Local businesses concerned about changes to employment programs

St. Stephen – On November 25, the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour announced sweeping changes to the way employment programs in New Brunswick operate.

All existing programs, such as the Workforce Expansion program and the Youth Employment Fund are being cancelled in favour of something the province is calling “Workplace Connections”, which will be “customized to the needs of the users rather than being criteria-based like previous models.”

The department cited an increase in available jobs and a lack of job seekers for the changes, but some local businesses are concerned the program cuts will negatively affect their ability to operate – and the vagueness of the proposed replacement program is simply a way to disguise the reality of those cuts.

According to the province the Workforce Expansion program, which provides employers with an incentive to hire people currently on unemployment benefits, in addition to providing support for unemployed people to start their own business, has already ceased accepting applications. The Youth Employment Fund, which subsides the cost of hiring employees who are attending school, will continue as planned until March 31, 2020, when applications will no longer be accepted.

Doug Harper, who started Harper’s Exotic Animals & Pet Supply in 2018 along with his wife Tamara said, “There are 60 local businesses who use these programs, and many of them – myself included – will find it hard to operate without them.”

Harper has used the Youth Employment Fund in order to hire three part-time employees since he opened his doors. He maintains a “reptile room” at his business, which is required to have a separate employee attending it. “I get 60 to 70 kids a week that come into the reptile room,” he said, “And without two employees on I won’t be able to keep that open.”

It’s not just the changes to the programs and their potential effects on local small business Harper finds disturbing – it’s also what he calls the “secretive” way the government went about making the announcement and the lack of communication on how these changes will affect his business. “They could be telling us a lot more, but nobody wants to give us an answer about what’s really going on.”

Lian Goodall, who opened Puny Human on May 4 of this year agrees with Harper’s concerns. She emailed those concerns to the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, and received a response the Youth Employment Fund was indeed being eliminated and that details on it’s replacement, the “Workplace Connections” would be “coming soon”.

But it’s that lack of details that frustrates Goodall. “There is no clarity or transparency,” Goodall said. “We keep being reassured that everything’s okay – but we’re being reassured with air.”

Without details on what the fund’s replacement will be, and an explanation of whether or not it will provide similar services which have allowed both Goodall and Harper to hire enough employees to get through their start-up periods, both small business owners worry they would have to close.

Goodall was planning an expansion of Puny Human’s coffee roasting business this winter, but without a clear understanding of what the employment programs will be in the future, it’s difficult to plan.

“We have three part-time employees that we pay,” Goodall said. “We didn’t get into this business in order to get free employees from the government, but the services that have been available have helped us get off the ground.

“I’m lucky that Puny Human started when the Youth Employment Fund and other programs existed. Our resource worker has been so helpful, and it’s helped me become a better employer.”

Although several attempts were made by the Courier to contact the Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour department, we were unsuccessful.

andrewsutton@stcroixcourier.ca