COVID-19’s Impact on Grand Erie

Workforce Heroes of Grand Erie Helping our Communities


Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year

We start 2021 with hope that this year will be brighter than the last.

But also with pride that we are in many ways stronger for what we’ve been through.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on people’s lives, livelihood, work and job market in Brantford, Brant, Haldimand, Norfolk, Six Nations and New Credit.

2020 was a difficult year for our businesses and the workforce, with disruptive changes, from people working fewer hours, more hours or from home, to layoffs and business closures.

Not to mention the increased risk and fear that has come with conducting our work.  We recognize that every member of Grand Erie’s workforce, from front-line essential workers to those who lost work as a result of the pandemic, and everyone in between, struggled.

Some people are still coping with unemployment. Some businesses are still struggling to stay afloat.

But as difficult as 2020 was, our Grand Erie community has shown its resilience and a generosity to help each other.  We can be proud.

The Workforce Planning Board’s vision of “A skilled, resilient workforce contributing to dynamic communities and their economies” has been apt.

Workers have adapted to do their jobs, from wearing masks to working online. Businesses have had to be flexible, creative and resourceful, doing things in new ways, more virtually.

As we begin a new year with fresh hope, the Workforce Planning Board celebrates just a few of the area businesses and their workforces that demonstrated resiliency and generosity in the face of the pandemic. There are many other great examples out there.

Photo of Apotex Pharmachem workers
Photos of Six Nations Economic Development Corp. staff

Apotex Pharmachem

Resilient, creative, generous: all words that describe how Brantford’s Apotex Pharmachem and its employees stepped up in time of need last year.

The company’s Spalding Drive plant produced and donated thousands of bottles of medical-grade hand sanitizer and donated thousands of medical masks when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada.

Vice-President and General Manager Jason Fischer knew the firm could play a role in ensuring health-care facilities had the supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) they needed.

Apotex, Canada’s leading producer of generic drugs, donated 1,000 litres of sanitizer to the Brant Community Healthcare System and provided another 1,900 litres at cost. It also donated several thousand litres of sanitizer to hospitals, clinics, health care providers and seniors residences in Ontario and Quebec.

In addition, Apotex was able to source alternative PPE for their own staff, freeing the company up to donate 2,500 N95 masks, including 800 given to Brant hospitals, the City of Brantford and County of Brant.

The local plant produces active pharmaceutical ingredients in powder form, so making liquid sanitizer took the creativity and problem-solving skills of many employees.  Part of Apotex was retooled and a special packaging process set up to bottle the sanitizer, which met Health Canada’s strictest standards.

“Long hours were put in to get this product to the patients/end users,” Fischer said. “Several of our personnel in many departments volunteered and put in extra time to get this done.”

As a health-care company, Apotex’s employees understood the challenges faced by hospitals and frontline workers and wanted to help. That workers could help their own community was a bonus.

“There was an immense sense of pride and accomplishment across the organization to be able to react quickly to the need and deliver PPE that would have an immediate impact in our community and for the front-line health-care workers in the time of greatest need,” Fischer said.

He was impressed but not surprised employees stepped up.

“I have an excellent team here dedicated to the organization and to providing health-care products to patients.”

Six Nations Economic Development Corp.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the Six Nations of the Grand River Economic Development Corporation drew on its philosophy of community caring and support to help.

The corporation’s trust arm, Six Nations Economic Development Trust, created the Emergency Relief Fund to help the community’s on-reserve non-profit organizations purchase Personal Protective Equipment.

Five non-profits shared in $4,500 to buy face coverings, hand sanitizer, gloves, plexiglass barriers and cleaning supplies – supplies they could ill afford otherwise. The Trust invited applications for a second round of funding in December.

“As a community owned development corporation, it is our responsibility to assist where we can, especially during times of uncertainty,” said President/CEO Matt Jamieson.

The corporation is involved in the community in numerous ways, including managing Six Nations’ economic interests, being a partner in renewable energy projects, and operating tourism assets, a business park and bingo halls, and more.

To help, the corporation:

  • Sourced PPE, including 10,000 N95 masks for Six Nations Emergency Service use
  • Offered rent cuts to tenants in its Oneida Business Park
  • The Six Nations Bingo Hall made donations to the local food bank
  • And staff assisted the elected band council with crisis management, including running the local COVID-19 hotline.

