Hamilton economic recovery task force hears magnitude of COVID-19 impact at first meeting

The city of Hamilton's first meeting on the economic recovery task force unveiled a city survey that offers a glimpse into the magnitude of COVID-19's impact on local businesses.

A city-run, non-scientific poll surveying businesses reveals 13,000 jobs have been cut during COVID-19

About 1,000 Hamilton businesses cut 13,000 jobs according to a new city survey. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The city of Hamilton's first meeting on the economic recovery task force unveiled a city survey that offers a glimpse into the magnitude of COVID-19's impact on local businesses.

The COVID-19 Impact Survey Report — a non-scientific survey — had 1,040 respondents, which represents roughly 35,000 employees. People responded between April 15 and April 29. Graphs that compare the distribution of businesses in the survey and within the city seem to show the poll is fairly representative of Hamilton.

The respondents reported a loss of nearly 13,000 jobs from March 1, "which represents a city-wide decrease of 35.8 per cent" according to the report.

Most of those surveyed were small businesses with one to four employees. About half of the 1,040 respondents were deemed essential services as of April 10.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • More than 90 per cent of those polled said they lost money during the pandemic and more than half of those polled said the decrease in revenue was more than 50 per cent when compared to the month prior.

  • The industries hit hardest were personal services, tourism and restaurants, retail, culture, life sciences and professional services.

  • About 65 per cent of those surveyed said they have cut staff, with more than 20 per cent, or roughly 230 businesses, saying they had no employees left when they responded.

  • More than half of those polled didn't know about the property tax assistance program when it was announced 10 days prior to the survey.

Norm Schleehahn, Hamilton's director of economic development, said the findings show revenue has been hit harder than employment. And noted the city could focus on improving communication about resources for businesses.

Read the full report here:

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Most industries suffering amid COVID-19

The economic task force will have to create an "action driven" plan for the city for now and for a "long-term, sustainable and equitable economic recovery." It will have to identify specific outcomes, key issues related to the economy and steer the city's plan.

The meeting saw Ron McKerlie, the president of Mohawk College, and Terri Johns, an urban planner with T. Johns Consulting Group Ltd., appointed as task force chair and vice chair respectively.

Mostly everyone in the meeting lamented the pandemic's impact on the city. Mayor Fred Eisenberger said the city doesn't have an answer for its "looming deficit" but assured everyone that it will come.

Here's a list of how various industries say they are trying to survive:

Home building

Johns said builders "hit the ground running" since March 16, looking for ways to keep projects moving, but "hit the wall" when they were unable to have planning and committee meetings hear proposals. Now, they're eyeing more committee of adjustment applications.

Sports and entertainment

Matt Afinec, president and chief operating officer of business operations with Hamilton Tiger-Cats, said sports organizations can't plan because "there's no end in sight" with no clear dates as to when they will be allowed to reopen. Decisions on large gatherings have also led organizations to adapt on the fly.

Afinec ended by saying the 2021 Grey Cup could be a "catalyst" in the "third wave of recovery" instead of a mere weekend event.

Lisa La Rocca, director of operations at Sonic Unyon Records (it manages SuperCrawl), said music and festivals will need support after the pandemic.

"When venues open, they will likely be the last to open and at limited capacities so it'll be important to support venues," she explained. "We'll likely need support for new requirements with health and safety."

La Rocca said an alternative to SuperCrawl is being planned this week.

Culture and heritage

Florencia Berinstein, the executive director at the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre and Rondalyn Brown, manager of the Westfield Heritage Village, both said their industry is struggling.

Brown said the village will have difficulties as it normally thrives on hosting events and gatherings in its small buildings. Many of those gatherings have gone digital.

Employment and social services

Kelly Duffin, president and CEO of The Amity Group, said while the organization's employment services were deemed essential, social enterprises like thrift stores were not, which forced many job cuts.

"In Norm's charts, we would have been one of the employers that laid off over 50 per cent of our staff," she said.

