Downtown Victoria businesses fear impacts of new government remote work policy

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Downtown Victoria businesses worry about B.C. remote work policy
Starting April 1, the B.C. government will allow newly-hired employees to work anywhere in the province. But for businesses in downtown Victoria that have come to rely on a steady stream of bureaucrats, the change is being watched warily. Kylie Stanton reports – Mar 1, 2023

Downtown Victoria’s business community is raising concerns about a new provincial remote work policy they say could make a tough economic climate even worse.

Before the pandemic, Phillip Tran’s bánh mì shop Ba Le Victoria was packed over the lunch hour, cranking out about 150 sandwiches per day.

“Now we’re lucky if we’re hitting half of that,” Tran told Global News.

“We see less government workers coming to work. At one point we only saw then Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then that dwindled down.”

That situation could be about to get worse.

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Federal government workers unhappy about return to office

A new provincial policy will take effect April 1, which allows newly-hired public servants to work remotely from anywhere in the province.

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It comes as the province struggles with a labour shortage that’s hit virtually every sector of the economy. The public service, which usually employs about 36,000 people, lost an estimated 3,000 workers last year.

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“We need to fill positions, just like everyone else is working to fill positions, so if you can do a job that would be based from Victoria but you can actually work from Nelson and do it virtually, that’s going to help,” Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said.

“The goal is to ensure we are going to fill those positions because we need those people doing those jobs, because they benefit all of B.C.”

The Greater Victoria business community is markedly cool to the idea, warning it could put more pressure on already stretched small businesses, and recently penned a letter to Conroy outlining its concerns.

“This decision has been made without consideration to the economic ecosystem that Greater Victoria has supported for decades,” the businesses wrote.

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Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Bruce Williams told Global News the economic role the critical mass of public servants play on the city’s downtown economy cannot be overstated.

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“With those workers not being in the offices they’re not going for coffee, they’re not having beers, they’re not buying shoes. They’re doing things closer to home, but for the core of the city that was set up to have that economy built around those workers that’s been a big hit,” he said.

“We made it very clear these businesses depend on government workers being in offices to help support them.”

In the meantime, Tran is counting on a crop of loyal customers who make a point of coming in for a sandwich at least once or twice a week.

But he’d like to see the government reconsider the policy, which he said is hurting businesses across the core.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more businesses closing downtown,” he said.

“As a business owner opening up a business in Victoria as a government city, that was the major draw to opening up downtown. Now it’s like, mmm, I don’t know anymore.”

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