Two years ago, business owners gathered at a Dawson Creek hotel for a panel called Living With The Boom to discuss labour shortages, climbing rents and other problems arising from a liquefied natural gas bonanza.
Two years later: a presentation from an employment lawyer on downsizing.
On June 21, the Dawson Creek and District Chamber of Commerce hosted Geoffrey Howard, a labour and employment lawyer with the Vancouver firm Roper Greyell. Around a dozen local business people turned out for a crash course in their legal obligations when laying off employees.
For Executive Director Kathleen Connolly, it's a reflection of how quickly Northeast B.C.'s fortunes have changed.
Connolly said there wasn't "a ton of interest" in the event, partly because "a lot of our employers have already done most of that stuff."
"They've done the 20 per cent (cut), they've done the work-share, they've done all that stuff and now they're just waiting for the economy to turn around," she said.
Over the past two years, oil prices have dropped precipitously, bringing natural gas prices down with them. Twenty LNG export projects were once proposed for the B.C. coast—now, some analysts say it's possible none will move forward. Northeast B.C. has consistently had the province's highest unemployment rate this year.
Howard said many employers facing those odds turn to layoffs, but don't realize the hidden costs of staff reductions.
More than 129,000 people lost their jobs in Alberta last year, he said.
"There's a lot of academic literature out there studying businesses that go through these massive downsizings," Howard said. "What they show is it doesn't always end up delivering the results (managers and business owners) are planning on."
Any savings from layoffs can quickly be lost in severance, legal challenges and lost productivity, he said.
He also outlined the tricky question of how much notice must be given to employees in a tough job market.
"A couple of judges made the good observation that you can't double punish the employer," he said. "They didn't want to lay this person off, they only did it because the industry's in recession. You can't increase the notice awards by 50 per cent just because it's a tough job market. You can't shift it all onto the employer, it's a bit of a balance."
"The fact the employer had to do it to save the company is not a factor that reduces how long the notice period is," he added. "It's specifically excluded."
Connolly said Encana Corp.'s decision earlier this month to sell off natural gas assets near Gordondale, Alta. is evidence of how quickly the local economy has changed.
"Nobody expected Encana to sell its Gordondale assets," she said. "That was unexpected a year ago, and today they're selling it. It's just moving so fast. It's ridiculously scary times right now."
"I don't know where the break's going to come, but I think the government needs to be the leader," she said.