SBA Administrator Testifies Before Congress, Tells of Progress in Assisting Small Business Owners

On Thursday, Jan. 7, the House Committee on Small Business held a hearing on the status of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and heard testimony from SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet as the lone witness.  Although the hearing was convened to address a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that criticized the SBA for its failure to implement management recommendations dating back several decades, the Administrator took the opportunity to highlight the areas where SBA has succeeded in serving America’s small business and helping them continue to grow the economy.

In her testimony, Administrator Contreras-Sweet emphasized that, despite the criticism from the GAO and the Committee, FY 2015 was one of the most successful years in the history of the agency.  SBA backed 22 percent more loans to American small businesses, with a 23 percent increase in the dollar value of those loans compared to FY 2014.  Although lending to small businesses has increased in the years since the recession, she said, it has only returned to 84 percent of its pre-recession level, making the SBA’s role in helping small businesses secure vital financing even more important.  In addition, Contreras-Sweet shared that loan approvals to women in the flagship 7(a) loan program increased 29 percent over 2014, while loan approvals to minorities increased 27 percent and those to veterans increased 47 percent.  All of this progress, the Administrator noted, occurred while the 7(a) program has operated at zero-subsidy, with no direct cost to taxpayers.

The well-established 7(a) program is paramount in ensuring that qualified small businesses, especially franchise businesses, are able to survive and increase their production in a fragile economy.  In 2014 alone, SBA lending programs were used in the financing of nearly 30,000 new franchised units and guaranteed an estimated $6 billion in loans to new and prospective franchisees.  That number is likely to increase since SBA lending for the 7(a) program increased by 23 percent in 2015.  In 2015, nearly a quarter of all new single-unit franchises were financed with the help of SBA loan guarantees, with 17 percent of medium-sized multi-unit franchisees and 19 percent of large multi-unit franchisees utilizing SBA-guaranteed loans to expand their operations.  According to IFA estimates, for every $1 million in lending to a franchise, 40 new direct and indirect jobs are created.  These figures show that SBA loan programs are a vital lifeline to franchises and other small businesses as the small business lending market continues its recovery.

Although the Administrator focused on many of the agency’s high points, the Committee members sought clarification on the Administrator’s plans to address management deficiencies in cybersecurity, staff retention, and disaster relief programs.  Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-OH) pressed the Administrator for a commitment to addressing the GAO report’s recommendations, explaining that 62 of the GAO’s 69 recommendations have not been implemented.

IFA submitted a statement for the hearing record praising the SBA for its essential loan programs, while stressing the need for continued recognition of the needs of small business owners in the U.S. Congress.  The Committee will continue with its series of hearings on the oversight of the SBA this week.  SBA Associate Administrator of Capital Access Ann Marie Mehlum and Linda Rusche, Director of the Office of Credit Risk Management will testify on the status and management of the SBA’s capital access programs tomorrow at 10:00am ET.  For more information on last week’s hearing, or for more information on this week’s activity, click here.

Congressman Ellison’s Franchise Legislation: Harmful and Unnecessary

By Elizabeth Taylor, Vice President of Federal Government Relations & Public Policy, Counsel

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN-05) recently introduced the SBA Franchise Loan Disclosure Act of 2015 (H.R. 3195). He claims the bill will help small business franchise owners by adding transparency to the process of applying for Small Business Administration (SBA) guaranteed loans. In fact, the legislation will harm small businesses. Chock full of unnecessary regulations, the measure unfairly targets franchise loans and would deter small business growth and job creation.

Franchising is flourishing. There are currently more than 780,000 franchise businesses throughout the U.S. in over 300 different industries ranging from restaurants to in-home healthcare.  Franchising allows thousands of entrepreneurs to become small business owners, and supports 8.9 million jobs nationwide. Franchise growth has outpaced the growth of other small businesses for the past 5 years and the trend is expected to continue.

Franchisees aren’t just successful — they’re also satisfied.  A recent survey of franchisees published by the Franchise Business Review found that 80 percent would rate their franchisors highly and recommend their brand to others. Three-fourths of franchisees would “do it all over again.”

This is why imposing additional red tape on franchises would serve only to stifle business creation and employment opportunities for many Americans. The Ellison bill singles out franchise businesses by imposing burdens on the franchise loan process – even though franchise businesses account for only 6 percent of the SBA 7(a) loan portfolio. There is no evidence that franchise loan failure rates are significantly higher than other businesses.  In fact, according to a recent SBA loan study by FRANdata, franchise small business are less likely to default on their SBA loans than non-franchise businesses.  The default rate for franchise loans is 13.73 percent compared to 17.11 percent among non-franchise loans. In other words, the franchise loan default rate is 20 percent lower than non-franchise loans.

