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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference at Rideau Cottage, in Ottawa, on April 9, 2020.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

It’s time for the government to fill the key gaps in the massive package of emergency benefits it has unveiled.

Those are the gaps that discourage work even when it’s safe, or necessary. The rule that tells individuals receiving the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit that they will lose the benefits if they do a few part-time hours or bill a client for a bit of freelance work.

That’s not good for the individuals, not good for the economy and not good for those essential functions we need to keep open.

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Much of the work force is at home, but we don’t need to discourage people from doing work they can do safely, especially when a chunk of that part-time work could be what we now know is essential, such as stocking shelves in a grocery store or pharmacy, or making deliveries.

That part-time problem is something that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about fixing more than a week ago, when he said the government will move to address a variety of gaps in the system of benefits.

Of course, the government is rolling out massive economic-rescue policies at a rate never seen before. It is scrambling on a daily basis to address more coronavirus crisis issues, and fill out details of the plans it has already announced.

But this problem is significant enough, and time sensitive enough, that the government has to move quickly to fix it.

That’s why Conservative MP and finance critic Pierre Poilievre – whose job description includes complaining the government isn’t helping people and small businesses fast enough – was right to raise the issue during a press conference on Monday. The government’s response was that it will have more to say “in the coming days.”

Now that the government has unveiled two big emergency benefits – the CERB and a wage subsidy – it is going to have to move pretty quickly to adjust a few of the gaps and problems. Starting with the part-time problem.

The CERB rules around that have been making a lot of folks anxious since they were unveiled. They require recipients to have 14 consecutive days where they don’t work out of a 28-day period.

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Someone who earns $100-a-week part-time is technically ineligible for the CERB. If they expected the rules to be fixed before the 15th day of their 28-day period, they might be getting a little nervous now.

The problem was likely born from the goal of the CERB in the first place. It is supposed to help people stay home and stay isolated, and even to encourage them to do so. It is a physical distancing support mechanism.

But then there are a lot of people who do a little bit of work from home, or a shift in a business that is open because it is considered essential. There are people who might still get a little work, like a music teacher giving a lesson over Facetime or a freelance artist. The more work they keep doing, the better off they are, and the economy.

So why not have rules similar to employment insurance, that allow for a certain amount of work before the benefits are taken away?

It doesn’t require a new computer system, or a new application. It does require some decisions, noted Carleton University associate professor of political management Jennifer Robson.

Should people receiving the CERB also be able to earn $100 a week or $1,000 a month? No matter what choice the government makes, someone who earns a little more will be upset at being left out, Prof. Robson said, and there isn’t a lot of information on which to base that decision. “We are in the world of the nearly data-free, sadly,” she said.

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But it’s time to decide.

Hastily drawn programs do create inconsistencies. Quebec’s government has realized that the CERB’s $2,000-a-month benefit is more than the pay earned by some people working in jobs considered essential, from retail to seniors’ homes – so it created a $100-a-week benefit for essential workers earning $550-a-week or less. That’s an issue in other provinces, too, and Ottawa might have to address it.

In the meantime, that part-time issue comes first. It keeps people linked to employers, or clients – and that’s the motivation for Ottawa’s $73-billion wage subsidy – and might speed economic recovery down the line. There’s no point discouraging any work that can be done safely. Some of it will be essential.

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