Stories of CERB: Canadians share how they're using the emergency benefit
TORONTO -- Canadians are grappling with some of the worst job numbers in the nation’s history, with close to two million jobs lost in April, an unemployment rate of 13 per cent, and millions more working fewer hours.
In all, one-third of the labour force didn’t work or had reduced hours last month, according to figures released Friday.
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The 16-week Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit has been in effect for two months, paying $2,000 a month to millions of eligible recipients hit by closures and downscaling of workplaces due to the coronavirus.
CTVNews.ca asked Canadians to share how they were using their CERB payments and got a flood of responses. Most said they were covering the basics -- housing, groceries, transportation and medicine.
For some, CERB cash doesn’t cover the rent, and for others, it is more than they made before COVID-19 shut down their workplaces.
Many said they are grateful for the help but want to get back to work.
And that’s what CERB is set up to do -- act as a temporary stop-gap for those immediately affected by pandemic closures and slowdowns, says Audra Bowlus, an economics professor at Western University in London, Ont.
It is a simple program aimed at getting money out quickly to those who need it. It doesn’t account for pre-pandemic incomes or regional cost of living, and isn’t designed to manage a long-term economic recovery.
“The hope is that those still connected to an employer will return to work and that those who were laid off will be rehired,” she said. That would cut the burden on government subsidy programs.
“As economists, the fear is the longer (pandemic closures) go on, the more people become unattached from their employers either because their employers don’t survive or they need a much smaller staff.”
WORRYING ABOUT WHAT’S NEXT
We heard from a restaurant manager in downtown Toronto who is trying to get by on half his previous income under the CERB program. He’s worried his savings will run out before restaurants can re-open.
A number of people who have lost their jobs said they worry that they won’t find another after CERB’s four payments come and go.
“Overall the CERB has been great,” said James Gaughan of Toronto, who was laid off from his job at a financial publication. He said the benefit has replaced his income, but “I do worry about what will happen to people if things aren't opening up to the point where we're able to go apply for jobs and go to interviews and we run out of installments.”
Some viewers said they are putting the money toward credit card debt and many said they were saving a portion for next year’s taxes. CERB income will be taxable for 2020.
We also heard from people who got multiple cheques from both employment insurance and CERB, and who have banked the money in anticipation of having to pay it back.
Jesse Nicholson, of Vernon, B.C., says the CERB doesn’t come close to his income as a car salesperson, but he’s grateful to have it. And deferring car payments for six months and still being covered by employee health benefits have helped, too.
“I have to say that the $2,000 from the government has really helped out,” he wrote. “I know it is obviously not ideal but I know a lot of people who make less than this by working 40 hours a week, so they are actually quite enjoying the time off with family and being able to not worry that their bills are being paid or not.”
Here’s a snapshot of how other Canadians have been using their CERB money.
Melanie Wood’s CERB payments have been going to school supplies, and fun activities, including wooden birdhouses to paint, tie-dye kits and chalk to keep her two young children busy. The 29-year-old Georgetown, Ont. resident says she makes less than $2,000 a month at her job in a cookie factory, so the CERB is allowing her to pay off her credit card, buy groceries without worrying, and even to buy dirt bikes for her kids.
“I ride myself so I’ve known for a while I wanted to buy them their own but the extra money just hasn’t been there. Now they’re both finally learning to ride and I have the CERB benefit program to thank for that,” she wrote. “I am so grateful that I am home enjoying this time with my two children and not having to worry about my bills during this time.”
FLOWERS AND DONATIONS
Norah Gibbons of London, Ont., who was laid off from her job at a not-for-profit theatre, said she put $1,000 into savings after having already set enough aside for bills in March and April because she had been worried about losing her job as the coronavirus threat deepened.
With the rest, she’s ensuring she’s supporting local businesses, including a farmers co-op, restaurants, a flower shop and bookstore, and even paid her dog groomer and hairdresser for future services. Gibbons bought potted pansies and tulips from a local greenhouse for herself and several neighbours. She’s even managed to make small donations to a food bank, the Red Cross, and to a family whose wage earner is hospitalized due to COVID-19.
