North

Big uptake of COVID-19 emergency benefit program in N.W.T. and Nunavut

A large number of northerners in the N.W.T. and Nunavut have tapped into a federal program meant to provide emergency help for people who have lost their job or been laid off due to COVID-19.

27,790 people in the three territories have received CERB for one month or more

Part of a cheque for the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) in this April file photo. Some are calling for a tightening of rules around the $500 weekly benefit, aimed at people who have lost their job due to COVID-19. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

A large number of people in the N.W.T. and Nunavut have tapped into a federal program meant to provide emergency help for people who have lost their job or been laid off due to COVID-19.

According to the latest statistics from the federal government, 27,790 people in the three territories have received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for one month or more. The benefit provides applicants with $500 per week for up to six months to replace earnings lost as a result of COVID-19 shutdowns.

In an effort to get it to people as quickly as possible, the federal government does not require applicants to verify they have been laid off or have lost their job due to COVID-19. To start receiving the benefit, all they need do is answer a few questions on the phone or online. Applications must be renewed each month. As of June 28, people across the country have received a total of $53.5 billion in CERB payments.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation wants to see the rules around CERB payments tightened up. Federal director Aaron Wudrick said the federation understood that, initially, the government had to move quickly to ensure people who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 could buy food and pay their bills.

"The problem really started to come later, on two fronts," said Wudrick.

"One, when word of abuse started coming out, the government said essentially they weren't worrying about it. They were giving very mixed messages about fraud. That was a problem. And the other was they did not really start to adjust the program as the economy started to reopen."

Wudrick says the CERB is now an incentive for some people to stay at home instead of returning to work.

"We're months in now, and ... the government has not really tightened it up. It's not only expensive, it undermines the recovery at this point."

Because of the size of the program, even a small amount of fraudulent claims amount to a huge expense.

"There's 8 million people on CERB," noted Wundrick. "By the government's own estimate, a two to three per cent fraud rate — if it is two per cent fraud rate, that's $400 million a month."

CERB numbers at odds with employment numbers

According to federal statistics, the number of unique applicants from the North is at odds with employment numbers in two of the three territories.

For example in January, before there were any COVID-19 restrictions, 13,800 people were employed in Nunavut, according to Statistics Canada. Since CERB was introduced in March, 8,800 Nunavummiut, or 63 per cent of the number of people working in January, have collected the benefit. Yet in Nunavut, more than half of working people are employed by government and have not suffered any loss of employment income.

Similarly in the N.W.T., 20,400 people were working in January. More than half of that number, or 10,640 people, have collected CERB payments. According to the N.W.T. Bureau of Statistics, just over 47 per cent of people working in the N.W.T. work in the public sector, where there have been no layoffs.

If only people who are eligible for the benefit are collecting it, the numbers mean that every private sector employee in the N.W.T. has collected CERB payments. In Nunavut, everyone who works in the private sector, plus approximately 1,800 more people, would have collected CERB payments.

'We trust Canadians'

In an emailed response, the federal government says CERB numbers should not be looked upon as a reflection of how many jobs have been lost due to Covid-19, because the benefit can also be claimed by people who are sick, quarantined or caring for a family member.

"We trust Canadians to do the right thing," said a spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada. "In cases where claimants make an honest mistake and are found to be ineligible, they will be required to reimburse the overpayment."

The government continued: "We know that in times of crisis, the risk of fraud is heightened. Service Canada has robust data analytics and intelligence capabilities that have been actively monitoring and identifying cases of potential fraud in our systems since the launch of the CERB benefit."

In Yukon, CERB recipients amount to only 39 per cent of the number of people employed in that territory just before the COVID-19 shutdowns. That's more in line with the uptake in provinces such as Alberta (42 per cent), B.C. (43 per cent) and Ontario (43 per cent).

In an email, CBC asked the federal government how it intends to recoup CERB payments that have been fraudulently claimed. The government has yet to respond.

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