'It’s Gotten Crazy': One Bank's Race To Get PPP Funds

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Niny Phommachnah, who normally works in marketing at Brookline Bank, was drafted into the bank's effort to process PPP loans. (Courtesy Niny Phommachnah)
Niny Phommachnah, who normally works in marketing at Brookline Bank, was drafted into the bank's effort to process PPP loans. (Courtesy Niny Phommachnah)

Since the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) started a month ago, Lindsay St. Pierre has been living and breathing PPP loans.

At 10 p.m. on a recent Monday, she was nearing her 14th hour of working on applications for the program, which offers small business owners a forgivable loan that covers two months of expenses, in exchange for keeping employees on their payroll, or rehiring them.

The program, which has been criticized for both its design and its implementation by the U.S. Small Business Administration and participating banks, has nevertheless been the most popular product at Brookline Bank for weeks.

"It's been a roller coaster, to be totally honest, because it really had a bit of a shaky start," said St. Pierre, a business banking officer with Brookline Bank.

In her job, St. Pierre is often the first person businesses go to when they want a loan. She answers their questions and helps them fill out the paperwork.

"It sounds simple, but when you have a couple hundred at a time coming in at the same day, it's not," she said. "I think I looked back at one point, I sent like 1,800 emails."

And it's mentally draining, St. Pierre said, "especially when we’re racing against the clock to make sure these people get their funding. If I drop the ball on one, that’s a whole business that could potentially go under."

It’s a lot to carry on her shoulders, especially now because she is also pregnant and expecting to give birth any day.

Even so, she said she has been working about 14 hours a day lately, and so have many of her colleagues.

This small, Massachusetts bank has processed more than 1,100 PPP applications since early April, worth about $231 million. The bank normally does only about 75 business loans per month, according to a spokesperson.

"It’s gotten crazy. It’s gotten really crazy," said Kevin Noyes, a regional manager for Brookline Bank.

Kevin Noyes, Northeast regional manager for Brookline Bank. (Courtesy of Kevin Noyes)
Kevin Noyes, Northeast regional manager for Brookline Bank. (Courtesy Kevin Noyes)

Noyes has been getting up at 5:30 some mornings to go in to work and staying late into the evening.

Every PPP loan request has to go to the U.S. Small Business Administration for approval. But in recent days, Noyes said, the SBA’s electronic filing system has been jammed up.

"The system, I would imagine, was getting hundreds of thousands of loans getting put through at the same time," he said.

So his team found a way to avoid the rush by filing applications in the middle of the night. Beginning around 11 p.m., employees would begin submitting PPP applications, finishing around 4 a.m.

After the SBA approves a loan application, it goes back to the bank for closing. This part of the process is where Niny Phommachanh comes in.

Phommachanh works in marketing at Brookline Bank, but a few weeks ago, she and a few dozen of her colleagues were drafted into the bank's PPP loan effort.

"I kind of got a few days notice," Phommachanh said. "Then all of a sudden, we all just kind of dove in head first without knowing what we were getting ourselves into."

She was assigned to the "inputting team," which means that when a loan is approved, she takes the information from various forms and spreadsheets and types it into the official loan documents. While she does miss her marketing duties, her new role is important to the bank’s customers.

"They need this money to keep them afloat, and if I can be a cog in that wheel, then I’m proud to do that," Phommachanh said.

After she’s done with an application, it gets sent to the customer, and that is where Lindsay St. Pierre comes back in.

St. Pierre said one thing that stresses her out about the program is knowing that a lot of small businesses that need the money won’t get it. During the first round of PPP funding, the program's $349 billion budget was depleted in less than two weeks.

In some cases, the stakes are personal.

"A lot of these businesses are people either I go get my car fixed at, or restaurants that I go to," St. Pierre said. "So a lot of them really do hit home."

PPP loans are only a temporary lifeline, and they come with strings attached. For instance, the money must be spent in a limited amount of time, and 75% of it must be used for payroll expenses in order for the loan to be forgiven. The loans only cover a couple of months’ worth of expenses.

Still, St. Pierre said, when she tells customers that their application has been approved, it is often a celebratory moment.

"With that first round, telling people they got it was amazing," she said.

Since the second round of PPP funding opened last week with $310 billion in funds, she’s been able to give more business owners the good news. As expected, however, that new pool of cash is draining quickly. On May 1, the SBA released a report stating that more than $175 billion in funds had been distributed.

In the back of her mind, St. Pierre knows, any day now, the rest of the money will run out.

This segment aired on May 8, 2020.


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Adrian Ma Reporter
Adrian Ma was a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.



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