Canada, COVID-19

I Run a Family-Owned Construction Firm. Here’s What COVID-19 Did to My World

When a crisis hits, sometimes just a day or two can feel like a lifetime for a small business owner. That’s how it felt for me when much of the Canadian economy went on lockdown in mid-March. My business is construction. It’s not something you can do over a Zoom videoconference or text chat. And the challenges I’m now facing are similar to those faced by other small, family-owned and -operated businesses everywhere.

Even prior to the pandemic, my life was a hectic one. It wasn’t unusual for workdays to start at 6.30am, with me in the office laying out the work plan for the day with our foremen, and walking the tightrope we call cash flow. On any given day, I have at least two or three job estimates on my desk that need to be completed—plus accounting, payroll, project-management issues, client meetings, calls, and trips to jobsites to sort out the inevitable building and design issues. I also have to spend time chasing down the receivables.

All of this was before COVID-19 hit.

My men roam almost the entire province of Manitoba. We take the work as it comes, and that means I could have less than a day’s notice that they’re being shipped to a remote jobsite to work on, say, electrical or mechanical systems. There are a few rural communities where we respond to needs on an emergency basis, and we do subcontract work for water and sewer systems. My other crews do residential and commercial construction work. Sometimes I have them putting up a building; or repairing roofs and performing other renovations. The work they do is dirty, dusty, and sometimes dangerous.

Our clients range—at this point in the economic contraction, ranged might be a better word—from government agencies such as Health Canada, to First Nations, to northern Métis communities, to municipalities, to community organizations, and ordinary residential and commercial clients from every background.

As with many small businesses, our fortunes can fluctuate based on factors that lie outside our control. For instance, our firm was almost crushed in 2016 when the province of Manitoba halted contract payments following a project going sideways. In another case, the federal government allowed a general contractor to avoid paying subcontractors (including us) on a bonded and insured First Nations project. The legal fight to recover those funds wiped out any cushion that we’d accumulated for retirement and a rainy day.

COVID-19 now has given us several weeks of rainy days, with many more to come.

Even before the World Health Organization formally declared this to be a global pandemic on March 11th, and the first cases started appearing in Manitoba, I scrambled to prepare. I needed to ensure that we had sufficient cash flow because without that, nothing is possible. I knew where my budget was at, and what bills were essential to cover. But I also needed to find out from my key guys: How much did they need to survive economically for the next weeks? We were talking about the bare minimum to pay their own essential bills.

As any small business owner knows, there are costs that you have to pay regardless of whether or not there’s work. For us, that includes a bank loan that’s killing us, vehicle loans and insurance, employee health benefits, commercial general liability insurance, workers compensation premiums, utilities, and mortgage payments. Before I fuel up a single truck, cut a single paycheck or buy a single pallet of materials, I need CAD$8,134 (about US$5,800) just to pay these costs.

If our firm weren’t family-owned and closely knit, maybe I could just lay everyone off and hope for the best. But I can’t do that—and not just for humanitarian reasons. My business relies on skilled workers. And if my guys don’t have enough to pay the rent, it will impact my business and family in the long run.

So I’m trying to find a solution. I’m not sleeping, and when no one is around, I feel like I’m going to fall apart. I pull myself together, and chastise myself for being a crybaby, and get back to work figuring this out.

In the brief window we had before things shut down, the guys and I decided to hammer through as much of our existing work as possible in the short term, to get our billings out, and get money set aside. It was all hands on deck during that period. In the background, I took basic steps to make sure that I had enough food, water, and supplies here for 14 days for each one of my men. (Remember that this was a period when people were fighting over toilet paper. No one knew if store shelves would soon be empty.) If they were going to go all in, to get us our needed cash flow, I was going to make sure they were protected, too.

We also needed to secure the materials we needed for our jobs right away, since no one knew what supply chains were going to seize up. This approach was risky, because if we didn’t get paid, I’d be out of pocket for all this, with no cash flow.

On top of all these responsibilities, many small business owners also face an additional layer of regulatory control, depending on their trade. As an NCSO—a nationally certified construction safety officer—I had to be mindful of the health and wellness of my co-workers, some of whom are also my family. Our office and shop is literally a part of our home. As with old-fashioned store-front operations, our office occupies the main floor, and we live upstairs. Even in the best of times, this blurring of home and office can be challenging. But when a pandemic strikes, it becomes much more complicated—especially since I happen to have a compromised immune system at the moment.

