Applications open for federal assistance for people out of work due to COVID-19

Federal government programs to help people who are without work due to COVID-19 have changed several times since they were first announced. There may be further changes so it’s important to double check that any information on federal programs.

Ottawa (06 April 2020) —  Starting today, April 6, people can apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The benefit is intended to assist people who have lost work due to COVID-19.

The CERB will provide $500/week for the next 16 weeks. Information on who qualifies and how to apply can be found on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) site.

For the next 16 weeks, people who qualify for Employment Insurance (EI) regular or sickness benefits should also apply for the CERB. People applying for other EI benefits, such as maternity or parental, should apply through the normal process.

Go here to start the process of applying for the CERB. To avoid overloading the system the federal government are telling people to apply on particular days, depending on which month they were born in.

The CERB application process is supposed to direct applications for people who are eligible for EI to Service Canada so it will be easier for them to start an EI claim if they are still out of work in 16 weeks. Applications from people who aren’t eligible for EI will be processed by the CRA.

One-third of unemployed Canadians won’t get help

While the CERB will help many unemployed Canadians who wouldn’t qualify for EI, hundreds of thousands of people will not get the help they need. Analysis from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows one-third of Canadians who are unemployed, or 862,000 people, will get no help from EI or CERB.

An estimated 604,000 people won’t be eligible for the CERB because they were unemployed before the COVID-19 crisis. Preventing people who were already unemployed from receiving the CERB ignores the fact that it is almost impossible for people to find work right now. Excluding people who were already unemployed is unfair. It will also be a lot harder for people to comply with requirements that they self-isolate if they are forced to go out and try to find work because they have no source of income.

The other large group of unemployed workers who won’t be eligible for the CERB are workers who didn’t meet the requirement for minimum earnings of at least $5,000 in the previous year. Again, given that people in this category have little chance of finding work and having no income will make it harder for them to self-isolate, this makes no sense.

Federal assistance being used to justify layoffs and cuts to benefits

Unscrupulous employers are already trying to use the CERB to justify layoffs or cutting paid sick leave. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) has already been forced to respond to several attempts to cut benefits of frontline workers or lay people off. In the most notorious example to date, the Alberta government laid off 26,000 education workers and is looking at further layoffs.

Need to tighten rules, increase eligibility

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means that leaving people with no incomes is dangerous for both those with nothing to live on and society as a whole. Removing restrictions on eligibility so that everyone who is unemployed is eligible would address that problem. There also need to be rules put in place to ensure that employers don’t use the introduction of the CERB to attack workers.

There is the potential for the CERB to be viewed as a major step forward in protecting Canadians when they are vulnerable. But that won’t be the case if a large number of people who are unemployed get no help or if employers are able to take use the CERB to take away benefits.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE