Chris Clark, president and CEO, Georgia Chamber of Commerce

ATLANTA – Congress should not adjourn for the holidays without passing a new economic stimulus package to help businesses and their employees affected by the coronavirus pandemic, top state and national business leaders said Monday night.

Tom Sullivan, vice president of small business policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, took phone calls during an hour-long tele-town hall from small business owners in Georgia worried they could be forced to close permanently unless the federal government steps up soon.

Congressional negotiators currently are working on a smaller COVID-19 relief package than the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act Congress passed last March.

The latest proposal on the table is $748 billion that would among other things renew the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses and continue the flow of federal unemployment benefits due to expire the day after Christmas.

“We want to reopen the PPP to small businesses that didn’t have a chance to apply during the first round and a second round targeted for businesses that need it most,” Sullivan said.

Clark said minority-owned businesses should be among the targets of the new stimulus package. He said a disproportionate percentage of minority-owned companies in Georgia were forced to close during the statewide lockdown that occurred during the pandemic’s early days, and many still haven’t reopened.

“It’s obvious that minority-owned businesses need help the most,” Sullivan said.

Clark said essential workers should be next in line after health-care workers and nursing home patients for the new COVID-19 vaccines, the first of which began arriving in Georgia and across the nation on Monday.

“We’ve got front-line workers producing PPE (personal protective equipment) in our manufacturing facilities,” Clark said. “If we expect them to keep performing, they need to be in that [vaccine] queue.”

In response to a call from a business owner who has had a hard time keeping employees on the job, Sullivan said members of Congress discovered with the CARES Act that offering $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits serves as a disincentive for employees to return to work during a pandemic.

“Because we have the benefit of that hindsight, Congress is looking at a much more targeted unemployment measure that would be less than $600,” he said.

With so many businesses struggling and so many of their employees having a hard time paying their bills, Clark said any new stimulus package Congress adopts should offer the PPP loan program and additional unemployment benefits at least through the first quarter of 2021.