Duffin also highlighted employment services will be vital coming out of the pandemic to help people regain work.

Kim Martin, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, said the task force should ensure its approach is equitable.

Business improvement areas

Kerry Jarvi, executive director of the Downtown Hamilton BIA, said she was representing all of the local BIAs.

She said the resiliency of small businesses has shined through during COVID-19.

Chamber of Commerce

Keanin Loomis, president of the chamber, said it is trying to provide resources to businesses and hosted a webcast series for them. Loomis praised the city's decision on patio expansion for local restaurants and said more of that kind of thinking will help them make it through the pandemic.

"We've come a long way in the last 10 years and that's what I think was most disheartening about this, it set us back a long time," he said.

"Especially the restaurant and hospitality community, it was at the forefront of our changing image."

Patti-Hall, executive director at Stoney Creek's chamber of commerce, said it is only beginning to see the virus impact on businesses, listing a few that have decided to close for good.

Matteo Patricelli, executive director at Flamborough's chamber, was also in the meeting. He mentioned the idea of special bonds and temporarily suspending budget balancing requirements.

Eisenberger supported the idea of bonds but said without balancing, city deficits will only get deeper.

Hotel and Hospitality

Brian Lubbers, general manager of Courtyard by Marriott, is in one of the hardest hit industries and said it may take a year or two to see business return to a sense of normalcy.

"We had to make the difficult decision to lay off 85 to 90 per cent of our associates to keep our doors open."

Labour and unions

Anthony Marco, president of the Hamilton Labour Council, said the council represents about 50,000 employees in Hamilton. He said his role on the task force is to bring "a worker's lens" to the discussions, emphasizing the need for workers to return safely, be able to get to work and have their families taken care of.

Judy Travis, the executive director at Workforce Planning Hamilton, said she is concerned about what lies ahead for the city. She said the organization is watching the data very carefully and fears about how to manage the large group of people who will want jobs after the pandemic.


Rob McCann, founder of Clearcable Networks, said his own business has accelerated during COVID-19. The company also owns the Hamilton Technology Centre.

Film and television

Bob Munroe, a producer, director and virtual effects supervisor with Blacktop Recess, said most employees work in production and their work has "gone away in the snap of a finger." 

"Things will start to get better very very soon, but people are testing the water right now," he said.

A smaller group in post-production have been spared from lay offs. Munroe noted he's working on a television show for a U.S. network from his basement.

Munroe thinks if Hamilton takes plans to build a new studio and focus it on something like virtual production, it can put more innovation into motion.


Cathie Puckering, president and CEO of the Hamilton International Airport, said she is representing airport workers. She also said the leisure market is hurting as tourism and hospitality continues to suffer.

She expects changes to policies and regulations in similar fashion to 9/11.


Ty Shattuck, CEO of McMaster Innovation Park and chair of the Synapse Life Science Consortium, said companies close to the COVID-19 response are doing well, while others distant from the response to the virus are having trouble.

Many of the companies within Shattuck's sector are looking for more capital, and financiers become cautious during the pandemic.

Agriculture and rural

Drew Spoelstra from the agriculture and rural affairs advisory committee, was out working in the field when he called in.

He said the industry has been affected greatly, as have commodities because they've lost up to 60 per cent of the food service market.

He noted many farmers haven't been eligible for financial aid.

Spoelstra also said rural areas are also being impacted by a lack of broadband and cell phone service coverage.


Henry Wegiel, director of government relations for ArcelorMittal Dofasco, said the steel industry was deemed an essential service, but the demand for steel "fell off the cliff," especially from the auto industry, construction and the energy sector.

He said food processing has helped Dofasco, with more people buying canned foods. He noted fewer than 200 people have been laid off, but the numbers would have been higher without government support.

Wegiel said the four keys to recovery will be getting people back to work,extending cash flow to businesses, more demand for steel products and upping consumer confidence.