We have heard the word “unprecedented” more than we care to acknowledge since Covid-19 invaded our planet; we have seen pandemics before, yes; we have had economic crises before, as well – but the impact of Covid-19, coupled with the federal and local government’s response and controversial remedy, has ushered in a season unlike this generation has ever seen before in this country.
It took a while before we felt the impact here, in Maine; but once it crossed the borders into our state, the effect was swift and far-reaching. Social distancing was only the beginning – as the virus spread, businesses across the country were ordered to close their doors as state governors deemed some ‘essential’ and some ‘non-essential’. Restaurants moved to curb-side pick-up or delivery. A record number of employees across every sector were laid off. All schools, including colleges and universities, ceased on-campus learning and closed their dorms, leaving countless college students with no place to live, and denying high school and college seniors the satisfying experience of completing senior year, and experiencing commencement & graduation activities. Childcare issues became an immediate concern for those workers associated with essential businesses who still had jobs but couldn’t go to work because their kids were no longer in school. Other essential employees felt unsafe in the workplace and refused to go to work.
Essential employers who had permission to remain open had to make difficult decisions regarding operations, with health and safety as the utmost priority for both company and customer; some choosing to close their doors though there was no mandate to do so, feeling it was best for their employees, while knowing it could be catastrophic for the survival of their businesses.
As recommendations for social distancing were not heeded, they became more restrictive, eventually becoming ‘stay at home’ orders. More recently, lodging businesses were ordered to close their doors, as our Governor became more aware of out-of-staters fleeing to Maine for refuge. The Maine Office of Tourism was asked to cease all promotion of Maine, as were the local tourism regions, until new Covid-19 cases level out and ultimately decline.
Covid-19 – on its own, is not the worst thing humankind has ever seen. It’s not our first rodeo – and it probably won’t be our last. Other diseases, other viruses take more lives yearly than Covid-19 has, or will. We will get through it. The concern is what life will look like when we are given permission to open our front doors and return to our lives. Will our businesses be here? Will our economy recover? And what measures will federal, state, and local government take; what control will they require; what freedoms will we be willing to surrender as we move forward from this? These are real concerns.
In the meantime- we are just trying to get through today. In Piscataquis County, we have seen businesses really step up to the plate for the sake of their local communities, from offering free lunches for pick-up to setting up substantial safety measures, ensuring social distancing. The new normal has added layers of work to the essential employer, added stress, and less time to stay informed about what relief is available to business owners during this time. For other business owners, this is all they can think about.
Some business owners are aware of the programs made available through the Federal Cares Act. Most, however, are not. Generally, business owners are so overwhelmed right now, they are finding it highly challenging to sort through their options; they are desperate to find a solution beneficial to both the health of the business and to their employees.
The DOL, the SBA, and the Federal Government seem to be changing guidelines on an almost daily basis, and it’s hard for business owners to keep up. The information is fed to the State Chambers, who; in turn, share the information with the local chambers, who ultimately share the information with their members. Besides news, media, and internet, this is how the information is meant to reach business owners. If businesses are not members of their local chamber, they will undoubtedly miss vital information.
As ED of the Piscataquis Chamber, I am so deeply grateful for my Maine State Chamber family- made up of directors from across the state. We meet twice a week via Zoom, and connect individually by phone between meetings. We talk about the relief programs, we share ideas, resources and solutions. We have meetings with our Senators, the SBA, the Maine EDC, legal counselors, and more, so that we can take that information back to our members. We have a private Facebook page which connects us to chambers across the United States. It has been vital for us to have these connections.
Our chamber events, programs, and fundraisers have ceased. We are working more hours than ever before – and our days are structured to accomplish one goal – to get the information out, to support our businesses, to advocate for them to make certain they are getting the help they need. Late into the night, we receive calls, emails, text messages and FB messages from business owners having panic-attacks not knowing where else to turn - and we are grateful to have the answers for them, much of the time. It is what we worry about – and what keeps us up at night.
In general, chambers have decisions to make every day whether to spend valuable hours on chamber work, invoicing, membership growth, etc., or work around members’ needs for resources and solutions, or sometimes even emotional support. In good conscience, we do what is right for our members – and hope that when this is all over, they will remember us and support us in return. In the meantime, close to half of chamber employees in the state of Maine have been laid off, including Abby, our visitor center supervisor.
What most don’t know is that Chambers, as 501(c)6’s, are not eligible for grants, and cannot participate in the Paycheck Protection Act or the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. The reason for this is that some 501(c)6’s are lobbying organizations, and the Federal government will not be associated with providing funding to lobbyists. This is unfortunate, because lobbying isn’t the brunt of what we do – in fact, it’s a very small percentage. We advocate for our businesses and provide business support. We go to work and have employees and need relief, just like everyone else. And if we cease to exist, that vital connection between the Maine small business owners and Maine leaders and policy-makers will be lost. What’s more, once we are on our way out of this pandemic, Chambers will be vital to the rebuilding of regions.
The Piscataquis Chamber is currently operating at about 60% of the revenue we realized in the first quarter of 2019. There are 2020 membership dues still outstanding, and our 2020 Piscataquis Regional Guidebook is only half-funded. It is an impossible situation, because I wouldn’t dare ask our members for money right now; in fact, we have kept our past-due members active - on the website AND in the guidebook, and will do so throughout the end of the year. Any member who has purchased advertising has until Dec 23rd to make their payment. We know our members will need promotion when this is all over, so we want to make it available to them, even if they cannot afford it now.
