Front-line workers worried about CRB, EI in a 4th wave: ‘I would have been homeless’

Nicole Menzies, a single mother of two teenage boys, has no doubt. Without the federal COVID-19 income support programs, “I would have been homeless,” she says.

Menzies says she’s been through eight months of on-and-off unemployment after her income as a restaurant manager and server dropped to 10 per cent of her usual pay at the start of the pandemic. Throughout that time, it was only thanks to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and then enhanced Employment Insurance (EI) that she was able to keep a roof over her head and food in the cupboards, she says.

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But while Menzies has now been back to full-time hours since the start of the summer with the restaurant back to bustling with customers, she’s concerned about what the future holds.

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“I’m nervous about what would happen in the fall if we get another spike (of the virus),” she says.

If a fourth wave of COVID-19 led to new restrictions or drove patrons away once again Menzies wonders how she’d make ends meet without a beefed-up government cheque.

Both the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) and many of the temporary changes to EI that are currently in place are set to expire in September. At the same time, though, COVID-19 cases have been rising in Alberta, which has lifted most public health restrictions.

As of Thursday, the province ended asymptomatic testing and contact tracing for those who have come in contact with people who test positive for COVID-19. The province has also lifted the self-isolation requirements for those who may have been exposed to the virus.

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Menzies isn’t the only one to worry about another difficult fall. A recent poll conducted by Ipsos exclusively for Global News found that 81 per cent of respondents reported feeling worried that the spread of new variants will delay a return to normality. Sixty-nine per cent also said they are concerned about the potential for a fourth wave.

For Menzies and other low-wage front-line workers like her, the question is what happens if a new wave of COVID-19 does indeed dry up business once more — this time without a bolstered safety net.

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Government should revamp income supports if necessary, experts say

For Canadians who may yet again become unable to work in a new pandemic wave, the stakes are high, says David Macdonald, senior economist with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. 

With the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), which succeeded the CERB, set to run out toward the end of September, most self-employed workers would be “completely cut off all support,” Macdonald says.

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Payments have also been reduced from $500 to $300 pre-tax per week for new applicants and anyone who’s already received the benefits for 42 weeks.

And many of those who, like Menzies, might qualify for EI would receive a lower level of benefits, Macdonald adds. While the current, bolstered version of EI provides $500 a week before tax, the average benefit is usually around $300 a week, he adds.

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There’s also the question of whether workers who return to their jobs in the summer only to lose them again in the fall would be able to amass enough insurable hours to access EI again.

Until the fall of 2022, Ottawa has set the requirement to claim EI at a uniform 420 hours across the country, with jobless workers guaranteed a minimum of 14 weeks worth of benefits. The bar is significantly lower than it was in pre-pandemic times, when Canadians would often have to log more than 900 hours to be able to receive the jobless benefits, according to Macdonald.

But 420 hours is nonetheless considerably more than the 120 hours it currently takes to qualify for EI under the rules that will be in place until September, Macdonald notes.

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Someone who has returned to work at the beginning of June and keeps full-time hours until the fall might be able to accumulate 420 hours, he says. Part-time workers and those who are recalled to their jobs later in the summer would fall short, he adds.

Federal budget legislation allows the government to extend both the CRB and current enhancements to EI until Nov. 20 without the need to bring the issue to Parliament. A looming national election, however, might complicate matters.

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Speculation is rampant that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will soon pull the plug on the minority government he has led since October 2019 and force Canadians back out to the polls.

Citing sources, Reuters reported on Wednesday that Trudeau is eyeing September for an election.

“If we see cases start to rise, the government supports are likely to modify or be adjusted,” says Ted Mallett, director of economic forecasting at the Conference Board of Canada.

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But, he adds, “it may well be that the decision is either to extend the benefits or to move the election forward.”

A spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Employment said the government “will continue to monitor the situation.”

“We’ve had Canadians’ backs since the beginning of the pandemic and we will continue to be there for them,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement via email.

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Both Macdonald and Mallett note another surge of cases may hit customer-facing businesses and their workers even without another cycle of government restrictions.

“You can’t force people to go to restaurants. You can’t force people to go out,” Macdonald says. “And so if there is a general fear of catching COVID-19, of going to the hospital, there’s certainly likely to be some psychological impact and therefore some financial impact for those front-line businesses.”

If dining halls empty once again, Menzies says she won’t be able to pay the bills on her own or with a lower EI benefit. While the COVID-19 income supports allowed her to set aside a little money to pay income taxes and a small repayment she owed, it hasn’t been enough to build an emergency fund.

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The CERB and the boosted EI benefits were like “a security blanket,” she says. “It was amazing for my kids … And to have that taken away when we’re not over (the pandemic), it definitely puts me back into that state of anxiety.”

— with a file from Global News’ Amanda Connolly

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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