Manitoba businesses counting on federal wage help taking wait-and-see approach

Aaron Bernstein could absorb weeks of financial losses because he knew this day was coming. 

Applying for wage subsidy can make you go 'cross-eyed,' but it's a lifeline for businesses in need

Bernstein's Deli applied on Monday for a new federal wage subsidy. The family-run business let go of a number of their employees once the dine-in restaurant had to close due to COVID-19. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Aaron Bernstein could absorb weeks of financial losses from COVID-19 because he knew this day was coming. 

His waiting paid off Monday as the owner of Bernstein's Deli could start applying for a new federal program to cover most of his wages.

Time will tell if it's enough, he says — his business has already taken a 50 per cent hit in sales. 

"If there wasn't a program, we'd be closed," said Bernstein, who runs the family-owned diner in Winnipeg.

Some life has been injected into the city's economy now that Ottawa is picking up the tab for up to 75 per cent of wages for struggling businesses, charities and non-profits. They must have lost at least 30 per cent of their revenues during the pandemic to qualify.

Bernstein can relate. He's working longer hours than before at his River Heights establishment — and he's happy to do it — but he has less to show for it. 

Revenues cut in half

"Copying down a credit card number just to sell someone one loaf of bread and run it out to them, it's a lot more work than normal," he said.

Bernstein said he has lost half his revenues and cut a third of his staff since public health orders forced the closure of his dine-in restaurant. He still has the grocery and deli sides of his business, but it doesn't make up for it.

He thought the application process for the wage subsidy, which opened Monday morning, was smooth, even if it was a headache to crunch the numbers beforehand.

Aaron Bernstein said one would go "cross-eyed" looking at the numbers he had to crunch to apply to the federal wage subsidy program. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

"I have an engineering degree and if you saw my spreadsheets, like, you'd go cross-eyed."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that 10,000 companies had applied for the program in a matter of hours.

The subsidy is available for three months, retroactive to March 15, and provides up to $847 a week per employee.

The first payments are expected to arrive on May 7.

Bernstein said time will tell if the federal support he receives, including a new loan, will cover the bills. He doesn't expect business to return to normal once the province lifts some of its constraints.

"I mean, just because restrictions are lifted doesn't mean that people are going to be comfortable enough shopping."

WATCH | Time will tell if federal support is enough

Time will tell if federal support is enough

3 years ago
Duration 2:16
As applications open up for the federal wage subsidy program, two Winnipeg businesses say they're in need of the help.

He may also feel a pinch if his restaurant operates at a reduced capacity to limit the spread of COVID-19.

"I wouldn't have opened a restaurant in the first place under that scenario and paid full rent for every square foot," Bernstein said.

Beverly Kinahan has been working 12-hour days to keep her women's clothing business going all by herself.

She's finally hiring some help, owing to the federal subsidy. 

Beverly Kinahan has hired back one employee at October Boutique due to support from the new wage subsidy program. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

"It's extremely valuable," said Kinahan, who runs October Boutique, a women's clothing boutique, on Corydon Avenue.

"It's the difference between opening up and feeling organized and prepared to go back to servicing the community to, you know, spinning our wheels."

She has a fraction of the five employees usually on her payroll. The one employee she hired is helping her run the online business, social media accounts and prepare to reopen her storefront.

Her sales have collapsed by almost 90 per cent.

"It's difficult when you go home at night that [you wonder if] you'll be financially OK, that your business will be steady," she said.

"Maybe I've convinced myself that I'm going to push through and part of that is the government kind of holding my hand."


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at


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