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HomeBusinessCOVID roundup: NDP throws budget out the window to battle pandemic; tourism industry seeks bailout; civic workers brace for layoffs

COVID roundup: NDP throws budget out the window to battle pandemic; tourism industry seeks bailout; civic workers brace for layoffs

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Bob Mackin

Imagine the day your hiring is announced and your new boss arranges one of the biggest assignments of your career.

That is what happened to Michael Pickup, the auditor general of Nova Scotia who will switch coasts to become British Columbia’s auditor general in July.

Premier John Horgan (Hansard)

Pickup’s eight-year appointment was announced during an emergency sitting of the B.C. Legislative Assembly on March 23. Finance Minister Carole James tabled a $5 billion package aimed at rescuing an economy that ground to a halt after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11.

The seven NDP members, three BC Liberals and two Greens voted for the pandemic response and economic recovery bill and to amend the employment standards law for unpaid, job-protected leave for employees affected by the crisis.

The relief package includes $2.8 billion in programs for residents and services and $2.2 billion for businesses. Eligible British Columbians will receive a $1,000 tax-free payment and tax credit top-ups.

Tax filing and payment deadlines are extended to the end of September for PST, municipal and regional tax, and taxes on tobacco, motor fuel and carbon. Businesses with a $500,000 or higher payroll can defer employer health payments until Sept. 30. The 7% tax on e-commerce and soda pop has also been delayed from July 1. It was unclear whether the package eventually would lead to higher taxes, service cuts or cancelled or delayed infrastructure projects. 

The two bills were the furthest thing from the minds of James and Premier John Horgan when they tabled a balanced budget last month.

“I can’t recall, in my time as a member of this place, coming on 15 years — nor as a student of history, going back over the many, many decades, a century and a half of Canada’s existence — where British Columbians have had their elected representatives meet on such a dark and troubling occasion to talk about how we come out of that darkness better off for the effort,” Horgan said. 

Michael Pickup, B.C.’s new auditor general (Nova Scotia)

Pickup is the permanent replacement for Carol Bellringer, who suddenly announced her resignation last September after tabling a faulty report on the Legislature spending scandal. Bellringer did not conduct the promised forensic audit after lobbying heavily to keep the assignment in her office, instead of letting it go to an out-of-province auditor (as originally recommended by the all-party committee that oversees the legislature). 

Bellringer’s interim replacement, Russ Jones, was among the four candidates who were interviewed Feb. 21. The committee instead chose Pickup, Nova Scotia’s auditor general since 2014 and a 25-year veteran of the Auditor General of Canada’s office.

A silver lining of the pandemic? It brought political adversaries together unlike before. The sitting even had a question period, but there was no desk-thumping, clapping or jeering or sneering across the aisle. Almost four years after Delta independent MLA Vicki Huntington’s private member’s bill failed to achieve the same.

“The absence of partisanship I think all British Columbians should celebrate,” Horgan said. “At this unique time, partisanship has left the building. People are here to work together with one singular focus. That’s the health and well-being of all British Columbians.”

The Legislature is unlikely to return to finish the spring session, which had been scheduled through the end of May. The emergency is also likely to put to bed any suggestion of an early election in fall 2020. British Columbians are scheduled to go to the polls in October 2021.

British Columbia’s tourism lobby pleads for bailout

In a March 21 letter to NDP tourism Minister Lisa Beare, Tourism Industry Association of B.C. CEO Walt Judas, said the $19 billion-a-year industry that employs 300,000 suffered a “direct and severe blow.”

“With all leisure and business travel not at a standstill, B.C.’s visitor economy will lose several billion dollars in revenue during the March to June period alone,” Judas wrote.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of cruise ships in Vancouver and Victoria until July and the premature end of the skiing and snowboarding season, including at Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s biggest resort.

“While our industry is doing what it can to support thousands of employees who rely on a thriving tourism industry to pay their bills and support their families, we cannot do it without government assistance,” Judas wrote.

The industry’s wish list included an incremental supplement to the federal wage subsidy; a program to offset fixed costs; a temporary raise to the employer health tax exemption and a reduction or elimination of the tax for eligible businesses in the 2020 tax year; and immediate sale of packaged beer, wine and spirits with take-out or delivery from restaurants.

Government already acted on the latter during the weekend.

An internal member impact survey found 43% of respondents expect extreme and 26% severe impacts on their business over the next six months. Almost nine in 10 reported postponements and cancellations from clients and customers due to the pandemic.

City workers brace for layoffs

Leaders of City of Vancouver’s three unions reached an agreement with city hall to protect jobs. But the head of the outside workers’ union concedes that major job losses are inevitable.

Vancouver city hall (CoV)

A March 23 memo from Andrew Ledger of CUPE Local 1004, which represents outside workers, said locals 1004, 15 and 391 concluded discussions on the letter of understanding with city hall, park board and civic library management.

“We now expect significant changes to our workforces; with many civic facility closures already in place, this week will see more city operations suspended and significant layoffs to follow,” wrote Ledger.

The details will be circulated after city council ratifies. The memo said the main points include:

Seniority protection during the public health crisis, wage and benefit protection when work group layoffs occur; and No bumping during temporary layoffs.

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