Practice Management Strategy

Coronavirus & accountants series, part four: Sole practitioners

“If it was any other time of year, it would be so much easier”: Catherine Barrie and Larry Hemeryck of Ontario

Author: Jeff Buckstein

In this week-long series on how coronavirus and COVID-19 is affecting Canadian accounting firms and sole practitioners, we are profiling six accounting firms across Canada. Read our profiles of DSK LLP of Cambridge and Kitchener, Andersen Tax of Vancouver and Calgary, and Ish Jindal CPA Professional Corporation of Toronto and Woodbridge, Ont. Today we profile sole practitioners Catherine Barrie and Larry Hemeryck of Ontario.

OTTAWA, April 2, 2020 – Catherine Barrie, CPA, CGA, a sole practitioner in Barrie, says the office staff, consisting of herself and six employees, began to discuss the coronavirus after the CPA graduation ceremony was postponed. “We had reached the point where we were discussing whether to stay open or if/when we should lock the door,” she says. 

Initially, based on the information they had at the time, it was considered fairly safe to interact with clients if the meetings were short and they wiped everything down after. But then four clients mentioned they had come to the office directly after leaving the hospital -albeit two for underlying health reasons already known — and then another client came in obviously ill and coughing. 

“That's when we decided the door should be locked. We did have discussions about whether we could let some clients in and not others and decided we should just close to everyone. We usually have a lot of traffic through our doors in March and April and need to do our part to keep our staff and clients safe,” says Barrie. 

So “right now, we have a drop box. We have somebody taking papers out of that with gloves on, and then we’re leaving those papers for a couple of days before we touch them,” she explains. 

There is also hand sanitizer and a table set up outside the office where customers can sign documents without having to enter the office. “I don’t know if we’re being over-cautious or under-cautious. It’s really hard to tell,” says Barrie, reflecting the uncertainty and unprecedented nature of the times we are in. 

Barrie notes that while her staff has successfully managed to utilize a secure e-mail link or online Skype meetings in lieu of face-to-face meetings with many clients, that isn’t an option with some older clients who don’t have computers and can’t correspond via e-mail. This has, she admits, created some challenges. About 30 per cent of the firm’s tax files are from clients over the age of 65, many of whom don’t have a lot of money and would like their returns done early so they can obtain refunds. 

“I’ve called most of the clients that said they needed to come in to see if we could do it by phone, and they’ve been okay,” says Barrie. “They can ask questions on their own and they’ve been really good about using the drop box after the phone discussion. 

“My concern for us is if somebody in our office got sick and we had to shut the doors for two weeks, and then figure out how to achieve the deadline,” says Barrie, who notes that while there is the option of working from home, “we haven’t done it yet. We don’t know whether we should be. 

“If it was any other time of year, it would be so much easier.” 

Barrie notes that the T1 deadline extension until June 1 eliminates the bulk of the immediate pressure on her firm, which has also completed most of the corporate returns and HST returns originally due at the end of March [corporate due dates were also extended until June 1].

”I am happy to see the government provide extensions for HST and corporate tax payments. We are waiting for clarification about the wage subsidy and other measures so we can advise our clients. I trust the government will continue to monitor and make changes as necessary to help the business owners and the economy,” she says. 

Larry Hemeryck, CPA, CGA

“In the 40-plus years that I have been practicing, three-quarters of our tax returns have been prepared live. We develop a friendship with our clients and get to know their kids, who then often become clients themselves. Often during these in-person discussions, many interesting tax implications surface that we would otherwise overlook,” says Larry Hemeryck, a sole practitioner in Simcoe, Ontario. 

However, he notes, today’s reality with the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving and changing with great frequency, and as a result his firm, which also includes six support staff, has decided to eliminate in-person meetings altogether, leaving the front door open only for drop-offs and pick-ups where necessary. 

“We operate in rural Ontario and many clients do not have, or are not familiar with, or not comfortable with, the Internet. Nevertheless, our clients are taking our precautions quite well. They may look a little bewildered as they come to the front door, but after reading our posted signs they wholeheartedly agree. They drop off their documents and some leave a message for us to call them, which we do later on in the day. The elderly sometimes even call ahead to ask what precautions we have in place,” he notes. 

Hemeryck has clients at various ages and stages of life, ranging from snowbirds returning from wintering in the U.S, to those in middle age who care for aging parents, and younger clients with young children. 

“My first priority here is our team. Their health and well-being are foremost. Secondly is our clients’ health and safety. We are attempting to do our best to prevent the spread of that virus in every conceivable way, while still maintaining our professionalism and duty to our clients,” stresses Hemeryck. 

However, the downside to “this new world is that when we work on a file and have a question, we have to contact the client by phone or e-mail and shelve the file until the client replies. We lose the personal touch with the client. We lose some of the tax discussions where, for example we may find out valuable and relevant information such as the client’s parents have become disabled, they have moved closer to work, or other information with tax implications.” 

But there are also some benefits to the firm’s current policy. Time spent with the clients is minimized, so there is an opportunity to prepare tax returns more efficiently, to fit more returns in during a day, and also spread out the preparation time at the staff’s discretion, says Hemeryck. 

The federal government’s extended deadlines are a benefit to all who file, says Hemeryck. 

“We presume we will be holding our position until the end of May, or perhaps even longer. We are all in this together, so we will have to work together to get through to the other side,” he emphasizes.

Tomorrow: Our five-part series concludes with Colby McGeachy Professional Corporation of Almonte, Ont. Jeff Buckstein, CPA, CGA is an Ottawa-based freelance business journalist. Read the full series in order: 

Coronavirus & accountants: 6 accounting firms speak out
Coronavirus & accountants series, part two: Andersen Tax LLP
Coronavirus & accountants series, part three: Ish Jindal CPA
Coronavirus & accountants series, part four: Sole practitioners
Coronavirus & accountants series, conclusion: Colby McGeachy

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