Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia bracing for influx of income assistance applications

The province expects thousands of people to seek financial aid now that federal pandemic funding for individuals has ended.

Province expects up to 10,000 people could need help now that federal pandemic funds have ended

A government office building is seen in Sydney, N.S. The province's Department of Community Services expects to hear from more Nova Scotians in need of income assistance now that federal pandemic relief for individuals has ended. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Nova Scotia's income assistance program is getting ready for an influx of people seeking financial help now that federal pandemic funding for individuals has ended.

Figures from the Community Services Department show 40,000 people were on the provincial income assistance program in March 2020, but more than 10,000 left the program during the pandemic. The department says many of those took advantage of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or its successor, the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB).

With the CRB having ended Oct. 23, many of those people are expected to come back to the province looking for financial help.

Brandy Burke, a single mother with two teenage daughters in North Sydney, said she is worried about the effect of federal funding on her application for provincial income assistance.

She collected employment insurance throughout much of the pandemic and only received the CRB in October.

Burke called the province's centralized phone system to make a claim for income assistance this month and received a little help, but she will have to send in her bank statement from last month to determine whether she will qualify for ongoing assistance.

Only the last 30 days counted

"It will show the CRB on there, so I probably will not be entitled to any assistance," Burke said. "[I was told] that if I collect any more, then I wouldn't be entitled. I would probably have to live off of my child tax credit again."

Joy Knight, executive director of employment support and income assistance for the Community Services Department, said only income from the previous 30 days is counted toward qualification for provincial help.

She said income assistance is supposed to be a last resort, so people with access to federal or other sources of funding are expected to exhaust those first.

"In cases where that income is significantly higher than what we would provide on income assistance, which may delay eligibility, we do what's called 'reasonable disposal,' and we have a conversation with the applicant," Knight said.

"In many cases, those individuals have used those funds to meet their basic needs, and so we wouldn't consider any delays in income assistance as a result."

Every claim assessed individually

However, each claim is assessed on an individual basis, she said, and it's likely that someone who received federal funds would qualify for provincial assistance after 30 days.

Burke said in addition to the financial uncertainty she faces with bills continuing to come in, Nova Scotia's centralized phone system for making a claim is being swamped with people trying to find out if they are eligible.

Fred Tilley, the Liberal MLA for Northside-Westmount, says his office is receiving a lot of complaints from constituents about delays with the income assistance phone system. (Nova Scotia Liberal Party)

"You could be waiting on the phone for three hours and nothing, and then to get them to answer and say, 'Well, you're too early, call back next week,' so now you've got to do that all next week again until they say, 'OK, we'll take your application,'" she said.

Fred Tilley, the Liberal MLA for Northside-Westmount, said his office is receiving a lot of complaints about delays with the phone system.

"When people are filling out claims, especially for income assistance, it's a very stressful time, and they really need those answers fairly quickly," he said. "Right now, it's taking multiple weeks in order for them to get into the system." 

Phones replaced in-person claims

People used to be able to go into a local Community Services office to fill out forms and get an answer within days, Tilley said. But because of the pandemic, the province set up phone lines so people would not have to risk exposure to COVID-19 in person.

Knight said the department is well aware of the phone delays. Call volumes are constantly changing and staff who normally do other tasks have occasionally been reallocated to answer phones.

"It is a challenge and it's an unfortunate one because obviously when people come through our door, it's a very difficult time in their lives and we certainly don't want to be putting any undue stress on individuals, so it's a top priority for the department to resolve it," she said.

Knight said it is unknown how many of the 10,000 people who left the provincial program will be returning, or when.

"It's really hard to predict these things, but we do anticipate that within ... the next couple of months, we'll continue to see more and more clients transition back," she said. "We are seeing more and more come through intake now, and are keeping a really close eye on that."

The department has budgeted more money than ever to cover income assistance this year, partly because rates have increased and partly because of the anticipated influx of people needing help.

But Knight said the department is not going back to having people fill out claims in person at its offices.

The new intake system is more standardized, she said, in hopes of avoiding errors. If people need help with the phone intake system, they can visit a local office for assistance.

"We are very committed to this approach to providing a better standard of service to clients," said Knight. 

"We do unfortunately know that we have some issues to address to get to that system that we've envisioned and currently need to get to."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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