Applying for SBA COVID-19 relief with a criminal record in 2021

Last Updated: September 9, 2021

In December 2020, Congress authorized additional COVID-19 financial relief for small businesses and nonprofits, available through the Small Business Administration (SBA). The SBA’s two primary programs for COVID-19 financial relief are the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides forgivable loans to small businesses and nonprofits to help keep their staff employed during the crisis; and the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which provides advances and loans to small businesses and nonprofits that experience a temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19.

After the first COVID-19 relief bill, the CARES Act, funded these programs in March 2020, the SBA imposed broad criminal history restrictions on applicants. In the face of pressure, the administration relaxed those restrictions several times over the course of the following months.  In March 2021, the Biden Administration removed an additional restriction.  In this post, we review those developments and describe the SBA’s current criminal history policies, also available on the SBA’s website (PPP and EIDL).

To summarize, as a result of developments to date, the SBA now excludes from PPP relief only a narrow category of people with a criminal record: those 1) actually incarcerated or with pending felony charges; or 2) convicted, pleaded guilty or nolo contendere to, or commenced any form of parole or probation within the last 5 years for certain financial felonies. The category of those excluded from EIDL relief is broader: 1) anyone convicted of any felony within the past five years, and 2) anyone with any sort of pending criminal charges.

We conclude with a series of recommended changes to the laws governing SBA loans that affect people with a criminal record, and to related SBA regulations and policies.  These recommendations include consideration of how a loan applicant’s criminal record is treated in the rules and policies governing the SBA’s general lending programs under Section 7(a) and 7(b) of the Small Business Act, whose only mention of criminal record is to authorize the SBA to “verify the applicant’s criminal background, or lack thereof,” including through an FBI background check.

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Applying for an SBA loan with a criminal record

*NEW: Applying for SBA COVID-19 relief with a criminal record in 2021 (March 8, 2021)

Loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) are a key resource for small businesses fighting to survive during this pandemic.  SBA loans are generally loans provided by private lenders and guaranteed by the federal government.  The $2+ trillion stimulus package (the CARES Act) signed into law today, includes more than $300 billion in funding for new SBA loans called the “Paycheck Protection Program,” some of which are eligible for forgiveness.

These loans are to be provided under SBA’s primary loan program, the 7(a) loan program, but they increase eligibility for 7(a) loans, extend their allowable uses, and allow for loan forgiveness, among other provisions.  (See H.R. 748, sec. 1102; 15 U.S.C. 636(a)).  Notably, a Paycheck Protection Loan may be used—in addition to already-allowable uses under 7(a)—for payroll support (including paid sick, medical, or family leave, and group health care benefit costs during leave), employee salaries, mortgage payments, rent, utilities, and any other debt incurred before February 15, 2020.  See H.R. 748, sec. 1102.  Further, for all 7(a) loans made between February 15, 2020 and June 30, 2020, loaned funds would be eligible for forgiveness if used for payroll costs (with a couple of exceptions), and certain other expenses to maintain “payroll continuity” during a four-month period.  A business must submit certain documents to apply for forgiveness, and the forgiveness amount is reduced if the number of employees or their compensation has been reduced.  Se H.R. 748, sec. 1106.

In this post, we explore considerations for people with a criminal record who wish to apply for a 7(a) small business loan, including the “Paycheck Protection Program” loans that will be funded through the CARES Act.  We also discuss disaster loans for small businesses in areas severely impacted by the Coronavirus (COVID-19), which the SBA is already making available.

After reviewing existing SBA loan eligibility rules and vetting policies for 7(a) applicants, we have questions about the extent to which these new loans will be available to people with a criminal record.  Generally, the SBA excludes any business with a principal who is on probation, parole, or similar form of supervision; or who is currently facing any charges.  And while a closed criminal case is not automatically disqualifying, SBA requires that every 7(a) applicant’s principals be “of good character,” and conducts a character evaluation that for people with a felony conviction, certain misdemeanor convictions, or a recent case, requires a full FBI background check before loan funds may be approved.  This evaluation specifically requires disclosure of expunged convictions and certain non-conviction records.  Moreover, if a person has not completely satisfied a sentence “and other conditions of the court,” they are ineligible for a loan.  Certain broad language in the CARES Act suggests that the SBA might not impose eligibility requirements that would apply to 7(a) loans in normal times, including ineligibility due to an open criminal matter or lack of “good character.”  We hope that would be the case, given the urgent need for relief and the considerable barriers that people with records already face in the economy even in the best of times.  We will look for guidance from the SBA as to how it will interpret this language.  [See the updates at the top of this post.]

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