By Zaid Noorsumar
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) introduced this week by the Liberal government is a vast improvement over the beleaguered Employment Insurance system but still excludes many people.
The CERB applications are expected to be available online on April 6 with payments to be issued within 10 days. Recipients will be paid $2,000 per month to a maximum of four months.
The CERB technically covers all people whose income has been affected by COVID-19 after March 15, including self-employed, freelance and gig economy workers. Eligible applicants must have earned at least $5,000 over the past 12 months and must have a social insurance number (SIN).
However, CERB is inaccessible for undocumented and temporary foreign workers (TWF), newcomers and refugees as well as about 650,000 people who were unemployed before the pandemic began.
Employment Insurance overwhelmed
The CERB will process applications and roll out payments quicker than Employment Insurance (EI), which has a more stringent eligibility criteria and has been swamped by a massive influx of applications since the COVID-19 outbreak. The government says the EI system wasn’t designed to handle such a large number of requests. As recently as March 26, one Service Canada worker told Rankandfile.ca that EI claims are already around 1.3 or 1.4 million.
According to David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the vast majority of the 1.5 million people who have been laid off since March 15 qualify for CERB.
“If you became unemployed after March 15 then it’s open season,” Macdonald says. “Almost anyone can get CERB.”
However, 1.1 million people were unemployed in February 2020 and are excluded from CERB. Of those, about 650,000 people are also ineligible for Employment Insurance.
“The 650,000 or so people that didn’t get access to EI, they get nothing from EI and they get nothing from CERB. And that’s a pretty big group,” Macdonald says.
According to Macdonald’s CCPA report released earlier this month, only 33 percent of unemployed women and 38 percent of unemployed men received Employment Insurance payments in 2018.
People don’t qualify for EI due to multiple reasons including not having worked enough hours, or not contributing to Employment Insurance (such as gig economy workers).
The discrepancy between CERB and EI payments
Macdonald estimates that about 300,000 out of the 1.1 million unemployed people in February – before the pandemic – are currently receiving EI benefits. But he says that about two-thirds of those people are receiving less money from EI than they would if they were on CERB.
EI payments max out at $573 per week or $2,292 a month but most people receive less than that. This is partly due to the program delivering a maximum wage replacement of 55 percent of lost income.
The discrepancy between EI and CERB payments could be a source of fiction between workers, says Pam Frache, provincial coordinator for the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario.
She cites the hypothetical example of a worker in Saskatchewan, laid off from a minimum wage job ($11.32/hour) and earning less than $800 a month on EI, while others will now receive $2,000 a month.
Both Macdonald and Frache say the federal government should ensure all EI recipients are paid at least $2,000 a month to rectify this problem.
“We have to make sure that those people who have been in extreme precarity and are now having to survive on employment insurance, they need fair treatment,” Frache says. “And that means no one gets less than $500 a week in income support.”
The inadequacy of the social safety net
The monthly CERB rate of $2,000 is an implicit acknowledgment by the government that anything less is insufficient, Frache says.
She says that the emergency benefit speaks to the inadequacy of multiple income support programs including employment insurance, social assistance, old-age security pension and workers’ compensation.
“The [CERB rate] is a huge recognition of what the real problems are in our long-term social safety net,” she says.
“We should look at that and say, ‘This is a good first step that we are trying to provide these minimum income supports, but we need a dramatic improvement in our ongoing social safety nets.’”
Frache also points out to the absence of paid sick and emergency leave for workers who have been left stranded on the front lines, or in some cases been forced to use vacation days for illness.
She cites the example of grocery store employees, health care workers and others who haven’t been in the position to take time off work even if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms (although the CERB will now provide workers paid time off but not if they became sick before March 15).
Her campaign is calling on the government to institute 21 paid emergency leave days – seven permanent and 14 additional days for pandemics.
Locked out of CERB
Macdonald says at this time the government has rightly made fast policy decisions rather than spending time on great policy initiatives, citing the wage subsidy for small and medium-sized enterprises as working in concert with CERB.
“The CERB reasonably well-designed, considering how fast it went out the door. And they seem to be willing to change it on the fly,” he says.
The government will certainly have to improvise if the program is to comprehensively cover all people in need. The Fight for $15 and Fairness is urging people to call cabinet ministers towards that effect.
Frache is concerned that the benefit won’t reach vulnerable people including those without status – such as migrant workers or newcomers and refugees.
“It’s ironic that the federal Liberals have ostensibly been the champions of refugees,” she says. “And yet, some people who’ve just arrived in Canada won’t yet have their social insurance numbers [and won’t be eligible for CERB].”
“Whether we are undocumented, whether we are eligible for or receiving EI, or whether we are part of the gig economy, we all deserve immediate access to income supports. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that we can’t protect ourselves unless we protect everyone.”