Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A woman was pressured by her income support worker to apply for CERB in 2020 according to documents reviewed by the Globe and Mail. The Globe is not identifying the woman because she fears repercussions.Ashley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

An Ontario woman on social assistance for disability incurred $14,000 in debt to the federal government after being told that provincial guidelines required her to apply for pandemic benefits for which she turned out to be ineligible.

E-mail correspondence reviewed by The Globe and Mail shows the woman believed she didn’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) but was told she had to apply for it as a condition of receiving social assistance through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The Globe is not identifying the woman because she fears repercussions for discussing her circumstances publicly.

The situation has caused her tremendous distress and sleepless nights, the woman said in an interview.

Anti-poverty groups say the case points to flaws in the provincial regulations of social assistance programs, in Ontario and other jurisdictions, which require welfare recipients to pursue any other financial resources that might be available – even when there is no certainty about whether they actually qualify for them.

The poorly worded provincial rules have resulted in many low-income Canadians across the country mistakenly applying for federal pandemic relief as their case workers sought to enact their understanding of provincial guidelines, advocates say.

“This is a story that I have heard repeatedly and not just coming from Ontario,” said Leila Sarangi, national director of Campaign 2000, a pan-Canadian movement that focuses on child poverty. The Ontario woman’s case, she said, echoes accounts provided by many others on social assistance.

According to e-mails seen by The Globe, the woman was told to apply for CERB in the spring of 2020, shortly after Ottawa had rolled out the benefit to help Canadians who couldn’t work because of the pandemic.

Over the course of a lengthy exchange, she objected several times to the notion she should apply for CERB. She didn’t believe she qualified for it and was worried she would have to pay it back, she said.

But her ODSP worker was categorical. “It is not an option to apply but what we require,” they wrote. The worker went on to say the woman had a responsibility, as an ODSP recipient, to apply for CERB funding.

The woman, who has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an anxiety disorder and depression, said those words made her think she would lose her ODSP benefits – her only source of income – if she didn’t apply for CERB.

When the federal government created CERB, it decided to require only limited eligibility checks for applicants to keep the enrolment process simple and be able to quickly provide financial aid to households. Ottawa warned it would conduct more in-depth verifications later on and demand repayments from those found to be ineligible for the benefits.

In January, 2023, the woman’s fears were confirmed when she learned she was among those who didn’t qualify for the pandemic aid.

The Canada Revenue Agency assessed her debt at $14,000 – the full amount she received from CERB – because she didn’t have at least $5,000 in earnings and hadn’t stopped working owing to the pandemic, two eligibility requirements for the program.

After extensive efforts to seek financial relief, the woman, who has an income of just over $15,000 a year, said she was able to set up a repayment plan of $50 a month with CRA. The tax agency has also agreed not to withhold payments of other government benefits to offset her CERB debt.

But CRA is still demanding that she pay back the full amount of her CERB debt, even after reviewing documents showing she was instructed to apply for the pandemic benefit by her provincial case worker, she added.

Meanwhile, the woman said it took an intervention from her MPP to get ODSP administrators to return thousands of dollars in provincial funds they had withheld when her income temporarily increased during the pandemic because of CERB.

The individual said she has used that money to reduce her federal debt. But documents show she hasn’t been able to recoup housing subsidies that were also withheld while she was on CERB. According to e-mails reviewed by The Globe, ODSP staff have so far negated responsibility for what happened.

At Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS), which oversees ODSP, spokesperson Kristen Tedesco said via e-mail that “social assistance recipients are required to pursue all available financial resources. If social assistance recipients were eligible to receive the CERB (e.g., they lost their job due to COVID-19), they were expected to make reasonable efforts to pursue the benefit.”

Social assistance recipients who received CERB overpayments and saw their welfare benefits reduced as a result of the federal pandemic benefit “may be reassessed, which could result in a retroactive social assistance arrears payment for the recipient,” Ms. Tedesco said.

The ministry did not directly address a question about how it handles cases in which welfare recipients are told to repay pandemic benefits to which they applied under instruction from their case workers.

John Stapleton, a consultant and retired social assistance benefits designer for the Ontario government, said provincial ODSP regulations effectively empower case workers to reduce or cut off social assistance for recipients who fail to pursue financial resources that the workers believe is available to them.

The CRA referred a request for comment to Employment and Social Development Canada, which designed CERB. In an e-mailed statement, ESDC spokesperson Maja Stefanovska said that, early in the pandemic, the department encouraged the provinces and territories to exempt CERB as income for determining eligibility for social assistance benefits. Only British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories fully exempted the federal benefit.

Ontario exempted CERB income only partially, in part to maintain fairness between social assistance recipients who received the benefit and those who didn’t, MCCSS spokesperson Paul Doig said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe