Plexiglas, physical distance and politics: Session returns at the B.C. legislature
VANCOUVER -- MLAs are gathering in Victoria, but not necessarily in person, as the legislative session interrupted by the pandemic resumes three months after the last sitting.
COVID-19 and its impacts are high on the list of issues to be canvassed and dealt with this session. That includes questions about how to support businesses and individuals, as well as the impact on the province’s bottom line.
Finance Minister Carole James told press gallery reporters in Victoria that while she received nearly daily reports, she wanted to see some numbers from June before reporting back to the province. She intends to do that July 14.
The issue dominating Question Period on Monday was the extension of the temporary layoff period. The province has already changed this from 13 to 16 weeks, but business groups say with the Canada Emergency Response Benefit extended, so too should the layoff period. The goal is to avoid the payout of large severance amounts, at a time when many businesses are cash-strapped.
“When you have to issue severance payments and you don’t have money to issue for those severance, then we think businesses will go bankrupt and that’s not good for the provincial economy,” said Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade.
The BC Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, the BC Business Council, the Independent Contractors and Businesses Assocation and Canadian Federation of Independent Business together with the Surrey Board of Trade have written a letter urging Labour Minister Harry Bains to make a change. They say extending the program temporarily via a ministerial order would be a quick way to do it.
Bains responded there were already provisions in place and said employers could apply to the Employment Standards Branch to get a variance.
“The employer should approach impacted employees and if a majority of employees agree with the employer they can go to the branch and ask for an extension. We want to make sure the system is fast,” he added.
Bains couldn’t say how long the process would take, but did say staff was being added to deal with an expected influx of applications.
Huberman called that a red herring and questioned why the province would want to make businesses deal with more red tape.
While questioned by opposition members about the program, the premier said he would speak with business leaders Thursday.
The sitting on June 22 was a historic one. Few MLAs were inside the chamber. One minister responded to questions by video conferencing, and there were Plexiglas barriers separating the Clerk from staff.
The session is scheduled until mid-August.