Don’t stop federal COVID-19 benefits, businesses say as expiration nears

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Canada’s COVID-19 wage subsidy has been a lifeline for Rina Camarra and Richard Vanderlubbe.

Camarra, manager of Mastro’s Restaurant in Toronto, and Vanderlubbe, president of, both told Global News their businesses have relied on it during this 19-month-long pandemic.

“It’s not an easy task for us to run a business nowadays,” Camarra said.

“It helps us a lot because otherwise we just wouldn’t be able to keep the staff on if we had to cover that all ourselves. What we take in is not enough.”

However, come October, the wage subsidy will expire along with a slew of other federal COVID-19 supports, which concerns Vanderlubbe.

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Without that benefit, his travel agency wouldn’t have been able to retain employees and maintain their systems.

“That allowed us to maintain a level of service to customers to process and answer questions,” he said.

“Without that wage subsidy, the level of service would have been near zero.”

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On Oct. 23, benefits such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy and Lockdown Support will no longer be active.

Those programs, along with the Canada Recovery Benefit, the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, were set to expire on Sept. 25 but were extended during the summer.

When the October extension was announced on July 30, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government will do “everything we can to make sure the country’s economic recovery is fast and robust, and that no one is left behind.”

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She added Canada’s economy was showing “very strong signs of recovery” at the time. However, a full economic reopening hasn’t happened yet.

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The fourth wave of COVID-19 has proved to be a challenge for some provinces. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Delta-variant-driven spread has pushed health-care limits to the brink.

Both governments have had to reintroduce protective measures to get the wave under control, following a loosened-restriction summer in those provinces.

For Vanderlubbe, restrictions in the travel industry have been damaging.

“It’s been devastating on our business because we basically bled our balance sheet out with whatever positive working capital we had,” he said.

“We’ve injected capital into the company, we borrowed more money, and we’ve been highly reliant on these wage subsidies because it is the government restrictions that are preventing us from doing business.”

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As part of Budget 2021, released in April, the government said it would seek to extend the wage and rent subsidies to Nov. 20, should the economic and public health situation require further support.

Anna Arneson, a spokesperson for Canada’s finance department, told Global News in a statement they can’t comment on the government’s future intentions or future policy positions.

Election promise

During this summer’s election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that if re-elected, his government would extend the Canada Recovery Hiring Benefit to the end of March. The program is geared toward helping businesses hire workers, with a subsidy of up to half of additional eligible salary or wages.

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Furthermore, the tourism and arts sectors were singled out for special assistance.

Tourism companies would be eligible for both temporary wage and rent subsidies until the end of the winter, and Ottawa would match ticket sales for capacity-limited arts and culture organizations, like theatres.

Now re-elected, advocates like Beth Potter will “hold their feet to the fire” to follow through on those commitments.

Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told Global News the hardest-hit businesses in those sectors still need help.

“There have been a lot of businesses that have been able to sort of pivot and begin to earn revenues back, but there have been some businesses that have been completely shut down and will continue to be for the next several months,” she said.

Potter is calling on the government to introduce subsidies to cover operating expenses for hard-hit businesses, which she said include those still experiencing at least a 40 per cent loss in revenue.

“How do we keep the doors open and the lights on?” she said. “So it’s really survival funding until we can get to the point where tourism starts to pick up again.”

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Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, told Global News while his group will also be holding the government to its promise, he believes the supports should go beyond those sectors.

“All the COVID restrictions, in our view, need to be lifted before the business community is going to be anywhere close back to normal,” he said.

“And by all we mean a fully open border, we mean no rules around capacity restrictions, no passport systems.”

Kelly added the government needs to implement a long-term strategy.

“Businesses are looking at what their future is over the next number of months, and it’s at this stage that many business owners are going to say, ‘You know what, I don’t see a pathway to return to profitability — I guess I’m done,’” he said.

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“That’s what we need to avoid happening, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the government can put out a better, longer-term solution and ensure that there are support programs in place until all of the COVID restrictions are lifted.”

Camarra agrees.

“All I can say is that we do need the help, and it shouldn’t be just on a month-to-month basis,” she said.

“They should be on an at least three-month basis so that we can plan and make sure that we can go on ahead and proceed with running a business.”

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