So I implemented a “wellness” routine. In March, I bought additional masks. I spent much more than I should have. But I just decided the hell with it. I’ll pay the power bill next month.

It didn’t take long for one of the wheels to fall off. As part of our accelerated workflow, we were trying to finish work on a home in which the client was still resident. This client traveled to Ottawa as part of a delegation shortly before the pandemic was declared, then arrived back and got placed in self-isolation for 14 days. In an instant, we lost our jobsite. None of my men got sick. But we ended up running around frantically prior to the resident’s arrival, grabbing whatever essential tools we could before evacuating the premises.

The two guys on site were my primary supervisor and one of my brothers. On one hand, I had to cope economically with a lost jobsite, lost cash flow, and stranded materials. On the other hand, the potential exposure of people whom I love and care about came crashing down on me. I was angry at myself for having men in harm’s way, and even more angry for the circumstances that put us here. If the governments hadn’t shortchanged us on some of those former projects in northern Manitoba, I’d have had more cash flow and more decision-making flexibility.

I pulled it together and got the men moved into an empty home within the First Nations community where the work was taking place. As we were struggling to figure out what was next, the First Nations staff scrambled to find us a replacement project, along with the associated funding. To their credit, the Chief and Council managed to pull that one out of the fire.

For the guys working urban areas in the south of the province, the focus is finding isolated commercial job sites with limited personal contact. But blocking potential exposure entirely is impossible, especially since some infected individuals are asymptomatic. Working on residences where older people live is especially sensitive. And it’s not like we ourselves are all in the bloom of youth. My husband, who is 59 and our primary electrical guru, has become understandably apprehensive about where he works.

Three days after the pandemic was announced, my suppliers sent out emails detailing their own new policies. The lumber yards asked us to phone in our orders ahead of time and pay electronically in order to minimize any personal contact. Other simply shut their doors.

On a positive note, we received a progress payment on an ongoing northern project, which allowed me to top up our guys’ bank accounts. I made sure that everyone knew that this was the last time I would have certainty about payroll.

I’m a business owner, mother, wife. I’ve taught survival courses and served in the Canadian Armed Forces. So I’m not sentimental or naïve. But the heart-wrenching decisions I’ve been faced with do take a toll, especially when they involve family. Four days after the pandemic was declared, we got an opportunity to send our guys into a northern Manitoba location to set up a construction camp, including electrical. It’s good money, and could allow us to pay the bills for another 30 days. But it also meant sending my son and husband to a location without immediate access to health services. I put together first-aid supplies, immune-system boosters, masks, and food. Then they left, traveling on a small plane. It’s the only way in and out. I was hoping for a charter flight. But that did not pan out.

They’d be working on a far-flung First Nation. This may sound reassuring, as these communities are insulated by geography. But First Nations leaders travel all over the country, often to meet government officials or as part of their work on delegations. On a per-capita basis, they probably have more interactions with Ottawa-based frequent fliers than almost any other demographic in our country.

Like every business owner, I’ve closely followed government pronouncements about what “essential services” will be allowed to operate—an economic life-or-death decision for many of us. What makes you feel helpless is the fact that even if your industry is permitted to operate, you may still end up being affected by someone else getting shut down. For instance, courts are mostly shuttered right now. So we have no idea when our next legal hearings will take place, which means we have no idea when we will get money owed to us by the government.

Moreover, road closures to “outsiders” in rural communities have meant that we couldn’t bring in needed supplies. On one hand, I’m sympathetic to the need to protect these isolated areas. But with the winter roads being closed down until next winter on March 31st, these closures meant blocking supplies that were supposed to stock inventories until the winter roads resume operation in late 2020. (One of the ironies of the rugged Canadian outback is that travel is often easier when temperatures are frigid, because the ice and snow are easier to traverse than flooded rivers and swampy marshland.)

