South River is issuing layoff notices to its arena employees.
Clerk Administrator Don McArthur says the layoffs are being issued in the event the province does not allow facilities across the province, like arenas, to re-open Jan. 26. If the province starts to reopen, the municipality will rescind the layoff notices. “That would be good news,” McArthur said. However if the layoffs move forward, McArthur said the municipality will try its best to find other work for affected employees. But the alternative work has to “make financial sense for the village and our partner (Machar)”. Machar and South River share the cost to run the South River Machar Community Centre and Arena. McArthur said the entire arena department is three full-time employees and one part-time person. At the moment there is no work for the part-time employee. McArthur said if there is a layoff, all three full-timers would be affected. South River council debated the potential arena layoffs because if facilities don't start to reopen later this month and the lockdown is prolonged, council will give serious consideration to removing the ice from the arena. That decision will be made at its next meeting Jan. 24. Removing the ice is not a decision the council would make lightly, but it wants to avoid a repeat of last year when it kept the ice available, hoping the earlier lockdowns would end. As the season wore on in 2021 and the lockdowns finally began to lift, the municipality did its best to try to salvage some part of the season. But McArthur told council as you move deeper into a season, people have moved on to other activities. A scenario where arena employees are laid off and the ice is removed at this time of year will result in a break-even point for the municipality in terms of costs to run the facility and could possibly save the municipality a small amount of money. McArthur told council the current two-week shutdown will have little financial impact in the grand scheme of things. He suggested council should be ready to make a decision on the future of the arena ice at the Jan. 24 meeting, saying waiting an extra two weeks to make that decision when council holds its first February meeting would not be helpful. McArthur said trying to figure out what comes next as the province continues to be in the midst of a lockdown is “really difficult. “We (staff) spend a lot of time trying to figure out where the pandemic is going to take us next,” he said. McArthur said even though the omicron variant of the virus is not as virulent as earlier strains, it's resulting in more people becoming sick and occupying a lot of hospital beds. “I know the government is trying to (prevent) the hospitals from being overrun,” he said. “And that's the whole purpose of what we're doing right now. I don't see a lot changing in the next few weeks, but if hospitals are going to be full at the end of January, would they (the Ontario government) re-open arenas?`? While trying to remain optimistic, McArthur said if lockdowns are lifted later this month, the best case scenario for South River is to keep the ice operating for six more weeks and if the weather remains on the cold side, the municipality might be able to squeeze out a further week or two and remain operational well into March. If the arena remains closed, the municipality wants to try creative ways to minimize the layoff impact to the employees. He said it's possible one employee could be absorbed into the Public Works Department. The municipality could also look at new projects. For example, one of the volunteer firefighters suggested the local fire hall needs a fair amount of work and McArthur said this would include painting and doing drywall work. “If we could move people there, it would fit within the budget,” he said. Assuming the affected employees can be reassigned to other work, they still become part of a waiting game once they complete the new projects. That's because the big question for the municipality is if the ice comes out in the next couple of weeks, can it start looking at putting it back in towards mid-June as the area gears up for the Hockey Opportunity Camp. The hockey camp is the biggest single user of the arena and uses the facility over the summer. McArthur said COVID-19 has prevented the hockey camp from operating the last two years. “It's their intention to be up and running this summer,” he said. “But their crystal ball is no better than anyone else's.” McArthur has reached out to Machar to keep it in the loop on what options the municipality is looking at. Coun. Brenda Scott said going the layoff route was “unfortunate but absolutely necessary.” All members of council and staff hope the notices can be rescinded just as quickly if the province opts to start re-opening again sooner than later.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget