Navigating the changes to emergency relief benefits throughout the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t always been easy.
London, Ont., resident Erin Birtwistle is no stranger to that challenge.
She lost her job in retail at the onset of the pandemic last spring and has been on Employment Insurance (EI) since the fall after moving off the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
But Birtwistle, a mother of two, declared on her EI statement in January that she wasn’t available to work for two weeks because she was the only person able to take care of her five-year-old daughter when schools in London were temporarily closed.
That meant she was no longer eligible for EI – which requires the applicant to be available to work – and instead was banking on receiving the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB). However, when she applied for the benefit through the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), she was told she didn’t qualify because of her open EI claim.
“I was honest on my reporting, but what happened was because I was honest, I didn’t get paid for those two weeks,” Birtwistle told Global News.
Marielle Hossack, a spokesperson for the office of Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, told Global News that a taxpayer who has an open EI claim can be eligible for the CRCB and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) if they aren’t getting EI for the same period, and meet the other eligibility requirements.
“At this time, individuals with an open EI claim looking to access the CRCB or the CRSB for a different pay period need to have their case reviewed manually by Service Canada,” Hossack said.
The CRCB is open to anyone who is employed but unable to work because they need to take care of a child under 12 or a family member who needs supervised care. This applies if the school or facility the person requiring care attends is closed due to the pandemic.
Birtwistle has a part-time job but still qualifies for EI. Half of what she earns is deducted from the benefit.
The delay in receiving benefits is troubling for Canadians like Birtwistle – who still hasn’t received payment for those two weeks in January, even after enlisting the help of her local member of Parliament.
“There’s so many people that fall into these situations where, like myself, to go two weeks and not have any (money) come in,” Birtwistle said. “That’s scary. And for a lot of people, that could be their rent, their mortgage and food on the table.”
Hossack acknowledged that “any delay in receiving benefits creates difficulties for Canadians,” adding that the employment minister’s office, the office of workforce development and disability inclusion, Service Canada and the CRA have been sharing data on applicants.
“The departments are working together to streamline this process to reduce delays and ensure Canadians are paid the benefits to which they are entitled, in a timely manner,” she said.
The CRCB, along with the CRCB and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), was first introduced in August to replace the CERB for those not entitled to EI benefits.
“Together, these Recovery Benefits fill gaps in the way Canadians qualify for income support, ensuring access to all Canadians who are unable to work due to COVID-19 so that no one is left behind,” Qualtrough said at the time.
“If you cannot work, and still don’t qualify for the simplified EI, there is support available to you, tailored to your specific needs.”
But for Birtwistle, months after applying for the CRCB, the system is failing her.
“Now I’m stuck in this — I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “When they get it working, can I just go on and apply for those two weeks or (will) those two weeks be gone? Because now we’re in March. And this was in January after Christmas.”