Shannon L’Heureux, owner of Due North Maternity and Baby, walks back to her shop after picking up her bagel order from Bullet Hole Bagels in Whitehorse on March 26, 2020. Unlike some businesses which have had to close entirely due to the outbreak of COVID-19, Bullet Hole Bagels is still offering pre-ordered bagels for pick-up, but still had to lay-off three full-time staff members. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

‘We need money’: Yukon small business owners hunker down and lay off staff

Owners speak to economic impacts of COVID-19

Small business owners say every day presents a new set of financial challenges since restrictions were put in place to combat COVID-19.

Reducing hours, cutting staff — necessary adjustments, many told the News. But even if impacts are punched down, they aren’t going to go away any time soon, with some calling on the Yukon government to step up and help bail them out.

“We need money,” said Thane Phillips, co-owner of Physio Plus, who’s had to layoff 15 staff.

He wants to see grants from the Yukon government, adding that immediate action is required to lessen further damages to small businesses in the territory.

“If these things happen at the speed of government, many businesses are f—ked,” he said. “I understand that people are working very hard, but my reality is I have bills every two weeks, and my revenue has effectively hit zero instantly.

“They need to make a difference in the amount of money we’re paying out. They can cut our energy bills. A lot of these businesses need inventory relief. If you want us to be here in six months, you need to support us now.”

Phillips said business owners aren’t eligible for employment insurance (EI).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $2,000 per month for those who can’t tap into EI this week.

The Yukon government is following through with its commitment to a paid sick leave program, now covering those who don’t qualify for it so that they can stay home if sick. The self-employed are also eligible.

“It means that retroactive to March 11 all eligible Yukoners will receive an additional 10 paid sick leave work days in the event they become sick and need to self-isolate during this pandemic,” said Ranj Pillai, minister of the Department of Economic Development, on March 26 of the roughly $6 million program, adding that doctors’ notes aren’t required.

Employers, he continued, are able to recoup wages paid out to sick employees for the days they took off.

Co-owner Katja Schmidt closed the doors of Miner’s Daughter/Dirty Northern and Sheep Camp on March 22. Forty staff members have been let go.

“It’s hard to lay people off, but it’s completely out of our control,” she said, adding that they decided against takeout. Doing so could mean even more financial losses.

“People don’t have a lot of money right now,” said Kristine Kent, co-owner.

Their landlords have cut the business some slack. Their mortgage has been deferred for six months, they said, adding that some aren’t so lucky.

The Yukon government announced the establishment of a business advisory council this week in order to monitor further economic impacts. Twenty people are part of it. They are looking into the issue for six months, perhaps longer, if necessary.

Schmidt said the advisory council lacks small business representation.

The council includes executives of companies such as Air North, Victoria Gold and Tim Hortons.

Schmidt said if there’s a bailout, it should apply to all business, regardless of size.

“I hope that group is able to reach out and make equitable, fair decisions,” she said.

Adrian Burrill, co-owner of Bullet Hole Bagels, said he and his business partner are selling pre-ordered bagels for pickup in order to account for overhead costs. But his concern lies with his employees — he’s had to layoff three full-time staff members.

“We’re gonna be OK, but I’m worried about our employees,” he said. “Something we’ve never had to do. It’s a weird feeling.”

He, too, wants to see a wage subsidy from the Yukon government.

“I know some businesses are really gonna struggle — they might tank — but we’re in a fortunate position that we’re able to do this operation at a minimal level,” Burill said.

Kym Rempel, owner of Anto, said she’s moved online and now sells more items beyond soap there, with free local delivery.

The largest part of her business is wholesale, however. Appetite for her products has dried up across the country with stores closing down, she said.

“That’s been the hardest hit for me.”

She’s cancelled job interviews. Her one staffer isn’t on the clock anymore.

She wants assistance with expenses and rent.

“I think the scariest thing, I think for a lot of small businesses, would be to lose our spaces,” she said.

Once sanctions in the Yukon are lifted, the economy will take time to kiss its wounds and recover.

“Things won’t kick-start right away,” Rempel said.

“It sort of seems to me that the casualty of all this is really gonna be the fun, funky parts of our town and community, like the artists, musicians, small businesses that are gonna be the hardest hit. I feel fear for that.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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