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Four ways Canadian governments can help small business survive COVID-19’s second wave

Our efforts to help small businesses survive the pandemic didn’t work. As we wind down the Save Small Business campaign, here’s what we learned and why the future can be different.

By Erin Millar, Jon Shell, Michael Smith and Ben Coli of SaveSmallBusiness.ca

“I have so much fear. How will I feed my family?”

“I’ve stopped working to save lives, but am about to lose everything I’ve built.”

“This is scary as hell. I have employees to pay. Kids to feed.”

We watched these words appear in a Google spreadsheet on the early morning of March 23 2020. Written by small business owners across the country, their stories represented what so many people were feeling in that moment, a week after hundreds of thousands of small businesses suddenly closed because of COVID-19.

Reading these stories was heartbreaking — but the sheer quantity was shocking. Late the night before, a small group of us had hastily created a website called SaveSmallBusiness.ca, inviting other small business owners to share their stories and sign a petition demanding support. We didn’t expect much to come from it. But by morning, 200 small businesses had signed up. Within 24 hours, our group mushroomed to 2,000. As of our latest count: 38,433.

Small business owners were facing impossible decisions. One family company in operation since 1980 had to choose between not paying employees or keeping a roof over their own heads. “Our guys have families. How are we supposed to do this?” they wrote. “We have been working hard for decades. This is all we have. We could lose everything we have worked for for years!”

Another business owner wrote: “I feel forced to continue my business in order to pay my expenses. This puts me, my family and customers at risk.”

Reading these stories as they were added to the spreadsheet — at its peak, four every minute — was like watching a nightmare scroll down on our computer screens in real time.

Winding down Save Small Business

We’re writing this all down now because today, almost six months after we accidentally created a powerful grassroots coalition of tens of thousands of small business owners, we’re winding down the Save Small Business campaign.

We aren’t quitting because the work is done. We’re wrapping this up because after months as a loose group of volunteers working at this off the side of our desk, late at night and on weekends while running our own businesses and raising our families, we have run out of steam.

We’re honoured to have been the mouthpiece for this group of resourceful, adaptable, ingenious and ferociously independent entrepreneurs from across Canada at a time when we had a message that urgently needed to be heard. We’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories of small businesses on the brink and witnessed so many amazing feats of resiliency.

We had some wins. The stories business owners shared changed the media narrative in this country and helped to form Canadians’ understanding of the economic crisis. Without the sustained pressure of our group, we doubt our governments would have provided rent support, which, despite its shortcomings, helped more than 100,000 businesses survive. Most importantly, our community created space for voiceless business owners to advocate, vent, share, cry and encourage one another during one of the most challenging times in our lives.

Sadly, this article is not a declaration of victory. For a brief period of a few weeks, we felt like we had the momentum to secure the policies needed to save all our businesses. But in the end, the policies we were advocating were delayed, watered down and over-complicated.

Some businesses got the support they needed to survive the shutdown, but many, many didn’t. And many thousands continue to face possible collapse this winter, as we enter the unknown of the second wave of this virus.

That’s why, before we sign off, we’ve written this article as a final contribution.

We hope that our federal and provincial governments, as well as the business lobby, can learn from what we’ve experienced working on the Save Small Business campaign. We want to explain how our campaign was necessary because our governments, media and business lobbyists misunderstood how small businesses operate in the early days of the pandemic. We will show how the government bungled the Canadian Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program (CECRA), the most important support for small local businesses, and how their missteps form a pattern that has played out across other programs. And we will end with four recommendations for how the government can improve its approach to supporting small business as we tackle the next phase of the pandemic.

The Save Small Business Campaign: Born Out of Desperation

We never set out to become small business advocates. But in mid-March it was clear to anyone with a small business background how devastating the shut-down would be. No one seemed to be paying attention, not the media (with some notable exceptions) and certainly not governments. We worried especially what COVID-19 would mean for businesses owned by women and other underrepresented people with less access to capital. It felt like war time, and saving small business felt like a calling. We’re not lobbyists, but rather a group of volunteers and small business owners. We didn’t know how to advocate for help, but we felt we had to try.

To understand the desperation that brought more than 38,000 people together in a matter of weeks it’s important to remember how out of step Canadian governments were at the time, both with the urgency of the economic catastrophe and with the rest of the world’s reaction to it. Other countries seemed to understand what was coming right from the start. In mid-March, the President of France was declaring “war” against the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, Denmark rolled out a plan to spend 13% of GDP to freeze the economy for three months and Australia established an emergency “national cabinet” with its Prime Minister and Premiers. All three paid special attention to small business in their responses, from pausing mortgages and rent to providing cash grants to businesses that had to close. Other countries invoked similar measures.

