Manitoba·Point of View

Government COVID-19 rescue package shuts out some small businesses

The government is putting programs in place to aid businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as small business owners who have been working hard to grow in our community, we say these programs will not work.

Brandon bakery 'grew too much' in 2019, now 'heartbreaking layoffs' necessary, owner says

Staff at Chez Angela Bakery and Café 'rely on their paycheques to feed their families and make car and rent payments,' says James Chambers, whose wife Angela is the founder of the business in Brandon, Man. (Submitted by James Chambers)

The global pandemic arrived on our doorstep and sales fell dramatically.

But while the government is putting into place programs to aid businesses — large and small — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as small-business owners, we firmly state that these programs will not work. 

Furthermore, in my opinion, they're unfair. 

Here's why:

On April 1, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced that companies will have to demonstrate a 30 per cent decrease in sales in order to qualify for the 75 per cent wage subsidy program.

This 30 per cent decrease must be based on the previous year's sales.

I fully understand that some limitations need to be put in place — but this policy explicitly excludes business owners whose operations have grown.

We're not bursting at the seams with cash- James Chambers

When we started our business in 2017, my wife was the sole employee and sold her baked goods at farmers markets.

By 2018, we had grown to a staff of eight and secured a permanent location in the heart of downtown Brandon, Man.

Throughout 2019, we continually reinvested in the company to allow it to flourish.

By the start of March 2020, we had grown to a total of 24 staff, serving more than 2,000 customers per month. 

James Chambers, general manager of Chez Angela Bakery and Café, says the proposed government package to assist small business 'explicitly excludes business owners whose operations have grown.' (Submitted by James Chambers)

If you're the kind of person who's interested in the numbers side of things, let me dive in. 

In every calendar month since we opened, our sales have been higher than the same month of the previous year. 

September 2019 was bigger than September 2018. October 2019 was bigger than October 2018 — and so on.

Even in the first week of March 2020, we saw an increase of more than 35 per cent, based on the same week of the previous year.

This growth does not mean that we're bursting at the seams with cash. 

Since we make everything from scratch, labour and food costs also increased.

In fact, now it's labour that costs us the most.

Human component

Then the global pandemic arrived on our doorstep, and it hit us hard.

Our sales in March suddenly fell dramatically — to six per cent below where we were last year. 

But because we're only six per cent below March 2019, we will not qualify for the subsidies, even though this year's costs are much higher than they were last year. 

In fact, in order to qualify for the subsidies, we'd need to drop more than 50 per cent in revenue, which would dramatically impact our employees.

And this human component is very real. 

There is the stress of running an operation that serves food in a time of heightened risk. 

There are more than 20 staff members who rely on their paycheques to feed their families and make car and rent payments. 

We have staff members with children who live with disabilities, who must now stay home to care for their kids. 

We have the mental health burden on employees who have family outside the province or even overseas. 

We're being excluded from the program for no other reason than having found a way to grow- James Chambers

And my wife – who serves as both the captain and the rudder of the ship – collapsed in pain 2½ weeks ago and was rushed to the ER, where we discovered she has to deal with the ever-so-pleasant experience of kidney stones. 

To add insult to injury, she developed further complications and has since been diagnosed with pneumonia. She is now in self-isolation at home. 

When it rains, it pours.

We care about our staff. 

Everyone makes at least the fair living wage for Manitoba. 

We want to keep them working, but we have come to the heartbreaking point where we've had to lay people off. Many others are getting half the hours or fewer than they were just three weeks ago.

This has not been an easy path and we're learning as we grow. 

The burden of COVID-19 was not foreseeable, and we've done our best to pivot our business to serve our community.

But we are being excluded from the program for no other reason than having found a way to grow. 

Like so many small business owners, we're a local business and we are not sitting on deep pockets. 

Without the wage subsidy, we are not sure what survival will look like when we find a new normal.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


James Chambers is the general manager of Chez Angela Bakery and Café, in Brandon, Man.