PRAC kicks-off public side of accountability work with forum lacking depth: highlights and lowlights

The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) held their first public forum on June 3, 2020 to hear from ‘stakeholders’ representing state and local government, businesses, financial institutions, non-profits, and healthcare leaders. (Notably absent were any representatives of workers’ organizations.) The stated goal of this forum was to have panelists “provide insights into specific areas where the PRAC should focus its oversight attention to enhance transparency and accountability over emergency pandemic funds.”

As we discussed in our overview of the bailout accountability bodies, the PRAC, one of three oversight committees created by the CARES Act, is composed of 20 Inspectors General. PRAC has a testimonial subpoena authority that gives it powers above and beyond what they are usually allotted – namely, they can compel testimony from individuals who are not federal employees.

The overwhelming message from the forum’s panelists was that the programs created under the CARES Act have not gotten off of the ground due to confusion over implementation, lack of guidance from Departments, and broken or outdated infrastructure. However, only a few panelists mentioned the people these programs were created to help – specifically, people that have been laid off or furloughed for almost 3 months, many of whom have yet to receive unemployment insurance.

 Highlights

  • Robert Asaro-Angelo, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, made a strong case for a federal unemployment insurance program. “To call our current, but necessary, economic situation ‘an avalanche’ would be an understatement,” he explained, pointing out that the state had received more than 4 times as many unemployment claims as when Hurricane Sandy hit the state.
  • Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, pointed out that we are on track for another 100,000 COVID-19 deaths on top of the 100,000 we’ve already suffered – but that those future deaths are entirely preventable if the government simply funded and oversaw a competent testing and tracing regime.
  • Ernest Grant, President of the American Nursing Association, explained that months into a pandemic nurses and healthcare professionals across the country are still short on personal protective equipment.

Lowlights

  • Melinda Miguel, Chief Inspector General for the Governor of Florida, mentioned that the state has experienced unprecedented claims for unemployment insurance – but left out how many Floridians are still waiting to have their applications processed, weeks after making claims.
  • Neil Bradley, Chief Policy Officer of the US Chamber of Commerce, complained that the terms of Paycheck Protection Program’s forgiveable loans – which are basically free money for companies to give wages and benefits to workers – were too onerous, because some day the government might question a recipient company’s certification of its need for the funds.
  • The most notable absence from the forum was any representatives from workers’ organizations or labor unions, or even from civilians whose lives have been upended by the pandemic, and who are depending on the quick and accurate disbursement of federal aid to survive.

You can watch the entire hearing on YouTube, or read the panelists’ written testimony on the PRAC website.

Overall, while the forum allowed members of the PRAC to respectfully consider the views of multiple stakeholders, there was little suggestion that the Inspectors General of the PRAC are planning to take any specific actions. We expect that the panel would be more incisive and effective in future when it picks up its testimonial subpoena authority and has some back and forth with the businesses raking in billions of bailout dollars.

 

Who are the “Overseers”? Picking apart the accountability structure for CARES Act implementation

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed in March 2020 to provide broad-based economic assistance for workers, families, small and large businesses, and state, local and tribal governments. The $2 trillion CARES Act is the largest emergency spending measure bill in US history. With such a large amount of money at stake, the potential for fraud or misappropriation is high.

The CARES Act established 3 bodies to oversee the management of any programs created out of the legislation as well as the disbursement of those funds. These bodies are the Congressional Oversight Committee (COC), the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) and the Office of the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR). (Separately, the House empaneled the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, and Senate Majority Leader McConnell has implied there will be a similar body in the Senate.) These entities are collectively charged with weeding out fraud and ensuring that taxpayer bailout money is reaching those actually impacted by the pandemic.

Bailout Bandits will continue to track these accountability bodies, highlighting their findings and pointing out where the hospitality industry is implicated.

Read more

News Highlights – 6/3/20

Senate Confirms Inspector General to Oversee Virus Bailout Funds – NY Times

The Most Important Word in the Hospitality Industry? ‘Clean’ – NY Times

Coronavirus Shock Could Upend Las Vegas Economy for Years – Wall Street Journal

As Amusement Parks Reopen, Will Americans Ride Roller Coasters in a Pandemic? – Wall Street Journal

Are we heading into another Depression? – Financial Times

Hotels turned their lobbies into a social hub. Then came the coronavirus. – Washington Post

Darden Restaurants CEO and execs have six-figure salaries restored – while thousands of workers face end of ‘emergency pay’ and risky reopening

Only a few months into a seemingly never-ending pandemic crisis, Darden Restaurants – the parent company of Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and other suburban favorites – has quietly restored the base salary of CEO Gene Lee and executives. Meanwhile, thousands of its employees face the end of ‘emergency pay’ and serious questions about the safety of reopening.

