By Dan Baxter
BC Chamber of Commerce Week is Feb. 15-19, and rather than traditionally celebrate progression and growth presented through opportunities created by chambers of commerce, we celebrate resilience, adaptability and fight encouraged by this powerful business network.
In a “normal” year, our provincial network of chambers of commerce and boards of trade work tirelessly to help grow the people who power B.C., advocating on behalf of over 36,000 businesses to all levels of government. However, 2020 was far from normal, and in fact one of the most difficult challenges in our collective history.
With over 120 chambers of commerce in the province, they too experienced the devastating effects the onset of COVID-19 had on our families, communities, and businesses. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, chambers and boards of trade have gone above and beyond to show the value of the chamber network, not only to their members but to all businesses in British Columbia.
The network of chambers worked to gather insight from businesses of all sizes, from all sectors of the economy, across the province. What we heard was a story of hardship, but also one of tremendous resilience.
During the tumultuous year, the provincial government recognized the reach of the chamber network by inviting our network to sit on the provincial Economic Recovery Task Force, formed to ensure the province’s economic response to COVID-19 was effective and responsive.
The collaboration that took place on the provincial level highlighted the benefits a healthy relationship between chambers of commerce and a government can bring to a region.
While chambers and government do not always agree on issues, they did in B.C. when chambers backed a national sick pay program. The province agreed; we needed to protect our teams and our employees but without strapping the cost onto the already bending backs of businesses. With both parties united, we soon saw a national sick pay program developed, saving B.C. businesses millions of dollars while allowing employees to safely stay home when needed.
With many businesses operating with severely reduced revenues in 2020, in addition to increased operating costs to accommodate changing safety needs, the end of the month has been a traumatizing time for many business owners.
Responding to the challenge to pay commercial rents, the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program was launched. The joint federal-provincial program involved a voluntary application process that had to be initiated by the landlord and had the potential to save thousands of businesses.
Unfortunately, vast numbers of businesses were unable to participate.
Businesses shared their experiences and illuminated the pitfalls of the initial program. This provided the impetus for a joint provincial and territorial chambers letter to our respective governments, urging for more landlord participation and an eviction freeze to buy time for struggling small and medium sized businesses.
In B.C., this was met with the province announcing a ban on evictions by commercial landlords who refused rent assistance. This push worked again to help businesses keep their doors open over the past year.
Chambers continued to join forces with government throughout the onset of COVID-19 and into the fragile recovery stage, urging government to set aside measures that may increase costs, add to the regulatory burden, or create further uncertainty for B.C. employers. These efforts resulted in more wins for business, such as when the government changed its stance on temporary lay-off provision, allowing employers more time before making final decisions to rehire laid off employees or pay them severance.
Now, more than a year into the pandemic, many of the support programs for business have remained in place and over 70 per cent of businesses in B.C. are accessing them to continue operations.
A vaccine is being distributed and slowly but surely hope is being restored. As we re-establish balance and health in our communities and economies, chambers of commerce and boards of trade continue to work for B.C. as the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter.
Dan Baxter, Interim CEO and Director of Policy at the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of the BC Chamber Network