Canada’s Covid-19 Supports Have Come to an End. Businesses Say They Still Need Help.

Canadian business owners and advocates say the expiry of federal COVID-19 benefit programs comes too soon. They argue uncertainty about future pandemic waves remains high.

As of May 7, all of the most recent supports announced in fall 2021, including the targeted wage and rent subsidy programs and the $300-per-week Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, are no longer available despite what owners say is still an urgent need.

“The supports have been the only reason I’m open still,” said Summer Baird, owner of the Hintonburg Public House restaurant and bar in Ottawa. Although restrictions on dining out have been mostly lifted in Ontario and every other province, Baird says her sales remain between 40% and 60% of what she was pulling in before the pandemic.

Many people remain uncomfortable about eating indoors, so she is looking forward to opening up the patio to boost sales. But she says she’s still facing staffing issues and high food costs due to inflation.

The loss of the subsidies means Baird will consider breaking even a victory. “The comfort level (of people eating inside) still isn’t there,” she said. “I don’t think that the government really understands that … I mean, they do have to cut the cord at some point, and I can appreciate that, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

The federal government was explicit when it launched the latest subsidy programs in October. They would expire on May 7. Those programs, the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program and Hardest Hit Business Recovery Program, were created to be more targeted replacements for the broader Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS) introduced soon after the pandemic sparked widespread lockdowns in early 2020.

Those earlier programs involved government pay outs of more than $100 billion to businesses to help with wages, rent, mortgages and other expenses. An additional $7.4 billion was allocated for the replacement programs.

May 7 was also the final day of other programs that were extended in October, including the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit and the Canada Recovery Hiring Program.

Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), says 60% of businesses are still making less than they were before the pandemic. The average small business is also saddled with $160,000 in new debt from the past two years, which he says can only be repaid by higher profits.

“Yes, customers are starting to come back. The roads are busier once again. The parking lots are starting to fill up,” he said. “But businesses don’t have to just get back to normal levels of revenue … they actually have to earn more profit than they did pre-pandemic to be able to get rid of (the debt).”

He says the CFIB estimates that 180,000 businesses — one in six across the country — will close for good due to the damage suffered during the pandemic without further financial help. Close to 100,000 have already shut down over the past two years, he adds.

“Governments have an opportunity to help us get through to the other side of this,” he said. “It’s great news that most Canadian businesses are now open and most COVID restrictions are gone. That’s wonderful. But we’re not through this yet.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the office of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the benefits are no longer needed due to Canada’s economic recovery. As of April, according to the statement, 115% of jobs lost during the pandemic have been recovered — compared to 95% in the U.S. Real GDP is more than 1% higher than it was pre-pandemic.

Canada’s unemployment rate is now at 5.2%, the lowest number in five decades, but still higher than half the countries in the G7, including the U.S., United Kingdom and Japan. “With our economy in this position, the time for extraordinary COVID support is now over,” spokesperson Adrienne Vaupshas said.

Other benefit programs remain in place to help businesses long-term, including the $700-million Canada Jobs and Growth Fund, the $500-million Tourism Relief Fund and the $4-billion Canada Digital Adoption program to help get businesses online.

But Kelly says those programs will not help businesses immediately the way the COVID-specific supports have. He says Ottawa should forgive a larger chunk of the interest-free loans that businesses obtained through the federal government’s Canada Emergency Business Account. They are due for repayment by the end of this year.

Source: Global News

Two-Thirds of Small Business Owners Close to Burnout, Despite Pandemic Restrictions Easing

After more than two years of rolling COVID-19 lockdowns, capacity restrictions, and supply chain disruptions, half of small business owners report difficulty coping with mental health challenges. The data, released by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and Nexim Canada, shows 66% of small business owners are close to burning out, and report seeing a rise in mental health issues among their employees too.

“For many small business owners it’s layered on with the fact they had to deal with closures. They’re not always sure how they’re going to get their next payroll together?” said Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of National Affairs and Partnerships at CFIB. “If they’re going to find the employees that they need to get their business back up and running?”

Employers surveyed say 54% of their workers are facing mental health challenges, a nearly 20% increase from responses in 2020.

“I wake up in the middle of the night with my gut twisting as I think about how much debt the business has incurred,” said Jason Komendat, co-owner of Ottawa Bike Café. His downtown Ottawa business has accumulated at least $120,000 in debt, as he tries to ride out the pandemic downturn.

As office workers, and foot traffic, slowly starts to revive his business, Komendat has concerns for the health of his staff. “If we catch COVID,” said Komendat. “And the workforce is cut in half or more, we can’t operate.”

Komendat says he is seeing a counsellor to help him cope, but he is in the minority. CFIB research shows fewer than 27% of small business owners are seeking mental health support, and only one in three are providing employees with information and resources.

To help managers, the Mental Health Commission of Canada created an online tool kit that launched during Mental Health Week, which ran May 2-6. The checklist provides advice on how to recognize whether their employees are struggling with mental health, how to defuse conflict and integrate new employees.

President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada Michel Rodrigue says the free resource is especially useful, as more workplaces balance in-office workers and work-from-home. “You can better support your teams,” said Rodrigue. “And you can create psychologically safe workplaces for people to thrive.”

For Komendat, small businesses simply need more mental health support options, and wants government to fund more programs. “If there’s a program that’s online I don’t have time to look at that,” said Komendat. “I’m just trying to keep this ball rolling.”

Source: CTV News