Darden restored Lee’s base salary to $1 million effective June 1st. Other named executive officers had salaries of between $640,000 and $775,000 restored. The company’s non-executive directors also saw restoration of their pre-COVID compensation. For Lee, base salary made up less than 10% of his fiscal year 2019 compensation.

Back in March, Darden had announced that Lee would forego his salary and other executives were having their base salaries cut 50%, “until we are successfully on the other side of this.” Darden had already experienced steep declines in sales and announced soon after that 150,000 employees had been furloughed.

Darden announced in March that it would give workers three (initially two) weeks of ‘Emergency Pay’ of 50% of pay for hourly employees who could not work. However, that program rolled out in late March, so many Darden workers would have stopped receiving that pay long ago. Darden has not announced that it will continue this Emergency Pay program. (And it’s worth noting that companies can receive a 50% tax credit for wages and benefits paid to current employees due to the CARES Act.)

In a call with investors, Lee indicated that the company’s commitment to assist workers would be subject to change based on government relief:

David Tarantino, Analyst with RW Baird: Hi. Good morning. My question, Gene, is on the pay of the hourly workers. I know you did the right thing. It seems to implement this emergency pay. But I just wanted to confirm the length of time that covers. And then, once that expires, what your thought processes on and how you keep these employees engaged for when times do get better down the road?

Gene Lee, CEO of Darden Restaurants: Yes, David, I think the time commitment right now is once the disruption happened it’s two weeks. But that is subject to change depending on what happens with these relief packages from the government. We know that the government is going to start sending people checks directly and not come through us. That has to be part of our calculation. And when we think about our people, we are going to try to keep people employed maybe through our furlough program where we can still have — they can still have access to their benefits, and they don’t lose their tenure. We are really, really trying to work through keeping our people engaged, so when it’s time to ramp back up that we can ramp back up quickly. But we’ve to continue to work in concert with the government. And if they’re going to compensate the American public directly, then that has to be a part of our calculation as we think about our people.

Will Darden also make part of their “calculation” that enhanced unemployment benefits, for those lucky enough to actually get them, will run out in July? The company indicated that as May 19 the company was cushioned by access to over a billion dollars of available liquidity:

Based on week ending May 17 results, the Company’s ongoing weekly cash burn rate has improved to less than $10 million including capital expenditures. Given the increased confidence in our cash flow projections and stabilization in the credit markets, the Company fully repaid its $750 million credit facility on May 5, 2020. With approximately $700 million of cash on hand as of May 17, the Company is well positioned for the near term while retaining financial flexibility to fully access its $750 million credit facility should capital requirements present. Including cash available through the credit facility and cash on hand, we have access to over $1.4 billion of liquidity.

Meanwhile, Darden workers face another risk: restaurants reopening before the pandemic has been contained.

Darden announced in mid-May that it planned to reopen 65% of its dining rooms by the end of the month. At the beginning of May, Darden opened most of its restaurants in Georgia for dine-in service – despite data showing that the state received tens of thousands of visitors from other states that had not lifted all restrictions. The New York Times quoted Dr. Robert W. Amler, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College, saying that “There really is no scientific study” on the best ways for restaurants to reopen following a Covid-19 outbreak.

Darden’s actions raise serious questions. Will its employees continue to receive emergency pay as the pandemic rages? Will workers be forced to choose between unemployment benefits (which for millions has yet to or may never arrive) and going back to work during a pandemic?

Are you a worker at a Darden Restaurants brand (e.g. Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen)? Tell us how you’ve been treated by the company during the pandemic – if you’ve gotten ‘emergency pay’, send us a copy of your paycheck! You can contact us at jsussman AT unitehere DOT org.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil: House Republicans sink TRUTH Act for fear of ‘shaming’ corporate welfare recipients

On Thursday, May 28th, an overwhelming majority of Republican representatives voted against HR 7682, Small Business Transparency and Reporting for the Underbanked and Taxpayers at Home Act, or the TRUTH Act, which would require the Administrator of the Small Business Administration to submit a report on recipients of assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. The bill failed to move forward.

Incredibly, one of the concerns with the bill was that corporations receiving federal aid could be subjected to too much transparency. Representative Steve Chabot (R – OH) argued, “I do not believe that those businesses should put on public display for potential shaming.”

Republicans did however vote in support of the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act, which would increase the proportion of PPP loans businesses can spend on non-payroll purposes (40%, up from 25%).

Even Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin defended the previous cap on spending for non-payroll purposes, saying, “Let me just remind people it’s called the Paycheck Protection Program, it’s not called the overhead protection program.”

