Vancouver Island’s serving industry says more is needed from the federal and provincial government to reduce the financial strain of layoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tourism, culture and hospitality have been hit hard by the impacts of the virus, with many restaurants and small businesses laying off workers and closing in an effort to stay afloat after tourism season was effectively cancelled to curb the spread of coronavirus.
And under the orders of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, even locals aren’t visiting the city’s bars and restaurants. Most are hardly leaving their homes.
On March 18, Jon Derry, owner of The Collective Wine Bar and Kitchen in Victoria’s Cook Street Village, made the difficult decision to lay off 15 staff.
“It got to the point where, just for the safety of everyone involved, there was no way we could risk it,” Derry said. “It was in everyone’s best interest to shut down while we wait and see what was going to happen.”
The closure will hurt the small business, but Derry said the impact on staff made the decision even harder.
“It was horrible…it’s an incredibly expensive city to live in, and knowing how much they rely on us to survive is heartbreaking,” he said. “It was a very difficult decision but it was one that we didn’t see any viable alternatives to.”
On Monday the B.C. government announced a $5 billion financial relief package, which comes with a one-time $1,000 payment for those whose ability to work has been affected by the virus, including laid-off workers and those who are sick or quarantined.
The province has set aside $2.2 billion in financial aid for small businesses shut down due to COVID-19.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised direct financial help for vulnerable Canadians and small businesses including an “emergency care benefit” for contractors, freelancers, part-time and gig economy workers who aren’t eligible for EI. The federal government is also proposing a temporary wage subsidy for small businesses and non-profits up to $25,000.
Derry plans to reopen the Collective Wine Bar as soon as it’s safe to do so, but the future remains uncertain.
“Our hope is to qualify for the government loans and reopen and hire everyone back, but that may not be possible,” he said. “It’s very unclear what, if anything, we’ll qualify for.”
Longtime Victoria server Christopher Vickers is also facing the unknown after he was laid off from his job at Agrius, an organic brunch and dinner restaurant on Yates Street, where he was working three shifts per week.
“I was laid off and fairly quickly started the confusing process of applying for EI, knowing full well that three days a week on a server’s $13.85 [an hour wage] was not going to be enough to get me through,” he said. “I’ll get about $100 a week with EI. Without the other relief packages from the federal and provincial government, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
The Retail Action Network says the federal government’s efforts aren’t enough to protect workers in the service industry since EI is generally only equal to 55 per cent of regular wages, and gratuities are typically not calculated as insurable earnings.
“This results in a dismal amount for workers who are already living paycheque to paycheque,” says a statement from Emily Thiessen, communications coordinator.
Vickers said the roughly $400 a month he expects from EI won’t be enough to cover his $700 rent, let alone cover the cost of bills and food.
“Desperate people are going to go and make money any way they have to to feed their children and continue to survive, and then they won’t be self-isolating,” he said.
There’s a lot of people that are really scared – small business owners as much as other individuals. I think it’s impacting every layer of hospitality. People are pretty afraid.”
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