READING - Local business owners and self-employed workers have just days left to take advantage of a federal assistance program aimed at preventing a massive wave of permanent layoffs due to the nation's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late last week, officials from the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) revealed that the Paycheck Protection Program will officially end on June 30, despite there being as much as $130 billion remaining within federal coffers for the special COVID-19 relief packages.

According to Lisa Egan, executive director of the Reading/North Reading Chamber of Commerce, with small businesses eligible for what amounts to free money — as loans under the PPP are completely forgiven when used for legitimate purposes — she is urging area merchants to seek a slice of the funding.

Understanding "mom and pop" business owners' insistence upon self-reliance and disdain for bureaucratic oversight, Egan during a recent interview acknowledged the chaotic early days of the PPP in early March, when confusion reigned over how to apply for the relief and the circumstances under which loans would be forgiven.

However, with the small business community fighting for its very survival as the state leaders try to reignite the Commonwealth's seized economic engines, advocates like Egan are urging merchants to reconsider the PPP and the SBA's economic disaster injury loan program.

"It was a real challenge when it first rolled out, because the website kept crashing. But there's still $130 billion in that fund. People should really take advantage of it," said Egan.

When the PPP was first unveiled earlier this spring as part of Congress' $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the program was described as a way for employers to keep paying workers in spite of growing restrictions on business operations.

Under the PPP, small businesses with fewer than 500 employees are allowed to obtain up to $10 million to offset payroll expenses and cover mortgage, rent, and utility costs between last Feb. and the end of June.

Though dubbed as a loan program — with a 1 percent interest rate — the PPP actually functions as a direct grant, as the repayment obligations will be completely forgiven so long as all current employees were kept on company's payrolls. In order to obtain a waiver of the loan terms, applicants must submit paperwork showing they have not laid-off vast numbers of workers and are spending most of the loan to cover payroll costs.

However, with Massachusetts shutting down all "non-essential" businesses as of March 23, many employers questioned whether they should apply for the funding without some idea of when they'd be allowed to reopen. With misinformation about the program also rampant, many local merchants missed out on the first $349 billion in PPP funding.

However, federal officials later allocated an additional $310 billion towards the program. According to Egan, since re-upping the funding, SBA officials have also implemented a number of changes to the program's guidelines, including:

• The creation of a standardized, user-friendly application form to make it easier for participants to request loan forgiveness;

• Extending the term during which PPP funds must be spent from eight to 24-weeks;

• Lowering from 70 to 60 percent the proportion of the loan that must be allocated towards payroll costs;

• The extension of the repayment term from two to five-years for for those who opt to repay the low-interest loan.

According to Egan, with the terms much more favorable and local lenders like Reading Cooperative and Reading Savings Bank accepting applications from any business — regardless of whether they're existing customers — the PPP is an attractive relief option for local businesses that are just reopening.

She also believes the backup funding will help relieve stressed-out business owner's fears about the continuing uncertainty over the COVID-19 crisis and the pandemic's potential long-term impacts on consumer behavior.

"I know businesses are very anxious to reopen and they're trying to advocate for themselves. But there's a lot of stress…People are asking themselves, when will [customers] begin lingering in stores longer looking for gifts and meet up with friends for food? Everyone is worried, because [the pandemic has caused a] behavior change."

"I can empathize [with those who are worried], but there's thousands of dollars available. People shouldn't lose hope. They should take advantage of this support. If you need someone to help you figure it out, I'm happy to chat with anyone," the Chamber of Commerce director added.

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