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Will federal aid programs be enough to keep Alberta businesses afloat?

This story is part of The Big Spend, a CBC News investigation examining the unprecedented $240 billion the federal government handed out during the first eight months of the pandemic. 

Many businesses in Alberta relied on federal aid programs to get through the pandemic and, in some cases, more so than those in other provinces, data shows.

Still, some businesses in the province are still missing out on the much-need federal funds for a variety of reasons such as program criteria and audit costs.

Why is demand for aid higher in Alberta?

For businesses across the country, federal aid programs have been both a sore point and a lifeline. 

In Alberta, where provincial deferral programs ended months ago, the federal government supports have helped the already suffering business sector.

“What that really points to is the fact that prior to the pandemic, Alberta small businesses were in a very dire situation, dealing with the impacts of a prolonged five-year economic recession, essentially,” said Annie Dormuth, Alberta provincial affairs director with Canadian Federation of Independent Business.  

“And now, of course, coupled with the pandemic, it has really pushed small businesses almost to a near-breaking point.” 

One of the most popular programs in Alberta has been the federal wage subsidy that subsidizes a portion of employees’ wages.

Twenty-seven per cent, or 46,360, of Alberta businesses with employees (as stated in June) accessed the Canadian emergency wage subsidy at least once, according to Nov. 22 federal government numbers.

 

CEWS is a lifeline for many businesses as it offers to pay up to 75 per cent of employees’ salaries.

To qualify, companies must show its revenue for a specific month, such as November, was 30 per cent less than the previous November.

More Alberta companies in certain sectors have accessed CEWS compared to B.C. and Manitoba.

“We saw higher uptake in certain industries over others: In construction, in oil and gas and professional services,” said Michael Holden, chief economist for the Business Council of Alberta.

The Business Council of Alberta looked at the number of employees supported by CEWS by industry in Alberta and British Columbia. It found more Alberta employees in industries like accommodation and food services are being supported by CEWS than those in B.C. (Business Council of Alberta)

It’s hard to know any specifics about the companies which have received assistance from CEWS. The federal government has not yet released a detailed list of CEWS recipients, as previously promised. 

An October Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey of almost 500 companies found small business owners in Alberta relied on CEWS and the Canada emergency business account program slightly more than the national average.

For Terrence Alty, owner of Canyon Creek Foods, the wage subsidy and $40,000 business loan has helped to keep the fresh food manufacturer business in Edmonton afloat.

“The wage subsidy really helped us a lot. We were able to maintain our 25 employees in the facility, including management,” he said.

“That really took us through the difficult time. And now we’re back running full tilt.”

Why don’t all companies qualify?

For small business owners like Daniela Felske, owner of in situ remediation company Esker Consulting, the cost of the required audit would have been higher than the subsidy she would have received.

“I realize that some companies are going to get audited, but the compliance burden for a very small company like me would just be excessive. It would have cost like thousands of dollars to respond to the audit,” she said.

The audit has been a sore point for many smaller companies across the country. 

A store front in Toronto displays a sign early on in the pandemic. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The subsidy could have been a critical support for Felske, who had to layoff her four employees.

Business owners also struggled to get rent support through the first iteration of the rent-subsidy program, known as Canada emergency commercial rent assistance, as landlords had to apply on behalf of businesses.

The rent-subsidy program is now accepting applications under new criteria, yet some Alberta businesses cannot access additional funding under the revised program unless they are under lockdown restrictions. 

Predrag Stojanovic, owner of Kittens’ Mittens Child Care in Edmonton, is not eligible for the federal wage subsidy. (CBC News)

For many business owners, it remains a challenge to access the support programs.

Business owners like Predrag Stojanovic, who started his Edmonton business Kittens’ Mittens Child Care in 2020, aren’t eligible to receive the federal wage subsidy as they can’t demonstrate losses compared to 2019.

“That definitely does not mean that we are not affected,” he said.

“We need the Department of Finance to understand that they’re disqualifying us and discriminating us.”

Is there a solution that helps every business in Alberta?

With most of the provincial deferral programs ended, the federal supports are what many businesses in Alberta are relying on.

The province recently expanded its relaunch grant to provide a second payment of up to $5,000 for businesses that have seen a 40 per cent drop in profits.

What Alberta small businesses need most is to return to normal sales, Dormuth said, but there’s no sign of sales coming back anytime soon.

“It’s definitely a dire situation for small businesses in Alberta,” she said.

Provincial and federal governments could look at injecting cash, not loan deferrals, into small businesses to help them deal with lost revenue, she said.

And, with a lockdown looming, a transparent lockdown plan and giving ample notice will help businesses prepare,  Dormuth said.


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