Ottawa began announcing relief packages for small businesses affected by the novel coronavirus nearly three weeks ago. Few entrepreneurs were happy with the initial 10-per-cent wage subsidy for employees, which would not cover the losses of companies who’d shut their doors completely for fear of spreading the virus.
The wage-relief subsidy was boosted to 75 per cent but came with revenue-loss stipulations that prevented many small firms – including seasonal businesses and fast-growing tech startups – from being eligible. Businesses had their rent come due on April 1, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted aiding with payroll was of more importance, leaving entrepreneurs to default or apply for debt.
Mr. Trudeau has defended Ottawa’s debt programs as a fair way for businesses to cover rent, calling them “direct measures for companies to be able to get the liquidity necessary to get through the coming months.” But even some of those credit programs have been accused of being too difficult to access.
Since Ottawa and the provinces began requiring businesses to close, The Globe and Mail has spoken daily with entrepreneurs across the country. Few are satisfied with the relief programs, which they see as restrictive, constantly shifting, void of nuance and insufficient for many revenue models. Here are the stories of five entrepreneurs who worry they might be left behind by the federal government’s relief.
While it was hard for the owners of Beauty Destination Spa n Esthetics to shut down their shops in Hamilton and Burlington, Ont., on March 15, they knew they made the right choice. Their services require close contact between professionals and clients.
Gitu Duggal and her husband Harry Mand had staved off the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus but at great cost. After paying employees for the work they could do in March, they faced a stack of monthly bills worth more than $10,000, including rent – which they simply didn’t have the money to pay.
At first, they hoped self-isolation measures would subside or that governments would come forward with relief packages that suited them. “We were hoping it would get better, but that doesn’t seem like it’s happening anytime soon,” Ms. Duggal says. On top of stressing over the business, she and her husband have a nine-year-old child and a mortgage to look after. “We’re very, very worried.”
Ms. Duggal says that the landlord for their Hamilton location agreed to put off charging Beauty Destination for April rent – only to require a double payment come the start of May. They haven’t heard from their Burlington landlord, despite rent being due last Wednesday. They weren’t able to pay.
Beauty Destination’s staff have applied for employment insurance; its contractors, Ms. Duggal says, should be eligible for the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit. But she doesn’t want to apply to Ottawa’s new credit programs through a commercial bank or the Business Development Bank of Canada – even though rent is looming on her mind. The Canada Emergency Business Account loans can provide up to $40,000. The government is willing to forgive a quarter of the balance by the end of 2022, but that can still leave entrepreneurs with $30,000 of debt.
“We don’t want to take any more debt onto the business, because eventually you have to pay it off,” she says.
Véronique Miljkovitch’s 2,000-square-foot studio on Montreal’s Rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest is overflowing with boxes filled with her spring-summer 2020 womenswear collection. Lots of prints. Lots of yellows. Styles set to be on trend this year but likely outdated in a year or two.
The retail shops that Ms. Miljkovitch’s usually supplies aren’t buying. Given the nearly year-long design cycle within which her eponymous studio works, that short-term problem has devastating long-term consequences. She started making samples last June and July, and began showing them at trade shows a few months later and started taking orders.
March is usually her biggest sales month, but with so many of her retail clients shuttered, she’s expecting revenue for the season to drop by more than half what she expected. And that doesn’t even count next season. She’s getting cancellations on fall-winter orders, too – despite having already made her investments for the season. She’s already poured money into fabrics, trade shows, photo shoots and samples.
“I’m contemplating just stopping and perhaps starting up again when things settle down,” Ms. Miljkovitch said. “The longer we go, the more we bleed money, and we don’t know what kind of industry we’ll come back to, either.”
Her two studio employees aren’t working; they’ve applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. She’s hesitant to jump on the 75-per-cent federal wage subsidy – which won’t roll out for at least six weeks – because she doesn’t know how much longer her business will be around.
In a good year, Ms. Miljkovitch would already be working on next spring’s fashion line, but she’s not even producing clothing for fall orders. Her biggest trade shows are usually at the Javits Center in New York – now a temporary hospital amid the coronavirus crisis. All told, if she survives at all, she expects a 70-per-cent decline in revenue for the year.
She’s still waiting on clearer federal relief programs. “Every time we think we’re going to get something, there’s a little detail that’s a question mark,” Ms. Miljkovitch says. “This is not helpful for the economy at all. I’m really considering closing.”
Naomi Nicholson already struggled to keep her massage and wellness business afloat during an eight-month strike by forestry workers in Port Alberni, B.C., over the past year. And maintaining cash flow was already hard; she often builds up debt on her line of credit because of delayed income from travelling workshops she offers through her business, called the Secluded Wellness Centre.