And to top things off, my doctor called to let me know that my CA-125 cancer antigen levels were elevated, with a tumor on one ovary and another “mass” within my pelvic area. We discussed follow-up diagnostic testing in May, and what the process would be once we got to surgery. COVID-19 is putting additional strains on the health system. And although I am likely a stage two ovarian cancer patient, it was going to be months before the health authorities in Manitoba had the diagnostic results they needed.

The author at a work site.

That wasn’t an easy conversation to have with my son and husband while they were out working remotely. We’d known since January that something was not quite right, and that it had nothing to do with business stress. This was not a great time to get confirmation.

Shortly after that, our office and yard site became a closed work site. Staff come in through the back door only, and others come in through the front by appointment. We are cleaning all the time. I’m also trying to take care of myself as much as possible—including getting what fresh foods I can and doing exercise.

In recent days, I’ve watched the response from the federal and provincial governments. There’s a wage subsidy program, but it could put us on the hook for corporate taxes down the road. We did manage to secure a deferral on our bank loans, however. And our credit union responded to our request for a mortgage deferral in three hours—with a yes, but also a penalty free. The Women’s Enterprise Center of Manitoba actually called us, and asked if we wanted to defer an April 15th loan payment. However, we need more direct support from government to help us keep the doors open. New programs are being rolled out. But experience has taught me that these systems usually are gamed against small business owners.

Our new normal is that nothing is normal. I have no idea how long I can continue to make payroll, or how I will keep my guys paying their own bills. A few days ago, when my brother came down with flu-like symptoms, I thought it was all going to crash down on us. He’s better now. But without access to COVID-19 testing, he can no longer have access to the office, or anyone that enters it on a regular basis.

Our business model is simple: We build and fix things so that other people have a place to live and work, and so that we can pay our own bills and live our own lives. Doing this has become a complicated daily struggle that sometimes feels like it will break me and my family. I go through every day in a spirit of grief, anger, and, in some moments, hopelessness.

 

Jocelyn Burzuik, NCSO, is president and senior construction manager at Sundance Construction, located in Sandy Hook, Manitoba.

Featured Photo courtesy of Sundance Construction. 

Comments

  1. Wow, thank you for the perspective and the view from Canada. It is incredibly rough, and I think a lot of people who are safe at home don’t appreciate the hard and valuable work you are doing just keeping the lights on at home and your people safe. Construction is one of those things we need constantly in the background, maintaining and improving the structures we depend and rely on. We may hate paying for it, but the sane among us know how much we need people like you to keep trucking, keep doing what you do every day.

    Hats off to you, ma’am. I admire your grit and hope that you and all your family, including the workers you clearly care for, make it through this. I also hope that you make it through your diagnosis and treatment on time and that it works out.

  2. My wife runs a small company that is needed service so she running 24/7, they have had to put two more shifts on to try and get a grip of the deluge of orders for seeds.
    I have been the construction, and know quite well what you suffer Jocelyn…keep yourself and yours healthy as you can, don’t give up hope or give in to grief and anger Jocelyn, your a prairie gal, and we folks who live on the prairies are not quitters…it has been a long winter in north.

  3. That was a gut wrenching read. Praying for you, and hoping we move as quickly as possible from risk containment to risk acceptance and mitigation so things can get back to some semblance of normality. Be well. I do hope you come out of this cancer free and more than okay.

  4. That article was pretty intense, didn’t realise how all those small changes and lock downs effects everything else down and around the chain.

    I can feel the same kind of struggles and stresses from my boss as well. Even though it’s an IT company, if nobody is spending, then there’s no income flow to get new IT projects up.

  5. Construction is booming here in Arizona. Every restaurant, bar and other business that is closed for the plague is taking the opportunity to recarpet, renovate, and add on while there are no customers.

  6. Thanks for your story Jocelyn.
    You do know you and yours will come out of this stronger and more resilient than ever.
    This covid 19 event will be a world changer.
    Not for the deaths and worries but for the creativity and resourcefulness that it will generate.
    This too will pass

  7. Jocelyn, thank you for such an honest, raw account. You seem very strong. I think you will make it. The world needs tough people.

