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CERB, EI Or Wage Subsidy? What COVID-19 Financial Assistance Do You Qualify For?

Emergency benefits and employment insurance and subsidies — there’s a lot to unpack.

As we settle into a new month of life in the coronavirus pandemic, more and more details are emerging about the financial assistance available to Canadians impacted by the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, the federal government unveiled a huge financial relief package aimed at stimulating the economy and supporting Canadians who have been laid off because of the pandemic. A big feature of that package was the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a $2,000 monthly payment available to Canadian workers impacted by COVID-19 layoffs. It comes on top of existing programs like employment insurance (EI) and new benefits at the provincial level.

But new details keep rolling out daily on who qualifies and what they should apply for. Since writing guides on how to apply for employment insurance and how to apply for the CERB in the past few weeks, I’ve been inundated with dozens of questions from readers and friends about their specific circumstances.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released further details on the CERB and announced that applications would open on April 6. He called the financial support package — including the CERB and new wage subsidy program — the “largest economic program in Canada’s history.”

“Canada hasn’t seen this type of civic mobilization since the Second World War,” Trudeau said.

Big government mobilizations come with big questions. So here’s what you need to know.

Can I apply for both the CERB and EI?

No, not at the same time. The CERB is designed to fill in some of the gaps in the existing EI structure and shoulder some of the application load.

But that doesn’t mean the $2,000 a month from the CERB is the only benefit you have access to. Provinces are rolling out supports of their own, including B.C.’s $500 renter relief fund and Ontario’s $200 one-time child support payment. Many also have financial relief specifically for people directed to self-isolate if they are sick or caring for someone who is sick — in Alberta it’s a one-time payment of $1,146.

“Canada hasn’t seen this type of civic mobilization since the Second World War.”

- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

If you are still out of work when your CERB payments run out, you can apply for EI after, if you qualify.

I still have a full-time job. What benefits do I have access to?

Great! In this case, if your employer is struggling they can apply for the 75 per cent wage subsidy recently announced by the federal government, if they qualify. More details on that here.

I was laid off because of COVID-19 and already applied for EI

Then hang tight — according to the government either your application for EI will be processed or you’ll be put into the queue for the CERB. Stay tuned for updates through your EI portal or My CRA account.

On Wednesday, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said there has been an “unprecedented wave” of more than 2.1 million EI applications in the past two weeks.

I am not working because of COVID-19 and HAVE NOT applied for EI yet

The federal government is suggesting that you wait until applications for the CERB open on April 6, as that is likely to be processed faster than EI.

You can apply for the CERB online through your My CRA account, or over the phone. Starting April 6, the government is recommending that people stagger their application by birth month in order to avoid overwhelming the system.

  • January, February, March: April 6, Mondays after that
  • April, May, June: April 7, Tuesdays after that
  • July, August, September: April 8, Wednesdays after that
  • October, November, December: April 9, Thursdays after that
  • People with any birth month can apply Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

WATCH: Trudeau boosts wage subsidy. Story continues below.

Both online and phone applications are available 21 hours a day, seven days a week. Both services are closed from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. EST for maintenance.

You qualify for the CERB if you were laid off because of COVID-19, had at least $5,000 in income in the past year and expect to be without employment for at least 14 days of the next month.

If you qualify, you’ll be approved for a one-time taxable payment of $2,000 that you’ll either receive as a cheque in the mail or through direct deposit. If you continue to be unemployed, you can reapply each month for that $2,000 up to four months total.

I was laid off because of COVID-19, but still have some income from another job

This is where it gets tricky. According to government releases, the CERB is intended for people who have no employment income for at least 14 days of the first pay period (which is a month) and can prove no income in subsequent pay periods to continue receiving the benefit.

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on March 27, 2020.
Minister of Finance Bill Morneau responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on March 27, 2020.

So if you are still employed or self-employed and receiving income, you technically do not qualify. You may qualify for other provincial benefits, such as B.C.’s rent subsidy, but will have to check your respective jurisdiction.

I was unemployed before COVID-19

If you qualify for EI, you can still apply for it.

If you don’t qualify for EI and if you were out of work before all of this, neither the CERB nor EI will cover you.

According to the government’s CERB application: “The Benefit is only available to individuals who stopped work and are not earning employment or self-employment income as a result of reasons related to COVID-19. If you have not stopped working because of COVID-19, you are not eligible for the Benefit.”

The government gives the example of an unemployed student who is potentially seeking out summer employment — if you weren’t laid off because of COVID-19 and didn’t make the minimum amount of money last year to qualify for EI, you don’t qualify.

I was laid off because of COVID-19 and plan to stay unemployed (retire)

Technically, you can apply for the CERB, since, unlike EI, there is no indication by the government that you need to prove that you are actively looking for work.

However, you can only receive the CERB for up to four months and you should be able to prove you stopped working and were laid off because of COVID-19, not because you were already retiring.

How do I prove I was laid off because of COVID-19?

The most important document is a Record of Employment (ROE) from your previous employer, which shows when you were laid off and why. If the business you worked for shut down or downsized in response to the pandemic, the likely reason listed on your ROE is “shortage of work.”

Could my employer who laid me off rehire me now that there’s a wage subsidy?

Yes! In fact, on Wednesday Finance Minister Bill Morneau suggested employers do exactly that.

“My message to Canada’s employers is this: Get ready to rehire people,” he said.

The wage subsidy will cost the government an estimated $71 billion. Employers will be eligible if they see a reduction of at least 30 per cent in revenues, compared to the same month last year. It will cover 75 per cent for the first $58,700 of an employee’s salary — up to around $847 per week per employee.

The application for the wage subsidy program should be up and running in three to five weeks. If you’ve been laid off because of COVID-19, touch base with your employer to see if there’s a possibility of rehiring under the new wage subsidy.

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