In his morning address to the nation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday announced expanded eligibility rules for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and a plan to top up pay for some essential workers amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The CERB will become available to Canadians who have exhausted their employment insurance (EI) benefits since Jan. 1, seasonal workers who can’t find work because of COVID-19 and those who earn up to $1,000 a month, the prime minister said.
Ottawa is also planning to work with the provinces and territories to provide financial help to essential workers, such as those employed in long-term care homes, who earn less than $2,500 a month.
New CERB eligibility rules
The CERB currently provides $2,000 every four weeks for up to four months to Canadians who have lost all of their income because of the health emergency.
With the changes, Canadians will now be allowed to collect the CERB even if they still have some earnings, as long as their monthly income does not surpass $1,000.
The new rules will likely extend CERB eligibility to an estimated 1.1 million Canadians who are still working but saw their hours drastically reduced amid COVID-19, said David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
READ MORE: Got a CERB double payment? Here’s what to do
Extending eligibility to Canadians who recently ran out of EI would bring another 55,000 workers into the program, Macdonald estimates.
Ottawa also said it will expand access to the emergency benefit to seasonal workers who have exhausted their EI benefits and can’t find their usual seasonal work as a result of the pandemic.
But even with the changes, there are still many Canadians who should be able to access the CERB but can’t, according to Macdonald.
Around half a million unemployed Canadians continue to be left out of both EI and the CERB, he said. Those are workers who didn’t qualify for traditional jobless benefits and lost their job before the onset of COVID-19.
Another 1.4 million workers are making less than the $2,000 a month they would receive through CERB but more than $1,000, failing to meet the new income cutoff to qualify for the benefit, Macdonald said.
There are also some 200,000 Canadians who lost their job because of the pandemic but aren’t entitled to CERB because they didn’t earn at least $5,000 in the previous 12 months or during 2019, according to Macdonald.
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Nearly 400,000 Canadians are now collecting EI and receiving less than the $2,000 a month they’d be getting with CERB, he estimates.
Finally, some 34,000 Canadians who lost their income due to the novel coronavirus and would be entitled to CERB risk seeing their social assistance clawed back dollar for dollar as a result of receiving the federal emergency benefit, Macdonald warned.
In recent days, Ottawa has urged provinces and territories not to roll back social assistance for CERB recipients.
British Columbia has said it is temporarily allowing residents to collect EI and CERB without impact on income and disability assistance.
At the time of writing, the government had not yet updated eligibility information on its CERB online portal.
A new pay boost for essential workers
The federal government is also working on a new transfer to the provinces and territories that will help fund a pay boost for low-income workers deemed essential amid the outbreak, including those on the front lines in hospitals and nursing homes, those involved in the food supply and Canadians who provide key services in the retail sector.
“As we face an unprecedented threat to public health, you are our most important line of defence,” the prime minister said, addressing these workers.
The introduction of the CERB raised worries that some lower-paid essential workers, especially those working in environments that have become high-risk amid COVID-19, would leave their jobs and opt to apply for federal aid instead.
READ MORE: The new COVID-19 benefit for workers has launched — Here’s how to apply
Ottawa will share the cost of wage supports for low-income essential workers in Quebec and British Columbia, which have already rolled out their own programs, according to information provided by the Department of Finance.
Macdonald welcomed the effort to increase wages for lower-income workers in critical roles but questioned why Ottawa, rather than the private sector, was taking on that burden.
“It’s interesting that it’s the federal government’s responsibility instead of private industry to be paying people more,” he said.
Trudeau also said the federal government would have more to say about help for post-secondary students and businesses worried about commercial rents “very soon.”