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Pandemic causing havoc for Surrey businesses

Surrey Board of Trade and BCFED look to government for support for workers, businesses
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The Surrey Board of Trade is calling on all levels of government to throw a lifeline to local businesses suffering because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re facing cash-flow compromises, not being able to meet rent, laying off staff, cancelled meetings, reduced sales, really decreased morale and productivity,” Anita Huberman, CEO, told the Now-Leader on Tuesday. “We have the most number of manufacturers in British Columbia, right here in Surrey. They rely on trading hubs such as the U.S., China and Europe, and those are closed right now.”

Huberman said she hadn’t heard of any Surrey businesses permanently closing, though, on account of the pandemic. She noted that last week the federal government announced a $10 billion loan assistance program for small to medium-sized businesses, and has lowered interest rates.

“However, businesses can’t afford to take on additional debt,” Huberman noted. “The goal needs to be keeping people employed, increasing business cash flow by reducing expenses and creative measures to stimulate sales.”

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Meantime, the board has developed Pandemic Preparedness Guides to give local businesses a hand, which can be found on its website. It has also prepared a wishlist of things the city, provincial and federal governments can do. It recommends the federal government meet with the CEOs of Canada’s five major banks to postpone principal mortgage payments, waive interest payments on property and automobile debt for April to June, and grant a “principal holiday” during that period for business loans. It also calls on “Canada’s largest” residential and commercial landlords to waive rent payments for April to June and is asking credit card companies to likewise waive interest charges for small and medium-sized businesses.

Moreover, the Surrey Board of Trade is calling on the Canada Revenue Agency to delay tax filing obligations for businesses and focus its resources on processing income tax returns where refunds are due to taxpayers.

“All requested refunds should be processed with minimal review, postponing those reviews until after the crisis,” the board says.

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)

It also asks the provincial government to postpone the collection of sales tax for all businesses “with less than a certain amount of revenue,” to charge no interest on delayed payments, and for the provincial and civic government to “reduce or eliminate” utility costs for households and small-to-medium-sized businesses for April to June.

Further, the board of trade argues that commercial property tax collection should be suspended temporarily, that the federal and provincial government should extend loans and grants to cities to support this, and in cases where governments extend relief loans or are extending lines of credit, that they “ensure criteria for these loans are reduced are received quickly, with suspension of principal payments.”

The board is basing this on responses to a survey of businesses resulting in its March 16 Surrey Board of Trade COVID-19 Report.

Meanwhile, the BC Federation of Labour on Monday made an “urgent call” for guaranteed “paid and protected sick leave” for all workers in this province.

“Paid sick leave, and other income supports to workers, will help slow the spread of infection,” Laird Cronk, president of the BCFED, said. “The pandemic can exacerbate existing inequities. But it doesn’t need to. Our collective response needs to take the untenable choice of working sick to pay the bills off the table for any worker.”

Premier John Horgan said Tuesday the federal government, in looking at changing the Employment Insurance Act, “They need to make sure they’re not short-changing people in this crisis. It’s a go big or go home environment, it seems to me.”

As for B.C., he said, “We’re going to be taking actions when it comes to ensuring that businesses and the workers that they depend on are comforted and in place so that we can get through the next number of weeks.”

The BCFED, like the Surrey Board of Trade, produced a wish-list for government including changes to the Employment Standards Act “to secure immediate and retro-active job protection for workers who take sick leave, including workers that self-isolate or are quarantined.”

It also calls for the provision of paid sick leave for all workers – that includes part-time, casual, temporary foreign workers and migrant workers – through the duration of any isolation or quarantine, the immediate waiving of any requirement for a doctor’s note for any worker, enhancement of Employment Insurance Benefits during the pandemic to at least 75 per cent of insurable income, reduction of barriers to get EI, and more staff at Service Canada to help facilitate this.

The BCFED is also calling for access to income support and transfers for workers who fall outside of the current definitions of employees. This includes independent contractors and people and the self-employed.

Finance Minister Carole James said Tuesday that “first and foremost, we’re focussed on people’s health and safety.

“I want to reassure you and let you know that we are working on how we can and how we must respond in the immediate,” she said. “British Columbians can be assured that the government has your back and together we’re going to get through this. We all have to remember as well that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

James said the provincial government is working with the federal government “to bring in immediate relief for people and businesses.”

She said the provincial government is lobbying the Trudeau government to extend EI for people “who wouldn’t typically qualify, so that would include the self-employed, part-time, contractors.”

“I also want to reassure British Columbians that we have a healthy supply chain, that we have appropriate supplies of food and goods coming into British Columbia.”

She said the Retail Council has told the government there is “enough for everyone.

“There isn’t any need to overstock your own supplies,” she said. “Doing so will put at risk seniors, single parents and others who need those necessities. Shop well, plan ahead, but please don’t go overboard at other people’s expenses.”

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About the Author: Tom Zytaruk

I write unvarnished opinion columns and unbiased news reports for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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