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Emergency benefit applications open

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OTTAWA — Applications opened today for the new federal emergency aid benefit for Canadians who lost their income because of COVID-19.

The Canada Revenue Agency will open its application portals this morning to those born in the first three months of the year, with those born in other months able to apply later in the week.

The agency is trying to keep demand from overwhelming its online and telephone systems.

More than two million Canadians lost their jobs in the last half of March as businesses across the country were forced to close or reduce their operations to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Others are unable to work because they are required to self-isolate at home, or need to look after children whose schools and daycares are closed.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau anticipates the wage benefit will cost the government $24 billion.

People born in April, May and June can apply Tuesday, those born in July, August or September can apply Wednesday and applications are accepted Thursday from people born in October, November and December. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be open to anyone.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday Canadians who sign up for direct deposit could get their first payment before the end of the week.

It's anticipated direct deposit applicants will get money within three to five days, while those who opt for printed cheques will get money in 10 days.

“While we still have a lot of work to do, we're making good progress on getting you the support you need as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said.

However, opposition parties say there are some glaring holes in the aid that is leaving some people in need out of the program completely.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said there are “serious design and delivery flaws” that should be fixed.

Poilievre said some small business owners who paid themselves with dividends don't qualify because they won't have $5,000 of employment income in 2019 as the benefit requires. Further, he said a worker who has lost most of their income but still has one contract or a handful of clients won't qualify for any money because you can't have any current income in order to be eligible.

“They are effectively banned from doing any amount of work that might help keep their business open,” he said.

Poilievre said there are some easy fixes, including adjusting the wage benefit down slightly if a worker earns some income, much like happens when someone is collecting employment insurance but manages to find work temporarily.

He also wants small business owners to be viewed as employees for the purposes of the emergency response benefit.

NDP MPs Peter Julian and Gord Johns wrote to Morneau Sunday also asking for changes, including to address the fact the benefit provides an incentive not to work at all.

They said workers who have lost most but not all of their shifts, or lost one part-time job but not the other, “are living on significantly reduced incomes” but won't qualify for the benefit.

“The consequences are that they are now asking to be laid off or furloughed so that they can access the CERB," they wrote. "This is causing significant disruptions to normal business, to essential services, and to community contributions on local economies.”

Opposition parties also want more clarity on the government's biggest aid program, the $71 billion, emergency wage subsidy, that will cover up to 75 per cent of wages for businesses that choose to keep employees on the payroll rather than laying them off.

Poilievre said it is going to take too long for businesses to see any of that money, and some of them won't survive that long.

The Conservatives and NDP both want the government to reconsider the requirement for businesses to show a 30 per cent drop in revenue in order to qualify.

To be eligible for the emergency benefit, workers must have earned at least $5,000 in 2019, or in the 12 months before applying.

The benefit is the same for everyone regardless of previous income, and is a less complicated application process than for employment insurance.

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