Hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have lost their income due to COVID-19 are hoping to qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a monthly stipend of $2,000 that will last up to four months.
Within hours of the federal government accepting applications on Monday, more than 3.1 million people have successfully applied, according to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The Canadian Revenue Agency is processing around 1000 applications per minute, the PMO told Global News.
At a press conference on April 6, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed criticism surrounding the benefit, as it currently isn’t available for gig workers, volunteer firefighters and other professions like contractors who work less than 10 hours per week.
University and college students are also part of multiple groups “falling between the cracks,” Trudeau said.
“If you are working reduced hours, down to 10 hours a week or less, we will soon announce how you will benefit from the CERB,” he said.
“We’ll also have more to say for those who are working, but making less than they would with the benefit.”
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Those “fine tunings” will come in the next few days, explained Trudeau. The wage benefit is expected to cost the government $24 billion.
Global News spoke to several Canadians who have applied to CERB or are planning to apply to CERB about whether the benefit meets their needs. Many are relieved to have submitted an application, but are hesitant to feel at ease when unemployment holds many unknowns.
‘Never been laid off from a job before’
A week ago Melina Morry of Toronto was employed and working as a fashion copywriter for Harry Rosen. She and around 20 others from her e-commerce team were temporarily laid off due to COVID-19.
Harry Rosen seemed to be doing well due to an uptick in online shopping, so Morry, 28, and others were shocked when they were told they no longer had a job.
“They said it’s temporary but they don’t have any idea when things may resume to normal,” she said. “But I’ve never been laid off from a job before. I felt really disappointed at first and a bit confused.
“I kind of just thought my job would be secure through all of this. But it just goes to show that you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
Morry already applied for employment insurance last week, which will now automatically be processed for CERB.
While she says it’s reassuring to know she isn’t alone in her predicament — around one million positions in Canada were lost in March, according to Statistics Canada — she’s concerned due to uncertainty about her future, she said.
“The $2,000 a month is enough for me to pay my living expenses, so that’s a huge relief,” she said.
“The only thing that concerns me is that they say this benefit is going to be for the next four months… so I’m wondering how am I going to be supplemented if I’m still not able to find a job?”
Her employer said she and others will know the status of their temporary layoff by December, leaving months in between where she will have missing income when the benefit runs out, she said.
Currently, she is trying to view the situation as one that’s out of her control and will continue to check government updates if she still requires financial assistance past the four-month window, she said.
“I think it’s a good time to really just re-evaluate what you want to do with your life,” she said. “Hopefully things will go back to normal eventually.”
Confusion, unanswered questions around the application process
Tara Maslowsky, 26, has already been laid off for three weeks due to COVID-19, after the massage therapy clinic she worked at closed.
Her employer formally dismissed her and other staff members so they would be able to apply for employment insurance, said Maslowsky, who lives in Winnipeg.
At first, she says she was confused as to whether she was supposed to apply for unemployment insurance or whether she should wait until the CERB opens. In the last week, attempting to speak to someone who can help her with questions has been difficult, she said.
“I’m very stressed, I feel like I’m getting myself worked up about it. Last week I set my alarm to get through to Service Canada, literally all day. That was almost 500 calls to speak to somebody,” she said. “But information is changing constantly.”
Now, she says, she understands her employment insurance claim will migrate over to CERB. But because of fears about paying her bills living without her own income, the ability to connect with the government more directly would be helpful, she explained.
“I just feel that there’s so many questions that people want answers to. Unfortunately you just have to wait it out, which is stressful in itself,” she said.
While she waits for her first payment, connecting to other Canadians on social media who are going through a similar scenario now has been a source of comfort, said Maslowsky.
“We’re all just trying to help each other…everybody’s coming together and trying to help and give each other as much information as they can,” she said.
Losing income, while sick
Allyson Paynter, 50, hasn’t been dismissed from her job as a legal administrative assistant in Edmonton. But she has exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 and has had to stay home in quarantine as a result, going on a temporary leave that has caused a loss of income, she said.
Having her CERB application be approved today was a source of relief, as she was concerned she wouldn’t be able to pay her bills while she recovers.
“It’s really easing my worry, and I’m almost positive that my worry has been affecting my symptoms,” she said.
When she first spoke to Alberta Health Link, the health hotline in the province, they told her it may not be worth it to test her currently and to go to the hospital if her symptoms get worse, she said.
“Health-wise I’m not doing great. This is not the flu where you rest for a couple of days and then you feel better. This is much more serious, my chest really hurts. The symptoms are just really harsh,” she said.
Receiving the benefit would allow her to relax more while she is in quarantine, she said. Her landlord has already waived April’s rent, but she is concerned about paying her expenses next month.
“It’s been incredibly challenging dealing with my current health condition and uncertainty about my finances,” she said.
Applying to the CERB was “very easy” because Paynter says she looked up the process beforehand and set her alarm for right when the applications opened.
She said she found the process much more user-friendly than the Alberta finance relief benefit, which is a one-time payment of $1,142.
“It took me less than a minute and my approval was automatic, which I must say has taken a lot of pressure off,” she said.
“I was surprised. I had been trying to apply to the Alberta one-time relief payment…and I haven’t been able to get through on that website.”
‘Very few people that are doing well’
Making sense of whether he qualifies for CERB has been “very confusing” for 32-year-old Mohammed Asaduallah from Toronto.
Asaduallah is the founder of start-up Benji, which helps freelancers by finding tax write-offs for them. As his clients are losing their source of income as well, they have to temporarily shut down, he explained.
This has resulted in a complete loss of income for himself, he said.
“I’ve been calling the CRA saying ‘hey do I qualify, how does this work’?” he said. CERB’s guidelines state that if you voluntarily stop working, you don’t qualify for the benefit — which technically he has done by closing Benji for now, he said.
“It’s been very confusing to make sense of it,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m doing things in a compliant way and I’m not doing anything that is wrong or illegal.”
When Asaduallah applied for the benefit this morning, he said it only took a few minutes for him to complete the application.
It was so fast, it was almost “scary,” he said — as he’s used to more red tape when navigating government applications and websites, he explained.
“I was just gobsmacked, that was so fast…but for me I’m relieved that there’s funding available as quickly as it is,” he said. He says he feels lucky he’s in a group that is able to qualify for CERB, when others aren’t.
Beyond the four-month period, Asaduallah says he’s also worried for himself and other unemployed Canadians as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the country.
“There are very few people that are doing well and have jobs…many other Canadians don’t have the same privilege at the moment,” he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.
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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