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Why some Canadians have already run out of CERB: ‘I was in tears’

Federal government extends CERB by 8 weeks
WATCH: Federal government extends CERB by 8 weeks

Some Canadians are worried about running out of their Canada Emergency Response Benefit payments, even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an extension of the emergency income support program on Tuesday.

“I was in tears,” says Charity Smith, a Toronto-based cleaner.

Smith, who has been receiving CERB since mid-March, says she discovered on Tuesday morning she may have to go several weeks without income as her government benefits ran out earlier than she expected.

READ MORE: CERB to be extended by 8 weeks, Trudeau says

CERB provides $2,000 in taxable income every four weeks to those who are unable to work due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, whether or not they qualify for Employment Insurance.

Smith is one of many who were automatically transferred to the CERB program when they applied for Employment Insurance from March 15 on, as the pandemic took hold. Canadians who qualify for EI must register for the CERB through Service Canada and generally receive the benefit as bi-weekly payments of $1,000 after submitting employment reports.

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At what cost? The financial impact of extending CERB
At what cost? The financial impact of extending CERB

Canadians who don’t qualify for EI can apply for CERB through the Canada Revenue Agency and receive payments of $2,000 for a four-week period.

Ottawa initially established CERB as a 16-week program starting on March 15, meaning those who have been continuously receiving the benefit since mid-March would max out on July 4.

But those like Smith who applied through EI received an initial advance payment of $2,000 in addition to the $1,000 bi-weekly payments tied to their employment reports.

Back in April, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), speaking with Global News, called the $2,000 payment “an advance of weeks to be paid later on in their claim.”

READ MORE: Many Canadians will max out on CERB in July. What happens next?

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No one would receive more than 16 weeks’ worth of benefits for a maximum amount of $8,000, the government said. In other words, the advance funds transfer would mean the benefits payments would run out sooner.

This is causing confusion and anxiety for many Canadians.

Smith says she was shocked to find out there would be no payment for the period of June 7-13. When she checked her bank account, expecting to find a $1,000 deposit from the government, she found only $500.

When she called Service Canada to inquire about what she believed was a missing payment, she says she was told there would be no more CERB transfers and she wouldn’t be able to apply for EI until the week of July 6.

Coronavirus outbreak: Singh says Canada needs plan to keep CERB payments to those out of work
Coronavirus outbreak: Singh says Canada needs plan to keep CERB payments to those out of work

Smith says she is now worried about making her bills, adding she may have to borrow from friends to afford the $126 she usually spends at the beginning of every month to buy a puffer for her severe asthma.

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She has to take the medication daily, she says. “If not, I end up in the hospital.”

Smith says her condition puts her at higher risk of complications from COVID-19, which led her to apply for EI sickness benefits on her doctor’s advice when the pandemic took hold in Canada.

READ MORE: Live updates — Coronavirus in Canada

She didn’t realize until now that she was receiving CERB instead of EI and had no idea the $2,000 deposit she received months ago was an advance payment.

I was able to use that money again to get my debt down,” she says.

Had she understood the $2,000 would be detracted from future payments, she would have made the money last, she says.

Smith isn’t the only person caught by surprise by the early end of their CERB payments.

Talor Martens, from Georgetown, Ont., says she thought the initial $2,000 deposit was a retroactive payment linked to Ottawa waiving the waiting period for EI payments.

Martens says she used part of the money to stock up on groceries to make sure she and her fiance would be able to survive should they need to self-quarantine.

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The couple used the rest of the funds to keep up with the bills despite Martens’ significantly reduced income, she says.

Talor Martens, above, says she might have to sell some of her belongings to make ends meet if the benefit payments stop for several weeks.
Talor Martens, above, says she might have to sell some of her belongings to make ends meet if the benefit payments stop for several weeks. Image courtesy of Talor Martens

Martens, who has been working at a local restaurant since August 2019, also says she believed she was receiving EI — not CERB — payments.

While the $1,000 bi-weekly payments from CERB were more than 55 per cent of her eligible earnings from the restaurant, she says she had also previously worked at a biomedical technology company for much higher pay.

When she did the math including her corporate earnings, it worked out to something very close to $1,000 bi-weekly, she says.

I thought, lucky me, my EI is based on my previous salary at my corporate position,” she says.

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Martens says she also discovered on Tuesday she isn’t entitled to any payment starting on June 7. When she called Service Canada, she says she was told to call back on July 6, when the agency would know more about options for future benefits.

READ MORE: Your CERB money is taxable. Here’s how it’s going to work

While the federal government has said it is extending the maximum length of CERB payments to 24 weeks, or $12,000, it’s unclear whether this will plug the potential payments gap faced by Canadians like Smith and Martens.

The office of Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

CERB recipients who are eligible for EI will also be able to use their full EI entitlement once the emergency program runs out, Ottawa has said. However, Smith and Martens said they couldn’t get a clear answer from Service Canada about whether they would need to submit a new EI application.

For now, both say they’ve been told to keep filing bi-weekly employment reports.

Amid the uncertainty, Martens says she’s thinking about how to plan for a potential period of zero income.

We’re having discussions today about what do we have around the house that we can maybe part with for extra money,” she says.

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“It’s certainly going to be difficult.”