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Why nap rooms are popping up in more and more Canadian offices

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Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press


Published Sunday, February 10, 2019 9:20AM EST

TORONTO — Snoozing on the job isn’t just permitted at Bob Vaez’s software company, it’s encouraged.

The Toronto boss of EventMobi describes himself as “the only CEO that promotes people to sleep at work,” insisting the policy boosts productivity and company morale.

To that end, EventMobi’s open-concept waterfront office features a private nap room where workers can grab a few Zs if they feel sluggish, or just get some alone time in a dark space if they have a headache or don’t feel well.

“It’s just from my own experience,” Vaez says of his reasons for setting up the quiet space.

“As (with) any other tech professional worker, you work really odd hours and your brain just sometimes shuts off. Especially after lunch you just can’t work and I’ve been to other offices (where) people sleep at their desk and it’s really frowned upon. If you can’t work, what’s the point?”

The benefits of adequate sleep are well-established, but Vaez’s willingness to address tired staffers in such a direct way is relatively rare.

Still, he’s not the only one.

Google Canada spokesman Aaron Brindle says nap rooms can be found in the tech giant’s offices around the world, including the Toronto office where a wellness space for nursing mothers can be reserved for taking a break, or taking a nap.

Another space at their engineering headquarters in Kitchener, Ont., features two high-tech recliners with large spherical privacy visors for extra-tired employees looking to grab some shut-eye.

Meanwhile, management consulting firm Accenture says its three-floor Toronto office features a wellness room where staffers can snooze. That’s in addition to various inclusivity initiatives — gender neutral and accessible washrooms, a room for nursing mothers, and a meditation/prayer room with a foot-washing station.

It’s a phenomenon that seems primarily centred in technology and marketing sectors, says Alina Owsianik, director of talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion at Randstad Canada.

Owsianik knows of at least five Randstad clients with nap rooms, and credits their existence to a new generation of workers who increasingly blur the line between their home and work lives.

“Millennials are spending much more time than our parents did at work. They also work crazy hours, different hours, and we want to adjust the work style and the balance to their needs,” she says.

“(That includes) a lot of development shops, technology shops, where maybe there are crazy deadlines or people like to work in the evenings (and) have a nap during the daytime. That’s why we see employers actually adapting the workspace and creating a dedicated space to take a nap.”

She believes it’s more than just a fad, insisting “they are becoming more and more popular” as an added tool to recruit top talent.

Owsianik says Randstad began testing its own version of the nap room, dubbed the “recharge room,” after an employee committee suggested the measure as a way to address mental-health issues.

It has a couch, diffuser with essential oils, a salt lamp, mats for stretching, and a couch for resting and napping.

“There are a lot of people that are not declaring disability or mental disability,” she notes.

“And we are working in a highly sales-driven environment where there is a lot of stress so we really wanted to create a space where people can relax, have a nap.”

For job-seekers weighing multiple offers, a healthy workplace can win them over, she adds, believing many workers want more than just a good salary.

“Millennials and the younger talent and the younger generation are looking more for the rewarding career (and) self-development rather than just the pay.”

Universities, too, are recognizing that some of their students are exhausted by long commutes, awkward class schedules, jobs and personal commitments.

Two years ago, the student union that jointly serves Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber created two sleep lounges for its two Toronto campuses, and then doubled the number of beds at one of them last September.

The expanded lounge now has 12 beds while the second hosts eight. Together, they’ve drawn about 4,000 users this school year, well surpassing the 3,000 that dropped by during the entire school year in 2017-2018, says the union, known as Ignite.

“We are a commuter school and a lot of our students, they don’t get to go home until maybe eight or nine hours after they’ve had a whole day on campus,” says union president Monica Khosla, who represents students at both schools, which includes a satellite campus for the University of Guelph.

Over at Toronto’s Centennial College, the student union bought four so-called “EnergyPods” by the U.S. company MetroNaps last August, adds spokesman Brad Beamish. One has been installed next to the cafeteria, another in the library.

Their many features include a retractable privacy visor, speakers that whisper relaxation music and pre-programmed relaxation guides, wake alarms, lights and vibration controls.

“There were basically people jumping in them before they were finished being set up. The demand was almost immediate,” Beamish recalls.

Productivity expert Lisa Belanger is glad to see such initiatives afoot, noting that other countries seem to understand the need for work/life balance far better than Canada.

She points to Finnish sauna culture and the Swedish coffee break known as Fika.

