Ontario seeks more information from Ottawa on how to treat CERB for people on social assistance

Posted on April 17, 2020 in Social Security Debates

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TheStar.com – GTA

Ontario is not clawing back Canada Emergency Relief Benefit payments from people on social assistance — yet.

In a memo to case workers this week, provincial officials said people on social assistance who have lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and who receive $2,000 monthly CERB payments from Ottawa should report this income.

But until the province determines how to treat the CERB, case workers have been told not to record the income in Ontario’s computerized benefits system, where the extra cash may trigger automatic clawbacks and even termination of benefits, including drug and medical coverage, a government spokesperson said.

“Our ministry will provide … direction once we have received further information from the federal government,” said Palmer Lockridge, a spokesperson for the ministry of children, community and social services.

Minister Todd Smith has asked for a meeting to seek clarification with Carla Qualtrough, the federal minster for employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, Lockridge said in an email. Qualtrough has not yet responded to that request, he added.

On Monday, a spokesperson for Qualtrough said Ottawa has urged provinces not to clawback CERB benefits from people on social assistance “to ensure vulnerable Canadians do not fall behind” during the crisis.

“Our government believes the CERB needs to be considered exempt by provinces and territories in the same way as the Canada Child Benefit to ensure vulnerable Canadians do not fall behind,” Qualtrough’s spokesperson Marielle Hossack said.

The provincial directive clears up some confusion for Jordan Freedman, 50, and his wife Devra, 42, who receive about $2,100 on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits while working part-time.

Devra quit her part-time cleaning job when she developed a cough recently, and Jordan, who does occasional work for trade shows, nightclubs and the film industry, said his odd jobs have dried up since the pandemic. Both have applied for the CERB and are awaiting payment.

“I’m just happy they are telling us what to do with this money,” said the Toronto man who has been unable to find full-time work due to a learning disability, ADHD, depression and anxiety.

“We have always reported our (employment) income every month,” a portion of which is deducted from their ODSP benefits, he said. “But this is a lot of money, and we are worried about losing our drug and medical benefits.”

More than 960,000 people in Ontario rely on social assistance, either ODSP, for people with disabilities, or Ontario Works (OW) for those deemed able to work. About 75,000 of them have jobs that pay at least $5,000 a year and would therefore be eligible for the CERB.

Ottawa expanded eligibility for CERB payments this week beyond workers who have lost their jobs due to the health crisis to include those who are earning less than $1,000 a month as well as students and seasonal workers.

A coalition of more than 130 health-care workers, community agencies and Ontarians living in poverty wrote an open letter to Smith April 7 urging Queen’s Park to boost social assistance rates and not to claw back the CERB from those on OW and ODSP.

The provincial NDP has also called on the Ford government to stop the clawbacks.

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice.

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