A large team of staff working from home used their community spirit, work skills and creativity to help Six Nations tackle the ever-changing, fast-moving crisis.

“We’ve always known our employees were team players, but seeing them pull together during this difficult time was inspiring,” Jamieson said.

The corporation’s mission for the community includes improving social conditions and creating an environment for individuals, families and businesses to thrive.

“COVID-19 has put a strain on individuals and businesses. It is very important to us that we help assist the community through this unprecedented time.”

Photo of Battlefield International president Steve Fenton
Photo of employees of Brooks Signs

Battlefield International

When there were dire warnings last year about a potential shortage of ventilators to treat Canadians with COVID-19, Battlefield International’s employees rose to the challenge.

Highly skilled staff at the Haldimand County high-tech aerospace company volunteered their time to produce a Manual Ventilator Automation Control (MVAC) device in a matter of weeks.

The MVAC would allow patients recovering from COVID-19 to get assistance to breathe properly while still having some “manual” control of the machine. The machine switches to automatic mode if a patient doesn’t take a breath within a set amount of time.

“Our employees were all eager to sacrifice their personal lives to do whatever was required of them to help,” said President Steve Fenton.

The parent of one of the firm’s designers, Sandy Vermeulen, suggested Battlefield consider designing a ventilator that could be used if hospitals ran short.

Meanwhile, Dr Shanker Nesathurai, Haldimand-Norfolk’s Medical Officer of Health, approached Fenton to discuss the same idea.

Battlefield workers, with Cam Brouwer taking the design lead, quickly got to work, researching manual devices with an automatic function.

Dr. Nesathurai put Battlefield in touch with respiratory therapists at Hamilton Health Sciences, who visited the firm’s Cayuga plant to share their expertise.

The respiratory therapists gave Battlefield several ventilators to study, along with tubing and other needed supplies.

Battlefield had a functioning prototype ready within 38 hours. More refinements were made. Needing help with the delicate wiring, Battlefield turned to Mike Montgomery of Alectra Utilities, who paid him while working on the project, and Adam Harrison, owner of AMCorp Technologies of Caledonia.
Soon after, Battlefield manufactured 100 of the MVACs, which were ready to be deployed for emergency use in health care facilities in Haldimand-Norfolk and Hamilton.

Fenton emphasizes that the ventilator was a team effort, including suppliers who stepped up: Cayuga Cabinets in Cayuga, Barlow Manufacturing in Stoney Creek, Aluminum Surface Technologies in Burlington, and IPEC Automation in Concord.

In all, the ventilator took 8 weeks to go from an idea to a completed machine.

The ventilators weren’t needed during COVID-19’s first wave and Fenton hopes they won’t be in future.


Brooks Signs

Things looked bleak for Brooks Signs in the spring of 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Brant County company was allowed to continue to manufacture signs. But because construction wasn’t classified as an essential service at that time, the company wasn’t allowed to send workers out to install the illuminated signs at businesses who ordered them, meaning Brooks Signs wouldn’t be paid.

“Rather than close our shop and lay off our employees, our team collaborated and came up with the idea to pivot our focus, leverage our fabrication skillset, and address the threat to our community,” recalls President Jason Schwandt.

The idea Brooks Signs pivoted to was manufacturing plexiglass barriers.

The company purchased four plastic bending machines, trained their employees on them, sourced raw material, and started making the shields used in grocery stores, schools, doctor’s offices and local businesses.

“The revenue from these products was sufficient to carry us through that challenging time and resulted in us not having to lay off any of our team,” said Schwandt. “At the same time, it was reassuring to know that our products were being used in the local community to help prevent the spread of the COVID virus.”

Schwandt, who purchased the business with a partner just months before the pandemic, was impressed by the resourcefulness and adaptability of his employees.

“It was exciting to see people get behind what we were doing and see how passionate they were about working together for a common cause.”

It took a lot of practice, trial and error, for workers to get the plexiglass shields just right using machines they had never used before. With a global supply shortage, raw material was scarce and, at one point, material was even sourced on Kijiji.

Brooks Signs started off making customized plexiglass barriers, before moving to some producing several standardized designs based on customer demand.

