Manitoba still underspending business aid programs — while closed shops cry foul

The Manitoba government isn’t offering any new financial programs so far to the businesses it’s forcing to close as COVID-19 cases surge — even as its existing support programs are underspent.

The province doled out $9.3 million through its various wage subsidy programs and a grant for charities and non-profit organization that hire students, out of a possible $120 million allocated for these.

It also spent $56 million in the Manitoba Gap Protection Program — the loans for businesses who aren’t eligible for federal aid.

The province budgeted $120 million for that program and another initiative — which has spent $8.2 million so far — that paid $2,000 to each Manitoban, during a set time period, who stopped collecting the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit and returned to work.

Manitoba’s Tory government has been criticized for not doing enough for businesses, especially as public health ordered the closure, beginning Monday, of restaurant dining rooms, movie theatres, concert halls and sports facilities following days of record-shattering COVID-19 case counts.

While criticism has mounted, Premier Brian Pallister has repeatedly insisted that Manitoba’s support programs for businesses affected by the pandemic are the “most generous” of any in the country.

‘Most generous?’ Businesses disagree

Jonathan Alward with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business doesn’t see the programs in the same light.

“I’ve certainly talked to dozens, if not hundreds of business owners, that would disagree with that, many other business organizations here in the province that would disagree with that,” he said.

Alward said the province’s financial aid programs did a “relatively good job” early in the pandemic of coming to the aid of businesses left behind by Ottawa’s support.

But “these are programs that weren’t designed with a second wave [of COVID-19] in mind,” he said.

“And frankly, businesses are completely left hanging because these supports just aren’t adequate for what’s going on right now across the province.”

Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding expects the government’s financial support programs to exhaust their budgets by the end of the fiscal year. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

On Tuesday, finance minister Scott Fielding defended the province’s response. He expects the various programs to spend their allotted budgets before this fiscal year is through.

For example, applications for one of the wage subsidy programs closes next February. 

“We truly think that because we’re in a second wave and we know the supports are going to be needed, that we will use the existing dollars that are in place,” he said.

The money is going out the door, Fielding said, noting $642,000 was distributed in the last week through the Manitoba Gap Protection Program. 

The province has also provided a number of supports to individuals. 

The government paid out the entire $120 million in risk pay for front-line workers (three-quarters of that money came from the federal government), $44.5 million in individual $200 cheques for seniors and $4.5 million through a $200 benefit to lower-income Manitobans with disabilities

Fielding said Manitoba has devoted $2.3 billion to its pandemic response — which is the third highest, on a per capita basis, of the Canadian provinces.

“We do think that the programs that have been in place have been effective to keep people working here in Manitoba, while people are supported.”

He wouldn’t promise any additional programs, but said based on past precedents, the government will keep listening to the business community. 

“We’ve tried to show some flexibility through the course of the eight months of the pandemic and mould some of those programs around what the business needs are.”

Restaurants have been forced to close their dine-in services in Winnipeg. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Alward recommends that gap program’s restrictions be eliminated. Businesses are only eligible if they do not receive any federal aid. As it stands, he said, some Manitoba businesses will have to return the provincial money.

“I think any businesses that have been impacted by the latest round of restrictions, especially, need that help.”

‘Has to be a grant’

Opposition parties have called for more aid for months.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew is recommending grants of $20,000 to $30,000 for each business in need.

“The reason why it has to be a grant is because businesses have already taken out all the loans that they can, they’re already at their borrowing capacity,” he said.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province needs to pick up the businesses it forced to close.

“If the premier and the province want to talk about, ‘Well, this [pandemic] is the biggest deal in 100 years,’ then have the biggest response in 100 years.”

Also on Tuesday, Fielding defended his boss, who has taken heat for his absence last Friday while health officials delivered the news of Winnipeg’s near-shutdown. 

“I can tell you that there’s no one in this province that really has the work ethic that Premier Pallister does in terms of making sure people are supported.” 

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