Business + Big Government = New bffs?

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One thing the government has not done in this crisis is shy away from their responsibility to help. I’ve been impressed by their swift action to improve lives of workers and employers through the CARES Act. Startups are eligible for the Payment Protection Plan, so I’ve gotten to watch first hand how this whole experience has gone for them. From navigating which banks to apply through, to receiving the cash in the door, it’s been really wild to observe just how quick this process went!

To share some context on why I was so skeptical, my background is in government! I worked alongside the NYC Department of Education during Hurricane Sandy and saw – first-hand – how immensely slow it took FEMA to invest in the repairs necessary for life to get back to normal for many schools and families across the city. For one school in Queens, it took over 2 years for them to finally receive a FEMA payout. Another example of the failures of government in time of disaster is its lack of response to Hurricane Katrina (if you’re interested in learning more here, check out Treme on HBO which documents the failed work of FEMA and its devastating impact in New Orleans). 

So the fact that COVID-19 hit aggressively mid-May and businesses had checks in their bank account less than a month later is really unprecedented. Congress adopted the CARES Act and it was signed into law at the end of May. This created the Payment Protection Plan (PPP). With the PPP, the government essentially authorized forgivable loans of $349 billion to companies in order to allow them to continue employing their workforce despite economic uncertainty.

The CARES Act has an additional provision that allows for a work-share program where if companies have to reduce staff hours, the staff will still qualify for full unemployment benefits. It reminded me of this one article I recently read about Germany. They have a system called Kurzarbeit which essentially is a government subsidy for companies who are experiencing hardship. When companies declare Kurzarbeit, the government pays their employees a portion of their wages for them. So it seems like, with the CARES Act, the US is becoming more like its European neighbors.

This is no surprise for those who study history. It is in times of crisis that the government expands. According to the WSJ, “the pandemic may, like the Great Depression, foster structural policy change that outlasts the calamity itself.”

The PPP has left its mark on public policy for good given the strings it attached to the money it loaned to large corporations and small businesses. These institutions are all now forced to comply with additional regulations that hold them more accountable to the public. Below, I’ve outlined some of my favorites impacts the legislation has had on businesses.

Companies who accepted the PPP are prohibited from preventing their workers to unionize

  • According to the WSJ, “some companies seeking federal funds are facing restrictions on their ability to oppose attempts to unionize their workforce. One of the new laws states they should “remain neutral in any union organizing effort for the term of the loan.””

Companies who accepted the PPP are subject to audit

  • Large companies are now subject to audit by the government and all of the companies who accepted the PPP are now on a watchdog list that journalists have been keeping an extra close eye on.

Companies who accepted the PPP are restricted in executive pay

  • “Businesses receiving aid face government limits on how much they can pay their executives, and the new law says they shouldn’t “outsource or offshore jobs for the term of the loan and 2 years after completing repayment of the loan.””

The bottom line is, after experiencing such an extended period of “late stage capitalism” where it felt like business was an omnipotent agent, COVID-19 was the real test. It shifted the ground beneath our feet and tossed business off its 1st place trophy stand. I think it’s safe to say the fight is over. Business lost and the government won.

The government not only won, but they showed that they can continue to win. The fed chair recently quipped that “when it comes to this lending, we’re not going to run out of ammunition.” The government has started using its power and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they do with it. My hope is that next on the docket for government expansion is permanently strengthening our country’s safety net. We have already seen elements of this across the country as different government agencies have forgiven student loan payments and put a moratorium on evictions. NYC is leading the way with its essential workers bill of rights bill and I think as the crisis continues to stretch, more governments will adopt similar legislation. I look forward to watching government step up in this moment!