Some Manitoba small businesses still fall through cracks of revamped COVID-19 bridge grant

Some independent Manitoba business owners say the province’s latest effort to offer financial support still leaves out professionals it intended to help.

Premier Brian Pallister announced this week that the Manitoba bridge grant program would expand to include home-based businesses.

Event planner Jonathan Strauss wasn’t eligible during the first round of bridge grants doled out last month, despite his industry being hard hit by COVID-19 orders restricting big gatherings.

The president of Strauss Event & Association Management said he applied for the grant again Wednesday, when the second round opened online. He still doesn’t qualify under the revised rules — geared toward home-based businesses — and he suspects it’s because he rents office space.

“We’re all impacted in the same way, whether we pay rent or not. I would argue I’m more impacted because I do pay rent, I pay property taxes and school taxes,” he said.

“The support now will just mean that we can keep people employed and we can be here when it is safe to gather in larger groups again.”

On Tuesday, Pallister specified photographers, tradespeople and event planners among the professions who can now access a grant equal to 10 per cent of their revenues from the last calendar year, up to $5,000.

The move came after some in those professions spoke out, after initially being left out of the grant program.

Pallister credited discussions with political rivals at the legislature with helping inform the revised program.

Uncertainty looms

Strauss has been in business for 25 years and has about $100,000 in overhead costs annually, including rent, utilities, school and property taxes.

He employs 15 staff that he has been able to keep on during the pandemic, despite restrictions on gatherings that make it virtually impossible to carry on business as usual.

He’s been able to stay afloat thanks in large part to the federal wage subsidy. Provincial support through the back-to-work wage subsidy also enabled Strauss to keep a summer student on into the fall.

But even with the glimmer of hope of widespread vaccination in the coming months, Strauss isn’t optimistic large event-based businesses will begin to rebound until well into next year.

“The real thing for us right now is the uncertainty of what comes over the next nine months or longer, depending on the vaccine rollout,” he said. “The $5,000 just means that I can more confidently say to my staff that I can continue to keep everyone employed.”

CFIB discouraged by grant gaps

Jonathan Alward, Prairie director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said Strauss isn’t the only one to fall between the cracks again.

Alward said CFIB has heard from Strauss and others this week, including a photographer who rents studio space and therefore isn’t eligible.

He is glad more home-based business owners will be helped by the bridge grant changes, but said he’s also discouraged by the fact that those with studios or offices don’t qualify.

“We were working with the provincial government to identify these gaps and I was hopeful that we could get some changes, but they went with a different approach,” he said. 

“[The grant] needs to be there for every business that’s been either directly or indirectly impacted by the restrictions.”

‘This is not a hobby’

Like Strauss, Shelley Pfeifer is also confused.

Pfeifer has run, a leisure travel advisory company specializing in tours for groups of women, for 17 years. The business is run out of her home and is entirely commission-based, but Pfeifer has made almost nothing since March due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Shelley Pfeifer, owner of travel advisory company, poses for a photo in Paris pre-pandemic. She said she doesn’t qualify for the latest bridge grant because she is commission-based. (Submitted by Shelley Pfeifer)

When she was filling out the revamped bridge grant application this week, she realized she still doesn’t qualify because her business is based on commission, said Pfeifer.

“This is a full-time job. This is not a hobby for me, and I don’t understand how they can just take [a] red pen and go, ‘We’re just going to not include those people.'”

A government spokesperson said anyone with questions about the bridge grant should contact the program directly for clarification.

“The program requires additional business details and information to fully determine eligibility,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Every effort will be made to help them sort out their unique circumstance.”

Strauss thinks his unique circumstances shouldn’t disqualify him. He wants the home-based requirement removed.

“Level the playing field,” he said. “It would be helpful to more people and help ensure that I can keep more people employed longer term, which I know is the goal.”

The deadline apply to the second phase of the bridge grant is Dec. 31.