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Emergency small-business loans to be available in Clark County

An emergency loan program for small businesses will soon be made available to Clark County workers, despite widespread confusion over the county’s omission from a list of areas eligible for the federal aid.

As of Thursday afternoon, Clark County still did not appear on the U.S. Small Business Administration’s online list of the 32 Washington counties that qualify for the Disaster Loan Assistance Program. But a representative for the agency confirmed that all of Washington would be eligible shortly.

“We’re expecting a declaration for Clark County very soon,” said Melanie Norton, spokeswoman for the administration’s Pacific Northwest branch.

The county’s initial omission from the list spooked some people in Southwest Washington, especially those who are self-employed and don’t have many other options as they watch their jobs evaporate during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Diane Spies, a self-employed manicurist who works out of a salon in Washougal, said she plans to apply for the loan as soon as it becomes available.

The salon, Beauty Temptations, was one of the many cosmetology businesses in Washington forced to shutter on Tuesday — “touch-based” industries aren’t safe to operate right now, Spies said. She’s one of eight women who rent a chair at the salon. Each woman uses that rented space to operate her own business.

Like many workers right now, they’re in limbo. Spies said the group, which she said is like “a big family,” is unsure how long they’ll be out of work.

They also don’t know if they remain on the hook to pay for salon space they can’t use. It’s not like there’s a cosmetology industry standard for dealing with economy-shattering viral outbreaks.

“We’re devastated. We’re shut down. We have no options because we don’t pay into unemployment, being self-employed,” Spies said. “I’m a little scared, because I still have my bills I need to pay.”

Spies said she was relieved to find out she’d be eligible for the disaster loan program. But the initial confusion, she said, spoke to just how hard it is to find reliable, up-to-date resources during this crisis.

“The information changes almost hourly,” Spies said, adding that internet searches lead to either “a brick wall or a black hole.”

“It’s really hard to actually find truthful, concrete information,” she said.

What happened at the SBA?

The Disaster Loan Assistance Program is designed to keep small businesses and self-employed people afloat in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. This is the first time it’s been used during a national pandemic, Norton said.

Usually, the process of unlocking the fund starts with individual counties. Counties would collect information on the number of businesses impacted and take that data to the state governor, who would then turn around and request funds for those specific counties from the federal government. Counties directly adjacent to those most impacted also qualify.

Washington had already started that county-by-county process, submitting a request for the 32 counties currently listed online. Clark County had not been included in that initial round of requests.

Clark County’s omission was not a paperwork error, as one circulating rumor had suggested, but a matter of timing.

“To get the process moving as quickly as possible, (the governor’s office) submitted, with the idea that they could add other counties,” Norton said.

That’s a moot point now, anyway. On Tuesday, the Small Business Administration announced that it would suspend the county-by-county process and allow entire states to access the loan program at once.

Now, it’s a matter of getting the actual online application to reflect those changes. Norton’s not sure when, exactly, Clark County residents will be able to apply, but it should be soon.

“We were able to turn things around pretty quickly with the initial Washington declaration,” Norton said. “Like everything with this situation, everything’s kind of changing on a daily basis.”

Self-employed and vulnerable

State unemployment offices in Washington and Oregon are working on overdrive trying to process an enormous swell of claims from people who have lost their job during the coronavirus outbreak.

But for those who are self-employed, that safety net doesn’t apply.

Some people work in especially vulnerable industries. Manicurists can’t practice social distancing while holding your hands. Hairdressers can’t give you a trim over Skype.

Others, like Malcom Beard in Vancouver, have livelihoods closely tied to the economic fortunes of others.

Beard is the owner and sole employee of Omega Financial, an investment consulting firm in Vancouver. With stock prices dropping like a rock, his business is taking a beating.

“Obviously a lot of our revenue is tied to the fees of investment counts of clients we manage,” Beard said. “When their accounts are up, our revenue’s up. When our accounts are down, our revenues are down.”

He said he plans to start looking into the Small Business Administration loans, once Clark County businesses become eligible. He’ll know just how hard he’s been hit by mid-April when he collects his quarterly fee from clients.

“It would be nice to know we could at least get prepared,” Beard said.


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