On opening day, at least 794,725 people applied for the Canada emergency response benefit to help those who have lost their job or who can’t work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite an effort to limit Monday applicants to those with January-March birthdays.
The program, which provides individuals with up to $500 a week, will now be expanded to include more people and situations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during his Monday news conference. He indicated that the government is working on responses to some of the main criticisms of the CERB.
The program is currently limited to people who suddenly have zero income, meaning it excludes contractors or shift workers whose earnings have been reduced during the pandemic.
“The CERB is meant to help all Canadians who need it and millions of Canadians will be getting it starting this week. There are some people who don’t yet qualify whom we do need to help," he said. “If you’re working reduced hours down to 10 hours a week or less, we will soon announce how you will be able to qualify for the CERB. This is to help you if you’re a gig worker, a contract worker or a volunteer firefighter.”
The Prime Minister said the government is also looking at changes that will benefit essential workers and students.
The CERB opened for applications Monday at 6 a.m. ET and by 7 p.m., 684,725 had applied for benefits through the Canada Revenue Agency and a further 110,000 applied through Service Canada as of 3 p.m.
The government is working on the final details of an even larger program called the Canada emergency wage subsidy. The CEWS would give employers funds to cover 75 per cent of a wage up to a maximum benefit of $847 a week. The government has said it may be another six weeks before the program is open to applications.
Mr. Trudeau said Parliament will soon be recalled to approve legislation enacting the wage subsidy. He did not announce a date for that, but said talks are going on with opposition parties.
Business leaders say they are anxious to see the terms of the wage subsidy and have expressed concern that the initial design would leave out a large number of employers.
“We are really waiting minute to minute, to see how it happens and whether we’re qualified,” said Michael Neuman, chairman of Telna, a global wireless company. Mr. Neuman said the firm will have to lay off staff in Toronto if the company doesn’t qualify under the program’s final rules. He said the original plan to limit the wage subsidy to companies with a 30-per-cent revenue drop – by comparing March 2020 to March 2019 – would make fast-growing companies such as his ineligible, even though revenue has dropped sharply since February.
Government officials have said they are considering alternative ways companies can show a revenue drop, such as using the previous month’s figures.
The federal government has announced $105-billion in direct support programs for individuals and businesses in response to COVID-19. Of that, the CERB is expected to cost $24-billion and the wage subsidy has an estimated cost of $71-billion.
The government is planning to repeat last month’s practice of recalling a small number of MPs to Ottawa – about 32 MPs out of 338 – to allow for physical distancing. The MPs will be divided proportionally based on party standing.
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said the government has given no indication when Parliament would be recalled.
She said the opposition parties showed last month that they can be constructive, by forcing the Liberal government to remove unlimited tax and spending powers from emergency spending legislation.
“We know what happened the last time with the bill. Once we got it we saw all the problems with it,” she said. “Rigorous scrutiny for the government will produce even better results.”
Ms. Bergen said the Conservatives would like to see more sittings by a small number of MPs in the House so that the opposition can question the Prime Minister and other key ministers about the massive spending and health measures to combat COVID-19.
“We would like to see the ability for Parliament to have a bit more scrutiny and ask more questions of the government in a modified setting,” she said.
Mr. Trudeau said he is open to the discussion but indicated a preference for virtual meetings over restricting sittings to MPs who live within driving distance.
“It can’t be just about folks who have proximity to Parliament or the ability to get here,” he said.
The Canadian Federation of Students is urging Ottawa to include postsecondary students in the CERB.
“Students depend on summer jobs not only to pay for rent, groceries and other living expenses, but also to save up for the coming school year. They will not be able to do that this summer,” said Sofia Descalzi, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.
Ms. Descalzi said the federal government must guarantee all students are eligible to receive $500 a week if they cannot find employment, either through the CERB or through the creation of a similar benefit for all postsecondary students.
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