Essential workers to get salary top-up, eligibility for emergency benefit expanded: PM
OTTAWA -- Part-time and seasonal workers are now eligible to claim the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and new money is coming for front-line workers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Wednesday.
Now, workers who are earning up to $1,000 a month, such as contract or gig economy workers, or who have seasonal employment and can’t find a job due to COVID-19, as well as those who are running out of employment insurance, can now apply to collect the CERB for up to four months.
“Maybe you’re a volunteer firefighter, or a contractor who can pick up some shifts, or you have a part-time job in a grocery store. Even if you’re still working, or you want to start working again, you probably need help making ends meet,” Trudeau said.
These updates will not require another round of legislative amendments.
- Complete coverage at CTVNews.ca/Coronavirus
- Coronavirus newsletter sign-up: Get The COVID-19 Brief sent to your inbox
Unveiling the anticipated eligibility expansion to the CERB program that six million Canadians have already applied for, Trudeau said he is also working with the provinces to boost wages for essential front-line staff to keep them on the job.
He said, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, wages are going to be boosted for essential workers who are making less than $2,500 a month, “as quickly as possible.” It’ll be on the agenda during his meeting with the premiers on Thursday.
This new temporary top-up will be distributed through a transfer to the provinces, with the cost shared, given public health care is generally a provincial responsibility.
Details on which staff will be deemed essential and would be eligible for this new funding is still being worked out, but the federal government estimates it could help “several million workers.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that the idea was first brought up by Trudeau on last week’s call with provincial and territorial leaders and it received an "enthusiastic response."
Quebec and British Columbia have already implemented direct wage support programs for low-income workers in essential service sectors.
Trudeau said that the essential front-line staff in hospitals, seniors’ homes and long-term care facilities are doing “some of the toughest jobs in the country,” and because they are now being asked to only report to work at a single facility, their income could be less than what they’d receive if they stopped working and collected the CERB prior to this expansion.
“For many workers looking after the most vulnerable Canadians, including seniors and those with disabilities, we know conditions have gotten more difficult over the past weeks. And you need support right now,” Trudeau said.
“As we face an unprecedented threat to public health, you are our most important line of defence. We will do whatever we can to help you do your job and support you through this.”
It remains unclear how much these expansions will cost, with the initial CERB program pegged at $24 billion. Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the government is hoping that the wage subsidy program, which will be in effect in a few weeks, will result in more people coming off of CERB.
Closing some of the gaps that have been identified with the emergency aid program has been a commitment the government has made amid criticism that many Canadians were left out. The government said that their initial focus would be on getting money out the door to as many people as possible and fine tuning the criteria later.
The Liberals have said they have been looking into ways to keep as many people on the job as possible, and providing a top-up to their income was one option they were exploring.
As the program stood before the expansion, in order to be eligible applicants must have earned at least $5,000 in the past 12 months or in 2019 as a whole, and must be out of work for reasons directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the agreement reached with opposition parties over the weekend to fast-track the $73-billion wage subsidy bill’s passage, the Liberals agreed to implement further support measures for groups that have fallen between the cracks of the existing emergency benefits.
Trudeau said on Tuesday to expect more announcements this week for help for students, businesses’ commercial rent, and sectors that have been particularly hard-hit.
The updated aid measures come as preliminary Statistics Canada data indicates that economic activity in March dropped by a record nine per cent, and the Bank of Canada warns the economic downturn caused by the global pandemic will be the worst on record.
Based on a response from Qualtrough to Conservative critic Dan Albas during Saturday’s second emergency legislative sitting, it appeared that the CERB changes announced on Wednesday would require a third aid bill to implement, however the minister’s office confirmed that is not the case.
The eligibility on the application website has already been updated.
In a statement, Albas said it was “clear that the Liberals will have to go back to Parliament” and criticized the constant pruning of the policy weeks after opposition MPs have pointed out gaps and said it further bolsters the need for regular meetings of members of Parliament.
“This concerning pattern of announcing programs, backtracking and then changing eligibility criteria has created confusion for Canadians who are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Government communications and direction must be clear, consistent and transparent. That has not been the case during this crisis,” said Albas.
This comes as talks are underway among the parties as to how Parliament could proceed amid the pandemic without packing 338 MPs back into the chamber.
The first two emergency sittings to pass financial aid legislation have occurred with the minimum number of MPs required, though it’s also forced staff, security and House administration officials back into the building when most Canadians are being told to stay home.
The mid-March agreement to resume regular House of Commons sittings on Monday stated that a further delay or pursuit of another model would require all four recognized parties sign on, but as a study of the viability of a virtual parliament gets underway, there is no consensus on what form the spring sitting should take.
The Conservatives want to see some form of in-person sittings resume and outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer flew his family back to Ottawa with the intention of staying in town for the spring parliamentary session.
Scheer continued to drive home his call for Parliament to resume, during a media availability on Wednesday.
NEW MENTAL HEALTH HELP
The government has also announced a new mental health portal available on the government’s website and through their new COVID-19 app. Through this Canadians — many of whom are feeling more stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed given the current crisis and the isolating nature of staying at home — can connect with mental health professionals.
“If you need to, please reach out,” Trudeau said.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the mental health supports are accessible to all Canadians, and include tools for addressing anxiety, sadness, substance abuse and other mental health issues.
“The options include an online peer community to talk and share and support others… and there are options, such as texting colleague or connecting via video for a session with a professional to address the specific needs,” she said.