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We’re in the middle of a nasty third wave. Grocery store cashiers, early childhood educators, truck drivers, and people working in retail establishments deemed essential by the provincial government are on the front lines facing COVID every day. So the question from Halifax-Needham MLA Lisa Roberts at yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee meeting looking into the government’s response to the pandemic last year seemed particularly timely.

Roberts quoted from an analysis prepared by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last January, which showed Nova Scotia was entitled to claim an additional $6 million under a federal COVID response program to top-up the wages of essential workers who are also among the province’s lowest paid. Roberts wanted to know what analysis the province had carried out to decide who qualified as an essential worker. https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/03/31/these-workers-are-keeping-canada-safe-but-they-earn-a-fraction-of-the-national-average.html

Deputy Finance minister Kelliann Dean said Nova Scotia’s approach was to use the federal program to top up wages for underpaid people working in health care. Among them were continuing care assistants, licensed practical nurses, cleaners, and home care support workers. (As readers may recall, Nova Scotia was one of the last provinces to sign on to the federal program and many CCAs didn’t receive their taxable “pandemic pay” bonus of $1,000 until last fall.)

Roberts noted that other provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador instead borrowed Public Safety Canada’s definition of essential workers, which includes those employed in energy and utilities, transportation, Information Technology, and food services such as restaurants and grocery stores. Why, Roberts wanted to know, was Nova Scotia’s pandemic pay program so narrow? 

As it turns out, Nova Scotia never actually did define who was considered an essential worker eligible for top-up during the first wave of the pandemic. Lilani Kumaranayake, the Finance department’s executive director of finance and budgetary planning, said although Public Health issued orders closing businesses and services that including dentistry and hairdressing, the government did not specify what jobs were “essential”. 

“Nova Scotia didn’t have a list of essential workers,” said Kumaranayake. “When the Essential Workers program was created, the provinces either drew from the federal definition or did their own definitions. For us, it was critical to ensure support for our frontline health care workers.”

This is the explanation for how $6 million did not get distributed to people going to work every day at stores and pharmacies. And during this third wave of the pandemic, where the risk is arguably greater among workers in stores and day care centres because many are still too young to have been vaccinated, there is little or no political discussion of any such top-up. Even private sector employers such as Loblaws, which offered Superstore employees a $2 an hour bonus during the first wave, have not reinstated the premium during this more contagious third wave. 

Contrast the risk exposure of these workers with that of large corporations whose accountants are able to source millions of federal dollars offered through wage subsidy and rent assistance programs. 

 Small businesses cry foul

Small businesses in Nova Scotia are also unhappy about the level of relief offered in either the provincial budget or through Small Business Impact assistance programs announced last week. 

The new small business program offers a grant of up to a maximum of $5,000 to any businesses closed due to Public Health restrictions on all “non-essential” businesses since April 26.

Progressive Conservative Tim Halman, MLA for Dartmouth East, told the committee that he’s been hearing from many small businesses and business associations that say the grant isn’t nearly enough to help them survive the third wave.

The deputy minister of Inclusive Economic Growth (what used to be known as “Business”) acknowledged as much.

“We will continue to respond,” said Scott Farmer. “We are hearing these concerns directly from businesses and taking a series of targeted meetings over the next few days to inform what our next steps ought to look like.” Among the groups the department is meeting with are the Realtors Association and Business Improvement Associations.

Halman also questioned Farmer why the province has been resistant to the idea of providing Nova Scotians with some type of rebate on travel/hospitality/accommodations they could use to visit destinations around the province. The New Brunswick government has endorsed for a second year an incentive to support the accommodations and hospitality industry across that province. Details on this summer’s rebate have yet to be released but New Brunswickers could claim up to $1,000 last year for travel that included an overnight stay.

Stay-cations

Nova Scotia’s deputy minister of Business (oops, make that Inclusive Economic Growth) said the idea of incentivizing Nova Scotians to travel at home is not dead — especially if it would boost tourism during the fall shoulder season. Farmer says a group within TIANS continues to work at designing a program that fulfils the province’s criteria of being “equitable.”

Finance Minister Labi Kousoulis put some meat on that definition during a discussion with reporters after last week’s cabinet meeting. 

“Having an incentive like New Brunswick’s where you are providing money for people to go on a vacation, the main drawback I see with that is it drives those dollars to businesses which are already doing well. It leaves behind the ones that are struggling the most,” said Kousoulis. “As I communicated to TIANS, if you don’t have a program that is equitable across all of the participants, then it would be a non-starter because I don’t want to drive rebated dollars towards accommodations that would have been 100% full anyway. We did have examples last summer where a lot of people were trying to book certain popular resorts and they were not able to. So I think it would be more prudent to support our more vulnerable businesses.”

Essentially, the government is worried everyone would take their mad money and flock to White Point Lodge and Digby Pines where the owners are likely to do quite well, thank you, without more government help.


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Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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