It hasn’t been flagged as a prevalent issue for all business leaders, but some Semiahmoo Peninsula restaurateurs are saying the $2,000 per month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has made it difficult for them to call employees back to work now that they’ve re-opened to dine-in customers.
Of the businesses that Peace Arch News spoke to Tuesday, White Rock’s Laura’s Coffee Corner (15259 Pacific Ave.) has been the most seriously affected by CERB.
“It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve encountered, ever, in my life,” coffee shop owner Laura Cornale said.
“People are saying no, they don’t want to come back to work. They’re like, ‘See you in August or September.’”
CERB pays out $500 per week to people who have lost their job or are earning no more than $1,000 in a four-week period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Introduced on March 15, the benefit had previously maxed out at 16 weeks, but was recently extended until Sept. 9.
Prior to the pandemic, Cornale said she had 16 staff on her payroll. That number has now dwindled to six.
“It’s disheartening because I have put all of our heart and soul into our small business trying to have people that work local, live local and (I) can’t find anybody,” she said.
Cornale said, in her experience, the workforce shortage is related to CERB payments.
“I feel like they’re comfortable on the CERB because they’ll probably make more money,” she said, adding that she has had to reduce shop hours.
“Yeah, I would like to be open, like I used to, from seven to five and hustle and bustle. But I literally have six people back and we’re working every day.”
Roadhouse Grille’s (1781 King George Blvd.) Jana Mash told PAN Tuesday that employees wishing to stay home and collect CERB instead of returning to work was a challenge when the restaurant re-opened May 25.
“If you’re 17 years old and you probably bring in $500 a month because you work one or two shifts a week – and they were basically approved for $2,000 a month – I mean, these kids are having a flipping heyday,” Mash said.
Roadhouse’s payroll has been reduced by half, from 41 employees to 21.
Now, Mash said, staff members who are getting shifts are grateful for the work.
“We’re all working, we’re all happy, we feel safe. We’re all abiding by all the protocols that help us feel safe and comfortable, as well as the guests.”
She said that for the most part, customers have been respectful, understanding of the circumstance and are just happy to have a place to go.
“A lot of things are different, a lot of things look different. Nothing is on the table, everything gets brought out, ketchup, roll-ups, the salt and pepper, everything gets brought out sanitized,” Mash said.
Primo’s Mexican Grill (15069 Marine Dr.) general manager Samantha McQuade said that while she has heard of other restaurants having problems retaining employees, it wasn’t a major issue for them.
McQuade said when they decided to re-open, there was hesitation from some employees about whether they would work enough hours to make more money than they would receive on CERB.
“We ensured that anybody that we’re bringing back was going to have enough hours to be making more than what you would be making – once you pay your taxes – on CERB,” she said.
McQuade said customers have been understanding of the new health protocols, have been tipping well and are in a fantastic mood.
“I was expecting it to be chaos and to be dealing with really frustrated customers. But I found that the effects have actually been quite the opposite. People are just so happy to get out and about that they’re being really, really respectful,” McQuade said.
Joseph Richard Group (JRG), which owns a number of restaurants throughout the Lower Mainland including S+L Kitchen and Bar (16051 24 Ave.), has encountered some challenges related to CERB payments.
JRG payroll director Marie Wynne told PAN that there was some initial hesitation from some staff with regard to how their CERB would be affected if they returned to work.
“And while there were some that decided to remain off work in order to collect CERB, we are definitely grateful that a large number of our staff have returned to work, whether in a full or part time capacity, with some of our staff working in combination with stipulations under the CERB program (earning up to a max of $1,000/month in combination with the CERB benefit),” Wynne wrote in an email.
Wynne said some staff have decided to not return to work, however, some of these employees live with elderly relatives, are around immunocompromised family members or have young infants at home.
“This is something we absolutely understand and support and we are grateful that the CERB is available to support them and their families,” Wynne wrote.
The issue of recalling employees was discussed during the South Surrey & White Rock Chamber of Commerce’s June 12 virtual townhall. Guest speaker Danny Bernstein, a partner with workplace-law firm Roper Greyell LLP, told attendees that there may be consequences for those who are ready and able to return to work, but choose to stay on CERB.
“You can expect your employees to come to work, that’s the general rule,” Bernstein said.
“Things like, ‘I’m getting more money on CERB than I would at your restaurant’… is not an adequate reason to refuse to come to work. Similarly, ‘I’m just not comfortable.’ That, in and of itself, is not enough for someone to refuse to come to work. They need to put a reason to it.”
Bernstein said a piece of leverage employers – who, he emphasized, are responsible for proving their workplace is safe – have in such situations is the ability to notify government of the refusal. The employee could be deemed to be “abandoning” their job, he said, explaining that if that is the case, they would no longer be considered to be laid off due to lack of work, but rather, to have quit, “which is a disentitle to EI.”
Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman said in an email that while some businesses have experienced challenges relating to CERB, its overall impact has been minimal.
“$2,000 a month when living in an area that is the highest cost of living in Canada, is not a lot of money,” Huberman wrote.
White Rock BIA executive director Alex Nixon said he has heard some concerns about labour shortages, but it hasn’t been wide-spread.
“It’s something that I’m going to keep an eye on and keep asking people about because where we’re at right now might not be where we’re at even a month from now,” Nixon said.
Nixon noted that some restaurants have reduced the number of staff required to run the business.
“You don’t need as many servers if you’re only serving half as many tables,” he said.