“Europe is doing better on this for sure with valuing vacation, respite, weekends,” says Belanger, a post-doc researcher at the University of Calgary whose work includes looking at effective break strategies.

Historically, labour breaks were introduced to boost efficiency, she notes. These days, they are eliminated in the belief they slow us down.

“Coffee breaks were designed in the industrial era so that it increased productivity, reduced safety concerns and injuries and errors,” says Belanger, also CEO of the consulting firm ConsciousWorks, which looks at how brain health, nutrition and sleep affect performance.

“It’s gotten to the point where we kind of skipped over them. We put our coffee in a to-go mug and just get it in us as quickly as possible and forget that our brain requires breaks.”

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LIFESTYLES

As shopping habits change, Ottawa targets credit card swipe fees

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The federal government is taking aim at credit-card transaction fees as shifting shopping habits resulting from pandemic lockdowns have substantially driven up costs for many small merchants.

The budget released this week promises the government will launch consultations aimed at lowering the average charges — known as interchange fees — paid by merchants every time a customer pays with a credit card.

Though federal officials plan to engage with stakeholders, including credit-card issuers and merchants, about possible changes, Monday’s budget also raises the threat of legislation to regulate fees “if necessary.”

This is the third time in less than seven years that the federal government has pressured credit-card companies to lower transaction fees, which vary between retailers, types of cards and payment methods. In 2014, there was an agreement reached with Visa Canada and Mastercard Canada to lower average fees to 1.5 per cent. Then in 2018 a five-year pact was struck that included voluntary commitments to lower average fees to 1.4 per cent, starting in 2020. (American Express struck a separate deal with Ottawa.)

But COVID-19 has rapidly altered consumers’ spending patterns, creating pressure to revisit that deal. Many of the interchange fees that were reduced applied solely to payments made in stores. As public-health restrictions have forced stores to limit access or close, fewer customers are swiping, tapping, or paying in cash. As a result, businesses are bearing the brunt of higher transaction fees charged for online purchases – unless they pass those costs on to customers by raising prices.

“The pandemic has been a huge driver of credit-card interchange [fees] as people have dropped cash and have moved online,” Karl Littler, senior vice-president of public affairs at the Retail Council of Canada, said in an interview. “It is a rapidly growing cost and was a rapidly growing cost even prior to the pandemic.”

The interchange fees paid by Christina Kotiadis, co-owner of Toronto gift store Lemon & Lavender, have gone way up during the pandemic. She built an online store for the first time to process e-commerce orders, and more customers who visit the store are tapping cards to make contactless payments. She also bought a mobile terminal to take payments anywhere in the store, or at the front door, which charges higher fees than the store’s plug-in terminal. For health reasons, she allows customers to pay with cards even for small purchases and absorbs the added costs.

“I refuse to raise prices. I don’t feel good about it. Everyone is trying to stay safe, and I don’t want to raise the fee because they don’t want to use cash,” she said.

Before the pandemic, about 60 per cent of payments at independent grocery stores were made with credit cards, and the rest with cash or debit cards, according to Gary Sands, a senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers. Now, more than 90 per cent of purchases are with credit cards as online ordering and curbside pickups become more popular, and the resulting interchange fees are adding up.

“It impacts prices, it impacts the ability of small businesses to stay in business,” he said.

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LIFESTYLES

Ottawa considers taking action against ‘predatory lenders’

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Ottawa will consider lowering the maximum interest rate to stop the “predatory lending” of outfits that make high-interest loans, which anti-poverty advocates say have exploited Canadians during the pandemic.

In Monday’s budget, the federal government announced plans to launch consultations on lowering the “criminal rate of interest,” the maximum annualized interest rate for credit allowed under the federal Criminal Code.

For instalment loans — longer-term credit with high interest — lenders can charge up to 60 per cent annual interest under the usury rules.

Payday loans — high-interest loans that are typically due two weeks later — are exempt from federal rules under a 2007 amendment, if provinces have their own regulations for payday lenders, which all now do. 

Many low- or moderate-income Canadians rely on high-interest, short-term loans to make ends meet or for unanticipated emergencies, leaving them stuck in a cycle of debt, the budget states. 

Anti-poverty advocates have zeroed in on companies like Money Mart, Easy Financial, and Cash Money, accusing them of misleading advertising, not being forthright about the strings attached, and pushing borrowers to take out larger loans at the highest interest rates possible. 

