McWeeney: How NJ Bankers is showing its strength — dedication — during crisis

All of us have been inspired by the many heroes that are fighting COVID-19 on the front line. Health care workers, first responders, supermarket employees, truckers, custodians and others are putting their lives at risk to care for patients and support all those who are sheltering at home. Bankers have engaged with COVID-19 on another front, the battle to help people save their homes and jobs and to take care of their families.

We are fortunate in New Jersey. Our banks are well-positioned to fight this battle, because they came into the crisis with strong levels of capital and liquidity. And the massive investment in technology and innovation that banks have made in recent years has paid huge dividends, as customers accessed their accounts through digital options like online and mobile banking. Our banks remained open, ensuring full access to banking services, but did so while protecting the safety and well-being of both their employees and customers. Bank lobbies remained open by appointment and drive-up windows were resourced to handle increased activity.

Most importantly, our bankers mobilized to support their borrowers who were negatively impacted by COVID-19. Bankers proactively reached out to commercial customers to determine who was impacted and what could be done to help. Thousands of customers were assisted with loan restructurings. On the residential side, the New Jersey Bankers Association partnered with the New Jersey Department of Banking & Insurance to enlist banks in a 90-day mortgage forbearance program to give COVID-19-impacted borrowers some relief. In a matter of days, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that close to 70 banks of various sizes had committed to the program.

Our bankers supported small businesses and the jobs of their employees. When the $2 trillion CARES Act was passed by Congress, with $349 billion allocated for the Paycheck Protection Program, New Jersey’s banks stepped up with both traditional Small Business Administration lenders and banks that were not SBA lenders joining the PPP in an effort to support their customers and communities. After some initial challenges in launching the massive program, in less than two weeks, New Jersey banks approved 33,519 loans totaling $9.5 billion with an average loan size of $284,000. Bankers worked 24/7 and through the Passover and Easter holidays to handle the overwhelming volume. Congress just approved another $320 billion in PPP funding, and New Jersey banks have close to 50,000 applications totaling almost $6 billion ready to be submitted.

Our banks also have stepped up their charitable giving during COVID-19 to support New Jersey’s not-for-profit community. NJ Bankers launched a charitable initiative that has raised over $112,000 to date for the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund in just over a week. In addition, a number of New Jersey banks have announced six-figure contributions of their own to worthy organizations in their communities.

The COVID-19 crisis is a terrible tragedy that none of us will ever forget. Our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones and friends. If we can take any solace, it’s in the way that New Jerseyans have stepped up to help each other. God bless all the heroes on the front line who are risking their lives to protect us. They’re an amazing inspiration to everyone else who is battling COVID-19 in their own way. That includes our bankers, who have answered the call on the economic front. There’s a lot of planning underway now to help reopen our economy. Our banks are ready and eager to play an important role in the process.

John E. McWeeney Jr. is CEO and president of the New Jersey Bankers Association, a trade association founded 116 years ago that represents 76 banks and 185 service providers.

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