Politics

Liberals considering whether to extend expiring pandemic supports for businesses, individuals

A number of the federal government’s pandemic supports for individuals and businesses are set to come to an end this week. Most of them can still be extended for the short term without introducing new legislation.

Freeland says Liberal government is 'discussing' the fate of pandemic benefit programs

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Washington on Oct. 14 that she is considering next steps now that some key pandemic financial supports for businesses and individuals are set to expire. (CBC)

A number of the federal government's pandemic supports for individuals and businesses are set to come to an end this week. Most of them can still be extended for the short term without introducing new legislation.

Business and industry groups are acutely aware of the coming end to the pandemic supports they say are still needed to keep the economy afloat, and they say they want the federal government to take action now.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told CBC's The House in an interview that aired Saturday that the reopening of the Canadian economy is going well and that the country is in a different phase of the pandemic.

"I was very happy about last week's job numbers, and it is the case that we are reopening, so this is a different phase from the phase we were in when those programs were put in place. And we're working now on what's appropriate for the conditions today," Freeland told host Chris Hall.

LISTEN | Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland discusses new tax deal and pandemic supports: 
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland explains why Canada pushed for a new global tax agreement and what effect it will have here. 9:06

She said she was consulting with economists, business and labour groups, her department and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the appropriate next steps, but she also noted that there remains significant uncertainty about the future.

"We have to remember that all of us collectively in the whole world have been really bad at predicting exactly the course that the coronavirus would take. So we also have to have an approach which is sufficiently flexible that we can respond to unpredicted developments," she said.

Five programs are scheduled to end on Oct. 23. Three of them provide assistance to individuals, while the other two provide targeted help to businesses.

Supports for businesses

The Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) both expire on Sunday but can be extended by the federal cabinet until Nov. 30. Extending these programs beyond that date would require the introduction of new legislation.

While these two subsidies are set to expire on Oct. 23, the deadline to apply for each claim period is six months after the end of the claim period itself — so businesses can claim for wages paid out in the final week of the program up until April 21.  

During the federal election campaign, the Liberals promised to provide the struggling tourism industry with wage and rent supports "up to 75 per cent of their expenses to help them get through the winter." The government has made no announcements on those supports yet.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce want those extensions to apply to all businesses in Canada.

"Extending these programs through November needs to be an immediate priority, followed by legislation to introduce programs for the hardest hit sectors as soon as the House returns," chamber spokesperson Alla Drigola Birk told CBC News. "Businesses need support and certainty now, not a retroactive payment months from now."

Slow return to growth

The CFIB said that a large number of small businesses are still struggling because of the pandemic's fourth wave. It said that only 76 per cent of small businesses are fully open, only 45 per cent are fully staffed and only 49 per cent are bringing in normal revenues.

"No business owner expects government support forever, but they need to know they have something to rely on until all restrictions are lifted and they can fully operate their business once again. They can't afford for the government to dawdle until the last minute," the CFIB's Corinne Pohlmann said in a media statement last week.

The CFIB said it wants the rent and wage subsidies extended to March 31, 2022. It also wants the Canada Recovery Hiring Program, which is set to expire on Nov. 20, to be extended until the same date. 

Meeting that demand would be difficult for the Liberal government, which announced on Friday that Parliament would not return until Nov. 22 — two days after the hiring program ends.

Supports for individuals

Three support programs for individuals are also expiring this week. The Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) and the Canada Recovery Caregiver Benefit (CRCB) are all scheduled to end on Oct. 23. 

All three of these programs can be extended individually or collectively until Nov. 20 by an order of cabinet. Extending them beyond that date would require the introduction of new legislation.

While the NDP and the Greens have called for an extension of these benefits, the CFIB wants to see them adjusted to ensure that they do not dissuade people from returning to work.

In a recent letter to Freeland, the CFIB said the Canada Recovery Benefit "is contributing to a growing shortage of part-time labour availability across Canada."

"While we recognize that many workers and self-employed business owners may still require CRB benefits, many part-time workers are earning more on the program than when working," the letter said.

The group wants the Liberal government to change the program to ensure that no one receiving the CRB is earning more on the benefit than they would if they returned to work. The CFIB also wants employees recalled to work to take up their old jobs or demonstrate that they are looking for alternative work.

Recovery benefit still needed: Canadian Labour Congress

Bea Bruske, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, disagrees. She said the Canada Recovery Benefit is not keeping workers from returning to their jobs and is still very much needed. 

"A lot of the folks that are utilizing that benefit right now are folks working in hospitality and accommodations and various different service sector types of jobs," she said.

"When you are talking about people working in retail, yes, they may be back at work, but if they're working 10 hours a week as compared to 35 hours a week, it's a significant difference in their paycheque."

Bruske said some workers want to return to work but cannot because their child care providers have not returned to full capacity. She also said that people with elderly family members needing care may fear for their safety in long term care and may be opting instead to stay home with them.

"Until we actually get back to full employment, where people have permanent positions that pay them a livable wage, it's going to be hard for people to go back to work in a 'how many hours can I get this week' situation, or a gig type of employment," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Zimonjic

Senior Writer

Peter Zimonjic has worked as a reporter and columnist in London, England, for the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph and in Canada for Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen. He is the Author of Into The Darkness: An Account of 7/7, published by Random House.

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