Manitoba employers say they're 'begging' workers to come back instead of filing for federal aid

Some Winnipeg business owners say they're struggling to hire back laid-off employees because they're choosing to claim federal emergency aid money rather than go back to work.

Federal emergency response benefit being used by some to make money, avoid going back to work, say employers

Silver Heights Restaurant and Lounge co-owner Tony Siwicki says he's struggling to keep his business open because some of his staff are refusing to come back to work during the coronavirus pandemic. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Some Winnipeg business owners say they're struggling to hire back laid-off employees who are choosing to claim federal emergency money, rather than coming back to work.

"When they'd rather sit and home and collect than make sure they have a restaurant or business to come back to, that's when you're weighing the feelings," said Tony Siwicki, co-owner of Silver Heights Restaurant.

Siwicki initially laid off more than half of his staff when the coronavirus pandemic first hit and he closed his restaurant.

Now that it's reopened for takeout and delivery, he's trying to bring employees back. But he says half of them told him they'd rather claim the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB, than come back to work.

He said some of his employees told him they'd rather not come back to work because their family members work in essential services, and they don't want to put them at risk.

"So there are certain people that have to stay at home and cannot come back to work. There's a few people who would rather stay at home and collect than come back and help."

The emergency aid offers a $500 per week support, for up to 16 weeks, to people who have lost their source of income because of the pandemic.

Seasonal workers and those who have recently run out of employment insurance are also now eligible, as are people who make less than $1,000 a month due to reduced work hours.

Workers who gave up their job voluntarily aren't eligible for the emergency response benefit.

"Everybody's got bills to pay. It's easy money to collect while you're unsure of what the future is going to hold," said Siwicki.

"But with our restaurant being around for 63 years, we have made connections with all our employees and it is a family."

Restaurant owners 'begging' staff to come back

The Manitoba Restaurants and Foodservices Association says several of its members are facing a similar challenge.

Many restaurants that need help with takeout and delivery want to hire back staff they initially laid off, but association executive director Shaun Jeffrey says some employees are declining the jobs.

He says he thinks it's because people don't realize you can earn up to $1,000 a month and still qualify for the federal benefit.

"It seems that we're flattening the curve and getting close to trying to get out of this situation, so we want to make sure that we have restaurants that are viable and functional when we open up," said Jeffrey.

"Our restaurant operators are begging their staff to come back and assist them to remain viable through this time so we can get out of this and get back to normal."

Shelley Ediger is the owner of GarmaTech Inc. She says she's having trouble hiring back staff who would rather claim the CERB. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Other industries are struggling, too.

Shelley Ediger's clothing manufacturing business, GarmaTech Inc., has shifted gears, and is now making personal protective equipment for health-care workers.

The staff she's asked to come back are instead filing for CERB.

"It's really frustrating that employees have the option to not come into work when we need them. And it's an option that is arguably more profitable for them to not do anything than to contribute," said Ediger.

"The government got money out as fast as they could, and that's great because people really needed it. But from a business perspective I do feel like it's being used a little bit."

'Handing out CERB like it's candy'

There are some options for employers who feel stuck. Toronto labour lawyer Howard Levitt said business owners can play hardball and can give their employees an ultimatum — either come back to work now, or you won't have a job.

If that doesn't work, Levitt suggests stating on the record of employment for employment insurance that the worker resigned.

"The government is handing out CERB like it's candy, so they will still get the CERB," Levitt said.

"But in some point in the future, there will be a day of reckoning and the government will ask them to justify the CERB. That might be a year from now, it might be a month from now when the records of employment come in showing you actually quit, and there will be issues of potential fraud."

It wouldn't come down to that for Siwicki, who said he wouldn't be comfortable doing that to staff that he knows so well.

Instead, he'll wait to see what they say once provincial public health rules allow his restaurant to fully reopen.

"Help keep your businesses alive and come back to work," he said. "We need you."


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a senior reporter for CBC News, based in Regina. She's a multimedia journalist who has also worked for CBC in Winnipeg and Sudbury. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email