Edmonton

Government knew of limits in emergency isolation supports before program launched

The Alberta government knew the ID and online banking requirements of its emergency isolation payment program would exclude some eligible people from receiving the money, internal emails show.

Emails acknowledged online access, ID and banking requirements could exclude people

Chaylene Thorne (right) and her fiance Matthew Spence, from Blackfalds, Alta. Chaylene was one of many Albertans who applied for the province's emergency isolation benefit and ran into trouble with the system recognizing her ID. The problem was never resolved, and she did not receive the benefit. (Supplied by Chaylene Thorne)

The Alberta government knew the ID and online banking requirements of its emergency isolation payment program would exclude some eligible people from receiving the money, internal emails show.

In a March 23 email thread between managers in the labour and immigration department and Service Alberta, obtained by CBC News, civil servants acknowledged that restricting the payments to online transfers would leave people out, but they believed the number would be low.

"We believe there will be very few workers who will not have access to the benefit," wrote a senior labour official.

Applications could only be done online. Albertans without a valid driver's licence or ID card would not have access to the funds, the emails said. 

People forced into isolation during the pandemic without sick pay were told in late March they could apply for the $1,146 in emergency cash to tide them over until federal benefits became available. The payment would arrive by Interac e-transfer within 24 to 48 hours.

The demand was overwhelming when the online application form was launched on March 25, with the website crashing repeatedly. Applicants who ran into technical problems jammed government phone lines.

Applicants stuck when government website wouldn't recognize ID

The website included a list of seven possible eligibility criteria: applicants had to have lost most of their income due to self-isolating, received no sick pay and be unable to work from home, among others.

The website, as shown here on March 27  captured by an internet archiving website, said applicants needed a My Alberta Digital ID. An Alberta driver's licence or ID card was required to set up that account, it said.

However, the website did not explain that valid ID and access to a bank account capable of electronic transfers were essential to receive the benefit.

The government wanted to keep the payments digital so people could maintain physical distance from others and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

After the website launched, MLAs and the CBC received a steady stream of complaints from people who had technical problems with the application process.

Several people were left out when the website would not recognize their ID. Some spent days dialling the government for help, only to receive busy signals.

Chaylene Thorne was among them.

The Blackfalds, Alta., resident got sick in early March and had to self-isolate. Thorne is self-employed and had no income during those two weeks.

Although her licence was valid, she couldn't verify her ID online because her current address didn't match the one on her card.

She eventually reached an agent, but they needed to mail her a paper verification code before she could apply. By the time the letter arrived, the government had stopped accepting applications.

She said it's "crazy" that the government didn't make allowances for people who should have been eligible for the money.

"You're told that you're going to be supported and there's options for you," she said. "It's scary when you can't go to work. I'm thinking about paying rent and about feeding the kids. I was scared and frustrated. It just seemed like it was impossible."

Kurt Perkins of Calgary and Tannessia Boehner of Edmonton also had ID cards the website application would not recognize, they told CBC earlier this month. Neither was able to reach a government employee for help before applications closed.

Perkins described the program as a "lottery."

Turned away without explanation

Savanna Harvey, an arts administrator and theatre artist from Calgary, successfully submitted an application for emergency isolation pay, then was denied without explanation. She believes she met the criteria.

A friend in a similar situation appealed his denial, was reassessed, and later received the payment. When she tried to appeal, she was turned away without reason.

It left her feeling frustrated, and that the program was being administered unfairly.

The government should have been more forthright about the program's limitations, she said. If they had communicated some of the criteria more clearly to the public, fewer people would have been clamouring to access the website and overwhelming the government phone lines, she said.

Although the provincial isolation payments were meant to be a temporary solution, Harvey said, the Alberta government should recognize that not everyone qualifies for federal emergency benefits.

"We appreciate that program was rolled out at all, but waiting for the federal government to fix everything isn't what teamwork looks like," Harvey said.  "And this is a time when we need to come together."

Auditor General Doug Wylie and his staff are tracking government pandemic response programs as they launch. The emergency isolation payments may be a program they examine retrospectively. (CBC)

The Office of the Auditor General of Alberta is monitoring all of the government's pandemic responses and new investments in real time, spokesperson Val Mellesmoen said in an interview on Thursday.

Later, the office may examine some of those responses retrospectively to see if programs were delivered as intended, she said. Mellesmoen said it's too early to say whether the emergency isolation support payments would be one of them.

Any reviews will be done with some sympathy that the government was attempting to respond quickly to unprecedented circumstances, she said. That being said, they will scrutinize programs' effectiveness.

Previously, the auditor has critiqued the government's income supports program for failing to closely track whether payments were going to the people who needed them most.

Government defends program

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping declined CBC's request for an interview.

However, Adrienne South, Copping's press secretary, said Wednesday the website "made it clear that e-transfer was the method of payment and a driver's licence or ID card was used for identity verification."

South did not answer questions about how many complaints the government had received about access to the program, or whether there is any recourse for people who experienced technical hurdles.

More than 94,000 Albertans received the benefit, which was intended to help people pay urgent expenses before the federal emergency payment program launched on April 6.

South said the $108 million dispensed to people through the Alberta emergency program was double the $50 million that the government had expected to spend. 

"We acted quickly to get funds into the hands of Albertans and those payments were generally transferred to their bank accounts within hours," South said.

She directed anyone needing emergency support payments now to the federal government's Canada Emergency Response Benefit program.

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