Tuan Ngo seemed to be at a dead end this weekend as he tried to apply for emergency loans for his nail salon business in Washington state, which has been shuttered since the novel coroanvirus pandemic struck and social distancing measures were implemented to stop the spread.
Like so many small-business owners across the country, Ngo was having a hard time navigating the complicated application process that went live late last week and instantly overwhelmed servers and many local banks.
"Paperwork on top of paperwork on top of paperwork,” he told ABC News recently. “The banks say they were not ready. The banks send you on to the [government] website, and you go on the website, they send you back to the bank. So, I don't know where I'm going right now I have no help."
His story was similar to that of more than a dozen local, small businesses across the country that ABC News has surveyed in the last few days. Still Ngo said he was lucky and worried for colleagues and friends that were having an even harder time.
“I can read things online, but think about for all the business owners -- think about all the ones you know – who do not have strong English as a second language,” he said. “I went to college… how is everyone else dealing with all of this?”
Of the more than 30 million small businesses in the United States, it is estimated that 11 million are owned by racial and ethnic minorities. Statistically, immigrants in the country are more likely to start and own small businesses than non-immigrants and are more likely to hire employees at faster rates than non-immigrants.
Yet many minority entrepreneurs are facing unique challenges, including language and cultural barriers, gaps in technology and a lack of existing lines of credit as they try to get the help and funds they need now to keep their doors open and their staff on payroll. They also face a banking system that has historically favored white applicants and may default to that pattern in a time of crisis, advocates say.
Ngo opened La Bella nail salon 13 years ago in Tacoma with his wife and two employees. They now have two locations and 34 employees, though he has had to furlough them all during this tough time. “They are struggling,” Ngo continued. Almost all of his staff are Vietnamese immigrants, like himself, some of them have limited English language skills. “My employees and their families are trying survive. I have a lot of single moms with no other income and it is really hard for them to get help.”
Marcos Rivera has followed in his father’s footsteps and owns his own Latin-inspired restaurant in the Chicago area, Libertad. Rivera told ABC News that his father was an immigrant from Mexico, who started as a dishwasher and eventually owned a few restaurants of his own. The restaurants were family affairs, with all of the children helping out.
Rivera said he has laid off 13 employees so far, but has a small team that has stayed on to help with some takeout orders during this period of social distancing. He said the process of applying for loans has been overwhelming. For instance, he said he did not receive confirmation over the weekend that his applications went through and has not had loans and lines of credit with his bank in the past.
He agreed that for business owners without dominant English skills, the process would have been even more difficult. For “mom and pop places it is going to be really difficult.. if you don’t speak the language well enough, if you’re not savvy with everything it is going to be very different for them to do," he said. "They are going to need people to help get them through it.”
The latest documents and resources from the federal government about how small businesses can apply for various loans and grants available during this crisis have only been provided in English, with some limited Spanish translation.
“The federal government is trying to do a lot in a very small amount of time, so I would not fault them entirely. They are trying to deploy the capital quickly and that means you don’t have time to run all the materials through every language, but that has created a vacuum that we and others are trying to fill,” Lamar Heystek, president of the non-profit minority business advocacy group ASIAN, Inc. told ABC News.
Heystek said his group has been inundated with calls from all around the country from people looking for assistance in navigating online portals and paperwork that are in English only. He was grateful some people have volunteered to help businesses through this process, but they are working overtime to translate, produce and get materials out in different languages so people can get information they need.
In addition to the language barriers, many of the smallest businesses in the country have not previously enjoyed loans, lines of credit or personal relationships with their banks. As such, in this moment, many have of found it difficult to have their applications for emergency loans prioritized.
Heystek called it a “vicious Catch-22,” and on a call with reporters Tuesday, members of the Congressional Black Congress also expressed concern over the issue.
The CBC pointed to a “history and legacy” of racial inequality in banking and credit systems, which they see hurting minority businesses owners in this case. In short, white business owners have been more likely to receive credit in the past, and now, in a moment of crisis, as banks default to lending to their familiar customers, minority-owned small businesses could once again be denied and excluded at disproportionate rates.
“There are built-in disadvantages,” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, D- Mass., said on the call. She argued the lending preferences of banks and step up that some larger firms had in the process was hurting businesses that are “too small to fail,” like barber shops and dry cleaners.
“Our nation’s response was effective if you have a multi-million dollar business, if you are Boeing or United Airlines. We are worried these benefits are not trickling down to our communities,” Congresswoman Karen Bass, D-Calif., said. “We need to fix it in the next bill.”
The Department of Treasury signaled Tuesday that it was working to expand the amount of funds available to small businesses through some of the emergency lending programs. Still, such a wide range of small businesses competing for this emergency capital, there is great anxiety among owners of very small businesses that they might get overlooked.
Right now, businesses with fewer than 500 employees can apply for the Payroll Protection Program funds, for example to rehire or keep staff onboard during this pandemic. Those companies on the larger end of that 500-employee scale are much more likely to have accountants, lawyers, and sophisticated software to apply for funds.
“They feel betrayed… that there is no longer the possibility of the American dream,” Elizabeth Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick, Maryland told ABC News. Her nonprofit helps support and advocate for small businesses and immigrant communities. “These are people who pay taxes, who are law abiding citizens and now all of a sudden are saying, “What about me?”
“These small business are the fabric of our communities. I don't have Boeing here. I have my neighborhood store,” she added. Chung said she worried about clients or hers and members of her local community who run cash-only businesses or family-run small firms who have limited bookkeeping.
Chung herself has struggled to successfully apply for the PPP loans and said she was denied when she attempted. She has kept her staff on payroll, but said she cannot do that much longer. “I've been in this country for 50 years, and I think this is the first time ever that I felt as much despair.”
“We talked about equity. This is not equitable,” she went on. “Just because you're smaller, or you don't have the clout, you don't know where to go, you should not be left behind in this. This is going to hurt the poor even more and that hurts everyone. Economies are built from bottom up.”
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Heystek said echoing this point. “We need these businesses to continue to exist. Those small businesses employ people who spend money locally… If we don’t help these businesses survive, who employ our neighbors, we are hurting ourselves in the end.”