Clawing back of CERB payments will hurt poorest in Sask.: Anti-poverty advocate

The province says those who claimed CERB during the COVID-19 pandemic would have had enough financial support through that program and is now looking to recover its contributions to those people. That doesn't sit well with a member of the Anti-Poverty Ministry in Regina.

Province to take back money from those who claimed provincial and federal benefits during pandemic

The province is looking to reclaim money from those who relied on both provincial and federal employment assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jesse Johnston/The Canadian Press)

The province is looking to claw back money from those who claimed both provincial and federal income support through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saskatchewan's Minister for Social Services Paul Merriman said there are two distinct groups of people who received benefits.

The first, he said, is those who stopped receiving their provincial benefits to go onto a federal benefit program, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or the student benefit program, and are now set to go back to a provincial benefit program. 

The second is people who were collecting both provincial and federal income assistance benefits. These are the ones that will have CERB payments clawed back by the province.

"We feel that they should have been notifying us exactly of their change of circumstance," Merriman said. 

"They have an obligation to notify us if there was a change in circumstances and certainly the CERB benefit would have been a large change in their circumstance." 

Merriman said clients who received a provincial benefit wouldn't have seen any change in their financial circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as they received the same amount of money they were getting before the pandemic started. 

He said the federal CERB benefit was for people who lost employment due to the pandemic and that social services clients would not have lost their income during the pandemic. 

When asked why the province wouldn't help offset some of the costs people incurred during the pandemic, Merriman cited a few one-time benefits social services clients received to do just that. 

"We had a one-time payment of $50 out to everybody that was on our program," he said. 

"There was a federal one-time payment for seniors that we did exempt and there was a one-time payment for people with disabilities that we did exempt, because those were one-time payments and not a continuous source of income over three months."

The one-time payment for people with disabilities has yet to be issued by the federal government, which said it should be issued later this fall.

Merriman said people who were receiving provincial benefits and the CERB benefit could have been receiving up to $3,600 a month for a four-month period. 

The CERB benefit alone, he said, should have been enough to cover off monthly expenses. 

Peter Gilmer with the Anti-Poverty Ministry said the money that's currently dedicated to income assistance programs doesn't go far enough. 

"We've seen a whole host of cuts over the course of the last five years, without any benefit increases on the [Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability program] side," Gilmer said, adding the same is true for the Saskatchewan Employment Supplement program.

"With all of this as the backdrop, they're now clawing back an income support to, really, the poorest people in the province."

Gilmer acknowledged the federal programs were meant for income replacement, but said he felt there were likely people who were eligible for the programs who were also on provincial income assistance programs.

He said people on the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID) program could have been eligible if they had more than $5,000 in earned income for the year. 

Gilmer said he has heard the ministry was, in some cases, encouraging people to apply for the federal income assistance programs.

"There were many people who thought that they would be eligible who turned out not to be, but now find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances," he said. 

"But ultimately, when you have programs that are so incredibly inadequate, being able to have access to some additional resources during difficult times allows you to stabilize your life." 

Instead, he said people will likely now be thrown into more difficult situations than they were before the pandemic. 

Gilmer suggested that morally, the province should allow people to make the claim for the assistance and use it as an additional support mechanism and noted that in B.C. and Yukon, the CERB benefit was fully exempted.

CBC Saskatchewan wants to tell more stories about how the pandemic is touching the province's most vulnerable and marginalized populations. How has COVID-19 affected you? Share your story with our online questionnaire.


  • A previous version of this story said Gilmer said people on the SAID program who weren't making more than $5,000 were eligible for CERB benefits. In fact, he said people on the SAID program, who were making more than $5,000 were eligible for CERB benefits.
    Sep 24, 2020 1:27 PM CT

With files from CBC Radio One's Morning Edition and Joelle Seal