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As the school year winds down, students find themselves in a troubling spot. The labour market is shedding positions at an unprecedented pace, with more than two million Canadians filing for jobless benefits during the last half of March.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday said the government “should have more to say in the coming days” about helping postsecondary students who will soon join a brutal job market, which is ratcheting up pressure on those who need summer income to pay for fall tuition.

“We know that we need to do more for young people as they come out of university and look for projects and ways of securing income this summer,” Mr. Trudeau said in his daily press briefing.

As it stands, many postsecondary students are shut out of existing programs designed to help workers affected by COVID-19.

For instance, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) – which provides eligible individuals with $2,000 monthly for up to four months – “is only available to individuals who stopped work as a result of reasons related to COVID-19,” a government webpage says. “For example, if you are a student who had a job last year and were planning on working this summer, you do not qualify for the benefit.”

As the school year winds down, students find themselves in a troubling spot. The labour market is shedding positions at an unprecedented pace, with more than two million Canadians filing for jobless benefits during the last half of March. Many students were counting on summer work to fund their studies, but are now seeing job opportunities scrapped because of the pandemic.

“I can count on one hand the number [of my students] who have jobs lined up,” said Rob Gillezeau, an economics professor at the University of Victoria. “This cohort is taking a huge hit.”

It’s likely hundreds of thousands of students are ineligible for federal programs for financial assistance. More than 2.1 million people were enrolled in Canadian public universities and colleges during the 2017-18 academic year, according to the most recent Statistics Canada figures. Between September and April, fewer than one million students are typically employed in a given month, and the majority work part-time hours.

As such, some working students haven’t clocked enough hours or income to qualify for employment insurance or CERB.

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Liz Weston, a marine biology student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, can no longer work at a campus library because it’s shut down. Unfortunately for her, she doesn’t meet CERB’s $5,000 work-income requirement for 2019 or the 12 months prior to application, in large part because she spent much of last year in cancer treatment. (Ms. Weston is now in remission.) Her partner was recently laid off and the couple’s financial pressures could lead to some tough decisions.

“We’ll have to decide whether or not I get my medication,” said Ms. Weston, who has asthma. “Or we’ll have to decide if we’re going to eat Kraft Dinner, instead of having protein in our diets.”

Many students had jobs lined up and expected a steady flow of income.

Joshua Diemert, who’s finishing the first year of a master’s program at the University of British Columbia, was supposed to start an internship with Global Affairs Canada next month, but that’s been put on hold. Worst-case scenario, if that position falls through, Mr. Diemert will try to work a service-industry job – but it will almost certainly pay less than what he was supposed to earn.

“Like a lot of students, my yearly budget is based on a good paying summer job,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of help on the policy side right now for people in my situation.”

Samuel Wiggans, a University of Ottawa teaching student, is unable to finish his practicum at an elementary school. He’s trying to find summer work, but “the postings are definitely down significantly,” he said. Over the past year, he relied on savings, provincial student loans and his wife for financial assistance. He has a line of credit, but doesn’t want to touch it.

“Next [school] year would be a lot tougher without being able to work this summer, because we were depending on me being able to have four months of income,” Mr. Wiggans said.

British Columbia has moved to help by investing $3.5-million into an existing program for emergency student financial assistance. Prof. Gillezeau said that could realistically help a couple of thousand students, but the need is likely in the tens of thousands.

Another way to help, Prof. Gillezeau said, would be expanding who can qualify for CERB, such as graduates who are set to embark on their careers during a nasty recession. Provincial income-assistance programs could open up to allow student eligibility, he added, and existing student-loan programs could be used to direct grants to those in need.

“I see very little risk when it comes to dealing with students – either at the provincial or at the federal level – of just being more generous,” he said.

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