  8. This is just one story. There are obviously not just thousands but hundreds of thousands like it. To be honest, I don’t believe the coronavirus is the bogeyman they make it out to be. If it was, places like India should be piling up the bodies. But the effect of the global lockdown is all too real. I hope I’m wrong about the coronavirus, because at least the devastation the global lockdowns are causing would be justified. But I fear our leaders chose the far greater of two evils.

  9. It is the first time that all people are harmed in the name of some who may get sick from a disease. It assumes fear and isolation are preferred over risk, self-control, wisdom, preparation, work, liberty, quarantining the sick, isolating those at most risk, etc.

    How easily people accept central planning authoritarianism when afraid, even while that very same central authority failed to plan, failed to act quickly, failed to get test and trace in place, and failed to stockpile items necessary for the health of its citizens in times of emergency.

  10. Too many people look at business owners as greedy SOB’s who should shut down to protect lives. They can afford the losses and we should tax them more anyway. There are trade-offs in this shutdown! Many medical professionals would have us protected in bubbles for months to get over the pandemic. Unfortunately, the shut down is more than just a pause button – the damage will be irreparable! Every state and province cannot pay their bills – pensions are in danger as are salaries and benefits. Shutdowns become impossible when people without money and food try to survive. Too many vital functions are kept open as it is. Real isolation is impossible when about half the workforce is active. Governor Cuomo was correct in stating we have to walk and chew gum simultaneously. People keep using wartime analogies, but in a war everyone pitched in on the homefront, they not cower in their homes waiting for the storm to break. Geezers like me should use precautions, but economics cannot be ignored unless everyone thinks Great Depression 2.0 is an okay outcome.

  11. Agreed, people are constant making idiotic comparisons. For example, a lot of people compare it to the 1918 Spanish flu. That ostensibly wiped out 12 million people in India alone. We’re not seeing anything like those figures. The normal flu infects 10% of the population every year, and of that number 0.1% die. If you do the math, that’s roughly 700 000 people a year. Again, we’re nowhere near that figure. The fatality rate for covid-19 is presented as being much higher than the flu but it’s largely measured within cases of the very sick. The vast majority of deaths involve elderly people with comorbidities. Is it really that medically shocking that old, sick people are dying? This is not to say that they should be denied attention or care, only that maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to criminalize citizens en masse or deprive millions of jobs.
    Sadly, we live in extremist times. And, dear God, the number of fools who declare “it’s best to prepare for the worst case scenario”. No, it’s not. It’s possible a plane might fall from the sky and land on your head tomorrow, but you would waste your life if that’s what you planned for every day. The coronavirus isn’t the threat. It’s the panic. By preparing for the worst case scenario, we’ve successfully achieved the worst case scenario.

  12. Also, you are right about the insanity of comparing it to a world war. Honestly, how does one compare bombed cities, years of rations, blown off limbs, and concentration camps to a flu that is in most cases so mild that the majority of people who contract it get through it without even knowing or taking medication? Although, to be fair, several governments have wasted no time in behaving like Nazis. Sorry for the rant. It’s just I can’t even talk to relatives or friends about this, because they are so riddled with paranoia about this. So I take comfort in someone like you also expressing doubts.

  13. Personally, I think the lockdowns are a wet dream come true for a lot of governments. You get to make the citizenry shut the hell up for a whole month. All your screwups are obscured by the coronavirus hysteria. And, cherry on the top, while behaving like a complete despotic douche, you get praised for your “decisive leadership in a time of crisis”.

  14. Just spoke to a friend of mine whose family runs an orchard. 3 out of 4 workers didn’t show up today. Farm work is considered vital, but if people feel they are threatened by Covid-19 they (as my farmer friend explained it) can stay home and collect unemployment. These workers probably don’t make much, they are legal imigrants but not highly skilled. My friend says that if her orchard does not get constant care, in three weeks there will not be a crop. The unintended consequences of some of the bail-out provisions may be the death knell for a number of small businesses.

  15. The results will be interesting since these “actions” have killed off government’s main sources of revenue with respect to income and sales taxes (VAT elsewhere, and in the US, lower tax receipts for social security and medicare 4 seniors, and in Washington State, lower business & occupation taxes).

    All this while the government is spending more than ever, and paying more unemployment than ever. And in the US, we were in debt by $1 trillion this year just from malfeasance as usual.

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