In early March, Kelley Roberts was looking for she calls a “sit-down job” — anything that would allow her to earn a living without having to put pressure on her damaged knees.
Months earlier, the Welland, Ont. resident had to go on Employment Insurance (EI) sickness benefits after she became unable to stand for long periods of time or squat, both of which were routine parts of her job working at the cashier’s desk and stocking shelves at a local Dollarama, she told Global News.
Doctors said she’d need knee replacement surgery in both legs, she said.
When Roberts went back on the labour market earlier this year, she said, her job hunt was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, as job vacancies dried up overnight.
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“I have no income,” she said.
But Roberts, who lives with her adult son, who has autism, does not qualify for the federal government’s new Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) because she did not lose her job due to COVID-19.
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Her son’s disability benefits are enough to cover around half of the household expenses, Roberts said. For the other half, she said she’s been running up her credit card bill and drawing from her dwindling savings.
She has also applied for Canada Pension Plan Disability benefits, following medical advice that she avoid all work until the surgery, but was turned down initially and is now waiting to hear back on her request for reconsideration.
“I’m very stressed out,” she said. “I am depressed.”
Roberts is one of an estimated 700,000 unemployed Canadians who aren’t eligible for CERB and are also shut out of traditional EI benefits, either because they’ve already used up their social insurance or because they didn’t qualify for it in the first place.
The new CERB program, which launched on Monday, April 6, provides $2,000 every four weeks to Canadians who’ve lost their income because of the economic repercussions of the pandemic or because they are sick with COVID-19, quarantined, looking after someone who is sick or caring for their children who are home from school.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has described the benefit as one pillar of his government’s three-pronged economic rescue plan, which also includes affordable business loans to business and a wage subsidy program to help employers retain their staff.
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Ottawa is “helping those who no longer have a paycheque with the CERB,” Trudeau said on Tuesday.
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But economists have highlighted significant gaps in the new program that potentially leave hundreds of thousands of Canadians jobless, without access to a federal income replacement program.
An analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated the new federal program leaves out 719,000 workers who were already out of a job before COVID-19 and didn’t have access to EI benefits.
The CERB could be “the foundation” of a new jobless benefits program, wrote economist David Macdonald, who authored the report.
“But there are big issues as the EI and CERB programs try to co-exist which, left unaddressed, could mean hundreds of thousands of unemployed Canadians falling through the cracks.”
In a memo to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, other progressive economists and policy experts have called on Ottawa to expand the eligibility criteria for CERB to include not only Canadians who have had to stop working because of COVID-19, but those who are unable to work, including because they can’t find employment due to the pandemic.
Current eligibility rules for CERB seem “misaligned” with the Trudeau government’s stated goal of helping the maximum number of non-essential workers stay home, wrote economist Armine Yalnizyan.Yalnizyan authored the memo with suggestions from Jennifer Robson of Carleton University, Laurell Ritchie of the EI Working Group, economist Angella MacEwen and policy expert John Stapleton.
“Without confidence that the Government of Canada has everyone’s back, particularly those hardest hit, people left economically stranded will do what they can to fend for themselves, including scrambling to earn whatever they can,” reads the memo, which was sent to the government on April 3, according to Yalnizyan.
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On April 6, Prime Minister Trudeau addressed some of the gaps highlighted in the memo, including CERB requirements that currently disqualify many students and Canadians who have seen their income drop because of COVID-19, but not disappear.“There are some people who don’t yet qualify who we do need to help,” the prime minister said.Canadians who’ve seen their work reduced to 10 hours a week or less would “soon” qualify for 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,” the prime minister said, adding he was thinking in particular about home care and long-term care workers looking after seniorss.
The prime minister also said the government is focused on the plight of university and college students who may be out of a job this summer.“You need support now and work is underway to get it to you as soon as possible,” he said.
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Still, the speech did not specifically mention jobless Canadians who don’t qualify for either CERB or EI, who make up one of the largest groups currently excluded from federal income replacement programs, according to the CCPA analysis.The Department of Finance did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.
In Brockville, Ont. Robyn Cooper is hoping the news will soon reveal there is help for people like her, too.After running out of EI unemployment benefits last year, Cooper had her last job interview — for a position as a dispatcher at a transportation company — on March 5 but never heard back.When she called to follow up a few days ago, she said there was no one to answer the call. And while she checks the job banks every day, the most recent job postings are starting to be three or four weeks old, she said.For now, Cooper is living on her husband’s income, her credit card and her savings. But the household cannot keep going without her financial contribution, she said, even on a shoestring income.Cooper said she is also facing a $3,000 tax bill from 2019, which she attributed to too little tax being deducted at source from her EI benefits.“How am I going to pay that?” she said.“I feel like I’ve fallen through the cracks.”