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New federal pandemic aid program is currently not available to any workers at all and the government ended the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) program in October.
Wed., Dec. 22, 2021
A wave of slashed hours and job losses is headed for the hospitality, entertainment and retail sectors, and labour advocates say workers will be left with little to no income support from the government.
Amid the surge of the omicron variant, Ontario has cut capacity limits at restaurants and bars and introduced other restrictions on large event spaces. As a result, a growing number of bar and restaurant owners have voluntarily shut down temporarily instead of operating at half capacity.
The uncertainty for many low-wage workers is an unwelcome rerun of March 2020 and it may be even worse this time. The federal government ended the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) program in October and many people have been unable to work enough hours this year to qualify for Employment Insurance (EI).
Last week, the federal government passed pandemic aid legislation that includes a benefit for workers in regions affected by lockdowns. But no parts of the country are currently designated “lockdown regions,” meaning it is currently unavailable to anyone. Critics say even if people did qualify, the benefit is inadequate to address the needs of those facing lost work or layoffs whether in locked-down areas or not.
“What we’re seeing is that workers are having their shifts cancelled,” said Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, pointing to the impact holiday party cancellations have already had on those employed at banquet halls and other hospitality jobs.
“The federal government is watching this unfold and there’s no word (on emergency benefits) and this is causing massive stress and anxiety,” she said.
Ladd’s organization, along with other labour groups including the Ontario Federation of Labour, Unifor, and the Canadian Labour Congress, is calling for a reinstatement of the level of support under the initial Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided workers $500 per week.
The CRB, which replaced the CERB in September 2020, provided only $300 per week. The new Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit (CWLB), if it does become available, is also $300 per week. Advocates say that is not enough to meet basic needs such as housing and food.
“Right now we have literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are wondering what their next shift is going to be,” said Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work. “We need some kind of more accessible and widespread income support right now, and we need it desperately.”
“We are going to see businesses close. We’re going to see people lose their jobs. The reality is this lockdown benefit may not apply to any of them.”
Stanford said the government could act quickly to address this by using a regulation to state that the lockdown benefit applies to anyone who loses work and also increase the amount to the former floor of $500 per week.
“We’re back to March 2020,” said David Macdonald, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). “People aren’t unemployed, but maybe their hours have been cut substantially. Or maybe their hours have been totally eliminated, but they’re not unemployed yet, and therefore they can’t get EI.”
Some workers may be technically employed but getting no shifts, Macdonald said, which is a problem because to qualify for EI, a layoff notice is generally required.
To qualify for EI, workers must also accumulate a minimum number of insurable hours in the previous one-year period, a number that has been lowered to 420 hours until next September.
Advocates say those who are still employed in front-line jobs, including work as caregivers and personal support workers as well as grocery store workers and those in the food processing industry, also need better support to get through the latest COVID-19 wave.
Access to vaccines, rapid tests and high-quality masks are crucial but perhaps the biggest missing policy piece is permanent paid sick days, said Debora De Angelis, Ontario region director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
“Whether we want to admit it or not, workers make the choice every day: Do I go to work sick and make ends meet, or do I stay home sick and have to wait for the money to come?”
Ontario recently extended a temporary paid sick leave program until next summer, but that only mandates three paid sick days. Critics say workers should have access to at least 10 days, roughly the amount of time that would cover a quarantine period. The federal government has also extended caregiving and sickness benefits until next May.
“We know when the economic shutdown happened it impacted mostly women, racialized workers and Indigenous people who already face systemic barriers,” said De Angelis, adding many hard-hit workers are struggling with mental health challenges that have built up and become worse over the past two years.
“I’m hearing very anxious people on the telephone, desperate people.”