AUGUSTA, Maine — A new stimulus package could send hundreds of millions of dollars into Maine next year through direct payments and business loans, but the last-minute deal means aid won’t come right away with unemployment programs possibly lapsing after Christmas.
Congress is expected to vote as soon as overnight Monday on a $900 billion relief package that spans more than 5,000 pages in bill form, continuing two federal unemployment programs, adding loan money for hard-hit small businesses, $600 stimulus checks to most people and more to aid vaccine distribution.
The agreement follows months of gridlock and comes as the virus has surged in Maine and across the country this winter. Economic circumstances have grown more dire over the past few months with economists and industry leaders warning that recovery could stall if Congress does not provide additional aid. Nearly a third of Maine households are struggling with basic household expenses, according to Census data.
The proposed relief bill extends two unemployment programs that are set to expire the day after Christmas and provides an additional $300 per week to the more than 43,000 Mainers currently receiving state or federal unemployment benefits. But unemployment benefits might still lapse temporarily entering the new year, according to the Maine Department of Labor.
The agency will work to implement any extension “as soon as possible” but could not take action to institute the changes until after the effective date of the new legislation, said Jessica Picard, a spokesperson for the agency that struggled alongside those in other states to process an unprecedented amount of unemployment claims during the spring.
States must wait for guidelines from the U.S. Department of Labor before changes are implemented, so there could be “a delay in benefits,” she said. The agency was advising people receiving federal unemployment benefits to continue to file weekly certifications so that it would be easier to administer funds retroactively if programs are extended, she said.
The relief bill also includes another round of the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans to more than 28,000 Maine businesses earlier this year. The proposed second round is narrower in scope with businesses eligible only if they have fewer than 300 employees — down from 500 — and can show a 25 percent revenue loss over a quarterly period.
Greg Dugal, a lobbyist for HospitalityMaine, an advocacy group of hotels and restaurants, expected most members to be able to benefit from the program, noting restaurant tax revenues were down 27 percent through the third quarter of 2020 compared to 2019 while lodging revenues were down 38 percent, according to state data.
But he was unsure if the program would be sufficient to keep Maine’s hospitality businesses afloat as they enter the winter with depleted savings.
“I’m not sure that this is enough to get them to where they need to go, but it’s certainly better than nothing,” Dugal said. “So we’re very happy to see it.”
Tamika Adjemian, the owner of Unity Kitchen, a restaurant in Unity, is among the small business owners nervous about next steps as winter begins. She received a forgivable loan at the start of the pandemic but was recently denied state aid because her business, which opened in December 2019, could not show sufficient losses.
While Adjemian said the loan program was not especially well-suited for restaurants like hers — she had to use the money in the spring before she was able to reopen — another loan would help her avoid layoffs and sustain the restaurant until summer tourism picks up. But she is waiting to see if she is eligible and worries about sales continuing to drop after the holidays.
“We’re pretty nervous right now,” Adjemian said. “Trying to stay positive because people are so nice, but we’re really nervous.”