While defaults in business loans are unfortunate, they happen in all types of of businesses, not just franchising. The SBA 7(a) loan program has been overwhelmingly beneficial for franchise small business owners and the overall economy. Six out of seven franchises that receive SBA loans do not default and actually go on to grow their businesses.

For the relatively small percentage of franchise brands that do default, this legislation would be of no assistance. What’s more, singling out one or two franchise brands would be misguided. To the extent any problem can be identified, it would be with larger lenders. Big lenders like Banco Popular have a 40 percent default rate for franchise and non-franchise loans.  This rate is twice the average rate (16.8%) of the top 50 SBA lenders.

The Ellison bill would also create a conflict between two agencies, the SBA and the Federal Trade Commission because it would require changes to the FTC Franchise Rule. Although many franchisors disclose financial performance data to potential franchisees, the franchise rule does not require financial performance disclosure by the franchisor.  That would have to change under the Ellison bill, and the FTC no doubt would fight the alteration.

Mr. Ellison has a history of taking policy positions that would harm small businesses. It’s curious that a lawmaker with such a record would now take an interest in the arcane process of SBA loans for franchisees. Mr. Ellison does have one link to franchising – his largest campaign contributor has been the Service Employees International Union, which is on a well-documented mission to destroy the franchise business model. Perhaps the true motivation behind the Ellison bill isn’t to help franchising but to prevent more franchise small businesses from opening at all.

Business Leaders Urge Senate to Restore Full-Time Work Week

By Kevin Serafino

As the U.S. Senate prepares to adjourn for its August recess, business leaders and employers from across the country are urging their elected officials to consider a critical change to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that would restore the 40-hour full-time work week and put more pay in the pockets of American workers.

Yesterday, members of the More Time For Full Time coalition, led by the International Franchise Association and including more than 400 business trade associations from all 50 states, sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Harry Reid pressing them to consider S.B. 30, the Forty Hours Is Full Time Act, upon their return to Washington in September. The legislation would harmonize the definition of full-time employment in the ACA with the traditional 40 hours per week definition, benefiting employees by allowing for more hours and income and helping employers by removing a burdensome new regulation.

Under the ACA’s current definition of full-time employee, set at 30 hours per week, many employees are being hurt by lost wages and hours because this new standard makes it more expensive for employers to allow part-time employees to work more than 30 hours through picking up additional shifts and adding flexibility to their schedules.

The Forty Hours Is Full Time Act currently has 42 co-sponsors in the Senate, while 73 Senators have indicated their belief in restoring the 40-hour work week.  Franchise business owners will meet with their elected officials at home throughout the Congressional recess to advocate for policies that will allow their businesses to thrive and create jobs in their local communities.

To read the More Time For Full Time coalition’s letter to Senate leadership, click here.  To contact your elected officials and urge them to restore the 40-hour work week, click here.

House Hearing Demonstrates New DOL Regulations Will Hurt Businesses and Workers

On Wednesday, June 10th, major regulatory changes expected from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) this summer were the subject of a House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections hearing. The forthcoming changes include the potential doubling of the salary threshold for overtime exemption and a new test for the primary duties of overtime-exempt workers. These modifications should concern franchise businesses, as they could severely limit opportunities for lower-level employees to advance in rank, limit the flexibility of business owners to manage their workers as they see fit, and increase compliance and payroll costs.

Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg (R-MI) shared his hope that despite an “administration notorious for overreach”, the Department of Labor should listen to employers’ concerns, and put forward a “proposal that encourages rather than stifles productivity, personal opportunity, and economic growth.”

The Subcommittee heard testimony from industry experts and academics regarding the current and proposed regulatory framework. While the witnesses disagreed in some aspects, they all agreed that the current enforcement structure of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 needs to change. Three of the key witnesses were: Seth Harris, former Acting Secretary of Labor, Jamie Richardson, a Vice President of White Castle, Inc., a well-known quick service restaurant chain and Leonard Court, a labor lawyer and member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Labor Relations Committee.

The majority of Mr. Harris’ testimony addressed why the DOL should prioritize combating income inequality by raising the Federal minimum wage and increasing the salary threshold. To back up his claims, he relied on his theory that workers will see pay increases because employers will be forced to reclassify previously overtime-exempt workers as hourly workers, and these workers will then get more 1.5x pay for overtime for the work they previously did on salary.

Mr. Harris’ theories were countered by Mr. Richardson of White Castle, Inc., whom represented the views of many private-sector companies. Mr. Richardson explained that these new regulatory changes will add significant compliance costs, drive down worker opportunities and disrupt business in a negative manner. For example, of the over 400 White Castle restaurants, 445 of the 450 managers started as a cashier or a line cook, and worked their way up. If the primary duties test for a salary employee is narrowed based on strict percentages of time spent on managing, there will no longer be as many opportunities for lower-level employees to get managerial experience necessary for this advancement process. This is because a strict definition of primary duties will no longer afford many managers the flexibility to lead from the front and help out with non-managerial duties as needed. Employers will be forced to choose between classifying a worker as strictly management, and strictly hourly, which will in turn, reduce the amount of managers it can hire. It will also reduce opportunities for workers who depend on the ability to work outside the office to promote flexibility, because they will now fall under strictly hourly regulations, and out-of-office work is hard to measure on an hourly basis.

