“The fact that your government felt it necessary to create the CERB is a damning statement on the damage done by restrictions on EI coverage and benefits that have been introduced over the years have done” Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (12 June 2020) — As the first people to receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) approach the end of their 16 weeks of benefits, the federal government needs to ensure that people who are unable to work still have access to income support. That was the message from the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) in a letter to the federal Minister of Finance and the federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion.
In the letter, Larry Brown, NUPGE President, pointed out that because most unemployed Canadians aren’t eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) as it currently exists, steps have to be taken to ensure people who are unable to work still have an income.
“The fact that your government felt it necessary to create the CERB is a damning statement on the damage done by restrictions on EI coverage and benefits that have been introduced over the years have done,” said Brown.
Improvements to income support needed even after COVID-19 pandemic ends
The labour movement has been calling for EI coverage to be expanded and improved for many years.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported that fewer than half of unemployed workers were eligible for EI. For people in precarious work, it is very difficult to obtain EI. There is also a need to improve benefits, particularly for low-wage workers.
These problems will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic ends if permanent improvements aren’t made to federal income support programs.
SUB plans need to be permitted
Whether the federal government extends the CERB or moves to an expanded EI program, workers need to be able to receive the top-ups through registered Supplemental Unemployment Benefit (SUB) plans that they negotiated with their employers. Without SUB plans, many workers are significantly worse off than they would have been on regular EI.
By not allowing SUB plans with the CERB, the federal government effectively set aside provisions in collective agreements that are meant to protect workers.
Wage subsidy plan shouldn’t discriminate against public services
Another issue that has emerged is that the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) discriminates against public services and enterprises. Many government services and enterprises receive a large portion of their revenue from sources other than direct government funding. These sources include fares, ticket sales and other user fees.
But even though the revenues of these public services and enterprises have dropped dramatically, they are not eligible to receive support through the CEWS. At the same time, identical services and enterprises operated by non-profit organizations and businesses are eligible for support under the CEWS—even though public funding may make up a greater portion of their revenues than it does for public services and enterprises.
There are even reports that companies operating privatized services are eligible for CEWS in spite of the fact that, when companies operating privatized services run into difficulty, it is governments that are on the hook.
In both the letter to Bill Morneau and in a submission to the consultations the federal government has conducted on the CEWS, the National Union has called for changes to end the unfair treatment of public services and enterprises.
Issues with new programs likely unintentional, but they need to be fixed
When the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic hit, new programs had to be put in place very quickly. When programs as large as the CERB and the CEWS are introduced in only a few weeks, it is inevitable that some problems will emerge. In fact, it is a tribute to the public sector that these programs have worked as well as they have.
The test of the government’s intentions is whether it is willing to fix flaws in programs that do things like undermine collective agreements or discriminate against the public sector. Hopefully the federal government’s actions on income support programs and the CERB will pass those tests.