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Metro Vancouver transit strike hits small business operations

Bus and SeaBus service is cancelled in Metro Vancouver today and tomorrow.
Robert Simpson had to pay $200 to get a payroll clerk to his Vancouver head office from North Vancouver

Business owners and advocates say union job action that has halted SeaBus and most bus service across Metro Vancouver will impact their operations and, more broadly, the region's economy.

More than 180 CUPE Local 4500 workers are on strike today and tomorrow in job action that has disrupted countless residents' transit journeys.

The SkyTrain lines, Canada Line, West Coast Express and West Vancouver Transit (formerly the Blue Bus) are all still operating but the striking transit supervisors, communications supervisors and others on strike are threatening to escalate the strike and also picket SkyTrain stations.

Liberty Wine Merchants is one of the businesses that has seen the strike hurt operations. It has five stores in Metro Vancouver, with none of them near SkyTrain lines.

"Our employees are showing up late and they're not getting paid for when they're not here," owner Robert Simpson told BIV.

One key employee – a payroll clerk – was deemed essential enough that Simpson paid for a $200 Uber ride for her to get from North Vancouver to his company's head office at 291 East 2nd Avenue in Vancouver. Other workers are working from home if possible. 

Some of his employees have vehicles even though they normally take transit, he said. He said he tries to hire employees who live in the neighbourhood where his stores are located, and that most are able to walk to work. 

"Almost all of our stores opened either late, or we're short staffed," he said.

He would like the provincial government to step in and deem transit an essential service.

Both the Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT) and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBOT) are also calling for Victoria to get involved in the dispute. The SBOT wants the province to legislate the striking workers back to work, if need be. The GVBOT told BIV that it is calling for the province to "step in and provide the support needed to come to a fair resolution," but not yet to necessarily legislate an end to the strike.

"Transportation is the foundation of our economy," Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman told BIV this morning.

"If this proceeds past Friday, I'm hoping that they will step in, but it's hard to say what the government will do."

She noted that this is an election year and that Surrey has many valuable seats that are up for grabs in the election slated for Oct. 19, and that residents across her large city are feeling the pain from the strike.

"People need to get to work," she said. "They need to make money. These are very difficult economic times for everyone: residents and businesses."

One employee at 99 Nursery & Florist in Surrey was not able to come to work because that person's normal commute included bus and SkyTrain, owner Tony Hui told BIV this morning.

He said that his business is able to manage with the eight employees he has working, but that if SkyTrain service shuts down, his business will suffer.

Karla Rugamas, who owns the Burnaby butcher shop Carniceria Latina, similarly told BIV this morning that employees at her East Hastings street business have made it to work today, with some walking further than they normally would, from the Brentwood SkyTrain station.

"If the SkyTrain shuts down, they won't be able to come," she said.

Talks between the union and employer Coast Mountain Bus Co. are ongoing, but have so far not yielded an agreement despite input on the weekend by esteemed labour mediator Vince Ready.

In addition to small businesses feeling the effect of employees not able to come to work, there are many service businesses, such as hair salons, dentists and others, where many customers need to use buses to get to their appointments.

Destination Vancouver CEO Royce Chwin told BIV that it will take more than a two-day strike to disrupt Vancouver's reputation as an accessible city worth visiting. The timing of the dispute is terrible, however, because so many business owners in the hospitality and tourism sectors are already finding it hard to make operations viable. 

The strike is also coming on the heels of the Jan. 18 deadline to repay interest-free Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loans, taken out during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

Qualified borrowers who received $60,000 had to pay back $40,000 by Jan. 18 in order to keep the remaining $20,000. If by Jan. 18, they had already started a refinancing application with the original bank that provided them with a CEBA loan, they are able to finalize their repayment by March 28 and still keep the forgivable $20,000 portion, according to the federal government.

Failing to repay the loans on time mean that any remaining money owed will be converted into a loan with a five-per-cent interest rate. 

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