Contrary to Mr. Harris’ suggestion that these overtime changes would result in additional hours for many workers, Mr. Richardson and another human resources professional on the panel testified that- a reduction of salaried positions will also lead to reduced hours, reduced pay, and a feeling of demotion by these formerly salaried employees.  In addition, Mr. Richardson noted an Oxford University study on the effects of an increased salary exemption, which found that an increase to a salary exemption limit of $808 per week, would affect 1.7 million restaurant workers, and would cost business owners $5.2 billion per year. These increased costs will have a negative impact on raises, health benefits, and generous leave policies.

Leonard Court, a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Labor Relations Committee, testified about how unfair DOL enforcement techniques create a negative environment for businesses. He cited numerous examples about how Wage and Hours Division investigators have been using a variety of “questionable” tactics to pressure business owners and human resources professionals into unfair and possibly unjustified settlements. Mr. Court also expressed concerns that the DOL needs to release more administrative interpretations of existing law, in order to give businesses more guidance on how to effectively comply with a complex web of regulations.

Among other issues, the three most concerning tactics employed by the DOL were: deliberately pressuring businesses not to use legal counsel, compelling immediate settlements by threatening litigation, and using bait and switch techniques to grab double punitive damages for new cases by using settled ones as admissions of guilt. These tactics result in an enforcement environment that, in the words of Mr. Court, has shifted from an approach of “cooperation and education to one of confrontation and coerced settlement.” Mr. Court cited one case that demonstrates this attitude, where despite months of investigation and six figures of legal fees, the WHD found no wrongdoing by the employer. The tactics and methods of the DOL are even more concerning in light of the Obama Administration’s authorization of expansive funding for franchise-specific Wage and Hour Division investigators.

The final version of these regulations is expected to be released soon, and it appears the potential changes are already creating uncertainty for businesses. As witnesses like Mr. Court and Ms. Berberich, a member of the Society of Human Resource Management observed, more helpful changes the DOL could make include adding clarity to the laws through opinion letters, and by promoting flexibility for the new generation of tech-savvy workers. Written transcripts of witness testimony can be found here, and the video of the full hearing is available here.

Franchisor Executive Addresses House Panel on Franchise Operations

Today, a panel of industry, labor and legal representatives gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building to testify before the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.  The hearing entitled, “What Should Workers and Employers Expect Next from the National Labor Relations Board?” concerned the NLRB’s propositions that may affect the business climate for businesses of all sizes, including many franchise businesses.  Of particular interest during the hearing was the issue of joint-employer status, which if applied to franchising would have drastic consequences.  As Subcommittee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) noted in his opening remarks, “A standard has been in place for 30 years to determine when two employers share immediate and direct control over essential terms and conditions of employment … This isn’t a new concept, so the board’s recent solicitation [for clarification on the definition of joint-employers] is highly suspect and strongly suggests it’s eager to abandon existing policies in favor of a new standard more favorable to union interests.”

While the Chairman’s concern was shared by many members of the Committee, it was the testimony from Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants (Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s) and IFA Board Member that drove home the message regarding the harmful effects of joint-employers status on franchising.  During his testimony, Mr. Puzder articulated that the relationship between franchisors and franchisees is one of mutual benefit, but separate operation.  Ranking Member John Tierney (D-MA) posed a series of questions to clarify the relationship, “Do Franchisees generally hire people? … Same with firing? … Same with disciplining?” To all of these, Mr. Puzder delivered an affirmative yes, signaling that the franchisees truly do manage their own businesses at every turn.  To assert that franchisors completely mandate how franchisees run their businesses an insult to the thousands of entrepreneurs who have utilized the resources that the franchising model provides them to go into business for themselves.

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Mr. Puzder went on to note that labeling franchisors as joint employers would drastically alter the employment landscape.  While CKE and its franchisees are responsible for over 70,000 jobs in the United States, joint-employer status would require massive oversight on CKE’s behalf, meaning less autonomy for franchisees and increased costs for the franchisor to monitor the employment process and administrative overhead.  Not only would this convolute the hiring process and discourage expanding employment, but it would also take away the equity franchisees created in their own business.

Joint employer status is an important issue for those in the franchise community, which is why the International Franchise Association will continue to uphold the mutually beneficial business model of franchising.  Rather than cater to special interests and politically-motivated unions, the NLRB should protect hard-working business owners and the thousands that they employ.

Please click here to view today’s hearing.