Just as the COVID-19 health crisis has thrust terms like “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” into our everyday vernacular, it has prompted companies in the construction industry to become conversant in a language that was largely foreign to them just a few months ago—the language of federal government relief programs.
Now part of the everyday business lexicon are terms such as “PPP,” short for the Paycheck Protection Program, “employee retention credits,” “Form 7200” and a variety of other regulatory jargon that construction industry execs likely wish they never had to learn, but that they now must become familiar with in order to access the financial and tax relief they need to stay viable. That relief comes via programs like the PPP, which was enacted as part of the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
As welcome as these and other federal programs have been to companies seeking a financial lifeline during the crisis, by accepting government COVID-19 relief, businesses in most cases also must accept the additional tracking and reporting requirements that come with that aid.
While it’s unclear how strict oversight of relief recipients will be, the U.S. government did allocate $1 billion to the inspector general offices at more than two-dozen federal agencies to ensure program funds are used for lawful purposes, according to the accounting, tax and business advisory firm CohnReznick.
For companies that secure government relief, the big question becomes: What types of accounting, audit and reporting capabilities must be used to meet the compliance requirements associated with these new programs? As of now, many program reporting requirements lack clarity. But one thing is clear: Companies are going to be navigating these programs for months into the future, and to do so effectively, they are going to need more than simple spreadsheets to track and deliver the data and information that these programs require.
To that end, they can really benefit from having enterprise-wide visibility into their finances, their human resources and their day-to-day operations, with an ERP system that can quickly adapt to fluid policies, changing requirements and unstable project scopes. These capabilities will be particularly valuable in the following areas:
Tracking to claim CARES Act workforce retention credits. The CARES Act contains various forms of relief for businesses, including the ability to earn workforce retention credits for keeping workers employed during the crisis. Businesses can earn fully refundable tax credits equal to 50% of qualified wages and health plan expenses paid to employees. To take advantage of these measures, a company needs to be able to distinctly track the wages and benefits paid to each employee from March 12 through Dec. 31, 2020. To claim the credits, an employer must have suspended its operations partially or in full as a result of the pandemic or experienced a significant decline in gross receipts during a calendar quarter of 2020. Ultimately, a firm’s ability to document the impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on its workforce and its bottom line will be critical to maximizing the aid it receives.
Providing documentation for PPP loans. The CARES Act established the PPP to provide qualifying businesses (generally, those with 500 or fewer full- and part-time employees) with loans of up to $10 million to help them retain employees and remain viable through the pandemic. Loan amounts can reach up to 2.5 months of a company’s average payroll and can be used to cover payroll and other expenses. After the U.S. Congress replenished funds for the program in late April, PPP loans were once again available from the U.S. Small Business Administration, via qualified SBA lenders.
Firms that accept PPP funds must be able to provide average payroll figures to their lender, including gross wages as well as payment of vacation, parental, family, medical or sick leave, payment of benefits, and state and/or local taxes, by employee. Then, once they receive loan funds, they must account for exactly how those funds are spent. To have their loans fully forgiven, they must be able to show the lender the funds were used for payroll, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities, with that at least 75% used for payroll.
Here’s where a company’s tracking and documentation capabilities are critical. To have their loan forgiven, they’re required to apply with the lender servicing the loan, and to support that application with documents that verify the number of full-time equivalent employees and their pay rates, as well as the payments on eligible mortgage, lease and utility obligations, according to guidance from the U.S. Treasury Dept. Without that documentation, a company risks having its forgiveness reduced by the lender.
Tracking emergency paid leave requirements and credits. The FFCRA requires certain employers (based on number of employees) to give employees up to two weeks paid sick leave if they contract COVID-19 themselves, must care for someone with the disease, or have a child to care for. Employers are eligible to claim a tax credit for 100% of the sick leave they pay out from April 1 through December 31, 2020. To do so, they need the ability to break out how much each employee works, on average. They also need the ability to track and document the sick leave expenses they incur for each employee claiming the benefit. All this they then must report on the new Form 7200, which was developed for employers to claim any advanced refund of FFCRA and/or CARES Act employer credits.
As long as the pandemic, and the relief programs it spawns, linger, construction-related businesses that have an ERP system with end-to-end tracking and documenting capabilities will be in a strong position to secure the relief they need. If, as expected, Uncle Sam rolls out some form of infrastructure-focused relief program, these capabilities could prove useful in helping construction industry firms to segregate and manage data associated with these types of projects.
When the crisis eventually recedes, what firms will be left with (besides the vocabulary of COVID-19-related regulatory terms they hopefully will never have to use again) are some highly valuable auditing, accounting and reporting capabilities. Armed with these capabilities, they’ll be able to adjust budgets and project scopes, run models, revise forecasts and generally keep their business prepared for the future, however uncertain it may look now.