THE ERROR MESSAGE WAS A SHOCK. What Hajar Pittman expected was an automatic approval of her application for the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB). What she got instead was an error message saying she wasn’t eligible.
Hajar is an airline worker. She got CERB benefits after being laid off in June. Her approval for the CRB should have been straightforward. It wasn’t. And it wasn’t easy to fix.
Hajar spent long hours on the telephone with the Canada Revenue Agency. In the end it turned out that the computer rejection came because Hajar had received parental leave benefits. The only way to clear the problem was for Hajar to send a letter to Service Canada asking for clarification of her eligibility—a process that could take 21 business days. In the meantime, Hajar would be left with nothing.
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“I’ve never felt this hopeless,” said Hajar. “I’m relying on family and friends and savings that I’ve put away over the years. I’m just hoping and praying that this will be resolved soon because I don’t know how long I can go without collecting any financial support from the government. I was really relying on that for myself and my children.”
Service Canada has almost doubled its complement of specialized call centre agents. It’s still warning people to expect long waits.
Mara Del Bianco said she also got a “COV-026” message telling her she was ineligible for benefits without telling her why. Mara also spent hours on hold with the CRA and Service Canada. She described the process as confused; at one point, she said, she was asked to provide documents by fax.
“[I’m] stressed out. Tired,” she said. “Just trying to ... I’m trying to keep things afloat.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen. When CERB payments ended in late September the federal government decided to use the Employment Insurance (EI) program to support unemployed workers. The CRB was supposed to make sure workers not eligible for EI received aid from the CRB.
Getting the CRB would be easy and quick, promised Prime Minister Trudeau. That’s not the story so far.
CRA dummies up
Around 1.5 million people were transferred to EI when the CERB ended. At least another 600,000 are receiving the CRB. Many others, like Hajar, are entitled to it, but can’t get it. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) refuses to say how many that is.
A 15,000-member Facebook group for recipients of government aid gets dozens of posts every day detailing all kinds of difficulties about accessing the CRB.
Stressing people out is nothing new for the CRA. The agency continues to hound people who inadvertently received double payments under the now-expired CERB. According to Yahoo Finance, the CRA has given anyone who was overpaid until December 31 to repay what they owe, or face the prospect of legal action and other collection measures.
Even for those able to access government assistance without technical problems, the financial support falls well short of what many people require. Clear evidence of that is the explosive rise in food bank usage across the country.
According to Statistics Canada, food insecurity has affected one in seven Canadians this year. StatsCan says this insecurity ranges from having some money for food but not enough, to not having any money for food at all.
The serious inadequacies of federal financial supports underscore the need for a much stronger social safety net, not just to deal with the immediate impact of the pandemic, but going forward as well.
Relying on EI to deliver financial relief, for example, is questionable when the program is notorious for favouring employers over workers, such as the loophole that permits employers to classify their workers as independent contractors and so cheat them out of EI benefits.
The fundamental changes needed to bring real social and economic fairness will not come through programs like EI or CRB.
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