EI, CERB changes leave Calgary woman unsure about her benefits

CALGARY — Questions over the path forward for struggling and out-of-work Canadians continue even as government financial programs undergo transition.

Farrah Deebhaa says she received email notices from the Canada Revenue Agency that its benefit program was being updated and her employment insurance (EI) would run out on Oct. 3 as a result.

“I was really stressed out, I have no job, I am a single parent, it’s tough to manage finances and if there is no income, how can I survive?” she said Friday from a park near her northeast Calgary home.

She added she is not sure if she qualifies for the new definitions under the proposed benefits programs that seemed to target contract workers — and was denied her application to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in June.

“(It feels like) there is nowhere for me to get support.”

With parliament now back in session, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tabled a new COVID-19 aid benefits plan that would work somewhat like the CERB, which is set to expire Sept. 27.

CERB recipients would be transitioned onto an updated EI program with three new benefit programs called the Canada Recovery Benefit, Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit.

The Liberal government also said they will extend the federal wage subsidy program — aimed to help businesses bring back workers by covering up to 75 per cent of staff wages — through to summer 2021.

“Canadians should not have to choose between health and their job, just like Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder,” reads an excerpt of the throne speech delivered Wednesday.

The new benefits are subject to parliamentary approval.

Debt specialists say the changes to government comes at a critical time for unemployed Canadians, as creditor and deferred bill payments will soon resume collection — and many have to pay rent on Oct. 1.

“Those folks that were thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to deal with this’ and the wolf was at the door, the wolf wasn’t at the door knocking anymore,” said Shawn Stack, insolvency trustee with Bromwich & Smith in Calgary.

“As things start to normalize, the creditors are starting to come out.”

Stack says there is potential for more people to realize their debt situation as federal benefits run out without means to cover what was previously borrowed.

In a news release, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation advocacy group criticized the throne speech for not addressing spending.

“The deficit is closing in on $400 billion and there was zero mention of any plan to hit the brakes on spending,” said CTF federal director Aaron Wudrick. “We can’t carry on like this for much longer, and yet the Trudeau government seems to meet this deteriorating fiscal situation with a shrug.”

Since the pandemic forced shutdowns back in March, CERB has paid out almost $78 billion in benefits to nearly 8.8 million people, so far 4.1 million applicants have returned to work.

As for the wage subsidy program, as of September, the government had paid out just over $35.3 billion in benefits to 312,750 different companies, although the number of workers covered by the subsidies has fallen in recent weeks.

Local Alberta business groups support the steps made by the Liberal government.

“The hard work now begins to bring these priorities to life through flexible and accessible programs, which must be designed and delivered in collaboration with the business community and provincial governments,” says Murray Sigler, interim CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, in a news release.

“We also need to protect and grow Canada’s strong fiscal position in the global economy, through and beyond COVID-19, which will require a strategic look at our economic fundamentals.”

According to a recent poll conducted by Angus Reid for Credit Counselling Canada, 37 per cent of Canadian wouldn’t know where to turn when facing debt rock bottom. Nearly a quarter of Canadians surveyed would not acknowledge the problem.

“I know its overwhelming, I know it can feel like you don’t know where to turn,” said CEO Michelle Pommels. “If you are feeling that churning in your stomach in terms of finances, now’s the time to pick up the phone.”

(Between August 25 and 27, an online survey was conducted among a representative sample of 1,510 people. The margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20)

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