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'How could they allow this?' Many Canadians frustrated with CERB experience

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It’s been nearly four years since the federal government rolled out the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), but many Canadians who received funds are still confused by its eligibility requirements and are only learning now that they have to pay back the money.

The CRA said previously that the program was launched in a hurry and that the money needed to get to Canadians, but "ineligible individuals would later have to repay amounts they had received."

CTV News asked readers to share their experiences with CERB, after publishing a story on Terrance Bailey, a Toronto man who owes the federal government more than $38,000 after he found out he wasn't eligible to receive the benefits in the first place.

Bailey told CTV News Toronto that he fears he may have to declare bankruptcy.

"I'm on an old age pension and a Canada pension,” Bailey said. "I make $2,000 a month, and how am I supposed to pay back $38,000 and pay my groceries and my rent?"

CTV News received dozens of responses and many people detailed their frustrations with how the COVID-19 financial aid was doled out, how they were confused as to what they were entitled to, or whether they were even eligible to apply for CERB in the first place.

'I don’t have $19,000 to pay back'

One of those readers was Taylor Beaumont, a 22-year-old mother from Mount Forest, Ont., who was forced to work odd jobs at various fast food restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was working at Little Ceasars, Subway, Firehouse Subs, but I was reduced to only a shift or two a week or laid off permanently,” Beaumont said. In her mind, she was eligible to receive CERB, so she collected $19,000 through the pandemic.

Beaumont said a CRA agent reached out to her in September 2023 saying that she would have to pay back the full $19,000. She claims the agent failed to return dozens of phone calls over a month-long span, and only after leaving an angry voicemail did she receive a call back, saying to call the main number and try to find another agent.

“I spoke with a second agent who did a second review of my case at the end of January, and only near the end of February did I find out I was still ineligible,” Beaumont said. Throughout this process, Beaumont said the CRA is taking her GST payments, her Trillium Benefit and Climate Action Benefit as a way to pay back what she owes for CERB.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom and I don’t have $19,000 to pay back,” she said. Only receiving $500 per month through the Child Tax Benefit, she doesn’t think it’s fair that the CRA is seizing her tax benefit money while she continues to appeal their decision.

“It looks like I’ll have to file a judicial review with the federal court.”

'If I could sum it up with one word: crappy'

Another reader who responded to our callout was Ruth Kameka, a 47-year-old who lives with her husband Cleveland in Sarnia, Ont. After Ruth’s hours working at the Marriott Hotel were reduced to zero and her husband struggled to find any shifts working in private security, they both applied for CERB. Ruth only applied for $2,000 and her husband claimed $14,000.

“I read the disclaimer that said we may have to pay them back, but since I wasn’t working and he was barely working, we both assumed that we would not have to pay it back,” Ruth said.

She said the CRA reached out to her in early 2023 saying she was on the hook for the full $2,000. A year later, the CRA said her husband also owed the full $14,000 that he claimed.

“They demanded our banking information, pay stubs and letters from the companies we worked for,” she said. “We’ve moved four times through the pandemic, most of the stuff is lost. We don’t even bank with the same bank anymore.”

Ruth is unable to work anymore due to a heart condition she developed from the stresses of the pandemic, saying she is waiting to book an appointment for a pacemaker to be inserted into her body. Like Beaumont, she said the CRA takes all the tax refunds she and her husband are entitled to, and that she only collects a few hundred dollars from the Ontario Disability Support Program each month.

“If I could sum up this entire experience with one word: crappy,” Ruth said. “They never talk to you, then they email you at two in the morning saying they’re taking your income tax return.”

'How could this happen?'

CTV News also heard from Tricia Clark who couldn't understand how her 81-year-old father owed the federal government tens of thousands of dollars in CERB payments, when she claims he had no access to a computer to even apply.

"How could they allow an 81-year-old man to apply for CERB?" she said during a phone interview with CTV News. "He doesn't know how to use a computer."

She said her dad, Ralph Ceicko, lost the ability to take care of himself in 2018 and relied on the help of a live-in caregiver for a number of years.

Ceicko was placed in a nursing home in Sudbury, Ont. after neighbours reported issues with the caregiver to police and Clark was forced to move back to Ontario from Calgary to tend to her father.

She would soon learn that the caregiver had allegedly applied for CERB on Ceicko's behalf and because Clark had no proof to show the caregiver deposited the government cheques and withdrew the money for herself, the CRA told Clark she's on the hook to pay back the $21,000.

“We’ve only been able to pay back $2,500. Any GST money or tax refund goes straight to the CRA,” Clark said. She says at this time, she can only afford to pay the nursing home fees, which she claims have risen since he first joined the home. She’s not sure how they’ll be able to pay off the remaining $18,500 owed to the CRA.

“We just don’t have the money.”

'There is no fighting the CRA'

When businesses started temporarily shutting down at the beginning of the pandemic, Kim and Bryan Steeves of Okanagan Falls, B.C. weren’t too worried. Bryan, 67, was briefly laid off, so he applied for Employment Insurance (EI), doing so for eight weeks between May and June. However, when they attempted to apply again, the CRA said they had exhausted all their CERB benefits.

“CERB? We were applying for EI,” Kim, 60, said. She says they were on hold with the CRA for hours, then told the federal government decided just to give Canadians CERB instead of EI, saying that they would get more money anyway.

“It didn’t work like that. We already pay into EI, the amount he should have received would have been more than CERB,” she said.

Bryan eventually returned to work in August 2020. Three months later, they received a letter from the CRA saying they owed them $8,000 since they were not entitled to the CERB benefit. Instead of fighting it, they decided to pay it off in one lump sum.

“They make the rules and we have to follow them,” Kim said. “There’s no fighting with the CRA.”

Bryan retired in November 2022 and spends most of his days at home with the dog. Kim, meanwhile, works a few hours a week with friends doing shoe repair. While they recognize they’re in a more fortunate position than others, they’re still devastated with the circumstances of many Canadians.

“The whole CERB program seemed to have been run without forethought or compassion for people who were struggling just to get by,” Kim said. “What would you even do if you don’t have the money?”

How can you pay back the CRA?

Between March and October 2020, the federal government paid out nearly $82 billion in CERB to 8.9 million Canadians. A 2022 auditor’s report found that $4.6 billion was paid to people who shouldn’t have qualified.

For more information on CERB and how to make a payment, visit the CRA’s website

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