Washington is facing yet another shutdown, just as in 2019, 2018, 2013, 1996, 1995 and three other times since 1980. The reason is usually the same: haggling over the budget and how much the government is spending, and unless the Senate can agree on raising the government’s debt limit — which doesn’t look too likely — the federal government will stop most of its operations.
So what does this mean for small businesses? Well, we do have some history here, and because of that, we know that there could be some companies that would be affected. For example, many small firms that do business — indirectly or directly — with the federal government could see cash flow dry up, at least temporarily.
That’s because a shutdown puts a stop to most payments due under federal contracts. So if you’re doing work directly for the federal government or you’re a subcontractor in a federally funded project, any invoices you have coming due would remain open until political differences get resolved. Other small businesses that provide services such as research, consulting, delivery, transportation, technology, landscaping, and construction work to a government-owned facility or agency could also have to wait.
The areas around government facilities — the William J. Green Jr. Federal Building on Arch Street, the Veterans Administration Center on Wissahickon Avenue, or even the Edward N. Cahn Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Allentown — would become very quiet. Federal workers who have been allowed to return to the office likely would be forced to remain at home on furlough. Unfortunately, that means the small businesses in those areas that are selling these employees lunch, services, and other products during the workday would be out of luck for a while.
Businesses operating in certain industries would see a significant drop-off in activity, or even a complete stoppage of work. If your business serves agencies and their employees in industries such as defense (Dover Air Force Base), agriculture (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture), or tourism (the Liberty Bell), then you would be affected. If your business operates in an industry that is more heavily reliant on immigrant workers, you’d see a fall-off in available labor as the government’s processing services stopped.
Small companies in need of government help would also find themselves in limbo. A government shutdown would essentially stop these types of services that the federal government provides to most firms. So if you’re waiting for a passport, an OSHA safety inspection, a decision on a federal court case, regulatory clearance on a product, or a patent approval, or if you need help from the Internal Revenue Service, you could be twiddling your thumbs for a while.
Finally, those waiting on certain types of capital would have to wait longer. A government shutdown would halt many of the activities currently undertaken by the Small Business Administration which means the thousands of small business loans and grants still being processed for disaster aid, COVID assistance, working capital, and longer-term financing would be significantly delayed, as well as any other assistance the SBA provides, such as counseling and educational services.
If you know that a government shutdown is likely, and it could happen in a matter of days, what can you do to prepare?
The first recommendation is to get the services you’re waiting for before Friday. If you need tax assistance, a regulatory approval, advice on a project or a loan from the SBA reach out to those government agencies now before they close.
Think ahead about your travel plans. If you or your employees need a passport, get in line before Friday. Also consider your travel plans in October and leave extra time for longer security lines and flight times caused by a potential disruption in TSA or air traffic controllers.
Double check your cash. The longest government shutdown on record was 35 days in 2018-2019. Before that it was 21 days in 1995-1996. This one, if it happens, could be shorter. Maybe not. But going without the cash flow from an existing customer because that customer is relying on payments from the federal government could be crippling.
If you think this will impact your business, talk to your banker now, check your overhead, count up your savings, and make sure you’ve lined up sources of capital that will see you through the disruption until things get resolved and payments resume.
And if history is any indication, things will get resolved. Politicians don’t want shutdowns any more than the people they serve. There’s an election coming up next year, and no one in Washington wants to be remembered as being part of a political party that brought about prolonged economic harm.
And when the government eventually does re-open, all of the back payments and payroll due will be made whole. But until that happens, and while the theater in our nation’s capital plays out, it’s important that your business is prepared for the worst.
Gene Marks is a certified public accountant and the owner of the Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd.