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Edmonton businesses step up call to redesign CERB program

A new report ranks Edmonton as the top Canadian city for youth employment.
A new report ranks Edmonton as the top Canadian city for youth employment. The Canadian Press/Doug Ives

More and more Edmonton businesses are seeing their workers choose to take the federal government’s emergency benefit rather than return to work this summer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each week, the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business surveys its members. Alberta director Annie Dormuth reported that 72 per cent of those surveyed said the reason their employee gave them for refusing to return to work was because they prefer collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

LISTEN BELOW: Dr. Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor with the University of Waterloo, joins The Ryan Jespersen Show to talk CERB

Only 33 per cent of Alberta small businesses are at or above normal staffing levels. Twenty per cent of Alberta small businesses are having a hard time finding the staff they need to operate, Dormuth said. Nearly a quarter of Alberta small businesses said they have had staff refuse to return to work when they recalled them.

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“We’ve been calling I believe through advocacy with the federal government for almost a month now, kind of at the start when most of the provinces were going into their early phases of their economic relaunch,” Dormuth told Global News on Tuesday.

“That’s when we started to hear more concerns from small businesses that it was becoming a little bit of an issue to [ask] their employees to come back from the temporary layoff period and then citing that the reason they don’t want to come back is because they prefer collecting CERB.”

Janet Riopel, the president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, has heard it from her members too.

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“I think it’s a great thing that governments have really strong support systems. But they can’t be there to prevent people from coming back to work,” she said.

“The thing we think that is really problematic is this isn’t free money. This is taxpayer dollars used to fund programs so we need to find a way to make sure that the money goes to those who most need it.”

Read more: Phase out CERB payments, improve COVID-19 spending transparency, Senate report says

The Conservatives have proposed a scaling benefit that Edmonton-Centre MP James Cumming said should allay fears because what is in place now with the government is like falling off a cliff.

“As soon as your earn a dollar over $1,000, you lose your $2,000,” Cumming said in a phone interview from Ottawa. “So what we’ve suggested is a scaling model that you can earn over $1,000 and you won’t lose the entire $2,000 — it’s scaled.”

Read more: Alberta small business owners shut down amid ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

The proposal that has been in place for a few weeks would see Canadians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic continue to receive their full $2,000 CERB.

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As businesses reopen, workers who make between $1,000 and $5,000 per month would qualify for the Back to Work Bonus, a CERB top-up that would be gradually phased out by 50 cents for every extra dollar earned over the $1,000 threshold.

For a part-time server making $2,000 per month, the Back to Work Bonus would result in a top-up of $1,500, for a total monthly income of $3,500.

“It provides a bit of a bonus for people to get back to work and not have this fear of losing the benefit of the CERB but encourages them to get back with their employers and get back to that relationship between employees and employers,” Cumming said.

Read more: ‘Having trouble getting staff’: Alberta stakeholders say CERB keeping workers at home

Cumming isn’t buying into the thinking that for 2020 only, workers are just taking advantage of the situation to have a whole summer off with a guaranteed income.

“I don’t see people that way. I think it’s more about that they want some security. That they want to understand that if a business fires up and then they have an outbreak or something and they’re not able to maintain their employment, they need CERB because of course people need the money,” he said.

“I think it’s more of an issue of let’s make sure that they feel confidence and have certainty that they have some income coming, and I think that’ll get people back to work and back with their employers.”

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On Tuesday, Manitoba joined in the call for CERB to be revamped. The CFIB copied each of the provincial premiers in its letter to Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau to scrap the current system.

“I do see that Premier Pallister has also made that call out and maybe it’s time for Premier Kenney and the Alberta government to start recognizing that this may be becoming a larger issue,” Dormuth said.

The most recent CFIB survey was conducted from July 3 to 6.

Dormuth said the Alberta government is copied on the survey results each week.

The most common position Alberta small businesses are having a hard time filling are semi-skilled jobs, which require some experience but no advanced training or specialized skills.

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