Afraid to return to work? CERB eligibility at risk if you don't

Some Prince Edward Islanders are raising concerns about returning to work under the province's plan to ease back COVID-19 restrictions, but if they choose to stay home they could lose financial support from the federal government.

Some P.E.I. hairdressers have said they don't feel safe returning to work May 22

Some Island hairdressers and barbers say they're hesitant to return to work May 22, given their inability to stay six feet from their clients. (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Some Prince Edward Islanders are raising concerns about returning to work under the province's plan to ease back COVID-19 restrictions. But Malpeque MP Wayne Easter if they choose to stay home they could lose financial support from the federal government.

Kayla Savidant, co-owner of Lavish Hair and Beauty, says she's reluctant to return to work because she's concerned for her own health and for that of her clients. But she also says many in her industry, who she's been reaching out to, are concerned about qualifying for $500 per week under the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) if they don't return on the designated date. 

Hairdressers are allowed to return to work May 22 under the province's reopening plan.

"I think a lot of people are very concerned that, we can apply for CERB, but when it comes to tax season, they can look at us as 'you refused to work, so you have to pay the money back,'" said Savidant.

"We've been trying to reach out to people to see what we're supposed to be doing in this situation. But a lot of our concerns seem to be swept under the rug right now."

The owners of Lavish Hair & Beauty in Charlottetown have spoken out against the plan to let them return to work May 22. They're also concerned if they don't return, they'll no longer be eligible for CERB. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Ineligible for CERB, with one exception 

Easter, who chairs the parliamentary finance committee, said he's been hearing similar concerns from other workers since P.E.I. unveiled its ease-back plan in late April.

He said the federal government's expectation is that if provincial public health officials determine it's safe for a business to reopen and its employees are able to return to work, they should.

According to Easter, a worker or business owner who disagrees with public health officials doesn't have a legitimate reason to stay off work and continue to draw CERB.

"If the province believes the right protocols are in place to protect their safety, then really they should be going back to work," he said.

Malpeque MP Wayne Easter says if workers or others in their household have compromised immune systems, that would be a legitimate reason to stay home from a workplace that the province is allowing to re-open. (Wayne Easter/Zoom)

According to Easter, there is one exception. 

"For somebody who may have a compromised health situation themselves, or in their home, that has to be looked at differently," he said. "I do think they have an argument to say, 'in my situation, I really don't feel comfortable going back.'"

Easter said that's how federal officials are interpreting the rules around CERB eligibility, but acknowledges that interpretation is not layed out anywhere in writing. 

He also said it's not clear what will happen if a worker chooses to stay home and continues to receive benefit payments. 

'Believe what they say'

Canadians are eligible for $500 per week for up to 16 weeks under CERB, and have to re-apply once a month. 

As part of the application, they're required to attest to the fact they're out of work "for reasons related to COVID-19."

"I think we've tried to establish with the program, that we take people at their best in terms of their honesty, and believe what they say," said Easter. "But there's no guarantees what happens down the road."

At a news conference this week, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said he will 'lobby hard' to ensure Islanders who stay home from work for safety reasons are still eligible for CERB. (Ken Linton/CBC)

At a news conference Wednesday, P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said he didn't know if Islanders would still be eligible for federal benefit payments if they decide to stay home. 

Though he added, "I would certainly hope, and I would be lobbying hard … to make sure they don't lose any of those benefits, if they choose to take a little bit longer to go back to work, dealing with the worldwide health pandemic that we are in."

Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department responsible for CERB, did not respond to CBC's request for comment.

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