Legislature aims to assist small businesses
May 21, 2020
For the first time since 2004, the Wyoming Legislature met in special session on Friday with the goal of figuring out how to spend the $1.25 billion received through the CARES Act. Businesses impacted by the pandemic will have access to a suite of stipend programs to replenish lost income and cover COVID-19 related costs – and will also be protected from lawsuits related to the pandemic.
Three bills were passed during the special two-day session that began on Friday, all of which were designed to address issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through the first according to the text of the bill, independently owned businesses with 50 employees or fewer will be eligible for the “Wyoming Business Interruption Stipend Program”, administered by the Wyoming Business Council.
The program will reimburse eligible businesses for the costs of business interruptions caused by the required closures. The stipend itself will be $20,000 plus an additional $2000 per full-time employee (or full-time equivalent, according to verifiable hours worked) and $1000 per part-time employee the business had on March 31.
The stipend will not exceed $50,000 and, like all of those established in the bill, will come solely from CARES Act funding. Preference will be given to businesses that did not receive funding from the Paycheck Protection Program established by the CARES Act.
A total of $50 million was appropriated for this program, which will end on December 30.
The bill also addresses business with fewer than 100 full-time employees that were required to close due to one of the health orders issued by the state. The “Coronavirus Business Relief Stipend Program” will provide stipends to cover expenditures and expenses including payroll costs, business supplies, business equipment (including anything necessary to resume normal business operations or modify operations). The maximum amount for an eligible business is $300,000.
For this second stipend, the bill specifies that the business must agree to “continue to maintain a meaningful nexus to the State of Wyoming” for three years after receiving the money. Businesses will also need to provide a report detailing how the funds were spent by the end of the year and repay the money if used for unauthorized expenses.
Supplemental closure stipends will also be available for businesses that had to close due to the pandemic and will be awarded based on loss of income and revenue; change in expenses due to the closures; and whether the business received any state or federal funds during the crisis.
A total of $225 million was appropriated for the second style of stipend and $50 million for the supplemental closure stipends.
The “Coronavirus Mitigation Stipend Program” was also created to reimburse businesses severely impacted by the pandemic by providing stipends to cover COVID-related expenses between March 1 and the end of this year up to a total of $500,000. For these stipends, $50 million was appropriated.
Another bill passed by the legislature during the special session – and the one that is reported to have been the most hotly debated of the topic’s sessions – has the express purpose of protecting businesses from lawsuits related to the pandemic. If an employee is infected by COVID-19 at any point during 2020, it will be assumed that the risk was increased by the nature of the employment.
These employees will be allowed the make workers’ compensation claims. However, if the business has acted in good faith in responding to the pandemic, it will be immune from liability.
The bill also establishes a temporary program to pay rent and avoid evictions for people who have been impacted by the pandemic. The funding must be used to provide housing to a household where at least one person has experienced a loss in income, has been laid off or has been subject to a reduction in work hours and is unable to pay rent.
The bill also establishes a premium credit through the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services for employers who made all required compensation payments in 2019, which can be used for premium reporting periods during the next fiscal year. Employers can also be granted a delay in the payment of premiums and contributions.
Spending the Money
A third bill passed at the special session designated four priority needs when it comes to spending the remainder of the $1.25 billion allocated through the CARES Act. The act itself restricts how the money can be spent, which means it cannot be used to fill shortfalls in state and local government revenue.
The first need identified is emergency response, to cover expenditures incurred as a direct response to combat the pandemic and to address the “immediate need” for additional state programs.
The second need is relief aid, which are payments to state and local programs to support businesses, families and individuals economically impacted by the pandemic. The third is economic development projects, which includes capital construction, road building, infrastructure, broadband and other projects that would invest in Wyoming by providing employment opportunities and enhancing the state’s infrastructure.
The final need identified is to replace lost revenue for public entities. To the extend allowable under the rules, these funds could be used to allow state and local governments to continue to provide a base level of critical services while longer-term solutions are implemented.
The bill authorizes the governor to establish emergency programs consistent with the terms outlined within it. Any emergency program so created will expire on December 30 unless expressly continued by an act of the legislature.
The governor is also authorized to appropriate up to $450 million the CARES Act funds to cover expenses incurred by state entities to respond to the emergency and its impacts (including school districts), as well as those incurred by cities, towns, counties and political subdivisions. The funds can also be used to provide grants for expenses incurred by healthcare providers and hospital districts, and for operational or capital construction expenses at healthcare facilities and to improve the state’s capacity to provide mental health services or address food insecurity.
Unless further legislation is passed, an additional $400 million will become available for these uses.