Back in mid-April, the most confusing part of the Paycheck Protection Program was navigating the process of getting a loan. Now business owners are faced with a potentially more complicated head-scratcher: getting the loan forgiven, which was a core selling-point of the program.
"In terms of frustration, on a scale of one to 10, this is a 14," says William McDevitt, head of the tax practice at accounting firm WilkinGuttenplan, which serves clients in New Jersey and New York City.
Loan forgiveness sounds simple: Spend at least 75 percent of the proceeds on pay within an eight-week period, spend the remainder on expenses such as mortgage interest, rent, and utilities, and the government should forgive your loan.
But what if you get PPP money on May 10, and run your biweekly payroll on May 14? Is all of that payroll eligible for forgiveness? Or just four days' worth? "Something as simple as this is not clear," says McDevitt. The government said it would issue additional guidance on loan forgiveness within 30 days of the passage of the Cares act, which became law on March 27. That hasn't happened.
Without further guidance, confusion abounds. So we asked finance and legal experts how they're advising their clients on some of the most common points of confusion related to loan forgiveness. While they differ on some of the technicalities, they agree on one thing: The best course of action is to make payments the same way you made them last year, to the extent possible. You don't want to adjust your business to comply with guidelines that are still uncertain.
And talk to your banker. "That's who will ultimately make the decision," says Mark Koziel, executive vice president for firm services at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
I got a PPP loan, but we're still closed and my employees have almost nothing to do. Can I ask them to all take their paid vacation time now?
To qualify for loan forgiveness, says Jody Padar, a CPA and vice president of strategy for accounting-technology company Botkeeper, anything you pay this year should be generally consistent with how and when you've paid it in prior years. In her business, for example, accountants work crazy hours up until April 15, and then everyone takes a vacation in May and June. So if everyone in your company typically takes vacation during the eight-week period, you might be OK. But you can't make everyone use up all their paid vacation just because you have no work for them, and then ask for that pay to be forgiven.
If I fire someone, and they get severance, does that payment count as payroll for purposes of calculating my loan forgiveness?
The PPP language in the Cares Act doesn't specifically mention severance, says Susan Gross Sholinsky, a member of the law firm Epstein Becker Green. But the definition of "payroll costs" includes "allowance for separation or dismissal," which would mean the severance could be forgiven. McDevitt agrees. Erik Asgeirsson, the CEO of CPA.com, the AICPA's business and technology arm, isn't so sure, because the intent of the law is to keep people employed.
Can I make all my retirement contributions for the year in the eight-week forgiveness period, and have those payments count as payroll for the purposes of loan forgiveness?
Again, says Padar, it comes down to what you've done in prior years. If you have a lot of seasonality in your business and typically would make this payment during the eight-week period, then you could be fine.
McDevitt says companies may be able to count eight weeks' worth of contributions toward forgiveness, even if the payment isn't made in the eight-week period. He'll know for sure when guidance addresses the interpretation of the phrase "costs incurred and payments made" in the legislation.
If all of my people are working like crazy now--say 80 hours a week--can I count each of them as two employees for the purposes of maintaining my head count?
No. Says Sholinsky, "That's a little too creative. I wouldn't go there."
I have salespeople who are paid mostly through commissions. During the eight-week period used to calculate loan forgiveness, those salespeople can't sell anything. Can I pay them a higher salary during that period, to make up for the lost commissions, and include that higher salary in the calculations that determine forgiveness?
Essentially, yes. "Pay is pay," says Koziel. It doesn't matter if it's in salary or commission. Your payroll run for eight weeks this year will be compared with your payroll run for eight weeks last year.
You'll get tripped up on this, says McDevitt, only if the pay comes with strings attached. You have to actually pay your salespeople the full amount--it can't be structured as an advance against commissions.
Can I pay all my employee bonuses in the eight-week period?
If the bonus reflects work done for an entire year, then McDevitt recommends counting only eight weeks' worth of it for forgiveness. "That's the conservative answer, and the worst-case scenario," he says. Best case: The full amount of bonus payments will count toward forgiveness. If the bonus is paid only for work done during the eight-week period--akin to hazard pay--then the full amount, as long as it's reasonable, could be forgiven.