Labour advocates say that with its latest subsidy announcement, the federal government is leaving workers behind in favour of businesses.
Last week, the federal government announced that the wage and rent subsidies would come to an end Oct. 23, as well as the Canada Recovery Benefit, though the sickness and caregiving benefits would remain until May.
But while the business community got a replacement in the form of targeted wage and rent support for hard-hit sectors, workers got a lockdown benefit that experts say may never be used.
Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, said the government’s recent announcement was a break from the pattern throughout the pandemic, where it would extend or replace both business benefits and worker benefits — this time, it’s mostly businesses that are getting extended benefits, she said.
“I was horrified,” said Ladd.
This latest move will force many to make tough choices about their housing and work options, said Ladd, potentially putting themselves and their families at risk.
Ladd said it feels like the government is pandering to the idea that the employment benefits were keeping workers at home.
Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work and former economist at Unifor, said the claim that COVID-19 income support has caused a labour shortage is incorrect, and ignores the fact that the wage subsidy has paid out more than any other single COVID-19 support measure.
To date, the wage subsidy program has given out more than $95 billion, roughly equal to the amount given out by the CRB and CERB combined — around $108 billion.
“Businesses have received as much support to survive this pandemic, as workers have. But we don’t hear the same … rhetoric about them,” said Stanford in an email.
This contrast in attitudes is reflected in the government’s latest subsidy announcement, said Stanford, where workers were cut off “cold turkey” while hard-hit business sectors received ongoing targeted support.
It’s good that those businesses will continue to receive support, but so should workers, he said.
“The federal government’s decision reflected the sense of moral panic that has been deliberately created in recent months about the so-called labour shortage, and the supposed disincentive effect of COVID benefits for workers,” said Stanford. “Unfortunately, government seems to have listened to this.”
As for the lockdown benefit, Ladd said it remains to be seen what the criteria are, as Parliament won’t even resume to debate it until mid-November. She questioned why the government didn’t at least extend the CRB until then.
David McDonald, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), agreed it’s unclear whether the lockdown benefit will even be used.
Meanwhile, he estimates that around a third of businesses that were receiving the wage subsidy previously will be eligible for the new, more targeted programs.
And yet 880,000 CRB recipients, by McDonald’s analysis, have been left in the cold with the CRB’s end. Contrary to popular belief, many of those recipients have been working, said McDonald, with the CRB filling in the gaps.
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Tracey Crosson, the administrator of a Facebook support group for people on income support, is organizing a virtual event on Friday with former CRB recipients to urge the government to reinstate the benefit, and to consider a longer-term solution such as a universal basic income.
“This is screwed up,” she said. “These people are slipping through the cracks.”
Crosson hears from people daily who say they will be homeless soon without financial support, and she predicts a strain on social assistance programs in the future.
British Columbia resident Krystal B, who didn’t want her last name used for safety reasons, is one of those people.
She’s applied for more than 200 jobs in two months, she said, all the while waiting for her work to return — she was a successful photographer before COVID-19 but most of her work relied on festivals, events and travel.
She’s also dealing with the long-term health side effects of COVID-19, and taking care of her son, so her job options are limited. And she doesn’t qualify for the caregiving benefit because her son is over the age of 12.
Krystal is worried she will lose her housing, and scared about what will happen to her family.
“The government needs to do better.”
Crosson rejects the idea that the CRB was keeping workers at home.
“It’s not making people lazy. Everybody wants to work,” said Crosson.
Unlike the business subsidies, the sickness benefit and the caregiving benefit, usage of which have been in steady decline, when the CRB ended it was still being used at around 70 per cent of its peak numbers, said McDonald.
That points to a huge need now going unmet, he said: “There were a lot of people relying on this.”
McDonald said the government could have introduced a more targeted benefit for workers, as it did for businesses.
When Parliament returns, there may be pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to either reinstate the CRB, or speed up the implementation of his promised EI program for self-employed workers, which is supposed to come into effect in 2023, said McDonald.
Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, also predicts there will be pressure on the federal government to bring back this support when Parliament returns, but isn’t optimistic.
She agreed that the shortage isn’t necessarily of workers, but of safe, well-paid, full-time jobs.
“Employers are screaming for workers, but at the same time, full-time, decent-paying jobs … are few and far between.”
Rosa Saba is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rosajsaba
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