In early March, the chamber made a substantial investment and launched a beautiful new website, designed with the member in mind, with back-end login capabilities for the member to update their listing, post a job or an event, pay a bill, or even communicate with other members through a member portal designed much like a Facebook feed. Members now have an opportunity to purchase their own landing page on our site for a photo gallery, videos, hot deals and sales, multiple links, all social media platforms, and more. The tourism side of our site is more robust than ever – with gorgeous photography and descriptions of our top destinations. The member directory is eye-catching and user friendly and gives visitors an easy way to contact multiple members at one time (i.e., lodging businesses, etc.). These requests get funneled through the chamber office before they are passed through to the member to block spam.
We were so proud of what we had built here – and as we were getting ready to announce a website launch party, social distancing set in and a public launch for the new site seemed less of a priority than the CDC announcements and disaster relief programs we were responsible to share with our members. We immediately added a COVID-19 button at the bottom of our homepage which links to a resource page, where we post updates as they become available.
The chamber also created a Facebook page for restaurants to post changes to their schedule or operations, called Piscataquis Take-Out & Delivery. This page is open to ALL restaurant owners, not just chamber members. In addition to this, I have spent countless hours on the phone with members, walking them through their options, and would be happy to speak to any business owner in the county with questions.
Supporting our local businesses through the Covid-19 crisis has become our only priority, currently. The best way we can do that is to make certain our members know what is available to them and how to access it. If you are a chamber member and you have not been receiving Covid-19 program updates by email, please call the chamber at 207-564-7533 to leave your company name and email address. If you are not currently a member, don’t hesitate to call the chamber for information or advice. We are here for all businesses right now.
Please do not miss the funding opportunities available to you through the Federal Cares Act. Though billions of dollars have been designated, the programs are temporary; in fact, the first round of funding is already gone, with the second round becoming available this week. For businesses under 500 employees, there are two main options most beneficial. The first is the Paycheck Protection Act, or PPP, a program that allows business owners to keep or reinstate their workers by funding 250% of the normal, per-employee total payroll & benefits costs. The general loan terms are based on a 24-month note with a 6-month deferment on the first payment. The interest rate is a fixed rate of 1% and there are no lender fees. However, it is important to note that the loan is completely forgivable if certain criteria are met, specifically, evidence that 75% of the funding went towards Payroll expenses, which is what the program was designed for – with the remaining 25% for use on operational expenses such as rent or mortgage, utilities, and certain insurances. The loan can be used for ANY purpose, but will not be forgivable unless these criteria are met. This program is open to all businesses including non-profits (no (c)6’s), sole-proprietors, and most recently, self-employed workers. To apply, you must work with an SBA Certified Lender. In Piscataquis County, Camden National, Bangor Savings Bank (with the opening of a business checking account) and Machias Savings Bank of Brewer are participating. Currently, most SBA-certified lenders will only work with current customers. Machias Savings is an exception – they are willing to work with Piscataquis Businesses regardless of where they bank.
The second option is the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL, which does not have to be used for payroll, specifically. The terms include a fixed rate of 3.75% (2.75% fixed for non-profits), up to a 30-year term, with a 12- month deferment on the first payment and no lender fees. The program will fund $1,000 per employee up to $10,000 as a forgivable advance, which is usually in the borrower’s hands within a week (this varies) of approval while the borrower waits for final loan funding. This application is online at disasterloan.sba.gov., no financial institution needed.
Applying for both is allowable – you can be approved for both and decide to take one over another, both, or neither. There are no pre-payment penalties on either loan.
The first round of funding brought with it some controversy as it was proven that some banks pushed many small business owners to the back of the line while millions were funded to larger companies first. In the second round of funding, the SBA is putting measures in place to make certain the “little guy” is made a priority. Time will tell.
The Federal CARES Act is multi-faceted and has other programs and allowances for business owners, such as deferment on current (pre-Covid) SBA loan payments, deferment of payroll taxes, and, for their employees, a more robust Family Medical Leave Act.
Under the Cares Act, Maine’s Unemployment System has also been expanded, with longer benefit terms, greater flexibility for approval, and an additional $600 per week to anyone who qualifies for benefits, up to eight weeks, or until July 25th. This has caused concern with most employers, fearing that employees won’t to return to work once the stay-at-home mandate is lifted, because the additional $600 per week means many workers are now making more through unemployment than they were collecting a paycheck. It is important that employers know this: Should a “return-to-work” offer be made to an employee who refuses to return to work, the employer should contact the DOL and report that. Once investigated and confirmed, the employee will lose their unemployment benefits. Employers should stress this to any employee refusing to return to work. It is also important to remind employees that the additional $600 expires on July 25.
Another major development is that the Maine DOL is working on updating their system so that self-employed individuals, and others who have historically never been able to apply for unemployment, would have the ability to do so. This change should become live within the next ten days – applying before this program launches will result in a denial of benefits. Individuals planning to apply should have their 2018 (or 2019, if filed) tax returns available while applying. Again, all programs and updates are available on the Chamber’s COVID-19 resource page; check in daily for announcements.
As we move forward, I want the business community to know that the Piscataquis Chamber and the Piscataquis Economic Development Council are working for and in the best interests of our businesses and communities. Please contact us with any questions or concerns. We exist for you.