Sole proprietors and other self-employed entrepreneurs are joining the growing list of Canadians who feel left behind by Ottawa’s COVID-19 relief programs, worried that taking on even the smallest sale or project will prevent them from accessing benefits.
Some, such as chiropractor Brent Helmstaedt, who works in and around Kingston, have seen client work and billable hours drop lower than a tenth of their usual workload – enough to destroy their income, but not enough to make them fit the current qualifications of the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Yet the trickle of work coming in for these entrepreneurs is crucial: They’re keeping money flowing through the economy, and in the case of some sole proprietors such as Dr. Helmstaedt, diverting patients from overcrowding hospitals.
Dr. Helmstaedt has only been able to work one or two hours a week, but focuses on clients with acute pain so bad it prevents them from basic tasks such as buying groceries, who might otherwise visit the emergency room. “I don’t think front-line health care or the emergency room wants to see migraine or back-pain patients,” he says. Because of this, he wasn’t able to apply for the CERB this week, even as he worries about drawing on credit to survive. “I’m slowly circling the drain.”
Ottawa began announcing novel coronavirus economic response measures last month. Entrepreneurs have since raised frequent concerns that the response lacks the nuance to save their small and medium businesses. A common cry has been that entrepreneurs who find ways to bring in revenue, however little it is, are being indirectly punished for taking on work – while those whose incomes have disappeared entirely are more likely to qualify for the 75-per-cent wage subsidy or the CERB.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that the government will soon announce how Canadians now working 10 hours a week or less can benefit from the CERB, entrepreneurs remain confused and worried about being left behind. Qualifications for the wage subsidy are under review, but currently only allow applications from businesses whose revenue has fallen 30 per cent from a year earlier; it is not clear whether small-business owners themselves can get the wage subsidy.
Jamie Bowen, a Calgary-based artisan whose company Splat and Co. makes wool dryer balls and other wool products, has lost most, but not all, of her sales as retailers and trade shows shut down because of the pandemic. The sole proprietor is anxiously awaiting Mr. Trudeau’s new CERB details, because she otherwise fears having to shut down and build a new business.
Even if Ms. Bowen qualifies for the CERB, “My income is the only income for my family," she says. "I’m barely going to cover rent and food for $2,000 to start with.”
She’s hardly alone in confusion. Joel Robert of Robert Graphic Services in Brampton, Ont., applied for the CERB this week after client work disappeared in the second half of March – but he worries about being eligible for the subsequent month because he took on a couple of client orders this week.
“If you were to tell me that the only way I can benefit in the next four months is to not have any income at all, should I just shut my doors and collect government money?” Mr. Robert asks. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. The right thing is to do whatever you can.”
About 4.4 per cent of working Canadians are incorporated self-employed workers, according to 2016 census data, while 7.5 per cent are unincorporated sole proprietors.
Kingston lawyer Wendy Griesdorf is a specialist in estate mediation. Her work has dried up, but she’s taken on occasional work during the crisis in helping clients unlock money from estates to flow to charities in vulnerable sectors.
She’s frustrated that Ottawa has asked all Canadians to collectively slow the economy for the sake of public health, yet hasn’t provided all parts of the economy with relief. “I don’t think their fiscal policy has matched their public-health policy,” Ms. Griesdorf says.
Toronto accountant Andrew Zakharia says he’s seen a constant stream of self-employed clients asking how to apply for relief. He’s had a hard time getting them answers. He wants federal officials to compile a list of frequently asked questions and answers. In many cases, “there’s a lot of interpretation by a variety of people, but nobody knows what the actual answer is.”
With Mr. Trudeau’s announcement Monday, some self-employed Canadians might become more eligible for relief. “I’m optimistic that that will be remedied. But at this point, that’s on faith," Dr. Helmstaedt says.
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