Downtown merchants carry on amid public servant strike, but biz advocates warn of potential headaches

Public Service Alliance of Canada picketers line up at 90 Elgin St. in downtown Ottawa. Photo by Kelly Buell

As more than 155,000 public-service employees took to the picket lines for the second day of a nationwide strike Thursday, a major business advocacy group is warning the work stoppage could be another blow to Ottawa merchants still trying to recover from the pandemic.

In one of the largest strikes in Canada history, government workers walked off the job as of 12:01 a.m. ET Wednesday, hitting the picket lines at some 250-plus locations across the country. Bargaining is ongoing between the union and the federal government.

Tens of thousands of those workers are based in the capital, where downtown businesses have traditionally relied heavily on civil servants to drive sales. 

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After seeing much of their customer base disappear as office towers hollowed out during the pandemic, businesses hoping that the federal government’s recent return-to-office mandate would spur an uptick in revenues could feel the pinch if the strike drags on, warned Christina Santini, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“Foot traffic downtown was just starting to go up again since the pandemic,” Santini told OBJ on Thursday. “But now, (many workers) are not in the office, and furthermore, they’re on picket lines. It could mean they’re disrupting the flow of individuals walking through. People might avoid the area, and parking spots could be taken up by picketers that would otherwise be used by clients.”

But perhaps more daunting are the administrative disruptions that the strike will cause, Santini explained. If a business was waiting for approval for a government-issued licence, for example, it could be facing long delays.

Small businesses also regularly interact with the Canada Revenue Agency, one of the major employee groups that is now on strike, she added. About 35,000 CRA staffers are involved in the job action, and Santini said a long work stoppage will delay the processing of payroll, income and sales taxes for businesses.

The CRA also offers helplines and resources to support merchants in filing their taxes, and those services are no longer accessible due to the strike. 

Michelle Groulx, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas, echoed those concerns.

“Businesses will be filing (tax) returns, and the return deadline is not extended. Should we expect processing returns to take longer?” Groulx said. “Small businesses who are anticipating credits or HST rebates will be waiting that much longer for anticipated cash flow.”

There could even be disruptions to the labour force for small businesses, Santini added.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is one of the departments whose workers are on strike. That could affect businesses that might rely on workers from outside of Canada, she said, citing as an example landscaping operations that hire many immigrants, refugees and new Canadians, particularly at this time of year.

“If they were depending on foreign workers to come in, and the strike persists … they’re already facing labour shortages, so it’s affecting how they can maintain their operations,” Santini said. “Their employees might have to take on more hours, et cetera. It’s not going to help their labour pressures.”

Still, some local businesses told OBJ they don’t expect the strike to have much impact on their bottom lines.

Amir Rahim, owner of Grounded Kitchen and Bar, said his establishment, located on Gloucester Street a few blocks from Parliament Hill, has seen “zero change” in foot traffic since the strike began. 

Rahim says business from government workers never recovered completely from the pandemic, and his restaurant has since adapted to changing customer patterns.While Grounded used to rely heavily on catering and was often hired for large meetings in government offices pre-COVID, Rahim said most of his customers are now employees from the private sector, upper management and Crown corporations that aren’t part of the job action.

“Whoever is downtown and has been downtown working and spending money is continuing to, and I don’t see a real difference in (customer) volume,” he added.

Even with the government’s mandated return of employees to downtown offices earlier this year, Grounded did not see any real boost in traffic, Rahim said. “Thanks for nothing, from my point of view.”

Despite his restaurant’s proximity to the picket line, Rahim said he hasn’t heard his customers discussing the strike or seen its influence at all.

Before the pandemic, Rahim said Grounded would have lineups for coffee and muffins at 7 a.m. – business that has yet to return, even since workers came back to the office.

“But I think we’ve made up for it,” he said. “I guess we’ve adapted, and I forget what it used to be like, for better or worse.”

And since his customer base has evolved and he no longer relies as heavily on government employees to generate sales, he said he “can’t see how this incident is going to impact us in any major way, even if it is long term.”

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