Loan Program Aids Firms With Soldier Employees

When Jeff McIntosh was called up for active duty two months after Sept. 11, 2001, his employer split his workload among the company's other eight employees, assuming McIntosh would be gone only briefly.

Two years later, McIntosh is still gone, stationed in Baghdad as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (search), and Data World, the company that employs him, is looking for ways to stay afloat.

"Jeff was our main computer infrastructure guy," said Data World President Dave Doherty, explaining the impact of McIntosh's absence.

Some help has come from the government in the form of a little-known Small Business Administration (search) loan that started a little more than two years ago. The Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan (search) program is designed to help small businesses cope with the temporary loss of key employees.

"A lot of small businesses lack the money to recruit highly qualified people to temporarily replace activated reservists and National Guardsmen," said Perry Pedini, an SBA spokesman.

Data World is one of only 126 in the country to qualify for such a loan.

The company, like all employers, is required by law to re-employ military reservists like McIntosh when they return from military service. But holding a job like that can be hard on small businesses, where the loss of just one employee can have a big effect on the company's productivity and finances.

When Doherty heard about the loan program through friends, he decided to apply. In August 2002, Data World was approved for a loan of nearly $200,000.

Since its start in June 2001, the loan program has received 212 applications nationwide, 59 percent of which were approved, Pedini said. About $10.3 million has been dispersed so far.

But the need is there, as small businesses across the nation struggle to make up for the absence of more than 157,000 guardsmen and reservists who are on active-duty status as of late October, according to Department of Defense data.

The program only aids those businesses that temporarily lose "essential employees" to military service, Pedini said. An essential employee is defined as someone "whose managerial or technical expertise is critical to the successful day-to-day operations of the small business," according to the SBA Web site.

The average loan amount is $81,826, but businesses can request up to $1.5 million depending on need, with up to 30 years to pay it back, Pedini said. Businesses that apply now can receive rates as low as 3.1 percent.

Businesses can apply for loans up to 90 days after the guardsman or reservist returns to work. There is no set amount in the fund to be distributed: The loans are drawn from the SBA's overall pool of disaster funds, which total $760 million this fiscal year.

Doherty said McIntosh was briefly taken off active duty in the summer of 2002, but he was quickly called back. His second commitment was not supposed to extend beyond August 2003, but Doherty said the military issued "a 'stop-loss' to keep people from getting out."

McIntosh's tour of duty was extended in September of this year, along with thousands of other reservists stationed in Iraq. That could keep him overseas until April, Doherty said.

With no definite indication of when McIntosh might be released from military duty, Doherty said the loan has helped his company stay on its feet.

Data World (search) had to hire a consulting firm in January 2002 — at a cost of about $20,000 — to help it with a move to a new building, work that the company expected McIntosh to handle.

"He was going to do all of the work in terms of the move," said Doherty, explaining McIntosh's plans to set up the company's new telephone system and computer server. "We actually had to hire a company to do that for us."

That, Pedini said, is why the loan program is an important resource for small businesses like Data World.

"[Reservists' and guardsmen's] absence has created a void in many small businesses," Pedini said. "We're trying to get the word out ... We certainly want to make this program available to every and any small business that was affected by the call up of a reservist or a guardsman."

Businesses can apply for the loan program by contacting the SBA's Disaster 1 Office in Niagara Falls, N.Y., at 1-800-659-2955.