Edmonton

Alberta government may distribute up to $110M in isolation cash

Nearly 80,000 people received emergency isolation support payments to help with a pandemic cash crunch, according to the Alberta government.

Applications now closed for the short-term funding

Nearly 80,000 Albertans received one-time emergency isolation support payments provided by the provincial government. (Josee St-Onge/ CBC)

An abrupt end to applications for provincial emergency isolation payments has left some Albertans frustrated and frantic.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Monday an estimated 90,000 people have or will receive a $1,146 emergency cash payment after self-isolation left them without pay.

Calgary electrician Kurt Perkins is unlikely to be one of them. He said he almost lost his mind on Monday morning when he saw applications for the emergency payments were closed.

Perkins was preparing to spend another day dialling into jammed government phone lines for technical help with the online application process. The website wouldn't recognize his ID.

He said it was unfair of the government to offer up emergency funds it couldn't fully deliver, and cruel to pull them away when they knew there were technical problems.

"I call it a lottery because it was nothing other than that," Perkins said Monday. "Intermittently, it would work, and then it wouldn't."

The funds were disbursed based on luck, not need, he said.

Perkins likely qualifies for the federal Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, which began accepting some applications Monday morning. It offers $2,000 a month for four months for people who stopped working due to the pandemic, and includes contractors and freelancers.

However, application dates are staggered by birth month to prevent the online system from becoming overwhelmed. Perkins' birthday is in December, so he won't be able to apply until Thursday.

Meanwhile, he's falling further behind on his payments, he said.

'It's complete stress'

Tannessia Boehner is under similar financial strain.

She went into isolation last month when she was ill with a chest infection. She works as a chef and a manager at an Edmonton domestic violence shelter and does not qualify for sick pay.

She also gained custody of her nephew last week. He has asthma and needs to be isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.

She started applying for provincial isolation funds on March 25, the day applications opened. When the website wouldn't recognize her ID, she was also left redialing busy phone lines.

Boehner tried setting alarms for 3 a.m., thinking she might get a call through when most people were sleeping. It didn't work.

"I'm absolutely devastated and distraught and now suffering panic attacks," she said Monday. "I worked so hard to gain custody of my one-year-old nephew. This is supposed to be the happiest time of my life."

She said she can't apply for the federal aid program without notifying the federal government of a recent address change — and no one is answering those calls, either.

Premier says volume of online applications 'uncharted territory'

NDP labour critic Christina Gray said Monday the government mishandled the isolation payments and should take steps to help Albertans who are in dire financial situations without aid.

Based on industry layoff reports, she surmised there are thousands more people who should have qualified for emergency financial help.

Kenney said one lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that Alberta will need a provincial government website that can handle tens of thousands of concurrent online application form submissions.

"Frankly, no governments have been through this kind of demand for social payments since, well, in decades -- since we've had online technology. So, this is uncharted territory," Kenney said Monday.

Although the government had guessed it would need $50 million for the program, the final total payout is likely between $106 million and $110 million, Kenney said.

"The program turned out to be twice as large and twice as generous as anticipated. I regret for people that didn't get through the system — that system simply wasn't set up to come with those demands," he said.

The labour ministry is currently reviewing outstanding applications from people who could only apply after their isolation period ended, said Adrienne South, press secretary to Labour Minister Jason Copping, on Monday. It means some people may still receive payments, she said.

When that process is complete, she anticipates about 90 per cent of people who managed to submit an application for the payment will be approved.

Some applicants were deemed ineligible.

The emergency cash injection was supposed to be a temporary measure to help Albertans cover immediate expenses while many waited for the launch of CERB.

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