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COVID benefits to blame for lacking employment, says Kelowna MLA

Ben Stewart’s winery recently listed a job working 60-plus hours a week at minimum wage
Kelowna West MLA Ben Stewart addresses a small gathering of campaign supporters at the West Kelowna Yacht Club, shortly after hearing of his election victory on Oct. 24, 2020. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press Media file)

Kelowna West MLA Ben Stewart is getting some heat for a controversial tweet criticizing federal government COVID-19 benefits for workers.

“Business owners across BC are struggling to stay open as Gov’t programs don’t encourage workers to seek employment. This is wrong!” reads the tweet Stewart published on Twitter Saturday afternoon.

Stewart said he made the comments after taking a walk around downtown Kelowna, seeing many restaurants looking for employees but failing to find any. He says programs like the Canada Recovery Benefit are to blame.

“Part of the problem is that programs have been extended and are running until the end of September. There is no accountability on whether you’re busy looking for work. Even during a crisis, you still have to be looking for work, and that is not happening today,” said Stewart in a Monday interview with Black Press Media.

Many responded to his tweet, pointing out that while Stewart is criticizing COVID-19 benefits, he’s paying his employees minimum wage. Stewart is the owner of Quails’ Gate, a popular winery located in West Kelowna. A recent job posting for vineyard workers required applicants to work 60-plus hours per week, Monday to Saturday, with occasional Sunday work. Applicants must also be available all weekends during specific time periods and must be available to travel to vineyard sites all over the Central Okanagan as well as Osoyoos.

Stewart said that employment costs have increased during the pandemic and workers at Quail’s Gate are not forced to work 60 hours, but many workers choose to. He says he’s had trouble finding anybody to take up jobs at the winery recently.

“If you wanted to be an equipment operator, the numbers are far higher than minimum wage and we are not contracting anybody. My human resources department is perplexed on why people are not taking up jobs here,” said Stewart.

Statistics Canada’s labour force survey for July 2021, released Aug. 6, shows British Columbia as the lone province with employment above its pre-pandemic level. The national unemployment rate fell to 7.5 per cent in July, compared to 7.8 per cent in June. Long-term employment accounted for more than one-quarter of total unemployment in July, and youth unemployment fell by 54,000.

READ MORE: Economy added 94,000 jobs in July, largely in the services sector: Statistics Canada

Stewart, however, claimed that the numbers in the labour force survey have been skewed because most employment in B.C. happened in the public sector.

The government is too focused on “special interest groups,” such as disabled people, as part of their economic recovery plan and does not pay much attention to the private sector, according to Stewart.

“There are no programs to help people build skills that they need. What are we doing to help youth to get caught up and get jobs in nursing and engineering?” he said.

When asked for specific solutions, Stewart did not give specifics. He pointed to the BC Liberal’s track record of making “balanced” budgets, growing B.C.’s economy and helping businesses across the province. He wants the province to let the private sector do things they are good at and not put further restrictions on sectors such as housing. The NDP government is spending a lot of money but not at the right places, he said.

“You don’t get jobs by giving money to people,” said Stewart. “We are faced with inheriting a deficit, and residents will have to pay more in taxes as a result.”

In response to the criticisms, Stewart posted an apology on Twitter on Tuesday, Aug. 10, calling his comments, specifically those regarding disabled people, “wrong and insensitive.”

READ MORE: B.C. looks for input on paid sick leave legislation


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