By Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — The federal government will provide eight extra weeks of benefits for people whose jobs or earnings have vanished because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but only if they look for work and take a job when it’s reasonable to do so.
The changes to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit will continue to pay out $500 a week, but now for up to 24 weeks, instead of 16, for people who lost their jobs or saw their hours drastically slashed due to the pandemic.
The first cohort of applicants who signed up in April are set to max out their payment period in early July, with worries some won’t have jobs to go back to and others unable to work due to health reasons.
“Even as our economy is reopening, there are many, many more people out of work (or) willing to work than there are jobs available and that will be the story for the coming weeks as well,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in announcing the extension.
He added that the government will look at international best practices to determine what further changes will be needed.
The CERB has paid out $43.51 billion to 8.41 million people as of June 4, a take-up that forced an increase in its budget to $60 billion from $35 billion just a few weeks ago.
At its height, the CERB paid out $17 billion a month when eight million people were on it, but numbers have declined as 1.2 million recipients returned to work or went back on payrolls with help of the federal wage subsidy program.
Going forward, the wording of the declaration for benefits will include language that applicants are actively looking for work and will take a job offer when their circumstances permit it, similar to requirements for employment insurance benefits.
Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said workers with child- or elder-care responsibilities, or those with COVID-19 symptoms, may be unable to work but could keep their CERB access.
“We can’t impose an obligation on somebody to take a job,” Qualtrough said, “but we are encouraging and saying that through the attestation, that people actively seek work and take it when it is reasonable in their circumstances to do so.”
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, warned the language may yet be problematic because job prospects are minimal.
“We are living in a pandemic and we need to take that with some serious understanding that this is going to impact anybody’s ability to be actively looking for work,” he said in an interview.
Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, wrote on Twitter that it was “too soon to end CERB,” but said changes to help workers keep a portion of CERB payments even if they earn more than the $1,000-a-month income cut-off may ease rehiring problems employers say they face.
An extension will add to the cost of the benefit, but the Liberals didn’t provide an estimate Tuesday.
The parliamentary budget officer in a report last week estimated that extending the maximum number of weeks from 16 to 28, and extending the program through to January 2021, would cost about $57.9 billion.
Extending the CERB has been a demand from the New Democrats in exchange for the party’s support for the minority Liberals in an upcoming confidence vote on supplementary spending estimates that detail roughly $81 billion in already approved spending and about $6 billion more in measures requiring approval.
Budget officer Yves Giroux noted in a morning report that a number of measures promised by the government aren’t included, leaving an incomplete picture of how much the government will spend on COVID-19 aid.
Left out of the estimates are cost details on the $45-billion wage subsidy program delivered through the tax system, and a loan program to small- and medium-sized businesses that will open applications to a wider number of companies on Friday.
Giroux warned it will be difficult to get answers about the estimates from federal officials because MPs will only debate the estimates for four hours under a deal agreed to last month by a majority of MPs.