Op-Ed: Stop Leaving Small Businesses Out in the Cold

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Getting my business off the ground was hard — it took countless hours, extensive networking, and money from my own pocket. To see it flounder in the face of a global pandemic is heartbreaking. To know that this could have been prevented by our national leadership is infuriating.

My Boulder-based business, Eco All Trading, is small and family-owned. Inspired by the environmental activism of my nine-year-old daughter, Madhvi Chittoor, I started the business in August 2019 to promote the use of eco-friendly, reusable products in schools, hospitals and other institutions. We sell stainless-steel and biodegradable trays, mugs and flatware that can replace ubiquitous — and harmful — plastic.

Before COVID-19 hit, Eco All Trading had just secured our biggest contract, with the third-largest school district in Colorado. I had just hired two part-time contractors to distribute marketing fliers and drop samples at other districts, looking to expand my business. If all went well, I was planning to hire full- and part-time employees.

Then COVID-19 caused Governor Jared Polis to declare a state of emergency. The schools closed soon after. On March 30, I received an email from the school district saying they no longer had the funds to fulfill our contract. With schools switching to remote learning, our products were unnecessary and our future was in doubt.

When Congress passed the CARES Act, I was elated. I applied right away for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — and was denied. They said my business was a start-up, and without a tax return from the prior year, I didn’t qualify. Meanwhile, everyone from Kanye West to Shake Shack received tens of millions of PPP dollars.

Lalitha Chittoor
Next, I applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, a Small Business Administration-sponsored low-interest loan meant to help businesses cover operating expenses and loss of revenue. I applied in April. In June, I was asked to verify my bank, and did so. In August, they said they lost my application. Finally, just a few weeks ago, I was informed that the SBA has disbursed all the funds and have none remaining. Another dead end, and another potential lifeline yanked away from my drowning business. I’ve been trying to pivot to providing personal protective equipment, but with the large volumes and slim margins involved, it’s been difficult, as a microbusiness, to compete with large corporations.

America is supposed to reward the entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, too many enterprising business owners like me are being left in the cold.

In July, a survey by Small Business for America’s Future found that 80 percent of small-business owners expect COVID-19 to disrupt their business for the rest of 2020, if not longer. Fifty-eight percent have taken on debt to survive, and 21 percent say they are facing the possibility of bankruptcy. With no national plan to contain the virus so businesses and schools can open safely, these numbers will only grow.

Our economy is built on thriving small businesses — but every day, more and more businesses like mine are shuttering. A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that between February and May of 2020, the number of active business owners in the United States fell from 15 million to 12.8 million, a 15 percent decline in just three months. Last month, Yelp reported that 55 percent of businesses listed as closed on its platform have closed permanently.

We need action, not just words, from Washington. Congress and the administration must stop acting as though the crisis has passed. They must push through a relief package that actually reaches the small businesses most in need: Start-ups and micro-businesses, businesses owned by women and people of color, and businesses whose owners don’t bank at a huge financial institution. They must ensure PPP loan forgiveness and broader disbursal of Economic Injury Disaster Loans. They must extend unemployment benefits for the millions still out of work, and cut another round of stimulus checks to keep struggling families afloat.

Most of all, our leaders must put in place a coordinated, national plan to contain the virus and reopen safely. That’s the only way to save small businesses, and our economy.

When I started my business, I never thought I’d mark its first anniversary amid such uncertainty. The haphazard response of the Trump administration has jeopardized my livelihood — and that of millions of other small-business owners, in Colorado and beyond. It didn’t have to be this way.

We deserve better. We deserve real national leadership.

Lalitha Chittoor is the owner of Eco All Trading in Boulder, Colorado; this op-ed was provided by the Colorado Editorial Forum.

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