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Federal COVID-19 relief program leaves Yellowknife yoga studio in the lurch

Jennifer Skelton is making a fraction of what she typically earns because of the pandemic, but still doesn't qualify for the federal COVID-19 relief funding — and she's not alone.

'My net income is a negative number — yet I don't qualify for the benefit'

Jennifer Skelton, right, teaching in her yoga studio RePose in downtown Yellowknife. (Tara Marchiori)

Jennifer Skelton is making a fraction of what she typically earns because of the pandemic, but still doesn't qualify for federal funding — and she's not alone.

The Yellowknife yoga therapist counts herself among the scores of small business owners across the country who are part of the "gig economy," and were forced to temporality close in recent weeks due to the global pandemic. 

Her downtown yoga studio RePose is shuttered, though Skelton still provides online classes to a handful of her clients a couple of times a week.

It means she does not qualify for the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which offers about $2,000 a month for up to four months to people who have lost all of their income due to COVID-19.

A total of 1.72 million people have applied since the program opened to applications Monday.

"There's actually a lot of us that fall into this category, a lot of self-employed entrepreneurs that don't meet the requirements of the benefit because they've chosen to maintain a very small amount of work," Skelton said. 

Folks are going to go through their financial reserves right now in survival mode.- Deneen Everett, Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce

"The part of it that gets absurd is that many of us still have business expenses that are greater than that small amount of revenue that we're bringing in, so my net income is a negative number — yet I don't qualify for the benefit."

Skelton estimates she's losing roughly $850 a week. She said the CERB incentivizes people like her to not work at all. 

Financially, she said it might make sense to stop altogether, but there are several reasons why she won't.

"I support people with anxiety or pain," she said. "Many of my clients are now even more isolated ... I have relationships with them and I care about them so I don't want to abandon people."

A file photo of Jennifer Skeleton. Her downtown yoga studio RePose is shuttered, though Skelton still provides online classes to a handful of her clients a couple of times a week. (CBC)

Skelton added she also doesn't want to lose her business momentum in the long-term. 

"I don't want to be building from scratch when business is up and running again."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said adjustments to the CERB will be made in the coming days to include more people.

Chamber of commerce creates working group

Deneen Everett, executive director of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, said she's heard from businesses in the city that are confused about accessing the federal funding. 

But the main concern is cash flow. 

Everett said even though businesses might be closed or earning minimal revenue, they still have to cover their overhead costs like rent and taxes.

"Folks are going to go through their financial reserves right now in survival mode, and there's a concern that once this pandemic is over and it's back to business as usual, that businesses won't have those financial supports in place to get back up and running," Everett said.

To help businesses through the crisis, the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce launched a working group to identify the best ways to support them. Everett said it will come up with a list of recommendations for the three levels of government.

The chamber has partnered with its federal counterpart, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, on a national campaign dubbed the Canadian Business Resilience Network to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

What you can do to help

Everett understands how businesses would be stressed out, and offered some advice to the wider community to help them through these challenging times.

"These businesses employ our people, they sponsor our community events and make Yellowknife a vibrant place to live and they need our help right now," she said.

She suggests people connect with the companies online or purchase gift cards to help them out.  

"It's important that as a community we come together and support small businesses."

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