How did seniors get cut off from Canada’s pandemic supports? Internal document sheds light

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An internal government document is shining a light on how low-income seniors were abruptly cut off from monthly federal payments based on which bureaucratic body handled their emergency benefits last year.

A departmental directive from Service Canada, obtained by The Canadian Press, elaborates on how the Canada Emergency Response Benefit was in fact two programs portrayed as one for simplicity of communication, though they had different criteria.

One stream _ processed by the Canada Revenue Agency _ was for recipients whose income was considered uninsurable, such as self-employed Canadians, while the other stream _ delivered by Service Canada _ was for those with insurable earnings. The former meant relief benefits would be deducted from low-income seniors’ guaranteed income supplement (GIS), while the latter did not.

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Pandemic benefits for those in the second camp “can be excluded from their income amount when applying for GIS,” the directive states.

Starr Therrien, a 63-year-old Ontario flower shop owner who lost her husband in November and was slated to receive his income supplement, finds herself cut off for the coming year from $8,400 largely due to the CERB she drew on for three months in 2020.

“Why wasn’t there a flag when people like me were collecting the CERB?” she asked in an interview.

“I know the government was really strapped for time … But there were no warnings saying, ‘These are the implications, you need to be aware of this 12 months from now and how it will affect your life’ _ $8,400 is a lot of money, no matter who you are.”

Conservative MP Rosemarie Falk said the situation could have been prevented with clearer communication and a more streamlined bureaucratic process, calling the clawbacks “unacceptable.”

“Despite meeting the eligibility requirements, these seniors have been arbitrarily penalized based on the stream these funds came through,” Falk wrote in a letter dated Aug. 9. to Seniors Minister Deb Schulte.

The $2,000-per-month CERB amounted to “two entirely different relief programs, distributed by different government agencies and with different eligibility criteria,” though seniors were never informed, she said.

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“Your government must rectify this situation for the sake of the financial stability and security of our most vulnerable.”

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While the dual-stream complication did not come to light until this week, opposition legislators say they’ve been flooded with calls from Canadians aged 65 and up who suddenly saw their monthly budget tossed out the window amid drastic dips in government supports due to the pandemic benefits they relied on last year.

Green MP Paul Manly highlighted the “costly ramifications of forcing low-income seniors into greater poverty” in a July 29 letter to Schulte, National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.

New Democrat MP Daniel Blaikie called last week for a “prompt solution” after many seniors who received the CERB and its successor, the Canada Recovery Benefit, either do not qualify for the income supplement or face drastic deductions to it.

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Like employment insurance, the guaranteed income supplement is income-tested. That means the previous year’s taxable earnings _ including most emergency benefits _ factor into how much gets doled out in the next payment period (recipients are notified of their entitlements each July).

“This may result in a loss of entitlement if the person’s income (or joint income, where applicable) exceeds the threshold at which GIS benefits are completely phased out,” said Employment and Social Development Canada spokesman Samuelle Carbonneau in an email last week.

The split-program wrinkle added another line to a sometimes garbled calculation.

“For simplicity of communication to the public, the two programs were communicated as one Canada emergency response benefit. The objective was to ensure that Canadians applying for either income support … were treated in a similar manner,” states a May 12 note in the Canada Gazette, the official record of government decisions.

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As CERB began to roll out, information relayed by CRA call centre agents on self-employment income was “unclear and incorrect,” resulting in improperly stated earnings, the note says.

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Jack Partridge, 77, said he lost $350 in monthly GIS after drawing on four months’ worth of CERB when his hours were severely cut back at the technical sales centre where he does maintenance and warehousing work.

“I was never told,” said the resident of Brantford, Ont.

“They say it’s going to all even out in 2021. That may be fine and dandy from their standpoint. But it’s not fine and dandy from my standpoint.”

For single seniors, GIS benefits kick in if they make less than $18,984 annually, with a monthly maximum of $936. The eligibility threshold for couples is $45,504.

Data on the total number of GIS recipients who had their payments reduced this year is not currently available, Carbonneau said.

Seniors continue to receive their full old age security and CPP pensions.

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