Michelle Souliere, owner of Portland's Green Hand Bookshop on Congress Street, stands among the stacks on Monday. After a paperwork problem, Souliere will finally get a share of federal pandemic relief funds. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — When the pandemic shut down businesses in March, it didn’t give Michelle Souliere a break from running her independent book store.

Exhausted and stressed, Souliere worked “like a maniac” for months after the city shutdowns, filing mail orders, setting up online systems and researching coronavirus safety protocols.

When the shop reopened in July, she found it surreal when customers would ask her how her “time off” was.

They were “completely oblivious to the fight for survival that small business owners in town had been undergoing,” she said.

Portland small-business owners, like Souliere at the Green Hand Bookshop, are in a tough predicament. Many supported the citywide movement that established wage increases and hazard pay for workers at high-risk jobs, which Portland voters passed by a 62-38 margin in November.

Souliere said it’s unfair to put employees in situations where they aren’t earning a living wage, especially while they remain at higher risk for coronavirus as front-line workers during the pandemic.

At the same time, she and others are trying to keep their businesses afloat without laying off workers since unemployment benefits are set to expire and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, shelved talks of a federal relief package months ago.

But as new coronavirus cases peak, the winter retail season looks bleak for small-business owners, who often work alongside the few workers they employ.

Souliere says she and her husband, Coast City Comics’ owner Tristan Gallagher, have been “ahead of the curve” on the minimum wage issue because they recognize that the current $12 rate is not a living wage — “especially in Portland where housing costs are so out of control,” Souliere said.

They’re both working “more than full-time” and keeping very few on payroll. Right now, she employs one and Gallagher employs three.

When the state last week announced a second round of Economic Recovery grants would be issued from federal CARES Act funds, Souliere was relieved to get a portion of the $54-million package.

“We can pay some of that pileup of bills and debt now.” she said. “I feel like I’m not hanging from quite as thin a thread as I was before.”

Noah Defilippis, who owns the independent gift shop store Pinecone + Chickadee, sees those grants as necessary to fill the gap for small-business owners, and loosen the tension between them and workers.

“There needs to be more of that to support local businesses so they don’t feel like they need to lay off employees,” said Defilippis, who supported higher wages for Portland workers. “This year we are looking to hopefully just break even and be able to help out our staff in any way we can.”