Indian-American small business responds to N.J. Sen. Vin Gopal’s relief bill

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New Jersey State Sen. Vin Gopal, the only Indian-American elected to the upper house, speaks at June 22, 2021 signing of the small business relief package. Photo: Facebook Vin Gopal

Indian-Americans and Indians living in the United States have been at the forefront of setting up small businesses, and New Jersey has a significant number of these entrepreneurs within its borders.

There are numerous trade associations serving the Indian and Indian American business community in New Jersey. Among them, the Asian American Retailers Association which has more than 1,000 members, 95 percent of them Indian-owned, according to Chairman Vipul Patel. And the Indian Business Association with around 500 members ranging from professionals to restaurant and jewelry store owners, according to Vice Chair Mahesh Shah.

While many small businesses have borne the brunt of the pandemic some of the sectors owned by Indian Americans have fared better than others. Being part of “essential services” small businesses like convenience stores, liquor establishments, and gas stations may have actually fared well, gas stations maybe less than the other two categories.

But having backup from the federal level through the PPP and also the state government has helped they told Desi Talk.

Which means Indian-American State Sen. Vin Gopal’s bill aimed at helping small business, signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy June 22, 2021, bodes well for many small businesses. (The bill signing was held at the WindMill restaurant in Long Branch, N.J.).

Governor Murphy signing the small business relief legislation June 22, 2021 in Long Branch, New Jersey (OIT/NJ Governor’s Office).

Some small business owners are concerned that the criteria may be complex, and the details fuzzy, as to whether they will be able to access the funds. One small business owner cited factors like size of business, their debts, language barriers, and long forms to be filled, as well as how far they are in debt based on pre-pandemic loans they may have taken, as problematic details, making it hard to access funds.

“This small business package will send much needed relief to all small businesses up and down the state. I am continuously advocating for communities that have traditionally been underrepresented, and as a member of the Asian American community, I know the struggles that have been endured throughout this pandemic,” Sen. Vin Gopal told Desi Talk via email. “This bill package will give back to this community that has been disproportionately targeted time and time again, and will help these small businesses in the Indian American community that are instrumental to our state’s future success,” he added.

Some representatives of business organizations in the Indian American community sounded an upbeat note, happy that streets were humming again with people and shoppers were back.

As New Jersey continues to recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Phil Murphy signed five bills at the signing ceremony — Bills A5704, A5705, A5706, A5707, and A5709 –provide additional aid to small businesses that continue to suffer from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Together, the bill package provides $235 million to small businesses throughout the state, allowing the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) to fulfill all eligible applications submitted during Phase IV of the EDA’s Small Business Emergency Grant Program, a press release from Sen. Gopal’s office said.

Mahesh Shah applied under the Phase IV of small business relief, and he is awaiting a response now that funds are available, he told Desi Talk. But unlike the Phase 1 and Phase II, “when they were giving to everybody,” Shah said, “I am not sure this time about the Phase IV, on who will get it and who won’t,” in terms of the criteria being used.

Governor Murphy signs small business relief legislation, joined by Senator Vin Gopal, Assemblyman Roy Freiman, Long Branch Mayor John Pallone, New Jersey Economic Development Authority CEO Tim Sullivan, and WindMill Hot Dogs Owner Rena Levine Levy on Tuesday, June 22, 2021(OIT/NJ Governor’s Office).

“It was an absolute honor seeing this small business relief package I sponsored be signed into law today by Governor Murphy,” Sen. Gopal said on Facebook. Gopal was endorsed for a second term in office in the June 8 N.J. primaries, and is now campaigning for the November 2 general election.

The $235 million along with earlier funding for small business during the pandemic, now totals more than $600 million, according to the press release.

“Throughout the past year, we have focused our relief efforts on supporting New Jersey’s small businesses so they can emerge from the pandemic stronger than before,” said Governor Murphy. “This additional funding will help us add to the more than 60,000 small businesses that have received aid to date.”

“Over all, its good that people got help (through the state programs – $5,000, $10,000,” said Mahesh Shah. “The state is trying to help. And small business needs help.” Earlier the criteria for giving help was if the business had lost 30 percent or more of its revenue, Shah noted, but in Phase IV he is not aware of the criteria.