Here in Canada, in contrast, on March 18th our government announced a series of loans and a 10% wage subsidy (while other countries were implementing 80% wage subsidies). They talked about the credit markets, and our finance minister assured us that he’d been talking to the CEOs of the banks and they would help out their customers where they could. The Prime Minister declared his concern for the tourism industry, without mentioning the other industries that were so obviously going to be affected. As people stayed at home and businesses started to close, it was clear the government didn’t understand how quick and devastating the impact was going to be for our economy, and small business in particular.

And so we put our regular lives aside, and dedicated ourselves to raising awareness of the issues, drawing attention to good solutions in other countries and pushing our governments to take action.

How the most important small business program was bungled

Save Small Business began with a simple petition asking for three things: a larger wage subsidy, help with fixed expenses like rent, and no-interest deferrals of debt payments. But once we surveyed the small business owners that signed that petition, it became clear that there was one issue that stood out: rent. 67% of business owners said rent relief was the most important potential government support, and nearly half said they wouldn’t survive without it. The much touted wage subsidy was the most important program for less than 10% of respondents.

Canada’s media and business lobby didn’t understand this at the time. Most articles in March focused on the collapse of our largest airlines and the business lobby (including the small business and retail lobby) was focused solely on a larger wage subsidy. But wage subsidies don’t help businesses that aren’t operating at all, but are helplessly standing by while their rent and debt obligations pile up.

So we devoted ourselves to fighting for commercial rent support. We tried everything we could think of. We sent examples of the stories we were collecting to public servants. We elbowed our way onto the daily business stakeholder phone calls with the Finance Minister’s staff and restated our case again and again, every day for weeks. We brought the small business lobby along. We convinced the Canadian Federation of Independent Business to start surveying their constituency about rent, and the results galvanized them to join the fight. We took late night phone calls with senior ministry staff who were desperate for actionable ideas. We analyzed other countries’ responses. We wrote a detailed policy paper proposing a multi-pronged approach for commercial rent support. We took endless media interviews.

The government was so unprepared and scrambling to such an extent that for a brief moment in time in early April, we had a seat at the table. But we’re not policy experts or lobbyists. We were just small business owners who happened to have been exposed to hundreds of desperate stories from other owners from across the country. Our role felt both inappropriate and essential at the same time.

Then, on April 17, Justin Trudeau announced in his daily briefing that the federal government, in partnership with the provinces, would provide rent relief to the small businesses most affected by COVID-19. That night, three of us got together on Zoom for a celebratory drink.

Oh, how naive we were.

Four problems with rent relief: (1) slow rollout; (2) provinces not showing up (3) over complicated paperwork; and (4) letting the banks off the hook

It would be another month, a full two months after these businesses closed because of COVID-19, before Minister Morneau announced details of how the government would help pay April, May and June rent via CECRA. While he should have focused on rent support as the most important issue facing small businesses, he prioritized other things.

This late-to-the-game approach to rent support continued over the coming months, as he waited until the last day of June to announce CECRA’s extension to July. The same story replayed on July 31. On September 8 2020, the government announced they would extend CECRA into September — eight days after September rent was due. How are small business owners supposed to make crucial decisions about reopening and their futures?

But there were bigger problems with CECRA than its slow rollout, and those problems were emblematic of the entire government response to the small business crisis.

CECRA relied on landlords to apply for rent relief on behalf of their tenants and to cover 25% of the rent themselves. Anyone with on-the-ground knowledge of the relationship between small business tenants and their landlords knew this would only work if eviction moratoriums were in place, forcing landlords to engage in finding a solution. So, when CECRA was announced without eviction moratoriums in place, we knew the program was doomed.

Commercial evictions are the domain of the provinces, and, as has often been the case over the last five months, the provinces did not step up. Despite talk of collaboration between levels of government, behind the scenes everyone was blaming each other. The provinces felt the federal government was stepping on their jurisdictional toes and the federal government felt like the provinces were hanging them out to dry by not enacting evictions bans. In Australia, a country with the same jurisdictional challenges, their national cabinet had agreed on an approach to rent and evictions in early April. COVID-19 demanded that leaders rise above “jurisdiction,” and ours responded with bickering.

