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Extending temporary layoff provision ‘huge win,’ says Whistler Chamber

Employers relying heavily on foreign staff still worried about recruitment  
The Whistler Chamber of Commerce is calling Victoria's extension of B.C.'s temporary layoff provision a "huge win"—while local employers relying heavily on foreign workers are worried about having enough staff to get them through the summer. FILE PHOTO

The head of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce is calling the B.C. government’s decision to further extend the province’s temporary layoff provision a “huge win” after businesses feared paying out severance during the pandemic would have dealt them another devastating financial blow. 

Victoria made the decision to extend the layoff period from 16 to a maximum of 24 weeks, expiring Aug. 30, after hearing from business leaders that a wave of terminations would have crippled them financially. 

“Depending on the size of your business, [paying severance] could be from a few thousand dollars to over $100,000,” explained Whistler Chamber CEO Melissa Pace. “When you look at that and you understand how difficult revenue is for businesses, let alone payout on top of loss of revenue, it’s huge.” 

The extension is meant to give employers and their staff added flexibility to support economic recovery with the idea that businesses will reach agreements with their employees in the event a further extension is required. 

“This extension will provide even more certainty and flexibility,” said B.C. labour minister Harry Bains, in a release. “This will also give additional time to ensure that employers and workers are able to craft agreements if there is a need to further extend temporary layoffs, while still protecting workers’ rights to compensation for length of service.

“Employers who are not able to return to full operations and need additional time can do so with agreement from their employees, but we expect those employees will be recalled when operations have resumed.”

Employers and workers have the ability to extend temporary layoffs by making a joint application to the Employment Standards Branch. Bains added that it is “important to ensure that workers know they have to be involved in the agreement with the employer” and have the right to decline the layoff and accept the compensation they are entitled to. 

According to the chamber’s most recent survey, 11 per cent of responding Whistler businesses said that not extending the layoff period would have either forced them into insolvency or prohibited them from reopening. Thirty-four per cent of those surveyed said it would have forced them to terminate valued, long-serving staff, while 42 per cent said the cost of rehiring and training new staff would put the viability of their business in question.  

Even still, Pace was clear that the layoff provision held more weight to some local businesses than others, depending on their respective situations. Alistair Cray, GM of Whistler Cooks Catering, said that, because much of its foreign, seasonal staff was forced to leave the country when COVID-19 hit, the company was able to hire back a core team of full-time employees to work as business levels rose incrementally. 

“There’s been only a couple of people who decided to go in another direction [in agreeing to be terminated], so actually, the layoff piece itself hasn’t had a huge impact on us,” Cray said.
Businesses that rely more heavily on foreign workers, such as Whistler’s hotel sector, are faced with a distinct dilemma as rubber-tire traffic looks to pick up this summer. With many frontline foreign workers waiting out the pandemic in their home countries, hoteliers are worried they won’t have the necessary staffing in place to weather the expected bump in visitation this summer. 

“If the business starts running even into strong weekends, who is going to provide that coverage, because we’ll all be looking at the same hiring pool of staff?” asked Hotel Association of Whistler president Saad Hasan. “That is certainly a concern for all the hotel members. Where are we going to get the staff to do the frontline jobs?” 

Temporary Foreign Workers are permitted to continue travelling to Canada, and Ottawa has also committed to improving the program’s flexibility and remove red tape for employers. But convincing foreign workers to travel at the height of a global pandemic could prove difficult. 

Hotels are pivoting to focus recruitment on local and regional employees, but Hasan said enticing nearby workers, particularly frontline staff, to Whistler is not as easy as some might expect. 

“When you start getting into the management and supervisory positions, maybe there’s a career interest that kicks in and people may choose to do that. But if you’re looking at the frontline level, where a lot of our frontline staff comes here to ski, to mountain bike, to work and enjoy all that, you can [do much of that] in Vancouver,” he noted. “That enticement is not as much as one would think.”