'We need people back to work': Business owners call for end of federal pandemic benefits

Statistics Canada’s employment numbers are out for August, showing Canada added 90,000 jobs nationally.

This, while businesses in B.C.’s capital region continue to struggle to find employees to fill jobs in all sectors.

In many cases, those business owners are pointing their finger at the federal government’s pandemic support programs, which were extended at the end of July and are currently scheduled to end on Oct. 23 – assuming they’re not extended again.

Christopher Mavrikos is the general manager of Romeo’s on Hillside in Saanich. He is frustrated and in disbelief.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mavrikos.

The general manager only has two servers on staff, forcing his restaurant to only open five nights a week for dinner dine-in. He has had to cancel his lunch service entirely.

He blames the federal government’s Canada Recovery Benefit, which succeeded the previous Canada Emergency Response Benefit. CERB offered people who lost work because of the pandemic up to $2,000 a month, and the CRB offers an equivalent amount to some workers, though it has been scaled down to $300 per week for most applicants.

“CERB is killing our industry for sure,” said Mavrikos. “You have too many people not working that are fully able and should be working.”

While some workers say wages are too low to survive in the capital region, Mavrikos says his pay is competitive with the rest of the industry, if not above industry standards.

He says he has been seeing applicants who are looking to double-dip – keeping their CRB benefits while returning to work part time – and that is handcuffing his operation.

“Applicants have been coming in who say they can only work so many hours because they know if they pass the threshold of hours, they can’t collect the subsidies on the back end,” said the restaurant manager.

It’s an opinion shared by a professor of economics at the University of Victoria.

“Why would you get back into the labour market if you still think you’ve got some money that you could live off of for the next few months?” said Dr. Mark Colgate, professor of service excellence at UVic.

Colgate says although CRB has been reduced, many are still on it and some have built up savings. That is allowing them to sit on the sidelines, soul search and re-evaluate their employment.

He also points to a lack of immigration throughout the pandemic. In the past, skilled workers would come to Canada and bring family members with them who would end up working in industries like hospitality and tourism.

“They used to bring in family members who would work in those roles as well,” said Colgate. “That’s definitely a shortage that we’re not going to see filled for quite a while.”

It’s not just the service industry that is hurting. Construction is booming and finding workers – from skilled tradesmen to labourers – is becoming a problem.

“Everybody is looking for people,” said Barclay Ellis, president of Trades Labour Corporation of Victoria and Blue Anvil Labour Leasing Services.

“We’re probably operating at 50 per cent.”

His companies provide trades workers to construction companies. They have had to stop taking on new clients because of the shortage of workers, and their clients have been struggling to fill their construction sites themselves.

Similarly, BC Ferries is looking to hire 90 positions within its organization, and BC Transit is also struggling to find staff.

“We’re facing a labour shortage,” said Kevin Schubert, BC Transit’s general manager of Victoria operations

BC Transit offers full benefits, a pension and competitive wages. They are currently undertaking a recruitment campaign and have begun to see some resumes roll in.

“I think if we were at our ideal number today, we’d have another 20 to 25 operators,” said Schubert.

Colgate predicts the situation will get better for employers, but no time soon.

“It’s likely (workers on CRB) will trickle back into the market, but not at the speed we’ll need them,” said Colgate.

With B.C. boasting a 4.3-percent unemployment rate, Mavrikos says it’s time to end the CRB entirely, at least in B.C.

“In a regional sense, it’s not needed here,” said Mavrikos. “We need people back to work.”