. The loans may be eligible for long-term payouts of up to 30 years to keep payments low. Small businesses can apply on the SBA website.
4. Offered tax credits to help with expanded FMLA and paid sick time
To encourage those who are sick to stay home without worrying about missed time at work, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act for employees whose children's schools or other child care facilities are closed because of COVID-19. It also mandated up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for employees affected by COVID-19 and provided tax credits for employers to offset the increased costs.
These expanded employee provisions, which apply to companies with fewer than 500 employees, will become effective April 2 and are set to expire Dec. 31 of this year. (You can read more details about what this means for your small business here.) Because everything is moving so quickly, there are likely to be ongoing changes to the rules that try to strike a balance between encouraging sick employees to stay home without loss of income and alleviating the burden on small businesses. As of this writing, to compensate for the additional burden, employers are entitled to a refundable tax credit.
For a comprehensive roundup of resources available to small and midsize businesses in this difficult time, you can visit business.com's page of COVID-19 business resources.
What else should the government do?
In addition to the CARES Act, governments can take more steps to encourage and help companies to keep people on the payroll despite decreasing revenues. These suggestions should apply for 60 days, for two reasons: Firstly, a 60-day horizon signals optimism that things will be better by then, and it also allows companies to forecast whether they can make it through the next 60 days so they can make better (albeit difficult) decisions about their employees. The timelines for all of these steps can be extended as necessary.
1. Help businesses keep their people employed
A payroll and sales tax holiday
Although there is a strain on unemployment demands right now, state and federal governments could provide payroll tax holidays. This would save almost 10% for many employees on their payroll expenses over the next 60 days. While it does not sound like that much, if you have 20 employees, the payroll holiday would save you the money to keep two of them on the payroll.
While there may not be time to complicate things, governments could stipulate that if the employer terminates an unemployment-eligible employee, any amounts not paid as to that employee during this holiday are immediately due. This may incentivize companies to try to retain their employees and keep them on the payroll.
The same could be done with sales tax. The lower costs could spur more economic activity from consumers. States and localities will take a short-term hit in revenues, but it may pay off if a longer-term economic disaster is avoided. Governments could tie the sales tax holiday to retaining employees on the payroll as well and graduate the amount of tax holiday to the number of employees laid off.
Removal of the S-corp reasonable salary requirements
Many small businesses make an S-corp election to save on the payment of employment taxes owed by the owners. To take advantage of the S-corp election, business owners have to pay themselves a "reasonable salary." The IRS does not allow business owners to avoid all employment taxes by paying themselves a salary of $1 and taking the rest in profits free of the employment taxes. In normal times, that makes sense, but perhaps the rules should change for 2020.
Some business owners may want to reduce their own salaries so they can use that savings to keep others employed. There may be hesitation about this, because an unreasonable salary may invalidate an S-corp election. Therefore, the IRS should waive the reasonable salary requirement for the calendar year 2020. If a business owner pays herself a "reasonable salary" of $200,000, she can forgo the rest of this year's salary and use the $150,000 to keep others on the payroll. These owners should not be penalized.
Does the U.K. approach of helping with actual payroll make sense?
The U.S. government could be more aggressive and emulate the U.K.'s approach. The U.K. government will pay 80% of the salary for employees kept on staff, up to £2,500 (about $2,800) a month. The U.K. is applying this to companies that have already instituted reductions in force as long as the employees are brought back on the payroll; it would not apply to new terminations. The pay is backdated to the beginning of March and will last for three months.
If there are massive layoffs, governments will be paying unemployment and other safety net measures for a longer period of time, so this may actually be cheaper in the long run. The problem with this proposal is that it would be hard to apply. Is it rewarding those who were quick to make layoffs while still making it difficult for small business owners who tried to hang on longer?
2. Offer rent relief
Another expense that does not go away is rent. While this would be unprecedented, governments could provide interest-free loans to all landlords who provide rent deferrals for the next 60 days. These could be interest-free loans payable over two years. The government could also provide a tax credit to landlords to encourage more of them to do it.
The Federal Reserve is already pumping cash into the system. If it targeted some of this money to landlords to keep them afloat over the next 60 days, the landlords would waive commercial rents. The unpaid rents could be amortized into the remaining term on the lease or over the next 12 months so the landlords can eventually receive the money from the tenants and repay the government.
Because the landlords would have the benefit of no defaults plus possible tax credits, the burden of paperwork to show the number of rent deferrals should be on the landlords and not overburden small businesses. We know many landlords are small businesses themselves, but they too would prefer not to have massive defaults by their commercial tenants.
3. Offer commercial debt relief
The government should consider a similar proposal for commercial debt. In addition to taxes, payroll and rent, many small businesses continue to have interest and debt expenses. Governments could encourage commercial lenders such as banks and credit card companies to defer debt payments over the next 60 days, supported by interest-free government loans and tax credits.
The lenders would also apply for interest-free loans and tax credits to keep them afloat over the next 60 days. They would use the deferred payments that will hopefully start flowing again in 60 days to repay the government.
Some of these suggestions are quite radical and may stretch the authority of government power. But these are extraordinary times. By putting 60-day time limits on some of these proposals, governments can quickly make adjustments as needed.