Without the very basic reporting requirements of the TRUTH Act, it is harder for the public to know which companies are getting federal bailout relief, and whether that money is making its way to workers. For now, the oversight committees are one of the few avenues to bring transparency to the general public.

Read more about this story at The Hill.

News Roundup – 5/25/20

The White House’s favored recovery strategy could permanently scar the economy – Washington Post

Some Americans fear their jobs will be lost forever – Financial Times

For Economy, Worst of Coronavirus Shutdowns May Be Over – Wall Street Journal

Hotels Fund More Cleaning by Cutting Room Amenities and Breakfast Buffets – Wall Street Journal

U.S. Senators Urge Delta, JetBlue to Restore Employee Hours – New York Times

Detour: Hotel industry lobbying group wants to redirect federal funds meant for workers to banks and bondholders

The lobbying group for big hotel companies like Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton has come up with another bailout request they’ve named “Roadmap for Recovery”. The group claims they’ve put the plan forward in large part to help the 4 million hotel workers who have lost their jobs – and in many cases their health insurance – because of the pandemic.

It’s true that hospitality and leisure industry workers have been hit hard by the global collapse of the travel and tourism economy.  Workers in these industries suffered a significantly higher proportion of layoffs than those in any other industry. In fact, AHLA members laid-off more than 70% of their employees – and in many cases cancelled their employer-sponsored health insurance – before the ink on the first CARES Act had dried.

The obvious way to help the workers the AHLA purports to care so much about is to use the CARES Act programs and tax credits Congress already created to provide idled employees with income and health insurance throughout the pandemic, and recall rights once business returns.

But the industry’s new Roadmap (and the AHLA’s much more specific wish list sent to congressional leadership on Wednesday) is instead a thinly disguised effort to redirect federal resources away from helping workers and towards banks and bondholders.

The first stop along AHLA’s roadmap implores Congress to extend – from 8 weeks to 24 – the time period during which Paycheck Protection Act loans must be spent. This by itself could arguably be marginally beneficial to hospitality workers, assuming hotels and restaurants are more amenable to rehiring their workers in June and July than they were in March, April and May.

But most of the industry’s other Congressional asks, if granted, could be quite detrimental to the very workers they claim as the putative beneficiaries of their proposals. For example, the AHLA wants Congress to eliminate the SBA requirement that recipients spend at least 75 percent of PPP funds on payroll costs to receive full forgiveness.

It is a valid critique that the PPP has not led to widespread job retention, perhaps because the pandemic has lasted considerably longer than Congress expected when they passed the CARES Act in late March. But eliminating the 75% rule would create a disincentive for employers to retain or rehire workers.

Large corporate hotel owners, many of which are tax-advantaged real estate investment trusts or private equity firms, want Congress to expand the PPP and eliminate the requirement that they use the 75% of the funds for payroll so they can instead pay their lenders and bondholders, not to mention franchise fees to the brand companies like Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt. Rather than fixing the inadequate job-retention incentives built into the PPP, the AHLA asks Congress to jettison the job retention goal altogether and transform the program into a slush fund for over-leveraged hotel REITs, banks, bondholders and franchisors.

The AHLA Roadmap also calls for “Keep[ing] hotel doors open by providing relief for hotel commercial mortgages” – a veiled reference to their earlier request to the Federal Reserve and Treasury for a bailout of the $86 billion in hotel loans packaged into commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS). This proposal too seeks to direct federal emergency dollars to banks and bondholders.  For more about why a bondholder bailout would do nothing to help unemployed hotel workers, see our earlier post: will the Fed bail out CMBS loans?

All of this begs the questions, to whose recovery does the Roadmap lead, and will hospitality workers end up as roadkill along the way?

The Fed bailing out hotel CMBS debt would be a backdoor bank handout that won’t help workers – not that you’d know that from Tuesday’s Senate Banking Hearing

At the May 19th Senate Banking Committee hearing on CARES Act implementation, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell were asked about their plans to shore up the hotel commercial-backed securities (CMBS) market. Although they did not commit to any specifics, it is a worrying sign that they entertained the possibility of taking steps that will not do anything to protect hotel worker jobs or healthcare.

