Working during the COVID-19 pandemic with pre-existing conditions is a risk Omer Lalonde is willing to take.
“I still do it because people need the service, they need help,” Lalonde told Global News. “We have to keep our (transport) trucks on the road.”
Lalonde is a cashier at a truck stop in Brooks, Alta., but he’s unsure if he’ll end up getting the Critical Worker Benefit (CWB).
On Wednesday, the Alberta government announced a $465-million program to benefit up to 380,000 workers in areas like health care, social services, retail and transportation. Cashiers and service station attendants — Lalonde’s co-workers — should be eligible, according to the province’s website.
The $1,200 benefit would represent half a month’s wages for the 80-year-old man and his wife.
“It would have gone to help me take care of things, to put some aside for retirement,” Lalonde said Monday. “And pay for some bills.”
But applying for that benefit has been a challenge for Lalonde.
“They make it sound like: ‘OK, you can apply for this and you get this, this and this,’” Lalonde said.
“But then when you turn around and you start looking for it and: ‘how do I go about getting this?’ you suddenly run into a roadblock.”
Lalonde printed out 18 pages of information and eligibility criteria for the benefit in an effort to try to determine if he and his dozen fellow co-workers in Brooks would be able to get the one-time payment.
“If you’re making less than $25 an hour and in the industry that I’m in… then you qualify,” Lalonde said of the results of his research.
He learned that his employer, headquartered in Tennessee, would have to apply on his behalf.
Lalonde said his local manager was unaware of the benefit and he doubts that the multinational truck-stop company would even apply on his and his co-workers’ behalf.
Global News reached out to the company for comment but did not receive a response before this article was published.
Employers face ‘cumbersome’ process
Employers have a multi-step process to get the benefit for their workers, including signing up for a digital ID, submitting information on every employee, corporate banking information, and signing a grant agreement. Some employers also have to submit a letter from the Workers’ Compensation Board.
Companies then pass along the funds to their employees.
Thomas Hesse called the process for employers to apply for their employees’ benefit “cumbersome.”
The president of the UFCW Local 401 — representing food workers — has written letters on behalf of its 35,000 members to employers, asking that they apply for the benefit. Hesse said he’s sent letters to grocery store chains like Safeway, Sobeys and Real Canadian Superstore.
“The second thing we’ve asked for is that they supplement or prop up the benefit to ensure that all of their workers get it, because it’s unfair for some workers to get it and others not to get it,” Hesse told Global News.
“And of course, we’ve asked them to reinstitute a pandemic pay premium.”
Hesse criticized the CWB as “faulted” in determining what Albertans would be eligible. The UFCW president said all essential and critical workers, whether or not they make $25 an hour or have worked 300 hours between Oct. 12, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2021, faced the same threat from the novel coronavirus.
And Hesse wondered whether employees on worker’s compensation, disability insurance or maternity leave would be eligible.
“These calculations — with respect to who gets them and who doesn’t — might leave those people out,” Hesse said. “And that’s just plain discriminatory.”
‘Lines need to be drawn’
Alberta’s minister of Labour and Immigration said the province took a “good, long, hard look” to determine what “lines need to be drawn” around who could benefit from these funds.
The money is part of a cost-shared $4-billion deal between the federal government and the provinces struck last May. Ottawa puts in $3 for every $1 spent by the province. Alberta is contributing $118 million to the cheque program.
“We called this the Critical Worker Benefit because it’s not essential services workers,” Minister Jason Copping told Rob Breakenridge on Global News Radio 770 CHQR. “If you take a look at it through the pandemic, essential services represent well over 80 per cent of the entire working population.”
“We followed the pattern set by a couple of other provinces to include our nurses and health-care workers because of the tremendous efforts they did during the second wave (of the pandemic),” Copping said.
“But when we add more people then we have to draw lines elsewhere.
“And so when we talk about the private sector, we felt it was important to recognize those who were involved in the delivery of groceries and medicine.”
Copping pointed to the decision of some provinces that did not extend a critical worker benefit to the private sector.
“It’s not that we’re not thankful for all the work that all Albertans who continue to work this pandemic have done. But we felt (our decision) was reasonable.”
Hesse called the lines dividing which front-line workers were determined critical “arbitrary” and “unfair.”
“When lines are drawn what the government is really saying is: we’re setting priorities about where we’re going to spend money,” Hesse said Monday.
“Frontline workers ought to be rewarded. And these aren’t huge sums of money.”
Copping said the province has received more than 2,000 applications to the program in the brief time the application window has been open.
The UFCW president said he’s disappointed in the Alberta government with the rollout of this benefit, “because they’re not putting people first.”
“This is a time when we need to put people first.”
Lalonde has already moved on from any disappointment of the prospect of not getting the Critical Workers Benefit.
“It is what it is,” the senior said. “I didn’t have it before and I don’t have it now.”