The company also ran a giveaway promotion, inviting businesses to say why they could use the shields. Three businesses with the best responses were given free barriers.

“Going through this exercise gave me great confidence in the resilience, resourcefulness, and capabilities of our team here at Brooks Signs, and this experience will only make us stronger as a business,” Schwandt said.

Hometown Brew

Norfolk County’s Hometown Brew turned suds into sanitizer as their way to help residents safeguard against COVID-19.

The small craft brewery, located in St. Williams, near Turkey Point, was gearing up for the spring beer season in 2020 when the pandemic hit, forcing it to rethink some plans.

The brewery was sitting on hundreds of cases of beer with more brew fermenting. Since Hometown prides itself on their beer’s freshness, it was worried about some of the suds going to waste.

That’s when the Hometown team of Dusty Zamecnik, Tommy Devos and brewmaster Matt Devos decided to help meet the community’s need for hand sanitizer.

Matt Devos set to work to distill the company’s Blue County beer into 75% sanitizer grade alcohol.

“We all have a role to play during times like this,” Zamecnik said. “We have the ability, the time and the technology to produce sanitizer that was needed.”

Matt Devos put in dozens of hours to switch over some equipment to repurpose the beer and, by trial and error, make sanitizer.

Large jars of sanitizer were donated to Norfolk Association of Community Living. Hometown customers placing an online beer order had the option to donate smaller bottles of sanitizer to Haldimand-Norfolk Community Support Services. Hometown then matched those donations.

Hometown Brew has an “intense sense of pride” that it could help, he said. “Being able to utilize our beer as a vessel of enjoyment as well as a vehicle for community charity was a match made in Heaven.”

Photo of Hometown Brew's staff

COVID-19’s impact has been widespread

COVID-19 has had a major impact on Brantford, Brant, Haldimand, Norfolk, Six Nations and New Credit.

The pandemic has hurt Grand Erie’s workers and businesses alike since March 2020. Thousands of area residents lost their jobs, laid off temporarily and permanently. Hundreds of businesses shut down, most temporarily but some closed their doors.

The Workforce Planning Board of Grand Erie has monitored COVID-19’s impact on workers, businesses, the local economy and job market.

WPBGE launched a COVID-19 Recovery Taskforce in April, pulling together local leaders and organizations. A COVID-19 Worker Impact Survey was carried out in April. And a survey of businesses was done in June.

Grand Erie Business Recovery Survey

The Grand Erie COVID-19 Recovery Task Force surveyed businesses in Six Nations, New Credit, Brantford, and Brant, Haldimand, and Norfolk counties in July.

195 businesses across various sectors within the region participated.

Survey questions assessed the impact of the pandemic on local employers, and the demand for strategies and solutions to address their needs.

Survey results show shifts in the business landscape. Key findings include:

  • Significant drop in demand for goods and services among one-third of businesses
  • Widespread concerns about access to PPE in the short and medium term
  • High levels of interest in skills training to support recent shifts in skills in-demand
  • Challenges with hiring in the current atmosphere

The survey findings provide residents, businesses and government leaders with the local knowledge they need to make informed plans for recovery.

Read about the survey’s findings by clicking on the report.

Survey highlights are shown in the infographic, shown at right.

COVID-19 Worker Impact Survey

The Workforce Planning Board carried out a COVID-19 Worker Impact Survey in April 2020.

More than 40% of Grand Erie residents lost work due to the COVID-19 crisis, the survey found. Of the 450 residents surveyed,  37% were temporarily not working and another 5% had permanently lost work. Others were working from home.

About 19% of people said they were working more. These were people working in health care, transportation and warehousing.

People working in accommodation and food services, retail and wholesale trade, and education were most affected at the time. Youth (ages of 18 – 24) working part time in the retail and food businesses were particularly hard hit.

One in three respondents said they were worried about having enough food, and paying their rent, mortgage and paying monthly bills.

The local findings were consistent with surveys from six other workforce planning boards in Southwestern Ontario. Workforce Planning West surveyed 2,570 people in all.

COVID-19 Worker Impact Survey Results – Grand Erie

Comparing Local vs. Regional Data from the COVID-19 Worker Impact Survey

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