OTTAWA — The Canada Emergency Response Benefit was introduced by the federal government to help Canadians who have lost their source of income make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many people were not eligible.
Until Thursday, the taxable benefit of $2,000 every four weeks for up to four months for eligible workers was available only to those who lost all of their income, which left many Canadians ineligible or forced them to choose between their dramatically reduced income or the benefit.
With expanded eligibility criteria, the benefit is now open to those making less than $1,000, as well as to seasonal workers and those who have exhausted their employment insurance.
Speaking with SaltWire Network, Sean Fraser, Central Nova MP and parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, provided some additional details on the new criteria.
"We're talking about physiotherapists who may have a patient that really needs their help and they're able to serve virtually. I'm talking about the performer that had a bunch of gigs booked, but is still able to offer a music lesson to a student online. I’m thinking about the person who had two part-time jobs, but lost one of them and only earns somewhere in the range of 800 bucks a month at their second job,” Fraser said. “We want to make sure that these people who may have lost their primary source of income aren't left behind.”
The new criteria, which is effective immediately, means when submitting a first claim, a person cannot have earned more than $1,000 in employment and/or self-employment income for 14 or more consecutive days within the four-week benefit period of a claim. When submitting subsequent claims, applicants cannot have earned more than $1,000 in employment and/or self-employment income for the entire four-week benefit period of the new claim.
The benefit is a flat rate, so those making side income will still receive the full $2,000 per month.
EI eligibility changes
The changes to the CERB surrounding EI criteria and seasonal workers, Fraser said, correct wording in the eligibility criteria that would have unfairly left out certain sectors.
“The program is designed to be a support for people who've lost their source of income," he explained. "When it was initially rolled out, the definition would have excluded seasonal workers because they may be going back to the same job every year, but they didn’t stop working at a job as a result of COVID-19 because they weren't working in the first place. Essentially the program has been changed to ensure that those who are coming back to seasonal work that is only available during certain times of year will be able to claim the CERB for the period that they would have been working in the absence of this pandemic.”
The eligibility criteria wording that would have left out seasonal workers — essentially the fact that a person must not only have made $5,000 in the previous year, but had to have been employed and lost that employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic — also left out those who are on EI and have had their benefits run out since Jan. 1, and those who lost their job before the pandemic but can’t find work because of it.
“We had to reaffirm yesterday that, yes, people who have had their EI benefits exhausted will in fact qualify,” Fraser said. “ The point today is not far from where we were a couple of weeks ago, but in the interim, there was something that sort of happened due to the definition we wanted to provide clarity around.”
People still cannot, however, get the CERB and EI at the same time.
St. John’s East NDP MP Jack Harris said while the expanded criteria are an improvement — it was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who proposed the unanimously supported motion at Saturday’s emergency House of Commons session to allow those making a modest income, seasonal workers and those who have exhausted their EI benefits to be eligible for the CERB — there are still improvements to be made.
Harris said the NDP wants the CERB to be as close to a universal benefit as possible, as many Canadians are still falling through the cracks.
“Everyone who calls has a different story for why they aren't included,” he said.
“Our position has always been, from the beginning, that this ought to be a universal, direct benefit. That way, anybody who doesn't have the income can access it and those who have lots of money, we can claw it back when they do their income tax.”
Extra for essential work
Also on Thursday, Trudeau teased a soon-to-be-announced wage top-up for essential-service workers making less than $2,500 per month.
Though during the announcement Trudeau focused on health-care and long-term-care workers, Fraser said who exactly will be eligible will be determined by each province, as the provinces decide who is an essential worker.
While he didn’t want to pre-empt any decisions by the provinces, Fraser said at the federal level it’s not restricted to only those in the medical field and could apply to people in the food supply chain and other sectors who are deemed essential.