Interestingly, according to Shah, only a few Indian-owned small businesses had to close up shop. And that too only for a few months due to COVID reasons.

“The restaurant, hospitality and tourism industries were crippled by the pandemic shutdown last spring and the continuing capacity restrictions that are just now being lifted sufficiently for them to be able to resume somewhat normal operations heading into the summer,” Senator Gopal is quoted saying in the press release. “These new grants will be a big help.”

“I hope it (the funds) go to the people on the ground, heavily impacted and not to those that employ for example, 200 people. And the paperwork needs to be simplified,” said Ankur Vaidya, a small businessman himself in New Jersey.

Many of the Indian-owned business are mom-and-pop stores, Vaidya noted, where the owner is also the person behind the counter. Also, he contended that because the allocations take into account factors in the pre-pandemic year, the small businesses do not necessarily benefit.

“A tax break would be great. Right now, only the people who know how to play the system benefit. A comprehensive plan that specifies which businesses, or under a certain dollar value, not a broad brush category, should be targeted with the funding,” Vaidya said.

Mahesh Shah of the Indian Business Association differed. “Tax breaks don’t help. It is a very complicated formula and it comes only at the end of the year. People need the money now for salaries, rent, utilities …” Shah also emphasized that the application forms for getting the grants were not complicated, “You may need an accountant, but its just numbers that need to be plugged in.”

In his own experience, Vaidya said, he gave all tenants three-months in rent relief in two of his buildings. But he got relief amounting to only $5,500.

“It’s clear that businesses are still hurting, and we are grateful for the continued support of Governor Murphy and the legislature, as it will help us to bolster these businesses as they ride out what’s hopefully the end of a very turbulent time,” said NJEDA CEO Tim Sullivan.

In the Senate, the bills were sponsored by Senators Vin Gopal, Dawn Marie Addiego, and Joseph Lagana.

In the Assembly the bills were sponsored by some 15 members.

“Small businesses are the backbone of New Jersey’s economy and assisting them as we reopen our state is paramount, the Assembly sponsors said in a joint statement. “We need to bolster our small business community in every way possible. Giving them the resources they need to survive and thrive is a win-win.”

The lawmakers went on to note that as New Jersey returns to normalcy, these businesses needed to be well-positioned for “our inevitable recovery.”

The legislation will provide $235 million in grants to help businesses and non-profits who were hit hard by the pandemic and are now deciding when and how to reopen, rehire and ramp up to full operation in the weeks and months ahead, the press release said.

The six-bill package sets aside $30 million specifically for restaurants, and it includes a $25 million fund for the new restaurants, retailers and service providers that could help fill the vacant storefronts in our downtown business districts left empty by businesses that closed.

The NJEDA has reopened its Phase IV grant pre-application for those businesses that missed the original deadline. To date, the EDA has distributed more than $420 million in aid to some 63,000 businesses across the state, according to the press release.

The breakdown of the $235 million in package is as follows:

Microbusinesses: $120 million

Bars and Restaurants: $20 million

Child Care Facilities: $10 million

Other Small Businesses and non-profits: $50 million

New Businesses and Start-Ups: $25 million

Sustain and Serve: $10 million

Vipul Patel of AARA says the members of his organization were less affected by COVID and some may have come out better. Convenience stores and liquor stores being essential services, remained open, and he doubted if many took state assistance during the first three phases.

“We did take advantage of PPP (federal Paycheck Protection Plan),” But losses were minimal if any because most of the businesses remained open during the pandemic.

“Convenience stores and liquor stores did good. And liquor stores did the best,” he added.

Started in 2004 by a small group of retailers, the Asian American Retailers Association now boasts more than 1,000 members and growing, and every September, it holds a trade show, which will be held in September this year.

As New Jersey reopens, Mahesh Shah of IBA is thrilled. “People are coming out in Oak Tree,” he said referring to the Little India area in Edison, N.J. “And best thing is our people have mostly all taken the vaccine and that is helping. Places are getting busier,” Shah said.

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