Ottawa to the provinces: Don’t claw back CERB for workers on social assistance

Posted on April 14, 2020 in Social Security Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – News/Canada

Ottawa is advising provinces not to claw back Canada Emergency Response Benefits from people on social assistance who have lost low-wage work due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Carla Qualtrough, the federal minister for employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, has “raised with her counterparts the importance of ensuring the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and provincial and territorial social assistance programs work together to support Canadians and that those Canadians who are receiving the CERB are not penalized,” a spokesperson for the minister said Monday.

“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,” said Marielle Hossack in an emailed statement.

The statement comes as some Ontarians on social assistance who have lost their poverty-level jobs are receiving as much as $3,500 in CERB payments to cover wages lost in March and April.

Ottawa began issuing CERB payments of $2,000 a month last week for any worker who lost their job due to the pandemic and has earned at least $5,000 in the past 12 months. The payments amount to $500 a week and are retroactive to March 15. They are expected to continue for four months.

But many people on social assistance are worried Queen’s Park is going to claw back the money and kick them off provincial benefits, making them worse off.

“I don’t know how to even report this income,” said Elizabeth Tracy, who works full-time while her partner, who is blind, relies on Ontario Disability Support Program benefits. They receive $1,750 a month as a couple on ODSP, minus a percentage of Tracy’s wages.

Due to health issues, Tracy was forced to leave her job at a drugstore March 15 when the province imposed physical distancing requirements to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“There was no pay or benefit stub (with the CERB payments). Just these deposits into my bank account,” said Tracy, 62. “I am at a loss with this and don’t want to get dinged with having to pay back ODSP or CERB for any overpayment.”

While Ontario is still “reviewing” the CERB and “considering” its impacts on people receiving social assistance, Tracy and others were hoping Ottawa would clear up the confusion and ask provinces to exempt the temporary federal benefit from clawbacks, as Qualtrough did Monday.

Qualtrough’s statement is “very gratifying,” said Toronto social policy expert John Stapleton, a former Ontario social services bureaucrat. “It is in the spirit of a long tradition of non-partisan requests to provinces from federal ministers going back 40 years.”

“People on social assistance (in Ontario) who dutifully report their income every month don’t know what will happen if they report such a large sum of money,” he said in an interview. “And many of those who do report it, may find themselves kicked off the system next month, without their drug and medical benefits.”

People on social assistance, whose incomes fall between 40 per cent and 60 per cent below the poverty line, are among the most disadvantaged when it comes to social isolating and the scarcity of social programs such as food banks and other supports due to the pandemic, Stapleton noted.

“Surely those who have been working to boost their meagre benefits should not be punished,” he said. “And surely provinces shouldn’t be clawing back and pocketing this federal money.”

More than 960,000 people in Ontario rely on social assistance, either ODSP for people with disabilities, or Ontario Works 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, Stapleton said.

Ontario is still “working with the federal government to understand the details of how the CERB will be rolled out,” said Palmer Lockridge, a spokesperson Ontario’s ministry of children, community and social services.

“As this work is underway, the ministry is considering the impacts this benefit may have on our province’s social assistance clients, and we are speaking with our provincial and territorial counterparts to gain an understanding of how the CERB will be treated across the country,” he said in an email.

Ontario has specifically asked how Ottawa is collecting and sharing data with the provinces on workers who receive the benefit, Lockridge added.

Stapleton said he has a “tiny bit of sympathy” for ministry bureaucrats scrambling to understand how the taxable CERB will impact other provincial programs.

“But they should at least be clear with people and tell them not to report the income (to their social assistance worker) until they have a policy,” he said.

While Ontario considers what to do, the B.C. government on April 2 exempted EI and CERB from social assistance clawbacks while that province struggles to support residents during the pandemic.

A coalition of more than 130 health-care workers, community agencies and Ontarians living in poverty wrote an open letter to Social Services Minister Todd 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 who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

In a statement last week, the NDP also called on the Ford government to stop the clawbacks.

“Families are feeling anxious during this unprecedented crisis as they worry about their health, their jobs and paying the bills,” said MPP Lisa Gretzky, the NDP’s community and social services critic. “Ontario’s policies punish working families and add insult to injury given already abysmally low social assistance rates.”

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2 Responses to “Ottawa to the provinces: Don’t claw back CERB for workers on social assistance”

  1. Chris Crawford says:

    What do I do? My partner is disabled. He works part time to lower stress due to having a diagnosis of autism. He was voluntarily taking extra shifts due to people being off sick, but then he was laid off for two weeks. He applied for CERB. But he then two weeks later was called back to work. He was told by his manager that he must take extra shifts now or face disciplinary actions. He felt he had no choice but to work. He has now made too much to qualify two months in a row for ODSP. ODSP then said we are not eligable for the pandemic funding or Employment start up because he is working too much. He used the CERB to fix his car so he could reach work which is rural there is no public transit (the motor had to be replaced.). His boss knowing this tells him if he does not take extra shift he will face disciplinary action. As he faced being threatened at work, it pushed him just over the CERB $1000 limit disqualifying him for CERB which he had just received. Then when told that the company was not accommodating his disability, the manager went to the company that hires their cleaning company and that company manager made a new ruling that the only people those who are allowed to work are those who are full time. His boss said he can chose to work full time or be laid off. But if he choses to turn down employment he is disqualified from CERB. If he accepts he is basically saying that both companies no longer have any responsibility to accommodate his disability needs. I don’t know what to tell him nor can I see a way that anyone is actually is willing to support his continued employment. It is clearly bullying in the workplace and questionably breaking the Ontario Human Rights Code regarding Disabilities and Employment. But what does he need to do and what can he do? What do I tell him is best for him? The last thing he needs in this enviroment is to be treated badly. He has really tried his best. But I don’t know how to help him? The whole thing is an unclear mess.

  2. ANGELA L BROWNE says:

    I wonder what Ontario needs to understand about this. The issue is simple. If you are not disabled and not on ODSP, but married to somebody who is working or on EI, you keep every penny (other than any taxes at your marginal rate). If you are married to somebody on ODSP and you are working, then have to leave your job or your funds are not coming in, then you lose your ODSP if you get CERB? What is it with that? Why do people with disabilities have to be forced into even greater poverty than anybody else? Especially during a pandemic.


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