Manitoba to help pay summer wages at businesses impacted by COVID-19

The Manitoba government on Thursday launched a new hiring program to help businesses rebound from the COVID-19 impact.

Initiative will cover half the pay for up to 5 employees to a maximum of $5K each

Manitoba businesses are being offered a 50 per cent reimbursement of summer hires, for up to five employees. (Laura Meader/CBC)

The Manitoba government is expanding a wage subsidy program to incorporate employees of all ages. 

Under a student subsidy program announced in April, the province was only planning to cover 50 per cent of wages, so long as the worker was under the age of 29.

Now, the government is extending the same wage subsidy offer, up to $5,000, for as many as five employees per business — but now it doesn't matter how old the employee is.

The new program was implemented to help businesses struggling to rebound from COVID-19.

"The reopening of our economy depends on businesses getting back up and running, and we encourage private-sector employers to bring back laid-off employees or take on new hires," Premier Brian Pallister said at a news briefing Thursday morning.

The province set aside $120 million for the student subsidy program, but only a fraction of the money has been spent. So far, the government has earmarked $16 million to help fund 3,200 jobs.

$120 million for both subsidies

On Thursday, the province budgeted $120 million for both the summer student program and the new Manitoba Back to Work This Summer initiative. Pallister stressed that a budget is an estimate, not a cap, and it will spend more than that if necessary.  

Laura Hawkins, owner of the Winnipeg escape-room company Engima Escapes, will be welcoming customers back on Sunday as part of Phase 3 of the province's reopening strategy.

She says she's planning to benefit from the student program because her workforce is comprised of university and high school students.

Hawkins is thrilled, though, that the province will pick up the tab for other businesses.

"I'm happy about the wage subsidy, definitely, I'm happy about all the supports we've had," she said.

Laura Hawkins, owner of Winnipeg escape-room company Enigma Escapes, is appreciative of the supports offered by the federal and provincial governments so far. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Application forms for the new program will be available next week on the government website, with a deadline of Aug. 30. Upon proof of wages paid, successful applicants will receive a lump-sum payment.

There is no age limit for eligible workers but they must be legally entitled to work in Canada. Immediate family members of the employer do not qualify, however.

"That is a difficult thing for me, coming from a family business myself," Pallister said of the exclusion of family members. "But our guidance is that it is the only way we can really exercise much control over the program."

WATCH | Manitoba to help pay summer wages at businesses impacted by COVID-19:

Manitoba to help pay summer wages at businesses impacted by COVID-19. 34:53

Charities and not-for-profit organizations are not eligible for the program, since the province recently introduced a $6,000 grant for them to hire a full-time student for summer work, Pallister said. Intake for that program began Tuesday and there are already 300 applications.

Public-sector employers aren't eligible for the program announced Thursday either.

Criticisms about supports

Pallister was asked about the criticism from some businesses who have said incentives don't go far enough, and they need the province to ease restrictions and allow them to fully open so they can pull in more revenue.

Business owners have argued they can't hire people when they're struggling to pay bills, and say they're spending more money on personal protective equipment and temporary barriers as they reopen. They've asked government help with some of those costs instead.

Freeing up 50 per cent of the wage costs for up to five employees frees up money for other expenses, Pallister said.

"Ad hoc programs around shields and so on" would be harder and more expensive to deliver, he said, "and they would be, frankly, not directly linked to the ability that all of our small businesses need to have to get people back to work."

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying the government to devote untapped money for businesses struggling through the pandemic toward restart costs and paying commercial rent. 

Loren Remillard with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce says the organization wants the province to retool its business support program to ensure all the available money is spent. (John Einarson/CBC)

"It is not a case of asking for more dollars," chamber president Loren Remillard said. "It is saying we have $240 million in two programs already committed — let's make sure we adjust those programs to meet the needs of business."

In addition to $120 million to hire students, the province also budgeted $120 million for businesses which don't qualify for other government programs or wage subsidies.

The chamber is asking for the province to pay the landlord's portion of the commercial rent assistance program.

Hawkins said any help in paying rent is valuable.

"We assumed our landlords would all take part in [the commercial program] and then one didn't," Hawkins said. "It's really quite a severe hit to us. It's over $20,000 so far."

Remillard said the chamber is also encouraging the province to establish criteria businesses can then follow and promote. It would certify that the business is compliant with measures to fend off COVID-19.

"It goes a long way to instilling confidence in the general public that this entity, this retailer, this restaurant, this place of business has undertaken every imaginable step to ensure the safety and well-being of their staff and customers."

On Thursday, the province budgeted $120 million for both the summer student program and the new Manitoba Back to Work This Summer initiative. Pallister stressed that a budget is an estimate, not a cap, and it will spend more than that if necessary. 1:43

With files from Ian Froese


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