The coronavirus has made things worse. Not only has she had to give up massage and travel, but she and her husband, Ed Nicholson, have seen bookings grind to a halt at their other business, Chims Guest House, which usually welcomes visitors from as far abroad as Germany and Britain.
Ms. Nicholson is losing about $4,500 a month from the guest house, and between $4,000 and $7,000 from shutting down the wellness centre. “I don’t know if I have the heart anymore to be self-employed,” Ms. Nicholson says.
Naomi and Ed Nicholson are members of the Tseshaht First Nation, and the businesses are on a reserve. Because their businesses’ income is tax-exempt, traditional loans, such as through commercial banks or the Business Development Bank of Canada, can be hard to obtain.
While BDC does have an Indigenous banking unit – which has allowed clients to postpone payments during the crisis – only a handful of Canada’s nearly 1,900 Indigenous-owned tourism businesses are able to work with BDC or traditional banks, says Keith Henry, chief executive of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada. Many of these businesses are on the verge of collapse, he added, in part because of difficulty accessing credit.
Mr. Henry is astonished at how little regard the federal government has given whole sectors of the economy in its relief packages – in particular his own sector, support for which he sees as a key component of reconciliation. “There’s no real sense of urgency,” Mr. Henry says. “They don’t recognize the diversity of needs.”
Ms. Nicholson, meanwhile, is devastated that she might have to give up setting an example to future generations as an Indigenous entrepreneur and leader. “That’s where my passion is,” she says. “To at least get us onto an equitable playing field.”
Ben Coli feels punished for being creative in a crisis. His Burnaby, B.C., brewery, Dageraad, was forced to close its tasting room during the coronavirus crisis – which was the part of the business that made the most money. Instead, Dageraad now does home deliveries.
“It’s not really profitable, but it’s keeping people busy,” Mr. Coli says.
The profit part is the problem. Yes, Dageraad is keeping people employed, but it’s doing so at a loss. There’s an even more frustrating consequence: Because his revenue hasn’t fallen 30 per cent below what it was last year, Mr. Coli doesn’t think he’ll qualify for Ottawa’s 75-per-cent wage subsidy.
As he sees it, that means a comparable business that did nothing to keep its employees working and customers happy would be rewarded for doing so, while Dageraad bleeds cash.
“It’s all or nothing,” Mr. Coli says. “Either you’re at -30 per cent and you get a huge amount of help, or you’re at -29 per cent, and you get nothing at all.”
He’s watched Ottawa shift its plans several times and feels like its original plans to save small businesses are a lesser priority than those for larger corporations. “This isn’t bailing out Main Street,” he says. “It’s bailing out Bay Street.”
In the meantime, Mr. Coli is hesitant to lay people off because he wants to keep his team together – and be ready for his tasting room customers to come back. “I want everyone in place to hit the ground running,” he says.
Joel Brewer’s family business usually cleans 160 or so heat pumps a month in homes and businesses around Halifax. That number has reached zero, because of the novel coronavirus. Not only is Mr. Brewer concerned for his employees’ safety, but people generally don’t want strangers in their space at the moment.
Mr. Brewer runs Breathe Clean with five family members, including his brother Ryan; mother, Michelle; and father, Cleve. Joel and Ryan launched it in 2016, after noticing how few services there were to clean and disinfect temperature-regulating heat pumps, whose fan blades can accumulate dirt and mould. Breathe Clean tries to be as local as possible – nearby manufacturers made their proprietary cleaning equipment, and they employ a Halifax-area call centre to handle inbound calls.
It’s hard to predict a pandemic, but the Breathe Clean team were careful enough to set up a contingency fund to cover their fixed costs in an emergency. Mr. Brewer plans on applying for a government-guaranteed relief loan and to the Nova Scotia small-business-impact grant program announced earlier this week.
The company employs a few non-family employees and has encouraged them to apply for the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit while they’ve been laid off – but will support them if it’s possible. “In a time like this, the last thing you want to do is let your employees go without prescription coverage and stuff like that,” Mr. Brewer says.
Although the Brewers have prepared as much as possible, they’re worried about what demand will be like when the economy opens back up. “When things start to get moving again, if we only have 50 per cent of the calls we usually do – to get our guys back, will there be a longer-term benefit?” Mr. Brewer asks.
Even for entrepreneurs who can weather the economic crisis, it’s not clear how hard it will be to survive on the other side. Mr. Brewer hopes governments will subsidize small-business employee wages, even as little as 25 per cent, on the other side of the crisis, until demand resumes.
“When everything opens back up, it’s going to be a long haul to build it back to what it was,” he says. “Our employees are in their late 50s – for them to go back into the work force and find something else, it would be hard for them.”
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