Politics

As provinces begin to reopen economies, Scheer says federal benefits deter Canadians from returning to work

As provinces begin gradually to reopen their economies, the federal government is pleading with Canadians to continue respecting pandemic measures — while the opposition Conservatives are warning that federal emergency aid could discourage some people from going back to work.

People are no longer eligible for emergency aid if they make more than $1,000 a month

A Longo Store in Toronto, on May 4, 2020. Provinces are beginning gradually to reopen businesses and public services. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

As provinces begin gradually to reopen their economies, the federal government is pleading with Canadians to continue respecting pandemic measures — while the opposition Conservatives are warning that federal emergency aid could discourage some people from going back to work.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said today that flaws in government support programs could "derail" provincial efforts to get the country's economy back on track after widespread business shutdowns driven by COVID-19.

He said the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and the student financial aid program offer incentives for people to stay home rather than return to work.

"At a time when our economy needs stimulus, Justin Trudeau has given it a tranquilizer and risks creating labour shortages across the country. This failure must be reversed before it is too late. Canada's economic recovery depends on it," Scheer said.

Canadians are disqualified from receiving the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) or student emergency aid if they earn more than $1,000 a month, and most benefits are available for several months.

Scheer said that as businesses slowly start to reopen, their employees are being forced to choose between taking shifts and keeping their benefits. CERB was designed to cushion COVID-19's impact but it is now threatening to impede an economic recovery, he said.

Scheer said the programs must be made more flexible to encourage people to return to work. He called for a progressive, graduated formula allowing claimants to collect a portion of the benefit while working more hours to earn an amount greater than $1,000.

Watch: Andrew Scheer says federal benefits could lead to labour gaps

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says that a gradual reduction of the emergency benefit would encourage more Canadians to get back to work. 1:51

"A gradual phase out of the benefit as people earn more and more, we believe, would encourage and incentivize people to re-enter the workforce. It would help small businesses get the labour that they will need to restart their businesses without having to force people to choose between the risk of going back to work and losing their entire benefit," he said.

To date, more than 7.3 million Canadians have applied for CERB. Another 96,000 employers have applied for the 75 per cent wage subsidy to cover about 1.7 million workers. Another 518,000 businesses have applied for $40,000 government-backed loans to stay afloat through the global pandemic.

'We're not there yet': PM

Asked if the government would consider changing the benefits package, Trudeau said he's looking forward to scaling back benefits and helping people get back to work — but "we're not there yet."

"We're very much still trying to make sure people are getting the support they need, even as the economy is starting to gradually reopen. Our focus is on keeping people safe and ensuring they have the ability to stay home and pay for groceries, pay their rents and support each other," he said.

"Obviously, a lot of thought is going into the various steps that are going to be needed as we get people out of their homes and back to work, but for now we're still very much focused on how we help people through this."

Watch: Justin Trudeau says focus remains on keeping Canadians safe

"We're not there yet,"Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says when asked how the government will scale back emergency pandemic benefit programs when Canadians gradually return to work. 0:45

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said today that COVID-19 is something Canadians will have to cope with until there's a vaccine.

"This means physical distancing, hand hygiene and cough etiquette must continue everywhere. And although we'll be getting out of our homes more and more, it will be vitally important that at the slightest sign of symptoms we stay home to save lives," she said.

"Working while sick can no longer be a thing. As we move through the weeks ahead, let's not forget we are all in this together and we will work our way through it with good science, strong evidence, careful steps and a shared goal to succeed despite the hardships."

Health Minister Patty Hajdu also cautioned against easing back on restrictions too quickly, pointing out that there is not yet widespread immunity to the novel coronavirus.

"I think the first thing that Canadians need to remember is it's not over," she said. "It is a cautious reopening in certain provinces, in certain sectors, but that the new normal will have to include new ways of living, new ways of working that will protect us in this unique and difficult time."

Watch: Patty Hajdu cautions that 'it's not over'

As provinces slowly begin to reopen their economies from pandemic lockdowns, Health Minister Patty Hajdu says Canadians need to remember that 'it's not over' yet. 1:36

In an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics last week, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister suggested that federal benefits could have "perverse potential outcomes" or "unintended consequences" by encouraging people to stay home.

"I'm not discounting the need for people to get supports and I have thanked very publicly ... the federal government for introducing these programs. But I am cognizant of the real, potentially dangerous consequences of rewarding people for not looking for work," he told host Vassy Kapelos. 

"We have lots of opportunities in our province and I have encouraged people, and I will encourage them, to seize those because I know that our small business community is anxious to get back open and anxious to employ people as they do that."

Provinces are gradually allowing some businesses and services to reopen. Some services in Ontario reopened today and Premier Doug Ford said the province may be "getting close" to opening parks and more curbside pick-up retail options.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer held a news conference and took reporter questions on Mon. May 4 in Ottawa. 29:58

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