Mercedes Austin, who has owned Mercury Mosaics in northeast Minneapolis for 19 years, thanked taxpayers and the leader of the Small Business Administration Monday for helping the business get through the pandemic.

Mercury Mosaics received $400,000 in Paycheck Protection Program assistance from the SBA, money that helped it avoid layoffs. It's heading for record revenue and employment this year, Austin told SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman as she toured the business.

"The SBA's PPP Loans saved our bacon," Austin said. "I feel an obligation to pay this forward, to assist other entrepreneurs."

The PPP was at the core of the federal government's economic rescue to small- and mid-sized businesses. The loans were originated through banks, credit unions and other financial institutions and were made forgiven by the government if the borrowing companies lived up to employment targets.

"The PPP loans were a very effective initial lifeline for thousands of businesses," Guzman said. "The Delta variant of COVID is still (a challenge) although the economic recovery is well underway. Small business amounts to half of our workforce and two-thirds of new jobs."

Guzman listened attentively to Austin describe the impact on Mercury Mosaics. Nearby, employees continued to hand-paint decorative tiles and move them into a kiln.

"The money helped us cover our rent and payroll and allowed me to be more of the CEO and less of a tile [sales person] and feel less anxiety when sales dropped in the first quarter of 2020," Austin said. "We got back on track in the second half of 2020."

Mercury Mosaic recently opened a plant in Wadena, Minn., that Austin expects to grow from seven to 12 employees this year.

The PPP expired in July after delivering nearly $800 billion to small businesses, including $5.4 billion this year to 126,388 Minnesota small businesses.

Borrowers could apply for forgivable loans of up to $10 million. The average loan was far smaller: $42,000 this year and $101,000 last year.

Smaller companies unable to get loans last year got funding after Congress created on-ramps for the smallest-and-minority businesses that were shut out in 2020.

In an interview, Guzman said the SBA still has billions in funds to assist pandemic-damaged businesses, including low-interest "Economic Injury Disaster Loans" of up to $500,000 and grants of up to $15,000.

Guzman added that another COVID relief package signed into law last winter, along with the infrastructure-spending package of $1 trillion that passed the Senate earlier this month, also will provide economic growth and jobs for companies that work on roads and bridges and manufacturer rail, trains and related mass-transit equipment.

President Joe Biden tapped Guzman, a former entrepreneur whose parents also ran a small business, to lead the SBA during the transition period between presidential administrations. She previously worked in the agency during the Obama administration.

Separately, the SBA is working closely with investigators and federal prosecutors, who have brought 200-plus cases nationally, including in Minnesota, against companies that alleged used government aid programs fraudulently, Guzman said.

Earlier Monday, Guzman participated in a roundtable on equity-related issues at the Coven co-working space in St. Paul. Mayor Melvin Carter and Rep. Betty McCollum were also on hand.

Guzman earlier this month made similar trips to Delaware, Wisconsin and Arkansas, focusing on the speed of business reopenings and rehiring as well as encouraging vaccinations against coronavirus.