They say the practices are continuing during COVID, when more Canadians than ever are facing financial hardship.

“They’re thriving, because they’re taking advantage of people,” said Donna Bordon, a member of the anti-poverty group, ACORN Canada. “People are afraid of losing their homes, so they borrow money from these places.”

The consultations are a “first step” in tackling predatory lending, Bordon said, adding she hopes they include more than industry representatives, who will sharply oppose any changes.

Despite low interest rates set by the Bank of Canada, poorer borrowers are more likely to lack the requirements to access safer loans from traditional banks. Instead, they seek quick cash from payday lenders, despite the risk of falling into debt they can’t escape.

In Ontario, for example, payday lenders can charge $15 in interest for every $100 over a two-week period — equal to an annualized interest rate of 391 per cent. 

Last July, the Ontario government capped the interest rate that lenders can charge on defaulted payday loans at 2.5 per cent per month. It also set a maximum fee of $25 that lenders can charge for dishonoured or bounced cheques, or pre-authorized debits.

In 2019, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada found that two per cent of Canadians had taken out payday loans in the previous year. The percentage was even higher for Indigenous people, and low-income and single-parent households.

Last month, NDP finance critic Peter Julian tabled a private member’s bill to lower the maximum interest rate to 30 per cent, and to remove the exception for provinces that regulate payday lenders — measures ACORN supports.

The Canadian Consumer Finance Association, which represents payday lenders, said in a statement that while it’s still reviewing Monday’s budget, it’s opposed to lowering the interest-rate limit.

“Instalment loans are long-, not short-term loans, and they provide an important source of credit for many Canadians who cannot access credit elsewhere,” the organization said.

“Any reduction to the federal maximum interest rate will result in removal of access to credit for those Canadians with lower credit scores who previously qualified at the current rates. The government should not take any action that results in denial of credit to Canadians, or forces borrowers to access credit from illegal, unlicensed lenders.”

A survey of 376 ACORN members published by the group last February found 40 per cent of respondents were turned down by a traditional bank before taking out a high-interest loan. Seventeen per cent said they’re now unable to make repayments due to COVID-19.

The federal government should seek ways to provide alternative lines of credit to low-income Canadians, such as mandating banks to offer lower-interest loans, Bordon said.

Besides setting up a complaints process for consumer lending that’s stronger than the provinces’ systems, it should also consider postal banking for rural areas and small towns, she added.

The ACORN survey found that 70 per cent of its survey respondents had once turned to payday loans. Forty-five per cent had taken out instalment loans, an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when only 11 per cent said they’d taken out such loans. 

ACORN represents low- to moderate-income Canadians. Sixty per cent of its survey respondents earn less than $30,000 a year.

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Federal budget 2021: Ottawa ties end of financial supports to completion of COVID-19 vaccination campaign

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The federal government will extend its business and income support programs until the country’s vaccination campaign is complete, but their subsidy levels will start to drop before the deadline for all Canadians to get their shots.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s budget, tabled Monday, sets Sept. 25 as the end date for the direct business and personal income supports the government introduced in response to the pandemic. That is in line with the end-of-summer deadline Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set for the completion of Canada’s vaccine rollout. It’s widely expected Canadians could also be sent back to the polls around that time.

The government proposes spending $15.1-billion more to extend the emergency support programs until September and create a new subsidy, which Ms. Freeland called a “lifeline” for Canadians and businesses in her speech to the House of Commons.

The budget also, for the first time, pegged the cost of Canada’s vaccine contracts at more than $9-billion; however, officials were not able to provide any details on that number, including how much has been already spent or allocated.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it was encouraged by the extension of the business supports during the pandemic and cautioned against their hasty withdrawal. “The government must ensure that support is not being removed too early and that the level of support does not decrease too quickly,” president Perrin Beatty said in a statement.

On Monday, neither Ms. Freeland nor federal officials were able to explain why the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy, Lockdown Support and the Canada Recovery Benefit will all decrease before the vaccination program is expected to be complete. The government also did not say whether the decrease is based on metrics such as COVID-19 case counts or vaccination rates.

“No one knows for sure what the course of the virus and new variants will be, and that is why we are prepared to act further and to further extend the supports should the course of the virus require that,” Ms. Freeland said at a news conference.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit are also set to end in September. If the pandemic gets worse, the government will introduce legislation that will allow it to extend those programs until Nov. 20.

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