High West Energy’s drive-thru window at the Pine Bluffs office, where members can pay their bill and speak with a service representative while maintaining social distancing. High West Energy/courtesy

CHEYENNE – As the coronavirus pandemic caused a nationwide shutdown, unemployment rates skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, with businesses closing their doors to help prevent the virus’ spread. By the end of March, initial unemployment claims in Laramie County had increased more than 1,000%.

The federal government mobilized quickly to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included $349 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program. The program offered forgivable loans for businesses to keep their employees on payroll. After those funds ran dry, another $310 billion was allocated to the program due to its popularity.

With the program slated to end in August, 13,231 Wyoming businesses and nonprofits have already received more than $1.04 billion in payroll assistance.

“The scale of the impact of COVID-19 has truly been unprecedented,” said Amy Lea, Wyoming district director for the Small Business Administration. “So especially during the time period – when the health orders required closures of many of our small businesses – the PPP loans provided a way to keep the employees of those businesses employed, so that as things improved, they were able to expand their operations or get their doors open again.”

While a majority of data on the loans has yet to be released, the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department shared data this week from 660,000 loans to give the public insight into one of the largest economic relief packages in U.S. history.

The portion of data, cleaned and released in a searchable format by the Washington Post, shows that 15 Cheyenne-based businesses received a combined total of at least $20 million in Paycheck Protection Program funding, which protected more than 2,000 jobs across the companies’ locations.

For High West Energy, an electric utility cooperative based in Pine Bluffs, the program supported 81 jobs throughout seven counties in Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado.

“The PPP really helped us maintain a full staff and make sure that we were providing service to our members with no interruptions,” High West communications and marketing manager Jim East said.

Throughout the pandemic, High West has remained cognizant of the health and safety of its staff and customers, implementing additional precautions across the board. East said the relief from payroll expenses allowed the company more capabilities to carry out more stringent health precautions.

In addition to providing staff with personal protective equipment and checking temperatures, they adjusted their operations to a split-shift schedule to limit the number of people in the workplace. The linemen also reported directly to their work sites and drove separately instead of having two people to a vehicle.

With all the precautions in place, High West has not yet had any positive COVID-19 cases.

“That money helped us meet all of our safety obligations, and at the same time, made sure that we were able to keep everybody employed full time,” East said.

The application process

With the Paycheck Protection Program, the forgivable loans were issued on a first-come, first-served basis, and each applicant went through their lender to apply. The Small Business Administration will then reimburse the lenders for the loan, and the funds awarded based on staff size and payroll, were meant to cover eight weeks of payroll expenses.

While large banks like Citigroup and Wells Fargo put off accepting applications for days as they tried to set up their online portals, local lenders in Wyoming jumped into action as soon as the program opened April 3.

Of the 15 Cheyenne businesses whose loan data was released, 12 saw their loans approved within a week of the program opening.

Lea said, “We’re so lucky to have so many community lenders, so many community banks and credit unions. They were accessible, they were committed to getting those funds out quickly, and they already knew their customers.”

The staff at Jonah Bank worked 14- and 15-hour days over the weekend to finalize applications, and the staff at Platte Valley Bank worked diligently to submit applications the same day they were received.

The initiative taken by local lenders in Wyoming was paid back in spades for the state’s businesses and nonprofits. According to the Wall Street Journal, community banks with under $10 billion in assets approved about 60% of the Paycheck Protection Program loans in the first round of funding.

“Everyone in Wyoming is really working together for the benefit of small businesses, and trying to make sure that businesses have as many resources as possible to help them get through this challenging time,” Lea said.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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