OAKLAND, Calif. — Jack Dorsey has won plaudits for his corporate activism during the coronavirus crisis, taking on President Trump in his role as Twitter’s chief executive and donating nearly a third of his total wealth to pandemic relief.
But at Mr. Dorsey’s other company, Square, a payments business where he is also chief executive, he is facing a growing chorus of unhappy customers.
Thousands of small enterprises that use Square to process their credit card transactions — including plumbers, legal consultants and construction firms — have complained that the company recently began holding back 20 to 30 percent of the money they collected from customers. The withholdings came with little warning, they said, and Square asserted the right to hang on to the money for the next four months.
Square told them that it was doing this to protect against risky transactions or customers who demanded their money back. But several affected businesses provided documents to The New York Times showing they had not had any returns or risk flags.
Square was unfairly keeping money from them at an economically vulnerable time to protect its own bottom line, they said. That had thrown their small businesses into financial difficulties, they added, forcing them to lay off employees, cut expansion plans, take out loans and miss mortgage payments.
“It may not be the coronavirus that puts us out of business but actually the greed of Square that breaks the camel’s back,” said Jesse Larsen, the owner of PennyWise Contracting, a construction company in Olympia, Wash.
He said Square had begun holding on to 30 percent of each transaction in early May, which totaled thousands of dollars for him. Without those funds, he said, he had to put a hold on hiring and sell a boat and other personal property to keep his company operating.
Over the last month, around 1,300 business owners have signed an online petition asking Square to end the withholding. On Facebook, Twitter and consumer complaint sites, an array of small businesses have groused about the tough situation Square has put them in.
On Tuesday Square published a blog post to explain its new “rolling reserve” policy, the one that some merchants have experienced. In the post, which Square shared with The Times ahead of publication, the company said it had begun holding back money late last year and expanded the practice after the virus-related lockdowns as a way to protect consumers against losses. It said it had put reserves in place on only 0.3 percent of its millions of merchants.
“We apply reserves on more ‘risky’ sellers, such as those that take prepayment for goods or services delivered at a future date, sell goods or services more prone to disputes, or operate in an industry that historically receives higher chargeback rates than others,” Square said in the post.
The San Francisco company, which is known for mobile payments and the square credit card reader that can turn smartphones and tablets into payment devices, has long made most of its money by deducting between 2 and 4 percent in fees every time a merchant uses Square to process a credit card or debit card transaction.
Keeping back parts of a transaction is legal. All payment companies have policies that allow them to hold back some portion of money from businesses if there are indications of trouble.
But Square did not withhold money before. And it appears to be the only payment company that is systematically applying the practice beyond the industries that the lockdowns hit particularly hard, such as travel companies, according to industry consultants and competitors.
“Most companies are doing the opposite and trying to help small businesses,” said Richard Meldner, the publisher of eSellerCafe, an industry publication that wrote about Square’s withholding in May. “In all of this, Square is doing what the other companies did not.”
Square has been hit harder by the pandemic-induced recession than other technology-focused payment companies. More than rivals like PayPal or Stripe, Square focuses on merchants with physical stores, many of which had to close during shelter-in-place orders.
Last month, when Square disclosed its financial results, it said it had swung to a $106 million loss for the quarter and reported that it was increasing the cash it had on hand by 290 percent to hedge against future losses.
But many businesses whose money has been withheld said it was unfair for them to contribute to Square’s financial cushion when they had shown no signs of being an increased risk.
Sean Weber, the owner of Legal Knock, a company near Los Angeles that builds websites for law firms, provided documents showing that he had used Square for two years and never had a customer ask for money back. Yet Square began withholding money from him in May, totaling around $4,000, he said.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated June 22, 2020
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
Mr. Weber said the only warning he had gotten was an email right before the first deductions, with little explanation. When he called Square to ask what he had done wrong, he initially had trouble getting through. The company later told him that it was a general policy imposed as a result of the risks caused by the pandemic.
“I told him: ‘That’s not my problem. Why do I have to bear the burden of that?’” Mr. Weber said he had responded. He was told there was no appeals process or method for getting the money released, he added.
Mr. Weber said he had since had to miss the $3,000 monthly mortgage payment on his home while looking for a new payment processor. When he complained about Square’s policy on Twitter, the company blocked him, something it has also done to other customers who have publicly brought up the issue.
Nikol de Riso, the owner of EGA Solutions in Palmetto, Fla., said she could not get a response from Square for two weeks about the money it had held from her business, which provides various legal and practical services for small businesses. When she finally got someone on the phone, she said, she was told that the withholding was a general policy and not a result of any risks in her business.
Square said it planned to announce on Tuesday that it was providing merchants with more notice and more information about why they were facing reserves.
Without the money that was being withheld, Ms. Riso said, she had to furlough seven of her 53 employees while she switched over to a different processor, Redde Payments. Redde imposes no reserves and is charging her less for each transaction — around 2 percent instead of the 3.5 percent she paid Square — and she said she had an account representative who picked up the phone when she had problems.
Square told Ms. Riso that even after she switched, it would hold on to her money — about $6,000 — for the next 120 days.
“My company is not going through a hard time, so why punish my people?” she said she had asked Square. “You are stealing other people’s money.”