British Columbia

Federal COVID-19 benefit a blessing to many, but critics say some falling through the cracks

Many facing questions about their financial futures are happy to receive the $2,000 Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) but questions remain about some workers who don't qualify.

Prime minister spoke Monday about expanding federal aid further

Keshia Cleaver and 11-month-old son Barlow Cleaver-Lang go for a walk in Vancouver on Monday. Cleaver is one of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who applied for the new Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) Monday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Since Monday morning, over half a million Canadians facing unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic have applied for a new federal aid program.

The Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) offers $2,000 per month for up to four months to people left unemployed by the crisis.

Keisha Cleaver of Vancouver applied online for the benefit first thing in the morning and said it took her only a few clicks.

"It said we will send you $2,000 in three to five days," Cleaver said. "That was it. I took a picture of the screen because I couldn't believe that was it."

Keshia Cleaver spent the past year on maternity leave after giving birth to Barlow. That left her family's financial situation in a challenging position even before the coronavirus emergency began. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Cleaver said getting the money is "huge." She and her partner pay almost half their income as rent. She was on maternity leave for the past year and had just returned to work, starting a new job as a server.

Without the CERB money, she said, the family was planning to live in a trailer on her father's property on Vancouver Island.

In B.C., there are plenty of happy applicants but also concerns some people are still falling through the cracks.

Without the money from CERB, Cleaver said, she, her son Barlow and partner were likely going to leave Vancouver to live on her father's property on Vancouver Island. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

'People are really confused'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there would be adjustments coming to CERB for those who are still employed but are making less than they normally would because of the crisis as well as for gig workers, contractors and other types of workers.

B.C. Federation of Students chairperson Tanysha Klassen says those changes can't come soon enough for some workers, including some post-secondary students she represents.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged the CERB program is not helping all Canadians, including students, and said more relief will be announced. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Some students work only in the summer and would not have accrued enough hours or income last year to qualify. Others are facing the problem of their summer jobs simply not existing in 2020.

"People are really confused … about what we qualify and what we don't qualify for," Klassen said, adding her group is waiting "excitedly" for updates to help students.

Taylor Bachrach, NDP MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley in northwestern B.C., said he has been hearing from constituents who don't qualify, like seasonal commercial fishermen.

Bachrach and the NDP are advocating for an approach based on the idea of universal basic income. Pay every adult Canadian $2,000 now, Bachrach explained, and then claw the money back from people who don't need it at tax time.

"Our feeling is there might be a better approach," Bachrach said. "We need to get help to the people who need it and we need to do that as quickly as possible."

Linda Winterton is pictured in her Pilates studio in North Vancouver. She thinks she may have to close the studio as a result of the pandemic. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Hope today

The office of Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said 642,000 Canadians had applied for CERB by late Monday afternoon.

This brings the total number of applications for Employment Insurance and CERB to 3.18 million since March 15.

Linda Winteron of North Vancouver said she's glad she was able to qualify for CERB today but is worried about tomorrow.

She has been a self-employed Pilates instructor for 21 years. The money she gets for CERB will help with groceries and her mortgage but won't leave her enough to pay for her commercial lease on May 1.

"I can't start a new business at 57," Winteron said. "This might be the end for me."

A bigger help for her, she said, would be a freeze on commercial evictions during the crisis as is being done for residential tenants in B.C.

With files from Tina Lovgreen

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