Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. unveils more supports for businesses hammered by pandemic

Tom Osborne, who doubles as the province's finance minister and Service NL minister, announced a number of measures Friday, including $6 million in deferred fees.

Nearly 30 initiatives announced Friday

Many businesses in Newfoundland and Labrador, and all over the world, have been hit hard by COVID-19. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Service NL Minister Tom Osborne announced nearly 30 new initiatives Friday to support businesses, including more than $6 million in deferred government fees.

"I am pleased to announce the deferral or waiver of $6 million in fees to help further help ease some of the operational pressures that our businesses are facing and free up some cash flow in these uncertain times," said Osborne, who is also finance minister.

Many of the initiatives are small ways to help businesses, the minister said, but all go toward making life easier.

"You're seeing discounts, for example, in water usage fees for microbreweries, these are very small operations and every bit of help adds up. You're seeing fish processors and fish buyers that have an impact here in terms of some waivers and some deferrals of fees," he said.

"There's no one area here that you could say 'a-ha,' but it's spread across many industries and designed to help alleviate some of the burden that industries are facing."

Some of the initiatives include:

  • Deferral of Workplace NL assessments from employers to after Aug. 31, with no interest or penalties.
  • Extending the interest-free payment plan for workplace injury insurance to March 31, 2021.
  • Eliminating or offering rebates on aquaculture licence fees, and deferral of annual Crown Lands fees for aquaculture sites.
  • Refunding a portion of vehicle registration fees for vehicles registered to businesses, if they are not in use.
  • A full rebate of base fish processor and buyer licensing fees to assist fish processing plants and fish buyers.
  • Deferral of the requirement for businesses to file yearly returns under Companies and Deeds Online and remittance of the accompanying filing fee.
  • Waiving water use charges for 2019 related to microbreweries and wineries and aquaculture due in the 2020-21 fiscal year and deferring payment of all other water charges until March 31, 2021.

One St. John's business owner was less than enthusiastic about the measures.

"I really didn't see a whole lot that would help me in my business," said Dale Abbott, owner of the Hair Factory in St. John's.

Abbott said the deferral of Workplace NL assessments will bring some relief, but added, "you can call that a benefit but for us, it's just another deferral."

Abbott said she'll still have to pay $27,000 to Workplace NL, for a business that hasn't operated in more than two months.

"For our business, the incentives that have been introduced have not benefited our business at all. We are either too big for some ,or too small for others," said Abbott.

The Hair Factory, with more than 50 employees, is one of the largest salons in the province. Employees have been getting by on emergency benefit payments from Ottawa, and are very eager to get back to work, said Abbott.

"They've had this time to learn and inspire themselves," said Abbott. "They're looking forward to being there for their clients."

Dale Abbott is owner of the Hair Factory and Underground Massage in St. John's. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The province is expected to ease some restrictions soon, which means businesses like the Hair Factory could re-open on June 8.

Abbott said customers can expect some big changes, with everyone wearing masks, physical distancing measures, and much more.

"Not being able to provide some of the little touches that we (normally would) is going to be different," said Abbott. 

Reducing red tape

Meanwhile, Osborne said new "red tape reduction" measures are also being developed, with an online portal to be launched in June to allow businesses to suggest changes to government regulations.

"Any time you look at changing or putting regulations in place, you have to balance protection of the public or protection of the province with a regulatory change, but this is an opportunity to have a good focus and hear from people throughout the province on where we can make improvements," he said.

"This will give the business community, as well as citizens in the province, the ability to communicate directly with government on areas that they feel regulations can be improved."

'Everyone has felt the pressure'

The minister said he's heard the concerns of business owners, but the priority has been flattening the curve of COVID-19.

"They're obviously under pressure and we understand that. A healthy economy is important in the province as well, and we have been having regular discussions with a number of business groups," he said. 

"First and foremost was the public health and safety of the people of the province, but everyone has felt the pressure."

It's also important to reduce the chances of an outbreak of more cases of the virus as more businesses begin to open in Alert Level 3, he said.

"If you move too quickly, you could find yourself back in the same situation where everything is shut," said Osborne.

"I think it's important that we look at the long-term strategy in ensuring that when we do allow the economy to rebound, it has the greatest potential for success."

Public sector layoffs would hurt economy: minister

When asked about workers in the public sector, the minister said most federal support programs, like the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit, don't apply to public sector workers, and laying off provincial workers would have done more harm than good to the province's economy.

"The economy was under enough stress. The federal government had promised to work with provinces as we come out of this.… To have significant layoffs or rollbacks within the public sector would have compounded the challenges within the economy," he said.

"On top of that — let be absolutely clear — the vast majority of public servants are working."

Osborne said the provincial government will also honour any previously negotiated pay increases for public sector workers, like nurses. 

Some businesses say they have been faced a devastating blow due to COVID-19 and the public health restrictions that have been in place. 

Osborne said more announcements are coming from other departments to help support businesses, some "considerably more significant" than Friday's announcement, with more coming for the tourism and oil and gas sectors, specifically.

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