“In short I’m doing my best to support people who need help and receiving this money means that I can feed my child, pay my bills, stay safe at home, not be awake all night worrying about how to pay the bills at a very scary time,” she wrote.
STAYING OUT OF DEBT
Lindsay Amadori of Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que., says she feels lucky that she doesn’t live paycheque to paycheque, and that she was able to collect CERB almost immediately. She’s used it to pay her regular bills, including rent, car payment, utilities and insurance for life, home, car and critical illness.
“I know for a lot of people it’s not enough, but I live alone and I’ve been able to manage,” wrote Amadori, who is 38. “Because of CERB I haven’t increased my debt, which was my biggest concern going into this crisis. I work in the beauty industry and I know my future is going to be very difficult. Makes it a little easier knowing I don’t have a huge debt when I’m eventually allowed back at work.”
GROCERIES AND MEDICATION
Jacob Normann, who lives in North Vancouver, B.C., says the CERB has allowed him to continue paying rent for his basement apartment and to pay for the medications and groceries he needs to manage his celiac condition.
“I understand not everyone has had an easy time with the money or aren’t able to be qualified, and I truly hope they can receive the support they need to ASAP. I am very grateful to have been provided this benefit,” wrote Norman, who is a 26-year-old hairstylist.
“For some the CERB was a bonus, however, I had no other source of income after being laid off due to COVID-19, so this benefit really helped ease my anxiety and allowed me to look after myself.”
'A ROOF OVER MY CHILDREN’S HEADS'
“My CERB payment has kept a roof over my children’s heads,” wrote Breanna Chadburn of Summerland, B.C. But she fears she and her husband will have to dig into an RESP they have built for their education.
“It breaks my heart that I’m going to have to drain it just to feed us now.”
Chadburn was laid off from a dental clinic when the pandemic hit and she couldn’t continue her second job as a truck driver delivering fuel because she can’t afford the $1,500 a month for daycare for her two young girls. The couple didn’t qualify for a childcare subsidy due to their income, and won’t be “eligible for re-evaluation on my daycare subsidy for a long time.”
Her husband is working but has had his hours cut. Chadburn’s $2,000 CERB benefit just pays the mortgage. They are putting the childcare benefit they receive towards food and other expenses, including a car payment, but have cut discretionary spending where they can, including cellphone and TV packages.
NO CREDIT CARDS
Janice Fisher of Bolton, Ont., is a presenter with Scientists in School, which offers interactive science lessons for kids. She says she had more than 50 workshops scheduled when schools shut down.
“Scientists in School is a charity and as such, all presenters are independent contractors so we are not eligible for unemployment benefits,” Fisher wrote. “The CERB has been instrumental in helping us to pay the bills and provide food for our family of six. Without it we would have been maxing out credit cards by now. I am happy to pay whatever taxes are necessary on this money next year.”
LIVING ON PASTA
A 27-year-old single mother with rheumatoid arthritis, Heather Peden of Tottenham, Ont., says she can’t afford her medication and she feels the pain of not taking it, especially in her knees and hips.
“Pretty much my bones are those of an 80-plus-year-old. I manage because I’m used to it and have fairly high pain tolerance but like I said, some days are just so bad I want to cry every time I have to bend over and pick up my son,” she wrote in an email.
Peden, who is a registered veterinarian technician and also worked part-time at a restaurant, says she’s skipping bills, taking turns between two credit cards, and paying only most of her cellphone bill. She’s also left borrowing money from friends who are still working. After paying rent, utilities and covering what her baby needs, she has only about $200 left to buy gas and food.
“My baby has everything he needs and that’s what you got to do. I’ll live on pasta as long as I have to but hopefully this virus ends soon so daycares can open and I can return to work and get back on track.”
Kimberly Drew, 42, is a single mother of two children and has lost her job as a childcare worker.
“The CERB benefit has allowed me to pay my bills and buy food and keep my head above water.
The $2,000 a month is approximately $200/300 less then I would normally make and has really helped alleviate stress for me,” said the resident of North Bay, Ont.
“As a single mom my income is the only income and I don’t want my girls to suffer. I’m keeping me afloat until my work resumes and I am eternally grateful for it.”
