The sobering severity of this COVID-19 crisis can be measured by the breakneck speed, by Washington standards, for the bipartisan coming together of the two political parties in their passage of the Senate’s $2.2 trillion bill —The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the CARES Act.

The bill’s passage was assured by behind the scene herculean efforts, which included a section, the Paycheck Protection Program, crafted by four bi-partisan co-authors — U.S. Sens. Susan Collins R-Maine, Jeanne Shaheen D-New Hampshire, Marco Rubio R-Florida, and Ben Cardin D-Maryland.

For once, a national relief and recovery measure would have its focus on families, hourly and part-time workers, small businesses, the self-employed, seniors, hospitals, our heroic health-care workers, first responders, and our towns and small cities.

The fact that two of these four bi-partisan senators represent two small northern New England states gave this section of the CARES Act, a rare receptivity to Main Street and Maine and New Hampshire’s unique demographic characteristics and state economies.

This week, residents who have e-filed their 2019 or 2018 Federal Income Tax returns will begin receiving $1,200 checks in their accounts, plus $500 for each child in the family.

Our unemployed and furloughed workers, in addition to their state of Maine benefits, will now also be eligible for an additional $600 a week federal unemployment benefit. Part-time and gig workers can also apply for the federal benefits.

When the state governors ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses, they effectively shut down up to 80 percent of the American economy and its jobs.

State unemployment offices in all 50 states were immediately slammed by a tsunami-like wave causing their unemployment on-line and phone systems to crash. Millions of now jobless and desperate unemployed workers couldn’t sign up for their benefits.

Maine was one of those states. Maine’s unemployment office staffing levels were geared to a red-hot state economy with record 50-year employment and unemployment figures down in the low 2 percent range in southern Maine.

Maine, to its credit, was able to recover after that first week, reacting much faster than its counterparts in the larger states. Our Department of Labor quickly encouraged experienced retirees to return to work, trained and then transferred state workers from other departments, expanded access to their computer site and set up specific week days for callers based by their alphabetical surnames. Though the claims will continue to climb, Maine is now better equipped to serve its unemployed workers.

Well before the passage of the CARES Act, many of Maine’s insured lenders — banks and credit unions, were matching their smaller commercial customers up with existing FAME and SBA loans. Many Maine consumers were also contacted by their lenders who offered flexible options —interest only or short-term deferments on their mortgage, car loan and credit card accounts.

When the green-to-go light flashed for the Paycheck Protection Program, many Maine lenders had already prepped many of their customers and within 48 hours, which included a weekend day, over 1,100 Maine applications were processed. By the end of the first week of the PPP, over one billion dollars for more than 5,000 Maine businesses had been approved by the SBA.

These low-interest direct loans to businesses with less than 500 employees are backed by the SBA. They can convert to free grants if the company kept their employees on the payroll or returned them to work for eight weeks.

Not all has gone smoothly in the PPP process as the SBA’s computer system is analog and the Fed and banks are digital, plus some confusion was created with many late modifications seeking more clarity or greater eligibility flexibility.

Some of the nation’s big banks have been slower to respond, have stumbled, or shown disinterest in this program. Strange, because 11 years ago, the American taxpayers had to bail them out because we were told that they were “too big to fail.” In return, we saw the perfection of the foreclosure process and the bankruptcy of millions of Americans.

This time around, it’s been Maine’s small banks and credit unions who clearly saw the growing need, sympathized, and have acted. They’ve lived up to their mission statements as Maine’s community lenders.

The amazing numbers this early on for the PPP show that the program’s original $300 billion-plus funding will not be enough to meet the desperate needs of these smaller businesses. Negotiations are already underway in the Congress to add more funds.

It’s our hope, all of us regardless of party or political views, for our country’s recovery and that the bi-partisan spirit and new civility will hold and grow, so that we can cross over together to the other side of this horrible crisis.

Tom Murphy is a former teacher and state representative. He is a Kennebunk Landing resident and can be reached at [email protected]

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