UPDATE: The federal government has addressed some of the concerns raised in this story. You can find information on its new student benefit here and expanded CERB eligibility rules for self-employed Canadians here.
OTTAWA — Canadians who don’t qualify for any government programs designed to address the hardship of coronavirus stay-at-home orders should wait for a new fix, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.
Speaking to the nation, Trudeau said those who are left out of the billions of dollars of assistance the government has already announced and who are having troubling making ends meet should stand by for changes rather than apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for which they are ineligible.
“We expect people to apply for the programs for which they qualify, and we are therefore working to make sure we’re expanding the qualifications so that people who need the help will get it,” the prime minister said during his daily press conference outside his home.
The government has tried to move quickly and broadly with its COVID-19 relief, knowing that some people would fall through the gaps, Trudeau said. Almost every day, he noted, the government has announced tweaks and expansions to its proposals.
“We are continuing to listen to Canadians who are expressing that they are not getting the help they need, and we are constantly looking for ways to help them.”
Aylish Tate, who lives in London, Ont., hopes the prime minister is listening to people like her.
The 44-year-old went back to school last year to become a teacher. She and several of her classmates expected an announcement on federal assistance on Friday.
Twice last week and twice this week, Trudeau teased that more money was coming for students. But Friday, despite the $1.7 billion to help clean up orphan oil wells, $962 million to help rural businesses, $500 million for the arts, sports and cultural sectors, and $250 million for start-ups involved in innovation, there was no additional news for students.
“I don’t know what’s happening,” she told HuffPost Canada by phone Friday.
“It makes me have to decide whether I need to put a sense of morality aside and just take what I feel I deserve, or wait and hope that he is going to announce something that benefits me in the future,” she said.
Tate, her husband Serge Fugère, and their six-year-old daughter have been living off her Ontario Student Assistant Program (OSAP) money and his work as a contractor.
“I have probably a week and a half, and after that point, I’m out of funds.”
She was scheduled to begin work this month as a classroom support person with the Roman Catholic school board, but with schools closed she’s out of a job. Because she spent last summer at home with her daughter while her husband worked, she had no income and therefore can’t qualify for the CERB, for which one must have earned at least $5,000 during the past 12 months or in 2019.
Couple doesn’t qualify for CERB
Fugère is a self-employed contractor. His income has slowed significantly because of COVID-19, with eight of his 10 clients cancelling their home renovation projects this month.
While he has fixed costs — about $1,600 a month for his workshop and $750 a month for his commercial vehicle — he has no employees and therefore can’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), a $40,000 interest-free loan of which $10,000 is forgivable if repaid on time. The CEBA is accessible only to businesses with payrolls between $20,000 and $1.5 million dollars.
So while Tate isn’t covered by the CERB because she had no income, Fugère isn’t covered either because he has too much current income. His two contracts this month, one for $1,200 and the other for $750, she said, push him over the $1,000 limit and prevent him from accessing any government help for his business and their household expenses.
What’s left, she said, is “the remainder of my OSAP and the giant bag of lentils we bought.”
Tate said she doesn’t harbour any ill will towards the government, but she wonders why officials couldn’t have designed a universal program, or given the public clearer directions about what’s coming down the pipeline.
“They have introduced a grey area by comforting people with the thought that they won’t suffer any type of penalty,” she said.
“I think at this point we are going to have no choice but to probably apply for the CERB, probably not both of us, one of us, in order to make ends meet.”
Trudeau was asked specifically whether those who apply and receive the CERB will face any consequences beyond having to repay the money next year. He did not respond.
Last Saturday, Liberal MPs joined members of all parties in passing unanimously a motion calling on the government to address gaps in the CERB and other programs to include individuals such as owner/operations, students and those who receive a modest income through part-time work. The Liberals committed that “those who apply in good faith for and received benefits through CERB or other programs to support them through this crisis will not be unjustly penalized.”