A ROOF AND FOOD
Katie Hiebert in Dawson Creek, B.C., says the CERB isn’t enough to cover her monthly rent and truck payment.
“Sadly, I’m not the only one in this situation,” she wrote. She shares custody of two children who are six and nine, so only works every other week when they aren’t with their father. She lives with her boyfriend, who is still working as a heavy-duty mechanic but he’s had his overtime hours cut.
Hiebert’s full-time job as a mutual fund and life insurance representative was permanently terminated in March after seven years. But she’s happy she landed a part-time serving job at a tap house in December to save up for a house and now works there about six days a month doing takeout and delivery.
Under CERB, she is now bringing in anywhere from $1,300 to $2,300 less a month.
“We still consider ourselves very fortunate as both our situations could be a lot worse and we feel for those whose lives and financial situations have been completely turned upside down,” Hiebert wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca.
“We still have a roof over our heads and food in our cupboards. Without my boyfriend, I would have no money for food, no money for my utility bills, etc. It would be a very scary situation.”
PAYS THE RENT
April Jeffrey in Kingston, Ont., says she’s had plenty of hardship in her life, including losing her husband seven years ago and attending to the health of her youngest child, who has Type 1 diabetes. Now she’s lost her income after being laid off from her job at a car company.
She doesn’t qualify for EI because she doesn’t have enough hours worked. CERB covers her rent, she uses her childcare benefit to pay for groceries and health-care expenses, and she’s deferred or lowered the payments on some other bills.
“I will tell you that the day I was laid off, I came home and I cried. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Jeffrey is still worried but tries to concentrate on the positive.
“For the government to act as fast as they did and do what they’ve done so quickly, to me, that’s amazing,” she said, praising the response of both the federal and Ontario governments.
Brandi Wein, who owns a hair salon in Greater Victoria, B.C., says CERB has allowed her household, which includes her husband, children and her mother, to meet its needs. She is avoiding deferring any bill or mortgage payments and is planning for a slow recovery for her business once it’s allowed to reopen.
“The CERB was like a lifeline. I could still maintain a household, home school, keep my business needs met, shop for my family members, and keep it all together,” she wrote. Wein points out that she’s never before qualified for government support programs, including EI and maternity leave. She said she feels fortunate in this time of crisis.
“I thank the government for providing me with the option of even collecting this CERB. It helps a lot. And in turn, I’m okay with putting that money back into the economy by way of groceries, gas, small businesses I frequent because I feel like I can get by.”
'COMFORT IN THE MIDST OF CHAOS'
“CERB has been so helpful to my household,” wrote Jodelle Dixon of Toronto, who said the relief has brought “comfort in the midst of chaos.”
She and her partner, who are expecting their first child in July, are both able to work from home but their incomes have been reduced. Dixon, an education director for a learning institution, has recovered from having COVID-19 and her mother, a frontline worker, also contracted the virus but has recovered.
“In ways where we fell short for our bills and needs, CERB enabled us to stay afloat and offered the much needed support to our family in what may have been our greatest time of need,” Dixon said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
DIGGING INTO SAVINGS
Alessandro Milite of Edmonton says he and his girlfriend have managed to get by thanks to CERB and some savings. Both expect to return to work, he in a family furniture business and she at a nail salon.
“If I didn’t have the savings, CERB wouldn’t be enough for rent, the car, our cellphones and insurance,” Milite said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
“Just to rely on CERB, we wouldn’t make it but it’s better than nothing. So I’m glad the government stepped up with this. Without it, we would be in a very big mess.”
‘$50 A DAY’
For Julia Wolst, CERB is a long way from a “windfall.” She paid hydro and internet so that her kids could do their schoolwork. It went to housing and basic groceries and “the monthly premium on my meagre life insurance policy, in case something happens to me and I am not here to look after my kids.”
It’s less than she makes full-time at her $18-an-hour job, she said.
“I would rather be working and not trying to squeeze our life out of about $50 per day, after tax. I would rather that my kids, who are students and unable to work right now or get CERB and thus unable to contribute to their own expenses, could go back to work,” she wrote.
“How did I spend the CERB? I kept us alive and off the street. Isn’t that the point of it?”