Federal government expands lockdown supports to people, businesses affected by capacity limits

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday some pandemic support programs would have their eligibility expanded to employers and employees subject to capacity limits.

Finance minister wouldn't confirm when one-time payments for seniors who had GIS clawed back would be coming

Those affected by new capacity restrictions will now be eligible for some federal supports, the government announced Wednesday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The federal government is expanding access to pandemic financial supports, as much of the country grapples with surging COVID-19 infections and new restrictions are implemented across the country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the measures in a news conference Wednesday, in which he appeared virtually. Trudeau said he was following local public health advice after six members of his staff and security detail tested positive for COVID-19.

"For the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit and the Local Lockdown Program, you'll be able to apply if you're subject to capacity limiting restrictions," Trudeau said.

Capacity restrictions are part of new measures imposed recently in several provinces in response to rapidly rising COVID-19 infections. Ontario and Quebec have been particularly hard-hit by the latest wave of the pandemic, with the latter hitting a record new case count Wednesday with 6,361.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland explained that the government would be changing what they considered to be a "lockdown," widening the eligibility for businesses and employees.

Employees in regions where governments have introduced capacity restrictions of 50 per cent or more will now be eligible for the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, if they've lost more than half their income.

It means more Canadians are now able to take advantage of the $300-per-week program.

Similarly, employers who are subject to capacity restrictions of 50 per cent or more and face current-month declines in revenue of at least 25 per cent can apply for the Local Lockdown Program, which grants wage subsidies from 25-75 per cent depending on revenue loss.

The expanded eligibility is expected to cost $4 billion, the government said in a release. The new regulations will apply retroactively to Dec. 19 and last until Feb. 12, 2022.

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The changes announced today are to programs that were enabled by the passage of Bill C-2, which received royal assent last week. But until now, no one had been eligible for the benefits because a full lockdown had not been declared in any part of the country.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, responded quickly on Twitter, calling the changes "good news [and] a direct recommendation from CFIB."

Kelly noted, in particular, the shift to a revenue decline of 25 per cent, noting "The bar remains high, but this is a significant improvement."

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Concerns over GIS payment timing

In the fiscal update delivered earlier this month, the Liberals announced a one-time payment for seniors who had their GIS or Allowance payments clawed back because they received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or the Canada Recovery Benefit.

The government committed almost $742 million to that effort in the fiscal update. The update said the money is accounted for in the 2022-23 financial year.

The NDP told CBC News that they had concerns the payments to vulnerable seniors would not start flowing to seniors until the next fiscal year began. 

The NDP said that some seniors were worried they were not going to receive their payments until May, causing them significant financial issues in the meantime.

Pressed to clarify the timing of the payments, Freeland did not give a firm timeline, saying her government remains committed to solving the issue and were working as quickly as possible.

"I would like to assure seniors, though, that we're aware of their needs. Seniors who qualify for the GIS are among the most vulnerable people in Canada and we are working really hard to get this done as soon as possible," Freeland said. 

Freeland also said there were some technical challenges with organizing the payment. 

The NDP accused the Liberals of adding to seniors' stress as they try to pay bills during the holidays.

"They created this situation for low-income seniors by essentially punishing them for taking the pandemic support they really needed. The very least they can do is be clear about when they're going to fix it," said Rachel Blaney, the party's critic for seniors said in a statement.

Uncertain holiday planning

Members of the government sought Wednesday to convey a message that Freeland described as one "which is careful, which is prudent, which is focused on following the science."

Ministers present at the news conference were asked several times to react to a speech made by U.S. President Joe Biden yesterday, in which he said it was alright for Americans to keep their holiday plans — if they're vaccinated.

Freeland responded by saying "Canada is not the United States."

She noted this country's higher vaccination rate, and lower mortality rate during the duration of the pandemic.

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