$82B coronavirus emergency fund a welcome relief to Winnipeg’s small businesses, employees

By | March 18, 2020

While some Winnipeg business owners welcome the massive $82-billion aid package announced Wednesday, it’s anybody’s guess whether it goes far enough.

While much is uncertain, local restaurateur Steffen Zinn says he’s relieved by a number of the measures announced by the federal government Wednesday, including a push to beef up employment insurance.

“In our case, we had to close two shops and we had to lay off 20 people, and that was a really hard decision to make,” said Zinn, who co-owns a few eateries, including The Red Ember Common and Wienerpeg — both in The Forks Market, which is now entirely closed.

“We wanted to keep everyone on and operating as long as possible, but if we just don’t have any customers there, and just to do the right thing for society, we had to ultimately decide to close the restaurants.”

The sweeping stimulus package, unveiled Wednesday by the federal government, includes $27 billion in direct help to Canadians and businesses, plus $55 billion in tax deferrals.

Zinn is pleased the federal government is waiving the one-week waiting period to claim employment insurance benefits. 

For the bottom line, he also likes that he can defer corporate taxes.

“It’s very reassuring, I suppose, in this time where everything else is uncertain,” he said. “It’s nice to know that you have that as backup.”

Steffen Zinn, seen in this 2015 file photo, has had to lay off 20 employees as it deals with the coronavirus pandemic. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The supports are intended to help Canadians pay for rent and groceries, and help businesses meet their payrolls, all while stabilizing the economy. 

The emergency aid plan runs the gamut, from boosting Canada Child Benefit payments to a six-month reprieve on student loans to biweekly cheques for workers who are quarantined or sick with COVID-19, but do not qualify for employment insurance.

Other self-employed Manitobans are grateful for the measures as well.

A few days ago, Tricia Weidenbacher voluntarily closed up her massage therapy practice as fears surrounding the coronavirus ramped up. 

She’s encouraged by an emergency benefit that will funnel $5 billion to workers like her. She also appreciates the changes to tax filing deadlines and a boost to the GST credit.

“We’re optimistic for sure,” said Weidenbacher, who serves as executive director of the Massage Therapy Association of Manitoba.

“We’re glad that something was announced and we’re glad that there was something in there that pertains to self-employed individuals.”

Suddenly unemployed

But the federal support doesn’t quell Weidenbacher’s fears entirely. 

She doesn’t know when she’ll start making money again.

“It’s like waiting for your doctor to call you back with test results,” she said. “You’re just on pins and needles until you get some concrete information.”

Jonathan Alward, the Manitoba director of provincial affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, commends Ottawa for helping people who are out of work, but says the government should prevent those layoffs from happening in the first place.

Alward said a 10 per cent wage subsidy for small businesses is appreciated, but it doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as subsidies in some European countries, where governments are covering well over half of someone’s salary.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau detailed part of the federal aid that will be offered to Canadians who find themselves unable to work during the coronavirus outbreak. 1:32

“I think it’s really important that we are focusing on keeping staff employed instead of focusing on everyone going on employment insurance.”

CFIB’s nationwide survey, released Tuesday, suggests a quarter of small businesses wouldn’t survive longer than a month if their business income was slashed in half.

The sudden closure of small businesses, many voluntarily, is unprecedented, said Chuck Davidson, president and CEO of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, and the amount of help those businesses need is a tall order.

He wouldn’t cast judgment on the federal stimulus package too quickly, but said “every little bit will help at this time.”

University of Winnipeg economics professor Phil Cyrenne said it is businesses in the service industry, and others that rely on public gatherings, that are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Thankfully, some of these businesses can move their activities online, he said, but their digital revenue won’t make up the shortfall.

“The employees should be taken care of through employment insurance,” he said. “The owners of the business, those are the ones that are in jeopardy.”

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