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Missing jobs data and disputed loan amounts cloud government records on $660B small-business bailout

Jacob Adelman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

PHILADELPHIA -- Michael Schulson was thrown a lifeline by the federal government's bailout for small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. It helped him get almost half of his 178 employees back to work serving takeout customers and outdoor diners at his popular Sampan and Double Knot restaurants in Philadelphia's Center City.

So he didn't know what to think when he saw his company listed in records released this week by the Trump administration as having received millions more than his actual award from the Paycheck Protection Program -- while retaining no jobs at all.

"I was a bit surprised to see the numbers listed," Schulson said. "All restaurateurs are in survival mode now and are doing the best we can."

The faulty data on Schulson's loan are among a mounting number of purported errors, mischaracterizations, and omissions within records released Monday on PPP awards, amid calls for greater transparency around the administration's handling of the $659 billion program.

In one glitch that affected Philadelphia-area loans with far greater frequency than those in the nation as a whole, the data dump from the Trump administration asserted that thousands of loan recipients didn't use the money to save a single job. That's because the release, again and again, had blank spaces where numbers of retained jobs are supposed to be or had a zero in those fields.

In another error, the administration listed firms that say they never even applied as getting millions of dollars.

 

In this region, a loan for as much as $10 million was erroneously listed as supporting the retention of 500 jobs at a Wynnewood restaurant that has been closed for more than seven years.

In scrutinizing the release, The Inquirer discovered a clue as to why so many firms were wrongly listed as having taken money but saved no jobs. Certain banks were dominant regional conduits for the federal money and those banks often elected not to report job retention figures. The Trump administration had left providing that information optional, bankers said.

Some of the blame for the poor data quality also falls on the rushed and chaotic way in which the program was stitched together. The U.S. Small Business Administration drafted banks into serving as impromptu conduits between borrowers and the government in a frenzied scramble to inject money into a faltering economy at the start of the health crisis.

Philadelphia entrepreneur Alex Hillman, founder of the Indy Hall coworking space in Old City, helped small-business people apply for PPP loans. He describes the application process as "operational chaos": websites crashed, government rules kept changing, and every bank seemed to have its own intake process.

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