If one scene defined the entire debacle, it would be Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford lambasting landlords at a press conference in late May for not signing up for CECRA. We, along with every other small business advocate, had been screaming at the top of our lungs that an evictions ban was necessary in Ontario. He could have immediately acted and provided much-needed stress relief from small businesses across the province. But instead, he went on TV for several days and pretended to fight for the “little guy” against “vicious landlords” while claiming that an eviction ban wasn’t legally possible, his hands were tied. It made for great politics, but it was terrible policy.

More than a week later, after some landlords had already evicted their small business tenants, Ontario put a commercial evictions ban in place.

Then, there was the issue of paperwork. Almost immediately after the application for CECRA was released, landlords raised alarms. To qualify for CECRA the hoops you needed to jump through were very time consuming, and some of the rules just simply didn’t make sense. Larger landlords, with hundreds of tenants, needed to fill out documents for each one — it amounted to thousands of pages. Instead of designing for ease of use to help the most possible small business owners, it was designed for fraud prevention. We saw this time and again with the federal Ministry of Finance; they showed more concern that some people might game the system than about the businesses that might fail without help.

Finally, commercial rent relief would have benefited tremendously from the involvement of Canada’s banks. The biggest expense for most landlords is their mortgage payments, and if those could have been paused, as has been done by banks in other countries, it would have made a huge difference. But we heard from the very start that this government had no interest in making demands of the banks and were very deferential to their opinion. Whenever we raised the topic we were immediately shot down. In the end the banks offered few or no loan deferrals for commercial landlords giving them an easy excuse if they chose not to apply for rent relief for their tenants.

All of these issues could have been avoided had the people designing CECRA worked closely with people with actual small business experience. We had many frustrating calls and sent many emails explaining on-the-ground issues to policy makers only to be thanked for our input with no follow-up. Where other governments brought in help from the business and labour community to provide insight and support directly to policy makers, this one seemed to keep people at arm’s length and decision-making in a very tight black box. Even within government we would sometimes hear from one ministry that they didn’t know what the other ministry would do. It was clear that the vast array of issues associated with COVID-19 was understandably overwhelming the government staff, but still they chose to go it alone.

So, while we had very high hopes on April 17th, we were not surprised when CECRA ultimately failed to reach many businesses eligible for support. As of September 8, when the federal government announced the latest extension of CERCA, 106,000 small business tenants received a total of $1.32 billion in rent relief. This is less than half of the $3 billion the Provinces and Federal government allocated to the program, and spent over five months rather than the original three. In our surveys, fewer than half of the businesses that qualified for CECRA said they were likely to receive it.

We could tell a similar tale about other programs the government created to support businesses. Both the CEBA loan program and CEWS wage subsidies followed the same pattern: developed behind closed doors without meaningful collaboration with the business community; announcements lacking details or full of holes; numerous late-to-the-game changes to fix the programs, causing uncertainty and confusion; and major players like banks and provinces noticeably absent where they could have provided substantial help.

We don’t know all the answers, but we do know that if this pattern continues, this winter will most certainly bring the failure of thousands of small businesses that are currently barely hanging on.

What small businesses need to survive the next phase: confidence and cash

Looking ahead, there are two main issues where we think policy makers and advocates should focus: (1) making the economic response to future outbreaks less uncertain so small businesses can plan with confidence and (2) helping them navigate the massive build-up of deferrals incurred over the last six months.

Here’s where the small businesses that make up our community stand. According to our last survey, over half said they were unsure or it is unlikely that their business will survive COVID-19. When asked about their current struggles, the most cited challenge was “planning for the coming months with so much uncertainty.” They cited uncertainty as a bigger challenge than the costs of reopening or meeting debt payments.

So more important than even a cash infusion, will be whether the government can offer clarity about what support to expect in a timely manner. The last six months have been incredibly stressful, and the public policy environment has fuelled that stress. With the last-minute nature and lack of details included with program announcements, owners have been living day-to-day, constantly refreshing their screens for news that can inform their decisions about whether to try to continue or close up shop.

Meanwhile, over the last six months many businesses have survived by deferring debt payments, rent, utility bills, sales tax and property taxes. They’ve postponed credit card and supplier payments. All of this is more debt, and often with high interest rates and impatient creditors.

With a slow recovery, finding extra cash flow to pay these debts is going to be next to impossible. The worst hit businesses will obviously be the ones who had to largely shut down for part of the last six months: restaurants, tourism, personal services, child care, etc. Without a cash infusion, they won’t be here to hire people in local communities as the economy recovers.