“I think at this point we are going to have no choice but to probably apply for the CERB, probably not both of us, one of us, in order to make ends meet,” Tate told HuffPost. “There is just no other possible way. We can’t default on our financial obligations.”
What’s also weighing in the balance, she said, is the possibility the federal government will open the CERB to people in her situation. “I’m just going to … hope for the best,” she said. After a long pause, she added: “And I have a postgraduate as well in ethics. So I can really think a long time about this,” she said, laughing. “Ridiculous.”
‘You don’t count’
Furniture maker Glenn Harrington is also bewildered by the situation. The small-business owner, frustrated after watching Trudeau’s press conference Friday, said he doesn’t understand why there are so many filters to the government’s programs.
“The politicians love to talk about small business, but really when you look at all these programs, when you drill down, it is about employees. You didn’t have enough payroll — you didn’t have enough Canadians employed? — so you don’t count,” he said by phone. “The wage subsidy? Oh well, I don’t need a wage subsidy, I don’t have any employees.
“They love to give Air Canada pilots 75 per cent of their salary to stay at home and create nothing, because they can’t do anything, as opposed to helping a small business owner.”
The former engineer, who was laid off from General Motors, now runs his own company in downtown Toronto building custom-made tables and shelves. Last year, he had a payroll of less than $10,000 and therefore doesn’t qualify for the CEBA.
There are years when he has hired more staff, he said. He has matched Canada Pension Plan payments for the government, made employment insurance payments, and collected taxes.
“And now, when you need the lifeboat, they keep coming up with more and more programs… . They are just making this way too complicated.”
Harrington has been forced to close his shop’s doors. But he’s still selling to some customers with whom he has done business in the past. Still, it’s not enough to pay his bills.
“A thousand dollars a month for an individual isn’t bad, but for a business? They didn’t even make the criteria a little more?”
This month he may make more that $1,000, rendering him ineligible for the CERB. Next month, maybe not. But Harrington is less interested in the CERB. He would rather have an interest-free loan like the CEBA, even without the $10,000 debt forgiveness.
“A thousand dollars a month for an individual isn’t bad, but for a business? They didn’t even make the criteria a little more?”
Even with the doors closed, he has to fork over $5,000 a month for his fixed costs: his commercial rent, insurance and equipment.
“You know what’s going to happen?” Harrington said. “The companies that are going to be able to get that [CEBA] money are not going to need that money as much as the companies that aren’t going to get it.”
Why would a company with a payroll of $1.5 million need a $40,000 grant, he questioned. “They’ll borrow the money, and they will pay it back in time, and they will end up with $10,000 in the pocket and away they go,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“Is the government actually saving money by coming up with all these programs?”
$17.35 billion worth of payments so far
So far, the federal government has announced a 75 per cent wage subsidy that maxes out at $3,388 a month per employee for businesses that have seen at least a 15 per cent drop in revenue — that program should kick in in a few weeks. For people who are unable to work because of COVID-19, Ottawa is offering $2,000 a month. That program was expanded this week to include those earning some income but no more than $1,000 a month. So far, more than 6.3 million Canadians have applied for the CERB, and the government said more than $17.35 billion worth of payments have been made.
But many people say they still need help.
Dan Albas, the Conservative critic for employment, workforce development, and disability inclusion, told reporters this week that the Liberal government is developing a bad habit of announcing programs, revamping programs, expanding eligibility and sowing confusion with the public.
“The government’s communication and directions must be clear, consistent and transparent, and that has not been the case during this crisis,” he said Thursday.
Adding to confusion over the CERB is that its eligibility criteria were legislated when the House met on March 25. The act states that only people who have involuntarily stopped working for at least 14 days because of reasons related to COVID-19 are eligible for the support payments. When the House met last Saturday, amendments were not introduced.
“Imagine spending three weeks worrying about how you were going to make ends meet, all because the government failed to get the policy right the first time,” said the MP for Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola.
