Manitoba

Layoffs at Manitoba's largest auto group, but dealers staying open during coronavirus pandemic

Auto dealerships across Manitoba are reducing services during COVID-19 pandemic; Birchwood Auto Group president Steve Chipman announced staff reductions.

‘Manitobans rely heavily on their vehicles to get essential goods,' says provincial auto dealers association

Auto dealerships in Manitoba are reducing services and staffing levels amidst the COVID-19 crisis. (Shutterstock)

Auto dealerships in Manitoba are keeping their doors open for now, according to the provincial dealers association, but at least one large automotive group is laying off staff in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Winnipeg's largest dealership group, Birchwood Auto Group, has announced changes that will affect 17 dealerships, including temporary staff reductions.

"As a result of the recent provincial state of emergency and the surge in confirmed cases here in Manitoba, we've made the difficult decision to move to a central service model effective Monday, March 30," Birchwood president Steve Chipman said in a video posted Thursday on the Birchwood website.

Brichwood Automotive Group president Steve Chipman announced staff reductions in a video message posted on the company's website. (Birchwood.ca)

"We have temporarily reduced our staff to a core team in each location. This was a very hard decision, but one that needed to be made. We remain open providing the essential level service for your automotive needs," Chipman said.

While some dealerships may have to reduce their services, it will be necessary for them to remain open in order to keep vehicles on the road for those who need them during the pandemic, their industry association says.

"Manitobans rely heavily on their vehicles to get essential goods such as food and medicines," said Geoff Sine, executive director of the Manitoba Motor Dealers Association, in an email to CBC News.

"Equally, emergency services and businesses rely on their motor vehicle fleets to continue delivering essential services and goods to Manitobans during these difficult times," he said.

"To that end, automobile and heavy truck dealerships, vehicle repair and maintenance facilities need to be exempted from any potential mandatory closure."

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As of late Thursday, Sine said he was unaware of any closures among  the MMDA's 125 dealership members.

"Dealerships will make their decision on remaining open or closed based on their own unique business and community situation."

There are about 6,200 people employed by franchised automobile and heavy truck dealers in Manitoba, he said.

Under new rules announced Friday, as of Monday, public gatherings in Manitoba will be restricted to a maximum of 10 people.

The change does not apply to workplaces. But provincial chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said retail businesses will also need to continue to ensure customers are one to two metres apart at all times.

That was previously recommended, but starting Monday, it will be compulsory under the Public Health Act, Roussin said. 

In his video update, Chipman said Birchwood will be strictly controlling traffic flow at its facilities, and is using an appointment model for sales and service. 

He said measures to sanitize the dealership facilities and customers' vehicles have been increased, and the dealerships have also launched an online service for sales appointments.

Chipman told CBC News on Saturday that 520 employees are affected by the three-week layoff, and that the company's plan is for everyone to return to work once the virus subsides.

Kabeir Dilawri, vice president of Crown Auto Group, told CBC News the industry players have been in touch with each other in recent days as the situation plays out.

Crown Auto Group — which owns six dealerships, two body shops and a detailing centre — laid off about 150 people earlier this week. That's roughly one-third of its entire workforce, according to Dilawri.

Crown dealerships are still open, but as of Monday they will be operating by appointment only for sales and service, he said.

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