Chef James Varghese is hard at work preparing meals at The Nineteenth in Castlegar. The restaurant is filling take-out orders despite a staffing shortage. Photo submitted

Kootenay businesses struggling to find workers

People are opting to stay home and collect CERB rather than return to work.

As businesses try to stay open or gear up to reopen in the wake of COVID-19, many face a common problem — finding people willing to work.

Castlegar restaurateur Florio Vassilakakis has faced a number of hurdles including potential employees turning down job offers or asking him to pay them under the table so they can still qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

And it’s not because he was offering low-paying jobs. Vassilakakis was offering full-time jobs at $8 above minimum wage.

“I don’t understand how business is going to get through this if people aren’t willing to go back to work and lose that benefit,” said Vassilakakis.

It’s a scenario that Castlegar Chamber of Commerce executive director Tammy Verigin-Burk has been hearing repeatedly.

While both Vassilakakis and Verigin-Burk say they think the CERB program is great for those who need it, they have concerns over its unintended consequences negatively impacting the economy.

“People are not refusing to work because they fear the virus, they fear losing the benefit,” said Vassilakakis. “People are missing the fact that the benefits are short term, but job opportunities are long term.”

Verigin-Burk emphasized that people in high-risk categories have valid reasons for not returning to work at this point. But she says healthy people who refuse to return to work for employers that have met all provincial COVID guidelines may face consequences they haven’t considered.

“If people are not returning to work and you have met all of the COVID standards, an employer can resubmit a record of employment stating that the person is unwilling to return to work,” explained Verigin-Burk.

That person would then no longer qualify to receive the benefit.

Verigin-Burk has a strong message for people who refuse to work now, thinking they will return to work once the CERB is over.

“Due to the fact they are not returning now, the odds that they will be getting their job back in the future are slim to none,” she says. “It is a blessing that CERB came along to help those that really need it. But it is concerning for those taking advantage of it.”

One requirement of the CERB is that a person cannot have left their job voluntarily.

“If there are jobs available and they are choosing not to do it, basically what they are doing when they apply for the CERB is against the law. They are giving false information if they say there is no job for them,” said Verigin-Burk.

Unless extended, the CERB will be in place for 16 weeks.

READ MORE: Feds unveil new COVID-19 emergency benefit for students, $9B in funding

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