A new program will provide Manitoba businesses, charities and non-profits with up to $50,000 to hire 10 new workers.
But there’s a bit of a catch. The province will only hand out $30 million in total earmarked funding if the new employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, or planning to get the jab.
Introducing the Healthy Hire Manitoba Program at a news conference Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister said he’s essentially combining a few different government tasks. He wants "everyone to return to work as soon as possible" and he also wants them to get vaccinated, while providing support to the struggling business community.
"That’s why we’re tying these things together," Pallister said of the program that will dole out a maximum of $5,000 per employee. "We want that to happen in a safe and healthy way."
But commerce stakeholders that represent the very businesses the grant is designed for, and the union which represents the workers for whom the program aims to match 50 per cent of wages, believe the premier is taking on many different problems with a blanket solution.
Business leaders also worry about program uptake, given that not many are in a position to be hiring yet, and whether this grant will be any different to those being offered by the federal government.
On top of that, labour and employment law experts say the Manitoba government is setting up a "dangerous" practice.
"We understand having people vaccinated is a goal of this government, but business owners should not be made responsible for who is getting vaccinated," said Jonathan Alward, Manitoba director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
"I’ll be frank," said John Graham, director of government relations at the Retail Council of Canada. "I do think vaccinations play a central role in our economic recovery. But I’m not sure complicating a rehiring program by using that as an incentive is the right step."
Maureen Kilgour, a University of Winnipeg business professor who specializes in labour relations, said the program is sending "a lot of mixed signals" during a time when there isn’t a complete consensus about mandatory vaccination within Canadian employment law.
"There’s a massive legal liability to consider if you’re basing hiring on something so personal like whether or not a worker got vaccinated," Kilgour said Thursday. "You can’t really force someone to get vaccinated, especially not under the type of businesses this program is supposedly designed for. And yet, this program is implicitly stating that if you do, you could get a job."
Kilgour believes had the province "spelled out" clear answers for employers to navigate employee vaccinations under public-health orders, it would be easier to peddle the Healthy Hire program. "Until that happens though," she said, "I’m not sure if employers will want to dabble in that kind of uncertainty."
Jeff Traeger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832, Manitoba’s largest private-sector union, said mandatory vaccinations for employees is "discriminatory behaviour."
"It could lead to arbitration and we would need to take it to court," he said. "We’ve been constantly encouraging all our members to get vaccinated. But at the same time, we will vehemently defend those that might choose not to. I think a program like this steps over those lines."
Many retailers are already having difficulties with hiring, Traeger added, "this just adds another layer on top of that."
The latest data, according to CFIB, agrees. Only 37 per cent of Manitoba’s small businesses were fully staffed — among the lowest figures across Canada, as of June 7.
Under the program, wage support will cover pay periods for employees hired on or after June 10, with the last pay period ending Oct. 15.
"It’s focused on specifically smaller businesses," said Pallister, answering questions from the Free Press. "This new wage support will help ensure a smooth and steady reopening path and support employers as they staff up to offer Manitobans the goods and services they rely on and enjoy most."
The premier would not say, however, whether Manitoba businesses can apply for both federal and provincial grants of this type. That information will come early next week, he said, "when we have our complete eligibility criteria."
"It’s a good gesture of support from the province so I do want to commend them on that," said Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. "I just think a lot more clarity needs to happen here. Certainly, we need to have discussions on whether this is the best thing for businesses that need to get direct support because, yes, this isn’t doing that."