Manitoba MP Daniel Blaikie, the NDP critic for employment, workforce development, and disability inclusion, said his party would have preferred that the Liberals send payments to all Canadians and use the tax system to claw money back from those who don’t need it. Now that the government has gone down the CERB path, he said, the program should be expanded to ensure that those who need help — students and those with disabilities who are seeing their costs rise — get it.
“What we are calling for is for people who need financial support to be able to get it, now. And it’s not that there should be no strings attached. It is just that we think that things should be tied to the end of the tax year, and we should be figuring out at the end of the year if people needed it or not, deepening on how much other income they were able to earn during the year. And then we should be taxing it back from those who didn’t need it,” he said.
The delay being created by trying to sort all of that up front, in the face of a crisis, is doing real damage to Canadian families right now, the MP for Elmwood–Transcona said. “The longer we wait to roll out that financial support to those who do need it, the more harm that is going to happen to them.”
The three people HuffPost spoke with last week as examples of people falling through the cracks are all still excluded from government programs.
Dan Mills, from Courtenay, B.C., still doesn’t make the cut for the CEBA. The change lowering the threshold from $40,000 in payroll to $20,000 doesn’t help him because his employees are paid as subcontractors. Because he’s still collecting workers compensation for his injury, he is ineligible for CERB.
On Friday, Mills said he had withdrawn the money he’d saved to pay his taxes and he and his family will be living off that. “The credit line has a few thousand dollars left on it,” he said, with a nervous laugh. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a mess.”
He may try to find whatever work he can get, “injury or no injury.”
“It’s stressful,” he said. “It [would] be very nice if the government included all small businesses rather than a few that they felt like, ’cause there has to be thousands of people that are falling through the cracks.
“We pay our taxes, and we should be able to get some recognition for how we pay our taxes and drive the economy.”
‘The math is a bit odd’
Hornby Island resident Melisa Devost is wondering how long she can keep dipping into her savings.
The former music educator has seen her principal source of income dry up, but has been taking shifts as a receptionist at a medical clinic.
“I’ve been taking all the shifts that I can because I was uncertain about what I would be eligible for, so trying to cover all my bases,” she said, noting that she’s unlikely to qualify for the CERB this month. In May, with only one shift on the books, she thinks, she will be able to qualify. But the way the program is set up, Devost said, she’s unlikely to accept more shifts at the clinic — despite being the only trained relief worker — if it means she’d surpass the limit.
“It’s a pretty large difference, right? If I make $1,200 for the month, it means I lose $1,800? You know what I mean? The math is a bit odd.”
But still the B.C. resident considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“I’m very fortunate that, where I live, my cost of living can be kept very low. I don’t have to pay for commercial space for teaching; most of my costs as a business are travel costs,” she said.
Watch: Where Canadian jobs have shifted. Story continues after video.
Kim Troy, a home daycare operator in Edmonton, told HuffPost the changes announced this week also don’t help her. Taking care of three kids at her home, Troy earns more than the allowable limit to collect the CERB.
“And that’s not right, we shouldn’t make less money so we can get government money,” she said.
Troy expects to go into debt because of the pandemic, she said, but she’s hoping that she can get some help so she can stay open and see her business survive. “There are quite a few day homes that have decided to just close their doors.”
Troy has three children in her care and earns $2,400 a month.
“I’m better off than a lot of people, but that is not $2,400 [profit], because I still have to pay for food and utilities and craft supplies and cleaning supplies, and they are counting that $1,000 before any of that,” she said.
Troy knows she’d be better off informing two families that she can no longer care for their child, but she isn’t ready to do that.
“Isn’t that sad that I would have to let two parents down? A nurse possibly? It would either be the nurse or the [parent] who works in the prison. And that’s just not fair, I can’t do that,” she said, by phone.
“That is what is so hard. We do this job because we love the kids, we love the families, we want to help. That’s why many of us haven’t closed — because we want to keep helping the families — but the government is penalizing us for that.”