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Nebraska is one of biggest recipients of this federal loan program. But who's getting the money?

The Paycheck Protection Program enacted by Congress has been a lifesaver for thousands of small businesses slammed economically by COVID-19.

But in Nebraska, some of the biggest beneficiaries of the forgivable loan program aren’t traditional small businesses at all.

Corn growers, cattle ranchers and churches have received the largest number of loans. And the largest single recipient appears to be the business arm of the Winnebago Tribe, which received more than $14 million in loans aiding a conglomeration of small companies it operates out of the tribe’s northeast Nebraska reservation.

The restaurant industry also benefited significantly, with almost 1,000 such businesses receiving loans to help them retain almost 27,000 workers. Big-dollar loans also went to large medical centers and other health care offices, law firms, farm cooperatives, some of the state’s fastest-growing startup firms and a pair of fast-food chain operators.

The figures also show that Nebraska has been one of biggest beneficiaries among the states, ranking fourth after Florida, South Dakota and Utah in the percentage of small business payroll covered by the program. The state also ranks 14th in loan dollars per capita.

Nathan Kauffman, the Omaha-based vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said there’s no doubt that the program has helped a variety of Nebraska businesses during what has been a historic economic crunch.

“At a time, there was a lot of concern about the drop in economic activity,” he said. “It’s something that was important to the state.”

When social distancing restrictions in March shut down thousands of restaurants, bars, retailers and other small businesses, Congress stepped in with a $2 trillion aid bill that included the Paycheck Protection Program, intended to keep small-business workers on payrolls and boost the sagging economy.

This week, the Trump administration released data on loans issued under the program, including industry information for all 42,000 loans awarded to businesses in Nebraska. Also included are the names of 4,000 businesses in the state that received loans of $150,000 or more. In all, Nebraska entities employing 327,000 workers have received $3.4 billion in aid under the program.

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Small businesses can borrow up to 2½ times their average certified monthly payroll and use the money to pay employees, rent or other bills. The bonus is that the money is forgiven and doesn’t have to be paid back to the degree that borrowers keep their employees on the payroll.

Recipients are required to certify in their applications that “current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the business.”

When the assistance program was announced, it was uncertain whether farm producers would be eligible. But officials in Washington soon made clear that farmers, much like other independent contractors and sole proprietors, were eligible, and it appears that many in Nebraska jumped in.

According to a World-Herald analysis, corn growers were the largest industry represented in Nebraska, with over 3,100 total loans, followed by cattle feeders at almost 1,600. About 3,000 other food producers also received loans, ranging from soybean growers and hog farmers to tree nut farmers and mushroom producers.

It appears that about one-sixth of the state’s 46,000 primary ag producers applied for the loans.

Like other businesses, many farmers faced economic headwinds because of COVID-19, Kauffman said. The hardships came in the form of reduced beef prices due to packing plant closures, lower corn prices due to less consumption of corn-based ethanol and the general drag on trade tied to the slowing world economy. The Nebraska Farm Bureau has estimated that coronavirus-related losses to Nebraska producers will amount to billions.

“It impacted farmers much like the small businesses around the town squares and some of the larger companies as well,” said Guido van der Hoeven, an agricultural tax specialist at Iowa State University. For some small producers, he said, the loans could make the difference between profits or losses this year.

The third-highest number of loans in Nebraska went to churches and other religious organizations, including those operating religious schools.

The bill passed by Congress specifically included churches, many of which have seen reduced contributions because of coronavirus-related restrictions on services. The almost 1,000 religious-affiliated recipients in Nebraska included loans of more than $1 million to the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha and over $2 million to the Jewish Federation of Omaha.

Nonprofits were also eligible for the program, and almost 2,000 Nebraska nonprofits received loans. They included schools such as Midland University, Hastings College and Creighton Prep High School; museums like Joslyn Art Museum and the children’s museums in Omaha and Lincoln; and unique organizations such as the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which runs the CHI Health Center and TD Ameritrade Park.

The U.S. Small Business Administration released loan figures in ranges, with the largest between $5 million and $10 million.

In all, 35 Nebraska companies received loans in that top range. Two such loans went to businesses operated by Ho-Chunk Inc., the business arm of Nebraska’s Winnebago Tribe.

Ho-Chunk has developed a range of businesses in federal contracting, construction, trucking, warehousing, real estate, tobacco and fuel sales, and retailing. Combined with a dozen other smaller loans, SBA data suggests that Ho-Chunk affiliates received more than $14 million under the program.

Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk, declined to say exactly how much was received. But he said the program worked as intended. Despite the steep economic downturn, Ho-Chunk was able to keep all 1,300 of its workers on the payroll and even to offer hazard pay to those working in jobs that put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“We have taken some serious hits to our business, but we didn’t lay off a single person during this crisis,” Morgan said.

The tribe itself also received a loan of at least $2 million to maintain employment at its hospital. Morgan said that for anyone who thinks that’s a lot of money, he would point to a historic map he keeps on his office wall showing that in 1833, the Winnebago nation owned two-thirds of the state of Wisconsin as well as northern Illinois before it was ultimately relocated to its present home.

“We are still a few billion short on our tally,” he said.

Among other recipients of loans of $5 million or more are Omaha’s Buildertrend and Sojern and Spreetail in Lincoln, all fast-growing tech startups that have emerged in recent years. The largest recipient list also includes Omaha’s Nebraska Orthopaedic Hospital and OneWorld Community Health Centers, regional medical centers in Cheyenne County and Kearney, farm co-ops based in Aurora and Hastings, Omaha bakers Rotella’s and James Skinner Co. and the holders of a number of local Arby’s and McDonald’s franchises.

Also in line for a $5 million-plus loan was Arrow Stage Lines, the tour bus operator that offers a prime example of how devastating COVID-19 could be for business.

Luke Busskohl, president of Arrow, said that when college basketball tournaments started shutting down in March, almost all his customers began canceling future bookings. The Omaha company, which employs 650 workers across the country, lost 95% of its business.

With the public appetite for travel still very limited, the company is far from out of the woods. But Busskohl said he doesn’t know where the firm would be today without the loan.

Said Busskohl: “It has helped us extend the runway and keep the doors open so we can be in business when people start riding buses again.”

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special report
Race problems are real and Nebraska will take them on, UNL chancellor says

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln routinely talks about the need to improve race relations, and this time it will do something about it, UNL’s leader said Tuesday.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green called for a deep look into how race relations can get better on campus and in the community at large.

“The turning point for me is that we are continuing to talk about the same thing over and over,” Green said in an interview. “Too many of those conversations sound like conversations from 1966 and 1967. And I’m appalled by that.”

Green pledged to help lead tangible and intangible steps to enhance the campus climate, faculty recruitment and curriculum to enrich race relations at UNL and beyond. UNL is one of many institutions looking inward as protests nationwide have decried the treatment of black people by police and others.

He said one needs only to look at the number of black faculty members in fall 2010 and fall 2019 at UNL — 24 each year — to recognize that there is work to do. In 2000 the number was 22.

In recent meetings with black faculty members, black students and minority organizations, Green said, he also was disturbed to hear their comments about how some people treated them. Green wasn’t particularly specific but said he shuddered at descriptions of landlord discrimination and people telling minority students they should feel “privileged” to go to UNL.

Among other things, Green said in a campus letter and in an interview, UNL will:

  • Call on some faculty leaders to help in the effort. The faculty members appointed are Lory Dance, Kwame Dawes, Anna Shavers, Kara Mitchell Viesca and Sergio Wals — three black people, one white person and one Hispanic person.
  • Hold UNL leaders accountable for developing inclusive and anti-racist strategies.
  • Look at its curriculum to see how it addresses diversity.
  • Consider campus climate and how it impedes individuals’ participation.
  • Examine the UNL Police Department’s approach to community policing.
  • Work on faculty and student diversity recruitment and retention.

Shavers said she has hope. “I am optimistic that he (Green) wants to move forward and take positive action,” said Shavers, who is black. Green wants to advance “the educational mission of UNL in the context of race and racism,” she said.

Shavers, a law faculty member, has seen recruitment of minority students improve in the College of Law over her 31 years. But that progress has slowed, she said, with the passage in 2008 of a statewide constitutional amendment prohibiting preferential treatment or discrimination based on race.

Green, who is white, said UNL and society “have to take a hard look” at themselves and truly listen to others. He said over and over in an interview that people of color “feel marginalized” and that he wants to understand the situation more deeply.

“And I don’t think we do fully understand and appreciate what those issues are,” he said. He said some whites don’t even know that they are treating others in a different manner on the basis of race.

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Some of those actions are “baked into our culture,” he said. Minority faculty members say their path to success can be more difficult, he said, and that they must work harder to gain the same level of respect as many white faculty members.

“We have to look deep within and say, ‘What is this and what creates these issues?’ ” he said. It’s not a matter of hypersensitivity, either, he said. Minorities perceive these problems because they are real, he said.

Green, 59, has been chancellor since 2016.

“I have for many years just turned my head at that,” he said of systemic racial problems. “That’s wrong.”

