South Island Chambers Speak Out: What’s Needed for Business Recovery  

Regional Chambers of Commerce weigh in on what’s helped and what hasn’t when it comes to government support, and how they’re helping their member businesses navigate a circuitous route to recovery.

Photo by Danielle Rice on Unsplash

Canadians have been more fortunate than some when it comes to truly being ‘in it together.’ When stay at home orders were issued in March, citizens and businesses alike experienced immediate support from the federal government in the form of targeted programs and subsidies aimed at alleviating the harsh economic impact of its health directive.

While support has been swift, business advocacy agencies argue that it has not always been effective or efficient. So when the Government of Canada announced mid-July that it was extending its wage subsidy program until the end of the year, there was a collective sigh of relief for businesses worried about surviving into the fall without it. That sigh of relief is tempered with concern as we settle into a longer period of economic uncertainty than anticipated.

Douglas spoke with the Chambers of Commerce representing the businesses within Greater Victoria’s 13 municipalities, to find out how the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and other government relief has helped or hindered their members, how they’re supporting business, and what they’d like to see happen moving forward.

Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Bruce Williams echoes his peers in other Chambers when he says they’re pleased the government is responding quickly to continued need, but they’d like to see a less reactive approach. “Businesses need certainty and they don’t have that when programs run month to month and extensions are granted at the last minute,” he says. “Businesses thrive when they can plan. A tiered system that gradually goes away is better for planning for a return to business that can be successful in the long term.”

The complications of an under-utilized resource

The wage subsidy’s termination date was originally August 31. Part of the reason it’s been extended is that it has not engaged businesses as much as expected. It had been estimated to provide $45 billion in aid but, as of July 8, only $18 billion had been paid to about 250 thousand businesses. The Canada Revenue Agency estimates that, between May 10 and June 6, the program subsidized wages for 2.3 million Canadians. That budget has now been increased to 82.3 billion.

It seems odd that the uptake wasn’t there for the program, especially given that for many employees, CEWS means they continue at a higher wage than EI or CERB. Chris Edley, President of the Esquimalt Chamber of Commerce, says he sees several reasons why, including the delay between announcement and launch.

“It started a number of weeks after it was announced, so many businesses laid off people and didn’t have the cash reserve to keep paying them while waiting for the program to start,” Edley says. “When CEWS did start, businesses had the option of hiring people back to put them on CEWS or leaving their employees on EI. It’s much easier to just leave them on EI.”

Edley also says the process was time-consuming and confusing, especially given what businesses were already experiencing as they adjusted to an ever-changing environment.

Britt Santowski, Executive Director of the Sooke Region Chamber of Commerce, notes every business had their own reasons for not applying.

“In some cases, they don’t qualify as they work with contractors and gig-economy workers,” Santowski says. “In other cases, they are uncertain about their own future and simply cannot afford the 25% salary when their business is closed. For laid-off part-time employees, CERB serves them better. For previously furloughed employees (on temporary leave, who may or may not be on CERB), the process has additional complications where the employee has to be put back on active payroll and paid retroactively. One of the things that made the CERB so successful in its uptake was its simplicity and applicant-autonomy. CEWS is anything but that.”

Relief helped some, burdened others

Denny Warner, Executive Director for the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce says that though many businesses opted to lay off employees rather than applying for CEWS, that was mainly due to a lack of work opportunities. She feels CEWS has been quite helpful for those who’ve qualified and have been able to continue to operate. However, “many of our members had hoped to have more rent relief but didn’t find that the property owners were willing to make the application to CMHC,” she says. “The process was maybe more onerous than the other relief programs established by the government. In any case, we heard many business owners’ frustration about the high cost of rent they were paying for a business that wasn’t generating any revenue.”

Santowski says her members were really pleased to see The BC Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of all provincial chambers, lobby successfully to have an expanded temporary leave period from the provincial government, and from the federal side, the expanded eligibility of the Emergency Loan program.

“CERB has prevented financial devastation for many,” she says. “Increased poverty necessitates a buyer’s quest for cheaper priced goods, and while this may be good for the bigger box stores benefiting from exploiting cheap overseas labour costs, this same increased poverty drives customers away from local enterprises who simply cannot compete on price. So CERB also allowed some money to stay circulating in the economy.”

Williams says the GVCC’s members reported they are generally pleased with the speed at which government was able to announce and update relief measures.

