Tens of thousands of N.S. workers grapple with layoffs as businesses close

Tens of thousands of workers in Nova Scotia are now suddenly out of jobs for the indefinite future as COVID-19 continues to spread, shuttering businesses and paralyzing the upcoming tourist season.

Stephanie Burry has worked as a server and supervisor at Sea Smoke, a restaurant on Halifax’s waterfront, since the eatery opened about two years ago. But she doesn’t know when she’ll go back to work again.

On Wednesday, Burry was called into a meeting at the restaurant. There, she and about 20 of her coworkers were told they were out of work indefinitely.

“We’re pretty much a family, so the fact that we won’t be seeing each other, the fact that management is worried we’re not going to be able to pay our bills … when they told us, tears were had,” she said.

In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, all bars in Nova Scotia have been ordered to close and restaurants are restricted to providing only takeout or delivery services. All gyms, spas, barbershops and salons, body art establishments and nail salons in the province have also been ordered to cease operations.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled an $82-billion package of emergency measures to help Canadians and businesses cope with the pandemic, including income supports, wage subsidies and tax deferrals.

Gordon Stewart, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, estimates about 30,000 people in the restaurant industry are now out of work.

“It’s a big pain for an awful lot of people across Nova Scotia,” he said.

From cruise ship cancellations to the uncertainty of air travel, Nova Scotia’s tourism season is sure to take a big hit this year. It’s estimated the province will lose around 107,000 potential tourists from cruise ships alone.

Sea Smoke is on the Halifax waterfront and is popular during the tourist season. (Google Street View)

While Burry is sad for her coworkers and restaurant management, she understands why the closure needs to happen.

“I’d rather it just be over and done with and everyone healthy and staying home until it’s gone, and then reopen and have a good summer,” she said, “instead of prolonging it longer than it needs to be.” 

She’s confident staff at Sea Smoke will get their jobs back when the restaurant reopens. In the meantime, she said the restaurant will be open for takeout with only a couple of staff members remaining.

Staff at Casino Nova Scotia got some similarly bad news. Matthew Osborne, who’s worked as a money counter at the casino in Halifax for the past 10 years, said staff were notified they were out of work late last week.

“I’ve been on holiday for the last probably five days, so I didn’t even see it coming, because usually the casino doesn’t close for anything, really,” he said. 

On Sunday, the province announced Casino Nova Scotia’s two locations in Halifax and Sydney would have to close down.

Osborne said he believes it’s a necessary measure to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and has applied for employment insurance to tide him over until the casino reopens.

Matthew Osborne has worked at the Halifax casino for 10 years. (Submitted by Matthew Osborne)

The uncertainty of the province’s tourism season has prompted Cape Breton, which is heavily reliant on tourism, to seek help.

Terry Smith, CEO of Destination Cape Breton, estimates the impact of COVID-19 to the Cape Breton tourism economy to be at least $95 million, a figure based on the island’s portion of Nova Scotia tourism revenues from March 16 through to the end of June.

Destination Cape Breton has put forward a list of recommendations in a letter to the federal and provincial governments.

“The government is going to be looking after all sectors, I think … but we just wanted to point out that there are specific needs that we’re hearing from our tourism operators,” said Smith.

The tourism industry in Cape Breton represents more than 5,500 jobs, he said. The recommendations include making it easier for tourism industry workers to access EI, and providing financial relief to businesses and organizations.

Destination Cape Breton CEO Terry Smith is calling for more measures to protect workers in the tourism sector. (Destination Cape Breton)

They also suggest working with the province to create temporary positions for sole proprietors or people working in the gig economy, such as performing artists — a suggestion from Rodney MacDonald, a former Nova Scotia premier and Inverness MLA.

For example, musicians could be put to work producing music for promotional videos and commercials.

Lastly, the letter calls for the creation of a robust recovery plan to boost the visitor economy once the outbreak subsides.

Smith said that could include offering another year of free admissions to Parks Canada sites, as was done for the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.

The federal government’s $82-billion package announced this week includes $27 billion in direct supports and another $55 billion to help business liquidity through tax deferrals. $5 billion is dedicated to support to workers who are not eligible for EI and who are facing unemployment.  

The Nova Scotia government is expected to announce aid funding for workers this week.

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