It is no surprise that hotel debt broadly, and CMBS debt in particular, has suffered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – only 76.3 per cent of hotel properties in CMBS deals were up to date on their mortgage payments in April, according to JPMorgan data reported by the Financial Times.[i] The hotel industry lobbies – including the biggest, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) – have urged Mnuchin and Powell to shore up the $86B in hotel CMBS debt to avert “a potentially catastrophic prolonged impact on jobs and tax revenues.”[ii]

On Tuesday, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) cited numbers from the AHLA to say that only 15% of CMBS borrowers have received forbearance from services, which he described as ‘low,’ a characterization with which Secretary Mnuchin agreed. Senator Tillis further asked whether the Fed and Treasury would consider extending the use of their facilities to new-issue CMBS loans, including debt rated less than AAA. Both Powell and Mnuchin pledged to continue to look at expanding loan facilities for CMBS.[iii]

Sen. Tillis’s questions recall the dire warnings issued by the AHLA. In a call to help hotels stay open and save millions of jobs, the AHLA warned, “Without action to shore up debt servicing, including in the CMBS market, this crisis will lead to widespread foreclosures, snowballing into mass disruption and a critical lack of liquidity in the commercial real estate market.”[iv]

The reality is that rescuing hotel CMBS debt will do nothing to help hotel workers, who have suffered the most in the pandemic’s economic fallout. By the time the CARES Act became law in late March, hotels across the US had already laid-off 70% of their workforce.[v] The three largest US hotel employers -Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt – are sitting on $4.5B in cash, and have done little to assist laid-off workers.[vi]

CMBS debt relief would not even necessarily help hotels make it through the economic downturn. Without radical restructuring, many hotel loans are unsustainable given the near total collapse of the travel and tourism sectors.  Many analysts believe it could take more than 2 years before hotel revenues approach pre-crisis levels. Why should US taxpayers support hotel-backed debt payments for such an extended period?[vii]

Most critically, hotel CMBS debt relief would only reward speculative real estate investing, not keep hotel workers employed. If current hotel owners default on their debt service, ownership of their properties will simply pass on to lenders or other buyers, primarily a handful of large private equity firms sitting on a pile of cash.  Distressed debt sales, foreclosures, or transfer of ownership in general in the hotel industry have rarely if ever led to permanent shuttering of hotels. As the Wall Street Journal recently reminded us, cash-rich distressed debt investors are already salivating at the thought of pandemic-induced asset sales.[viii] And they won’t be buying hotel assets in order to turn them into parking lots.  If anything, they’re likely to invest the capital needed to spruce them up and keep them operating so they can sell them once the hotel industry recovers and occupancy levels approximate their pre-COVID levels.

The Fed using a loan facility to assist hotel owners with CMBS debt will only assist hotel owners, many of them large tax-advantaged real estate investment trusts, their bank lenders, sophisticated real estate investors, and financial engineers – not workers.

At another point in Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) correctly countered the push to expand CMBS relief, quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial: “This means the Fed will in effect buy the worst shopping malls in the country and some of the most indebted companies.”[ix] Hopefully the Federal Reserve will recognize that this logic applies equally well if not more so to over-leveraged hotels, and not prop up the CMBS financing model, which has proven particularly untenable to even short business interruptions, not to mention the long-term crises unfolding in the hotel and retail industries.

 

[i] Joe Rennison, “Empty US hotels increase pressure on debt investors,” Financial Times, 5/5/20. https://www.ft.com/content/f7f19028-70f1-4243-b546-7ac8d7067d38

[ii] Letter to Steve Mnuchin and Jerome Powell, AAHOA and AHLA, 4/16/20. https://www.aahoa.com/docs/default-source/default-document-library/ahla-aahoa-cmbs-treasury-fed-submitted-short1.pdf

[iii] The Quarterly CARES Act Report to Congress, Senate Banking Committee, 5/19/20, beginning at 1.55.30 of video.   https://www.banking.senate.gov/hearings/the-quarterly-cares-act-report-to-congress

[iv] “AHLA Supports Plan To Add Funds For Small Business Loans, Seeks Additional Action To Protect Hotel Jobs,” AHLA, 4/8/20. https://www.ahla.com/press-release/ahla-supports-plan-add-funds-small-business-loans-seeks-additional-action-protect

[v] Chip Rogers, CNN Interview with Julia Chatterley, 3/30/2020. (Transcribed from recorded video.)

[vi] BofA Global Research, Liquidity: How much room to navigate a travel shutdown? 3/25/20, p. 1

[vii] http://hotelnewsnow.com/Articles/301004/US-hotel-RevPAR-forecasted-to-drop-506-for-2020 2021 forecast does not reach 2019 RevPAR of $86.76.