His campuswide message also said the faculty leaders will help UNL create opportunities to learn about racism, review racial disparities, and increase participation in academic and statewide efforts to work against racism. Green said he will start a UNL-based reading program in the fall focused on race and identity.

“It’s not an opinion,” he said of racial problems. “It’s not liberal or conservative. ... This isn’t a political statement.”

Green said UNL must take on these issues. That, he said, is a matter of right and wrong.

Solidarity rally in Omaha

Nebraska immigration workers — about 1,100 — expect to be furloughed

WASHINGTON — About 1,100 federal immigration workers in Nebraska are bracing for furloughs that will run at least a month and possibly longer.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is funded by user fees, but those revenues have dropped 50% since March as the agency moved to restrict in-person services during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This dramatic drop in revenue has made it impossible for our agency to operate at full capacity,” Media Affairs Field Supervisor LaDonna Davis said in a statement. “Without additional funding from Congress before August 3, USCIS has no choice but to administratively furlough a substantial portion of our workforce.”

Agency officials are declining interview requests, but Davis said in the statement that about 13,400 agency workers across the U.S. have received furlough notifications.

The agency is requesting $1.2 billion in emergency funding from Congress to cover its shortfall and says that money would be repaid to the U.S. Treasury through a 10% surcharge on application fees.

Ruark Hotopp is an immigration services officer in Nebraska and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3928 that represents workers in the region.

Hotopp said his members handle applications for permanent residency, citizenship, work permits, travel authorizations and other legal immigration matters.

He said Nebraska has roughly 1,400 USCIS employees, which accounts for about 8% of the agency’s total workforce. Most of the Nebraska-based employees are in Lincoln, with some operating out of an Omaha field office. Iowa has a much smaller contingent of USCIS workers.

Hotopp said the workers’ duties include performing criminal background checks and rooting out fraudulent applications.

“Those are the things that most of us here in Nebraska do, and if we’re all furloughed those things stop and that’s got a major impact to national security and to border security,” Hotopp said.

In-person services include interviews and collecting fingerprints, photos and signatures. While those in-person services were shut down out of virus fears, other matters such as visa applications can still be performed, Hotopp said.

“The problem is that the immigrant population didn’t get that message,” Hotopp said. “And so they just stopped applying, period. And so we’ve just seen our workload just fall off the cliff.”

While it might seem like the smaller workload would match up with the reduced workforce, Hotopp said public services ultimately will be disrupted because of already-pending applications and the inevitable surge that will come down the road.

“That 25% that the agency’s hanging onto will not be able to handle the workload that is coming in,” he said. “There is absolutely going to be a huge impact on fraud detection and national security.”

He urged members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation to support legislation to stop the furloughs.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., told The World-Herald that he supports an emergency appropriation to the agency.

“They have a vital mission and we can’t afford to have them shut their doors or stop operating for a period of time until the appropriations bills get done,” Bacon said.

Our best staff photos from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

As coronavirus surges elsewhere, Nebraska labs report supply shortages, long wait times

The current surge of coronavirus cases in states like California, Texas and Arizona is being felt hundreds of miles away in Nebraska, where some health care providers and testing sites are starting to see shortages of testing supplies and longer wait times for test results.

On Saturday, a drive-thru coronavirus testing site at 50th and G Streets temporarily closed because of a shortage of testing supplies, even though it had been up and running for only a few weeks.

The site is a collaboration among the Douglas County Health Department, OneWorld Community Health Centers, Nebraska Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. No reopening date has been announced.

Nebraska Medicine is having trouble procuring enough processing plates and tips for pipettes (dropperlike instruments) used in laboratories to test samples for the coronavirus. Private labs like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp are currently processing several hundred thousand coronavirus tests each day and have warned that backlogs could result in people having to wait longer to receive results.

“Since June 29, demand has continued to rise nationwide, particularly in the South, Southwest and West regions of the country, outpacing our capacity,” Quest Diagnostics said in a statement on Monday. “As a result, the average turnaround time for reporting test results is now 1 day for priority 1 patients and 4-6 days for all other populations.”

Priority 1 patients include those who are currently hospitalized and health care workers with COVID-19 symptoms.

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Testing delays can create problems on both a personal and a public health level.

Anyone who has waited days to find out the results of a medical test knows how nerve-wracking it can be. And having a clear picture of who’s infected with the virus and whom they might have exposed is crucial to preventing and containing new outbreaks, as well as tracking whether cases are rising or falling in different communities.

“The sooner someone knows whether or not they’re infected, the more we can contain and track their contacts,” said Dr. Deborah Perry, the director of Methodist Hospital’s pathology center. “There’s a lot of anxiety in the general public right now: Do I have it, do I not have it?”

