New Brunswick

Who is covered and who is left out when it comes to COVID-19 financial relief

A number of financial assistance programs are available to people who aren’t working due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but some say more needs to be done for those who work for themselves or run a small business.

Employees have several programs available; self-employed and small business owners worry about their futures

James Couture is a self-employed French-English interpreter, whose jobs have dried up due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Submitted by James Couture)

A number of financial assistance programs are available to people who aren't working due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but some say more needs to be done for those who work for themselves or run a small business.

"I don't think I'm eligible for anything," said James Couture, who operates a simultaneous French-English interpretation service, based in Fredericton.

The federal government's COVID-19 economic response includes employment insurance benefits, an emergency care benefit and an emergency support benefit.

"None of that is going to help me," said Couture. 

"There's going to be a lot of people falling through the cracks on this."

Couture had booked jobs on about 20 days per month, from March through June, but the cancellations are piling up.

"That's just going to be wiped off the map."

Couture said he has enough money set aside to hold out for a few months, but he expects it will be quite a while before anyone is gathering in large groups for meetings again, which is the type of event he relies on for work.

"It's going to hurt. There's no doubt about that."

Opposition politicians at the federal and provincial levels are also zeroing in on the absence of a specific income support program so far for the self-employed. 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is calling for HST refunds for small businesses that are severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is calling for the refunding of GST remittances to small businesses that collected them over a minimum of the last six months

Tax relief

Couture said he would welcome some tax relief.

"Taxes are due. HST is due. I'd like to see them tell business owners they don't have to pay their HST for the next quarter."

"That would be great," said Couture. "That would help, absolutely it would help."

The federal government has already announced that it's deferring income tax payments until September.

Wage subsidies and business loans

The Conservatives are also advocating for a significant increase in the wage subsidy as a way to help small businesses.

The federal government is proposing a three-month wage subsidy that would be available to small businesses, as well as non-profits and charities.

It would be worth 10 per cent of an employee's pay to a maximum of $1,375 per worker and $25,000 per employer.

In order to make it easier for small businesses to get their credit extended, the federal government has reduced the rate of capital that banks are required to hold to protect themselves against vulnerabilities.

That measure is expected to inject $300 billion in lending into the economy. 

And another $10 billion will flow through the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada, mainly to support  "credit solutions" for small and medium-sized businesses with private sector lenders.

No provincial programs

Provincially, the opposition Liberals are calling for the Progressive Conservative government to introduce some kind of help for small businesses and the self-employed as soon as possible, especially for those who have had to shut down due to the state of emergency. 

Opposition Liberal leader Roger Melanson says New Brunswickers have a right to know if there's a confirmed COVID-19 case in their community. (CBC News)

"It's an issue of cash flow," said finance critic Roger Melanson.

"They don't have any money coming in," he said.

"They are obviously worried about feeding their families and paying their basic expenses." 

Andrew Harvey, the Liberal critic for economic development, suggested the province adopt a program like the one Prince Edward Island has announced.

PEI is offering $500 per week for self-employed Islanders who are significantly affected by the pandemic and emergency financing for small businesses through a loan of up to $100,000 with a fixed interest rate of four per cent.

Harvey acknowledged that Premier Blaine Higgs has indicated the province is looking at what gaps need to be addressed before announcing its support programs.

"I think people would like to hear from the province very soon," said Melanson.

Couture agreed.

"I'd like to see something. You know, rent and everything is going to have to be paid."

Employment Insurance 

People who are laid off due to work closures can apply for federal employment insurance benefits.

That's if you have worked a minimum number of hours in the past year, which varies from region to region. 

In the EI region known as Fredericton-Moncton-Saint John, where the unemployment rate is 6.3 per cent, a minimum of 665 work hours in the past year is required.

In Madawaska-Charlotte, the unemployment rate is 7.2 per cent and 630 hours are needed.

The Restigouche-Albert region's rate is 11.2 per cent and it takes 490 hours of work in the past year to qualify for EI benefits.

In order to get this type of EI benefit you also need a "record of employment" document from your employer. 

That ROE should be completed in a specific way in order to expedite the application process.

If any comments are written in Box 16, Reason for Separation, the application gets taken out of the automatic processing system and is flagged for review by an agent.

Service Canada has asked people to use the following codes: 

  • Code A - a shortage of work or shutdown due to COVID-19
  • Code D - the employee is sick or quarantined.
  • Code E - the employee quit because of COVID-19
  • Code N - the employee has taken a leave of absence due to COVID-19

Applications can be made online at https://www.canada.ca/en/services/benefits/ei.html 

EI sickness benefits

People who can't work because they are self-quarantined can also apply for EI sickness benefits.

A minimum of 600 hours of work in the past year is required to qualify for this program.

A record of employment is not required, nor a doctor's note, and the normal one-week wait period has been waived.

This program pays out 55 per cent of your insurable earnings to a maximum of $573 a week for a period of up to 15 weeks.

Emergency Support Benefit

People who have been laid off, but don't qualify for EI are going to be able to apply for a new Emergency Support Benefit. 

But there's no word yet on what it will take to qualify and how much it will pay out.

Federal officials say applications will open next month via the Canada Revenue Agency and Service Canada. 

Emergency Care Benefit

People who are self-quarantined and don't qualify for EI, will be able to apply for the Emergency Care Benefit.

It's intended for people who are sick with COVID-19, caring for a family member with COVID-19, caring for children due to school closures, or otherwise quarantined.

This is currently the only benefit available to people who are self-employed.

The benefit will be worth up to $900 biweekly for a period of up to 15 weeks. 

As with the Emergency Support Benefit, applications aren't open yet. They are expected to be available sometime next month.

Workers' compensation

Provincially, workers who contract COVID-19 through workplace exposure can apply for WorkSafe benefits. 

Claims will be adjudicated case-by-case, said WorkSafeNB.

Evidence has to show infection arose out of and in the course of employment and that the risk of contracting the disease through the employment was greater than the risk associated with contracting it through daily life.

WorkSafe benefits are not available to workers who don't go to work for preventive reasons.

Other proposed measures

MPs are reconvening Tuesday to vote on other proposed COVID-19 measures. 

Proposed measures include:

  • increasing GST credit payments and Canada Child Benefit payments.
  • setting up an Indigenous Community Support Fund.
  • implementing a six-month interest-free period on student loans.
  • reducing the required minimum withdrawals from Registered Retirement Income Funds and registered pension plans while the markets are down.
  • funding equipment such as beds and barriers to implement social distancing and reduce overcrowding in homeless shelters and women's shelters.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Sweet is a reporter with CBC based in Fredericton. She can be reached at 451-4176 or jennifer.sweet@cbc.ca.

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