Kathleen O’Brien is completing her final year of studies with the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. Her final exam is on April 17 and then she will officially graduate in May.
But in order to become a practicing lawyer, O’Brien must first complete an articling position, something she was set to start this summer.
“I was in the last stages of a competition for a position and that position was just put on hold indefinitely because of everything that’s going on,” said O’Brien.
Like many other law students, she was counting on the job to cover her finances after school, so when the government introduced the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for those affected by COVID-19, she looked into if she would qualify to hold her over in the meantime.
When the benefit was first announced on March 25, it was unclear exactly who would qualify.
“I interpreted the benefit to say that I would apply,” said O’Brien. And she’s not the only one.
On Monday, a statement from Halifax MP Andy Fillmore confirmed that students who had made $5,000 in the past 12 months could apply.
“This includes students who, due to the impacts of COVID-19, have lost their job, are unable to find work, or who had a summer job opportunity fall through,” Fillmore said in the emailed statement.
But just two days later, final details released on the benefit contradicted that.
According to the government website, the benefit is only available to those who stop work as a result of reasons related to COVID-19.
“If you are looking for a job but haven’t stopped working because of COVID-19, you are not eligible for the Benefit. For example if you are a student who had a job last year and were planning on working this summer you do not qualify for the benefit,” the website reads.
O’Brien says she was disappointed to see the government neglecting students.
“I was very hopeful it had been an oversight and unfortunately now I see it as a deliberate exclusion of students,” she said.
“Most of us haven’t stopped working, but if our jobs have been cancelled or if our jobs have been postponed indefinitely, we’re not stopping working. We just don’t have a job to go to.”
On Thursday Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, was asked why students are being left out of CERB when many rely on summer jobs as a way to financially support themselves.
“The overall objective is to make sure that those currently going with no income, they have lost their job, they have lost the ability to pay for their expenses including to put food on the table, these are covered by the CERB.”
He also spoke about Ottawa’s wage subsidies program, but he did not address the unique needs of students specifically.
“The wage subsidies reinforces the ability of everyone, the businesses across Canada, to hire or rehire or not layoff workers that would normally not be without a job in the current circumstances,” said Duclos.
“So this is all helpful for all of these Canadians who are anxious about the ability to make ends meet.”
But O’Brien says none of this will help her, and she’s unsure what to do as she waits for the competition for articling positions to continue, which could be months.
“Now I’m left in a position where I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills, I might have a month or two good, but after that I’m just not sure what I’m expected to do,” she said.
Andy Fillmore was not available to respond to questions, in an email apologized for the mixed messaged, calling it “a product of this fast-moving, ever-changing environment we find ourselves in.”
In his statement he did acknowledge there were concerns raised by students.
“We recognize that more work needs to be done to close the remaining gaps and make sure nobody falls through the cracks, including certain students who do not meet the CERB eligibility criteria,” he said in an email.
“I have raised their concerns with the relevant ministers and we continue to work toward a positive solution.”
Universities providing some relief
Universities across the country are now providing some extra financial aid to students to help them throughout the pandemic.
All three universities in Halifax now have some supports in place.
Mount Saint Vincent University has established a new President’s Student Relief Fund. It will provide emergency bursaries to help impacted students cover costs associated with housing, food, tuition, technology, mental health services and transportation.
Students will have to be registered as a full or part-time student in the term during which they are applying.
Saint Mary’s University has a small number of Emergency Relief Bursary Funds available, and efforts are underway to add to these funds. Students are encouraged to reach out to the financial aid office if they need help.
Dalhousie University has already provided emergency bursary funding to over 400 students experiencing financial challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 emergency bursary funding is intended to help assist students with immediate costs resulting from COVID-19 but not ongoing or longer-term costs.
In addition, the Schulich School of Law has its own emergency bursary for law students who have emergency needs related to COVID-19, which includes things like added rent, travel expenses or a lost summer internship.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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