Sarpy County resident Kay Williams was tested on June 29 and waited more than a week for her results. She was told that the delay was caused by a shortage of pipettes at a Quest lab.

Nebraska’s coronavirus cases have been slowly trending downward, an encouraging sign even as other states grapple with a new wave of infections.

But the latest testing supply shortage is still a step backward, hearkening back to the early days of the pandemic, when shortages of testing kits, swabs and the chemical reagents needed to run tests made it difficult for many to get tested for the virus, said Dr. Kristine McVea, OneWorld’s chief medical officer.

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been supplying nasal swabs for specimen collection, told the operators of the 50th and G testing site that some swabs were being diverted to other states where the need was greater.

About 3,500 people were tested there over the past three weeks. At the end of last week, before the site closed, about 13% of tests were coming back positive, McVea said, higher than the overall 7.8% positive rate in Douglas County for the week ending July 4.

“We are being completely overwhelmed by those states that have the surges,” she said. “All of the resources are going there.”

Methodist’s lab is running with only a three-day supply of reagents. The supply of chemicals hasn’t been consistent since the pandemic started, said Perry and Laura Brock, who helps lead Methodist’s pathology center, and only seems to have worsened in the last two weeks as new hot spots emerged.

Supplies have ebbed and flowed since the pandemic hit the United States. Areas where cases are spiking, like New York and New Jersey early on and the South and Southwest now, are often prioritized.

“We get it,” Perry said. “They have high incidents, and they needed to do a lot of testing.”

But she wishes that nationwide vendors had been able to produce or procure a more stable supply of reagents and other supplies. Some are exploring whether pooling testing specimens together can conserve testing supplies while still providing accurate results.

If testing slows down in Nebraska again, McVea worries that it could mask the true extent of the virus, making it harder to determine if cases are still declining or climbing as they are in other states.

Methodist continues to swab patients for the virus, but the in-house lab is currently running tests only for inpatient hospitalizations and emergency room patients. Other samples are sent to the lab at Nebraska Medicine.

“We have the instruments, we have the people, we have the collections,” Perry said. “We just can’t do the volume of tests we know we could do.”

Others said their supply chains and testing times are holding steady.

A spokeswoman for CHI Health reported no shortages at its labs and said testing turnaround times have remained consistent. The private-public state testing initiative is chugging along, too.

“Thanks to Test Nebraska, Nebraska has access to a strong pipeline of testing supplies,” Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said in an email.

TestNebraska is swabbing people for the coronavirus this week in Omaha, Lincoln, Fremont, Columbus, Norfolk, Chadron and several other cities. It has not experienced any supply shortages, Gage said, and hasn’t heard of problems with other providers but is willing to help if needed.

“Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the state has been working with the Nebraska Public Health Lab to secure supplies,” he said. “The state stands ready to connect other labs to our vendor network to support resolving supply issues.”

Since the initiative began, TestNebraska’s lab has been turning around test results in about 1.7 days on average, Gage said. Last week, that waiting period was even a bit shorter, at about 1.3 days. The Nebraska Medicine lab and the Nebraska Public Health Lab are typically taking two days or less.

But private labs are starting to take longer to process tests in Nebraska, according to data Gage provided. Quest Diagnostic’s average turnaround time has been about 3.8 days. Last week, that inched up to 4.7 days.

LabCorp’s average turnaround time last week was five days, higher than its overall average of 3.67 days.

The North Omaha-based Charles Drew Health Center hasn’t had any problems with testing supplies, but spokesman Andrew Monson said patients seem to be waiting longer for test results from Quest.

It used to take about three days to get results, and now it’s more like five to six days. The turnaround time for tests run by the Nebraska Public Health Lab is unchanged, at about two to three days, and sometimes faster, he said.

McVea said one high-priority person tested at the 50th and G site waited eight days for results.

“When someone comes in and thinks they have COVID-19, a five-or-more-day turnaround time is just, it’s like agony for these people,” McVea said. “They can’t go back to work, they can’t be around their family, they can’t leave the house.”

Quest recently emailed OneWorld and other customers asking them to prioritize testing among those at highest risk: hospitalized patients, health care workers, first responders, patients awaiting surgery, nursing home residents and people with COVID-19 symptoms who are older or have underlying health conditions.

“While this will reduce the number of tests you are sending to us, it will ensure that together, we are focused on the most critical patients,” the Quest email said.

Williams, the Sarpy County resident, finally received her test results on Tuesday — eight days later.

It was good news: negative.Our best staff images from July 2020