Helena brewery tells Daines he’d like longer PPP terms in future aid

About $82,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program allowed Helena brewery owner Max Pigman to keep all 13 of his production employees at work through the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, Pigman told U.S. Sen. Steve Daines during a tour of Lewis and Clark Brewing Co. that he’d like to see another round of funding on an extended timetable as the state moves toward what’s expected to be a slow economic recovery. 

“The worst thing that you fear as a business owner, as you grow a team, is you’re not only responsible for your own income and being able to pay bills but now I have several families that rely on us for that as well,” Pigman said. “That’s your first thought, is how am I going to make payroll?”

PPP loan money had to be spent within eight weeks to be forgiven, and Pigman said over that time frame he’s had $114,000 in payroll expenses, so there was little question he’d be able to expend all the funds. From a future program, he told Daines, he’d like to see longer terms, even up to 120 days.

The brewery is divided between the production side and the tap room, which is owned by Pigman’s daughter. A lot of the 28 part-time taproom employees were laid off even with a PPP forgivable loan, though Pigman said they carried them for a payroll period before telling the workers they’d need to file for unemployment.

Breweries and bars were allowed to operate in the first phase of Montana’s gradual reopening. Lewis and Clark’s taproom opened two weeks ago, and the first week saw about 30% of normal revenue. The second it was about half.

Pigman said he’s still trying to be creative and think about ways to not just maintain but grow his business. He’s adding seltzers and trying to find other ways to adapt to challenges, such as exploring the purchase of a labeling machine that would alleviate supply chain issues in getting cans. In addition to another round of PPP, Pigman said he’d also like to see support for those kinds of efforts in another federal aid package.

Daines said PPP has been critical to keeping businesses and workers afloat.

“This is a way to keep employees on the payroll. That was the idea, to help the workers stay employed by helping the small businesses and keeping them on the payroll,” Daines said. “They work for so many years to put together these great teams. … This was a way to keep those teams together during difficult times.”

The U.S. House passed a bill with the next round of coronavirus aid earlier this month, though Daines said he does not expect much of what’s in the House legislation to be able to clear the Senate.

On Thursday Daines said he was hopeful there’d be a “targeted and focused” bill, which in his eyes isn’t what the House bill is.

“We don’t want to let either side add unnecessary provisions that aren’t directly related to the current crisis,” Daines said.

He’s partnering with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, on a bill that would create a $50 billion Small Business Local Relief Fund targeted at companies with 20 employees or less.

“We are a state of small businesses and we want to make sure that relief is targeted toward those small businesses,” Daines said.

He also wants to see any bill that passes the Senate include liability provisions for employers whose workers get sick with COVID-19, along with a sunset for those provisions.

“We are concerned abut a trial lawyer pandemic,” Daines said. ” … That will become a headwind for this economy reopening up for fears of lawsuits.”

At a legislative meeting earlier this month, Montana lawmakers from both sides of the aisle discussed asking Montana’s congressional delegation to push for increased flexibility in either existing or future aid packages to allow federal relief funds to go toward lost state revenues. States across the country are projecting dire budget situations as the pandemic has hamstrung the economy. Daines said he’d support a targeted approach, but didn’t want federal dollars to bail out states that were fiscally insolvent. Montana received $1.25 billion from the CARES Act in April.

“We should look at revenue replacement when we look at bed tax, gas tax. That is revenue dropped as a direct result of the pandemic,” Daines said. “Not only should the state be able to recover the extra expenses associated with the pandemic, but where there’s a direct revenue impact we should allow the states to to recover those losses.”

For those on unemployment, a $600 supplemental payment from the federal government to help bridge the gap between what state unemployment benefits pay and what a worker earned will expire in July. Daines said he expects that to be debated again in the Senate. That benefit has allowed some lower-wage workers to earn more on unemployment than they did at their jobs, something Daines raised concerns about.

“We don’t want to have an incentive where you actually can be paid more by being unemployed,” Daines said. ” … That will that will slow down people returning back to work. We want to protect the workers, but we don’t want to have an incentive where you actually make more money being unemployed. .… That’s not going to help economic recovery.”