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New $2 trillion coronavirus relief programs could be hard to access in coming days

A $367 billion plan by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to help small businesses decimated by the coronavirus won universal praise in Congress as part of a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill that became law on Friday, including from liberals like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But Rubio acknowledged that passing a bill is easy compared to getting the money into the hands of small business owners as fast as possible.

We’re going to need a lot of help,” Rubio said. “I just talked to Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber on how we can use local governments as a conduit to expedite and make this process easier.”

An exact date for the start of the small business program has not been officially announced, though Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he wants it up and running by the end of next week.

The concerns about how the process will work aren’t limited to Rubio’s small business plan. An expansion of unemployment insurance by $600 per week for four months in addition to state-issued benefits doesn’t matter much if laid-off workers can’t access the state’s unemployment website, which happened repeatedly in Florida this week.

The Internal Revenue Service plans to dole out individual checks to millions of Americans in the coming weeks, and Mnuchin wants the big-ticket items in the bill to be implemented quickly.

But such a rapid expansion of government programs — combined with an unprecedented demand for benefits after unemployment claims skyrocketed around the country this week — is a recipe for bureaucratic nightmare. The website for people to enroll in Obamacare crashed after it went live in 2013 and it took weeks for the technical issues to be resolved.

Laid-off workers and small businesses trying to cover expenses don’t have weeks to wait.

“What I’m concerned about is getting organized, that is tougher than voting on this bill,” said Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. “They’ve got to figure out a way to do this quickly. That takes teams of people within the [federal] agencies, and they should have been doing this two and three weeks ago.”

Shalala said she’s met with officials from various federal agencies responsible for implementing the coronavirus relief package that was signed into law by President Donald Trump on Friday, and she’s hopeful that administration officials are prepared to deal with a rush of visitors to websites and applications for unemployment insurance. She also noted that most of the big-ticket items in the package that must be implemented quickly use existing infrastructure instead of building new websites and applications from the ground up.

For example, the IRS is responsible for sending out checks to Americans who qualify, the loans to small businesses that don’t have to be paid back use an application process through the Small Business Administration that already exists and states have their own websites for applying for unemployment insurance.

But there are already signs that the government’s response could be troubled.

Broward Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Thursday the Small Business Administration’s website was already crashing due to high demand, and laid-off workers in states like Florida, Michigan, Washington and Ohio were cut off from phone systems after hours of being on hold and being unable to access websites to apply for unemployment insurance.

I hope the Trump administration beefs up the capacity of what the SBA website can handle,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Rubio said the small business loan program is purposely designed to be as efficient as possible for applicants, the federal government and financial institutions like banks and credit unions who process the loan paperwork.

“They can turn the loan around in 36 hours with no credit check. It’s a pretty straightforward process,” Rubio said. “It’s important because we want to preserve their small businesses and their payrolls as much as possible.”

But he acknowledged that existing financial institutions may not work well during government-mandated social distancing measures that have forced many bank employees to work from home and resulted in physical branches reducing or eliminating their hours of operation. And relying on electronic loan applications only works as long as the websites are able to handle demand.

“Most states do not have the infrastructure to handle the volume they’re facing,” Rubio said.

Rubio’s office is working with the SBA, the Treasury Department, small business organizations and lenders to ensure the bill is implemented quickly and that relief to small businesses happens as soon as possible. Rubio tweeted Friday morning he’s working on “suggestions for implementing regulations.”

Miami Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson said her office is overwhelmed with calls from small business owners and laid-off workers. She said the federal government will need to hire more people to ensure that the benefits can be given out quickly. But hiring and training workers takes time.

“I think that we’re going to have to create a robust hiring process. We’ve got to hire more people and this is a good time to hire because so many people lost their jobs,” Wilson said. “Tomorrow or Monday, we will see openings for people with different technical skills to join that organization, whether in person or working from home, to mitigate that situation.”

Most members of Congress from Miami, including Shalala, Wilson and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell are already announcing virtual events for constituents who need help applying for state and federal assistance.

“The states do not have the capacity for the thousands of employees that are going to be applying,” Shalala said. “It’s going to take a little bit of patience until they have that capacity. Many of our elected leaders are going to have to give people very clear information about how and where they can apply. We have a lot of work to do in terms of getting accurate information. If they call unemployment or the [Small Business Administration], their calls haven’t been answered.”

This story was originally published March 27, 2020 6:26 PM.

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