SALT LAKE CITY — A company that sold construction-related products before the coronavirus pandemic started offering masks, bleach and food items for as much at 265% over cost.

© Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A food service business marked up a $9.22 bag of flour 250%. Hand sanitizer went for nearly 400% over cost. And toilet paper went online for an “outrageous” amount, Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said, rattling off a list of examples of price gouging.

Load Error

“I’ve been hearing all kinds of complaints,” Arent said, noting she passed a bill 15 years ago to curb the practice of jacking up prices during an emergency.

“It was the one bill I passed that I hoped would never have to be used, and here we are today and we’ve had to use it, and it’s a very serious situation,” she told the Utah Legislature’s Business and Labor Interim Committee on Monday.

But because the law is vague and outdated, state consumer protection regulators have a hard time enforcing it.

Price gouging was among the money-related issues the committee discussed Monday as the state continues to grapple with the economic impact of COVID-19. The panel also talked about the successes and frustrations with the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

The state has received 912 complaints about price gouging so far, said Daniel O’Bannon, director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. Regulators have worked through about half of them and have mostly tried to educate sellers about the law, he said, noting it contains civil but no criminal penalties.

If a seller has sold a good previously, the law allows the customary markup plus 10%. If a seller has not sold a good previously, it can charge 30% over the cost of obtaining the good.

The division suggested several clarifications for the law.

While some goods and services are more clearly “necessary” for an emergency than others, defining that is a challenge. “For example, food is necessary during a pandemic; but what is the line between ‘necessary’ food and ‘unnecessary’ food?” according to the division.

Consumer protection officials also found it difficult or impossible to impose the $1,000 fine per violation (capped at $10,000 a day) on sellers because some of them don’t keep sales records.

The committee agreed to consider updating the law.

“We don’t want companies or individuals to be able to take advantage of consumers during emergencies,” Arent said.

The committee also talked about how Utah fared under the federal coronavirus relief package.

Despite frustration over changing and conflicting rules for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, more than 48,000 businesses obtained $5.2 billion in loans to keep them afloat during the pandemic.

And now that the state has powered through the “crazy” Small Business Administration rules, Howard Headlee, president and CEO of the Utah Banking Association, said he’s fighting to ensure those companies don’t have to pay the money back.

“Our goal is to get to 100% forgiveness,” he told the committee.

Headlee and Edward Leary, commissioner of the Utah Department of Financial Institutions, reported to the committee Monday on how the state handled the paycheck loan program.

Congress approved the program to help small businesses keep paying their employees during shutdowns amid the pandemic. The loans will be fully forgiven if the funds are used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities.

Leary told the committee Utah lending institutions performed well during “unimaginably” difficult circumstances. Even with the rocky start the program accomplished its purpose, he said, noting there is still $130 billion available.

But Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said during the first round of funding, banks opened to priority customers and larger businesses used up most of the money. In the second round, he said, lenders applied funds to prior business loans that were in jeopardy of default.

Headlee said banks initially focused on customers that they knew to guard against fraud.

“We are seeing some fraud. People just applied for loans that didn’t really exist. We’re working through that right now as well. That’s ugly and sad but it’s the world we live in,” he said.

Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, said Utah banks and state regulators did a great job in dealing with the program, but small businesses had “extreme frustration” with the Paycheck Protection Program.

“Shifting rules and guidance and changes and about-faces made that program extremely frustrating for our business, and I know for other businesses as well,” he said. “I understand it’s trying, it’s difficult, but I think it’s inexcusable, quite frankly, some of the about-faces and changes and guidance that they’ve had over time.”

Headlee said he doesn’t disagree, and has led the charge against the constant changes as chairman of a national bankers alliance.

“I will tell you, it’s been scary at times,” he said. “There have been moments where this program was dead because of mistakes that were made in implementing it. We had to work long weekends just trying to resurrect some of this stuff.”

Still, Headlee said the $5.2 billion injected into Utah small businesses could be a real boon for the economy.

All that money, he said, came from the banks and none has flowed from the federal government yet.

“It’s just a reflection of how strong Utah’s banks are,” Headlee said.

Continue Reading

Show full articles without “Continue Reading” button for {0} hours.



Source link