Out of work in a crisis: Thousands facing financial peril amid pandemic

An Ottawa mother of five, a chef and a self-employed web designer are among thousands of Canadians watching their income disappear and savings dwindle as the COVID-19 response causes widespread financial hardship.

1M Canadians applied for EI last week as shutdown forces widespread layoffs

Julie Johnston, third from left, a single mother of five ages 15 to 24, has been laid off from her job at GoodLife Fitness in Ottawa. (Supplied by Julie Johnston)

Julie Johnston has five kids to feed, a mortgage to pay and retirement to think about.

Now the Ottawa mother has another worry: figuring out how she'll cope financially after being laid off from her job at GoodLife Fitness a little over a week ago.

Like thousands of Canadians, Johnston has suddenly found herself unemployed as more and more businesses close their doors to comply with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"I'm a single mother, I have a mortgage, my kids live with me — it's pretty scary, because that's my only source of income, and my career," Johnston said.

What it’s like to be laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 1:05
Ottawa residents who are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic say they’re worried about making mortgage or rent payments, and buying food. Fitness manager Julie Johnston and chef Bruce Wood spoke to CBC News.

    Johnston said she has enough savings to last several months, but without a pension, that money was supposed to go toward retirement and other future expenses. 

    "Mortgage is the number one thing that I worry about," she said. "I have five kids that are going to be living here. You can imagine, I have three teenage boys — the grocery bills are just through the roof.... It's getting a little bit scary, what we're going to lose."

    Johnston said her employer will pay her until April 1, and after that she will apply for employment insurance.


    1M Canadians apply for EI

    On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said nearly one million Canadians applied for EI last week. Earlier this week, Parliament passed a sweeping aid package bill worth $107 billion.

    The legislation will boost access to employment insurance, and includes the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for wage earners, contract workers and self-employed Canadians who don't qualify for EI.

    Bruce Wood, a chef, has also been laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Wood was employed by Operation Come Home, an education and support centre for homeless and at-risk youth, where he cooked for a social enterprise catering service called FoodWorks.

    Chef Bruce Wood says he and his spouse have enough savings to make ends meet until the end of April. After that, they don't know what they'll do. (Supplied by Bruce Wood)

    Wood, whose spouse works as a funeral director, said they have enough savings to last on one income until the end of April.

    "If it starts to look like it's going to go past that, then we're going to have to do some thinking about how we're going to make it work," he said.

    "It's very upsetting to know that you don't know when your next paycheck is going to be. And I haven't heard anything back from employment insurance yet as to whether I'm going to qualify or not."

    Self-employed also anxious

    There's equal uncertainty for Ottawa's self-employed, including Marc Behiels, a graphic and web designer.

    "I have nothing. I have not been contacted by any clients. I have no job prospects, nor contracts that are possible right now," Behiels said.

    His family of four will now have to rely on his wife, a physician, to sustain them financially. But Behiels is more worried that when the pandemic finally ends, some of his clients will be out of business, and that will trickle down to him.

    Self-employed graphic and web designer Marc Behiels says he's lost thousands of dollars worth of contracts because of COVID-19. He's worried some of his clients' businesses won't survive the pandemic. (Supplied by Marc Behiels)

    "Basically, if all of my clients dry up and none of them have any money, I don't have a business anymore," he said.

    Behiels said he's hoping to apply for government help specifically for the self-employed outlined earlier this week. If he qualifies, he plans to put that money "straight back into the economy" by spending it on local businesses.

    "That's what it's going to take ... and that's where it needs to go. It needs to go to supporting small businesses and the local economy."

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