[viii] Konrad Putzier and Peter Grant, “Real-Estate Investors Eye Potential Bonanza in Distressed Sales,” Wall Street Journal, 4/7/20. https://www.wsj.com/articles/real-estate-investors-eye-potential-bonanza-in-distressed-sales-11586260801

[ix] The Quarterly CARES Act Report to Congress, Senate Banking Committee, 5/19/20, beginning at 1.11.00 of video.   https://www.banking.senate.gov/hearings/the-quarterly-cares-act-report-to-congress; see also “The Fed’s ‘Main Street’ Mistake,” Wall Street Journal, 4/9/20. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-feds-main-street-mistake-11586474912

News Roundup – Evening of 5/19/20

(Reporter by Alex StefflerCC BY-NC 2.0)

Powell, Mnuchin Outline Contrasting Perils Facing Economy – Wall Street Journal

At Least 30 Public Companies Say They Will Keep PPP Loans – Wall Street Journal

Mnuchin says US ready to ‘take losses’ on $500bn bailout – Financial Times

Skittish Treasury Hobbles Small-Business Loan Plan – Washington Post

Hilton CEO on federal assistance and restarting economy: ‘This is all about jobs’ – Washington Post

‘Stealth Bailout’ Shovels Millions of Dollars to Oil Companies – Washington Post

The COVID-19 bailout is a bonanza for big business – and a wipeout for workers

Help us unmask the bailout bandits and hold accountable the hospitality companies that are collecting lucrative assistance while abandoning workers and customers.

(Money by Pictures of Money – CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the rush to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has quickly enacted several programs to relieve the economy. The effort has quickly surpassed in size the economic interventions after 9/11 and the 2008-9 financial crisis, and may still grow.[i]

But key lessons from the last crisis have been forgotten. Namely, the bailout packages thus far have focused on shoring up big businesses without directly support workers’ wages and healthcare. The requirements for businesses to share assistance funds with their employees are weak where they even exist. Oversight of the funds is fractured and lacks the tools to make companies pay for misuse.[ii]

These problems are compounded for workers in the hospitality industry. One bailout plan, the Paycheck Protection Program, is intended to assist small businesses maintain payroll with forgivable loans. This is one of the few programs that requires bailout recipients to pass on funds to workers – 75% of loans must go to meet payroll costs. However, the country’s largest lobby group for hoteliers – the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) – is pushing Congress to relax these restrictions and devote more money to uses other than paying workers.[iii]

The job retention mission Congress intended for another CARES Act measure, the Main Street Lending Facility, was effectively negated before the program even got underway, after the Federal Reserve decided that “borrowers that have already laid-off or furloughed workers”[iv]  are eligible to receive the low-cost loans with delayed repayment features, and that a recipient need only make “commercially reasonable efforts to maintain its payroll and retain its employees during the time the Eligible Loan is outstanding.”[v] In other words, if a company with 12,000 employees lays off everyone but the night watchman, that company can get a multi-million loan from the program Congress created to encourage job retention, as long as it makes “commercially reasonable efforts” to keep that lonely watchman employed.

Perhaps sunlight is the best disinfectant against corporate welfare disguised as “stimulus.”   In that spirit, this website will chronicle which companies in the hospitality industry – hotels, casinos, restaurants, and other food service operations – are pursuing government grants and subsidies, including the lucrative corporate tax credits provided in the CARES Act. We will scrutinize what those companies are doing with their bailout bounties, and who is really benefitting.

Do you know of a hospitality company that has received federal coronavirus assistance, but hasn’t done right by its workers or customers? Please contact us here.

 

Notes
[i] Michael Collins and Deirdre Shesgreen, “The $2 trillion stimulus is the biggest in history. How does it compare to 9/11, financial crisis bills?,” USA Today, 3/25/20. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/03/25/coronavirus-emergency-bill-how-does-it-compare-9-11-financial-crisis/5010452002/
[ii] Jesse Eisinger, “How the Coronavirus Bailout Repeats 2008’s Mistakes: Huge Corporate Payoffs With Little Accountability,” ProPublica, 4/7/20. https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-coronavirus-bailout-repeats-2008s-mistakes-huge-corporate-payoffs-with-little-accountability
[iii] Letter re Corrections and Enhancement to CARES Act, AHLA, 4/27/20. https://www.ahla.com/sites/default/files/hotel_industry_cares_act_technical_corrections_and_enhancements_0.pdf; Analysis: Why PPP Loan Limits May Lead to More Hotel Layoffs, AHLA. https://www.ahla.com/sites/default/files/analysis_why_current_ppp_loan_limits_may_lead_to_more_hotel_layoffs_final_0.pdf
[iv] “Main Street Lending Program Frequently Asked Questions,” Federal Reserve, updated 4/30/20, p. 15. https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/files/main-street-lending-faqs.pdf
[v] “Main Street New Loan Facility,” Federal Reserve, 4/30/20, p. 3 (emphasis added). https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/files/monetary20200430a1.pdf