Local entrepreneur Caren Weinstein among thousands of businesses still scrambling to repay CEBA loans

Caren Weinstein is one of many small business owners continuing to struggle to repay a pandemic CEBA loan. (Supplied)

The deadline to repay pandemic loans may have passed last month, but for some businesses, the struggle continues.

Caren Weinstein is an Ottawa graphic designer and woodworker who runs a solo graphic design business called Vintage Designing Co. During the pandemic, she also started making handcrafted products including coasters, pet feeders, ornaments and charcuterie boards. 

She’s been in business since 1987. On her website, Weinstein says that, while she’s been practising graphic design for more than 33 years, she always dreamt of taking her design and woodworking skills to a new level. 

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“My philosophy is simple,” her website states. “I want to bring quality, unique products that stand out in a crowd.”

Weinstein took out a Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan at the height of the pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns. As her clients cancelled events and cut costs, she said it became harder and harder to pay the bills. 

“During COVID, nobody returned calls,” she said in an interview this week with OBJ. “It wasn’t really a practical time to mine new business clients. I had some little bits of business, but not huge amounts. So CEBA was a godsend.”

Nearly 900,000 organizations received a CEBA loan through the federal program, which offered up to $60,000 in interest-free loans to help businesses survive pandemic-related challenges. Up to one-third of the loan was eligible to be forgiven if businesses paid back the outstanding amount by Jan. 18, 2024. 

Unable to meet that deadline and without any extra wiggle room, Weinstein said she’s still feeling the pressure. 

“If (the deadline) had gone to December 2024, I would not be having any of these conversations,” she said. “We’re two years out, but not everybody is back to normal. There are, I believe, 200,000 businesses like me in this situation. What percentage are just going to have to close shop, throw up their hands and say screw it; we’re going to pay the extra $20,000.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for businesses who missed the January deadline. A special extension allows organizations to keep the forgivable portion of the loan if they set up a refinancing agreement with a financial institution by March 28. 

Weinstein was unable to secure a loan from her bank, but still has a bit of extra time to get partial loan forgiveness. Businesses who applied for refinancing with their bank prior to the Jan. 18 deadline but were denied, like Weinstein, have been given until March 28 to get the balance of their loan off the government’s books. 

For Weinstein, that means continuing to make payments, crowdfunding and, hopefully, getting a loan from a friend. So far, she’s raised more than $2,000 on the fundraising platform GoFundMe. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), which has been advocating for extending the original deadlines, was among those who suggested crowdsourcing extra funds as one option for businesses in a bind. Weinstein said she was frustrated by that advice, as well as by the response from the federal government, which she said is trying to “move past” the issue as businesses continue to struggle.

“I’m just finding everything is falling on deaf ears,” she said. “The government doesn’t care. I swear, I’m probably blocked by (the small business minister’s) office by now, or they just won’t answer. It’s just, why are they giving up on this? The people that paid didn’t lose their 10 or 20 grand. We’re just asking for the same thing. We’re already paying you interest now.”

Still, she’s determined to make things work.

“I’m not done yet,” she said. “I’m going to do it. I don’t like to do this (crowdfund), but I don’t want to owe this money and an extra 20-grand is going to kill me.”

In an effort to promote her GoFundMe, and find some humour in a bleek situation, Weinstein put her skills to good use designing a glib graphic of her journey with CEBA. (Graphic by Caren Weinstein)
In an effort to promote her GoFundMe, and inject some humour in a bleek situation, Weinstein put her skills to use designing a glib graphic of her CEBA journey. (Graphic by Caren Weinstein)

Businesses at risk of closing, advocates say

For those businesses that won’t make the deadlines, there are challenging times ahead, community and small business advocate Michael Wood told OBJ last month. 

Businesses that miss either the original or extended deadline will lose the forgivable portion of their loan, with the debt to be converted to a three-year loan with interest of five per cent annually. 

According to Wood, small businesses of all kinds aren’t seeing the growth needed to make the repayment, due to increasing costs and economic pressures. 

“If we say, for example, that pre-pandemic a business made $500,000 gross revenue, you need a 12-per-cent increase to pay the $60,000 loan that was used to cover the bare essentials. 

“So the problem is that, in order to keep recovering, you had to make more than that, but most aren’t,” he continued. “Nobody’s really seeing a big bump in sales. This is where people are struggling … “I’m hearing business owners tell me, ‘I just don’t have the money.’”

CFIB president and CEO Dan Kelly told OBJ last month that he is “most worried about” businesses who will “likely miss the deadline altogether.”

“For that group, the government has an extended repayment plan for three years at lower interest … So it doesn’t have to be paid in February, but I worry it will still not be enough for businesses,” he said. “That’s the part that’s worrisome because we’re expecting at least a couple hundred thousand businesses across Canada to miss it.”

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