“The wage subsidy is vital because it keeps workforce teams together and helps businesses survive until they can recover,” he says. “The deferral of taxes helped businesses facing lower than expected or zero revenue due to closing and re-opening restrictions. Those measures also helped flatten the curve in BC. The Canada Emergency Business Account was also a lifeline for businesses facing an unexpected cash crunch. And even the CERB served a valuable role for self-employed individuals who needed income relief in the short term.”

Everyone experiences different impacts and outcomes

The impact of the pandemic varies from business to business when it comes to challenges and opportunities, notes Santowski.

“For some, it’s about hiring staff. In others, it’s about help with marketing,” she says. “Some business owners are asking for reduced property taxes, and others are calling for faster speed with processing permits (approval processes at municipal governments are slow and cumbersome).”

Lawlor reports her members find it very hard to plan their futures in an uncertain time. 

“Many businesses are working harder than ever for less money,” she says. “ They require as many or more staff to ensure safety and hygiene but are making fewer sales because only so many people can gather in their location. And these are the lucky ones – who are able to open in some fashion. Consumers are used to shopping online – but not necessarily shopping online locally. That needs to shift for small business to survive.”

Chambers lobby for continued support in recovery

The Greater Victoria Chamber would like to see the government help workers move off of the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit and onto the payroll of employers, saying more direct guidance on accessing CEWS  from CRA and other branches of the Federal Government would be valuable.

“Another concern we’re hearing from business is that they face too much uncertainty to think about bringing staff back,” says Williams. “We would like government to do more to ensure businesses maintain their solvency through liquidity grants and no-interest loans. We also want to hear more specifics about how governments are going to help tourism.”

For Lawlor, the COVID-19 temporary layoff deadline is looming once again, so they’re aware they’re going to need to push for more support.

“And, as part of the Chamber network, we are also actively involved in advocacy about sick pay and are particularly concerned that this does not fall on the shoulders of small business owners should a second wave hit,” she says.

Santowski would like to see governments of all levels push the Shop Local message, especially when it comes to brick-and-mortar stores who are setting up an online presence: “Those who have enjoyed a lifetime in brick-and-mortar are now having to compete in a foreign online world against behemoth-sized corporations.”

For Warner, “property tax relief is something we hear fairly consistently. Most municipalities have offered some deferral and/or lowered the amount payable but it is still a challenge for some businesses to pay the amount due by the deadline.”

Chamber initiatives help members survive 

While Chambers have experienced the knock-on effect of a pandemic, with members unable to pay fees and signature events cancelled, they’ve been tireless in their support of the businesses that form the backbone of the economy.

Sooke’s Chamber of Commerce, among others, decided they would not cancel membership for non-payment during the pandemic. “We also started an online shopping mall and signed up over 65 businesses — many of whom had never ventured into having an online store presence,” says Santowski. “And we are working on a new publication for newcomers, as well as a new marketing video.”

The Westshore Chamber moved quickly to provide online networking, learning, and partner events.

“We have become a COVID-19 information hub,” says Lawlor, “so we can provide information and find out answers for anyone in the WestShore business community who needs assistance. We entered into a partnership with our member GetintheLoop to provide the WestShore business community with another promotional opportunity, at no cost.”

In addition to working with all levels of government to help them understand the specific relief programs needed by our members and community, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce has provided constant updates to its members, convened industry discussions with key community leaders and offered help to access and understand government support.

“We understood that the federal and provincial government needed to backstop employers,” says Williams. “The economy was thriving before the pandemic so the high unemployment and business struggles weren’t caused by underlying economic problems. We need to offer as many businesses as possible the chance to survive so that we can return to a thriving and sustainable economy as soon as possible. That said, we also need to help businesses restart safely by making sure the rules that are in place are fair for everyone and allow us to move forward and not be forced to shut down again.”

The Esquimalt Chamber of Commerce is launching a new program called Esquimalt Business Exchange (EBx) which will link business owners with other business owners and resources for assistance.  Edley says the program will allow “to connect with us at the Esquimalt Chamber and we will help them connect to a variety of resources in the community. It might be as simple as connecting with someone at city hall, but more importantly, it will be connecting with other business leaders on business growth, diversification, pivoting and survival topics.”

At the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, “our goal initially was to be the conduit for the most current, accurate information,” says Warner. “We offered options to members who had challenges with their member payments. We sourced products businesses were unable to find. We provided a conduit between our members and representatives at all levels of government. Ultimately, I think we succeeded best at responding to phone calls and emails with full confidence and optimism that, while this was a scary time, a strong network of support existed for businesses in this community and we had their back (and their front!).

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