Four recommendations for improving the government’s approach

Some of the government’s missteps are understandable: responding to a global pandemic is both new and incredibly challenging. However, we now have months of experience both here in Canada and from around the world. We know a lot more about this virus. It should be possible to create a playbook for responding to local outbreaks that account for the health, education and economic implications for that area. If this playbook were communicated, and businesses understood how they would be supported in the event of potential future shutdowns, they’d have the information they need to make a thoughtful choice about the future of their businesses.

This problem can be solved by acting on the following four recommendations.

  1. Bring in some help. Government is being asked to do more than it ever has before, outside of wartime. But it doesn’t have the capacity, knowledge or experience to manage all the problems it needs to solve. It’s well past time to acknowledge that this is okay. No one expects government to know everything. On March 25th Australia commissioned a group of business leaders from various sectors to inform their COVID-19 recovery plans. Our Federal governments’ approach is to ask people for opinions, and decide for themselves. It’s not working and it’s time to try something new.
  2. Listen to real people on the ground. Save Small Business has demonstrated that the government lacks a channel to hear from most small business owners. Many small businesses are not represented, whether because they are simply too small or don’t align with the narrow politics of the traditional business lobby. Whether or not the Liberal government likes the business lobby’s politics, it has a responsibility to listen to the broader small business community. And bankers, business consultants and big business advocates that have easy access to government don’t understand how small business actually operates. The government has an obligation to find new ways to listen to real small business owners, not only pay lip service to their self-appointed representatives.
  3. Put away the hammer, bring out the scalpel. The broad-stroke programs, like the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy, have provided billions in subsidies to profitable companies that did not need the support. In the panicked urgency of the early days of the crisis, wide-ranging, inclusive programs that enabled public health officials to shut everything down were understandable. Going forward, though, we know a lot more about this virus and we know we’re more likely to experience localized outbreaks. Melbourne, a city of five million people, is currently in complete shut-down to limit a localized outbreak. We don’t know how long it will take to produce and distribute a safe vaccine, so we need effective and efficient ways to manage the economic and public safety implications of these events. Think about a well-funded “economic SWAT team” that could help shut down businesses to protect the public while ensuring they are able to survive and support their employees, working in partnership with affected municipalities. The shift from frantic crisis management to strategic threat suppression needs to start now.
  4. Demand more from the financial industry. Canada’s banks and insurance companies benefited from their cozy relationship with the previous Finance Minister. While the banks avoided any real support to commercial landlords, and insurance companies refused to pay out business interruption insurance, no pressure came from the federal government. Meanwhile, massive debts have been racked up in the form of deferred rent as both landlords and tenants struggle with cash flow. As the economy re-opens, the finance industry should be forced to contribute in the form of commercial mortgage abatements to support the forgiveness of rent deferrals, and the payout of most business interruption insurance. When the dust settles, Canadians will seek answers as to why banks were allowed to continue to rack up huge profits while so many in the economy faced financial ruin. And the finance minister of the day had better hope that most Canadians don’t realize that the banks were paid millions in wage subsidies while they did so.

As we sign off from our five months of activism, there can be no doubt that we fell very short of our goal. The rent relief we fought for helped a small portion of the businesses that qualified. We weren’t able to force banks into meaningful action on debt relief. And many businesses were left out of the CEBA loan and CEWS wage subsidy.

Nevertheless, our admiration and affection for the entrepreneurs of this country grew even as we watched their ranks shrink as one more restaurant, one more salon, one more retail shop closed forever.

We started this campaign because of the power of their stories and the pain we felt for their desperation. Because it’s about “business,” this conversation can get technical and unemotional. But this is very much a story about people. When local businesses go under there’s often a family behind it, with a story and a history with their neighbourhood. These risk-taking entrepreneurs are not common. There’s no one waiting in the wings to take the same risk. Our economy can’t simply replace them. We hope our politicians understand that saving small businesses devastated by events completely out of their control is both an economic and a moral imperative.

While we’re very critical of federal and provincial governments in this essay, we spoke to dozens of capable and dedicated public servants working 100 hour weeks. We don’t mean to diminish their efforts, but to raise the issues that limited their effectiveness. So many of them wanted a different outcome, and we think were as disappointed as us when it didn’t happen.

This is the end for Save Small Business. We have to get back to our own small businesses, our small children and our spouses. But we hope that the government can learn from the mistakes made during the first wave of COVID-19 and produce an adaptive playbook for protecting small businesses for the remainder of the pandemic.

Written by

Entrepreneur, hopeful capitalist and aspiring economic justice activist

Entrepreneur, hopeful capitalist and aspiring economic justice activist

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