Some students still confused about emergency benefits, groups say

Some student groups say their members have questions about which emergency benefits they're eligible for, while others may not even realize they can apply.

Application process may be simple, but some students unclear on which benefit they are eligible for

McMaster University student Max Adams applied for and received two CERB payments but paid them back when he decided he should apply for the new student benefit instead. Weeks later, he still hasn't received his student benefit. (Submitted by Max Adam)

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, some students still aren't clear which emergency benefit they're eligible for, say student groups.

The groups applaud the federal government's decision to make $9 billion in benefits available specifically to students and recent graduates, but say they continue to get questions from students about what to apply for. They worry some other students may be missing out completely.

"I think there is a disconnect here between students understanding whether the [Canada emergency] response benefit or the student benefit is right for them and actually whether they're eligible for either," said Bryn de Chastelain, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. Canadians can only register for one of the two.

While the applications themselves are "very easy" according to Genevieve Charest of the Canadian Federation of Students, her group has received a lot of questions about the criteria.

The prime minister said on Monday that half a million students have applied specifically for the student benefit. De Chastelain points out that number only represents about a quarter of Canada's student population and a recent opinion survey suggested many students aren't aware of their own eligibility.

The parliamentary budget officer expects a much bigger uptake. A recent analysis estimated 1.1 million students would receive it. Applications have been open since May 15.

'Tossed around back and forth'

Max Adams has had an especially rough time. After weeks of waiting and hours spent on hold with various government services, he still hasn't received his student benefit.

His problem began in April when he received an email saying his summer job with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board was going to be terminated. 

Adams started to research the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB).

"When I looked at this criteria I said, 'You know what? Yeah, I think I do qualify," said Adams.

The federal government announced the Canadian emergency response benefit in late March, which temporarily replaced EI benefits and offered $2,000 a month for up to four months, but other programs for students took longer to roll out. (Jesse Johnston/The Canadian Press)

He started applying through Service Canada, only to realize he could get the benefit more quickly by filling out an application with the Canada Revenue Agency.

Adams, a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, said he quickly received two CERB payments.

But then the prime minister announced a benefit specifically for students. Adams said he questioned whether he should be getting CERB at all, since he hadn't yet begun his summer job when the pandemic hit.

So in May he repaid the CERB money, and signed up for the student benefit.

But about a month later, Adams still hasn't received the money. He said he's been told the problem dates back to that first day he began, but never completed, an application with Service Canada. 

"I've been on multiple times with CRA with Service Canada and I've almost been tossed around back and forth," he said.

"It's been quite frustrating for me."

Key differences between benefits

For many students, the CERB is more appealing because it pays more: $2,000 per four-week period. 

The student benefit pays $1,250 over the same period, though that amount is bumped up to $2,000 for students who have a disability or a dependent.

But there are a couple of key differences in eligibility.

CERB recipients are supposed to have been forced to stop working because of COVID-19 and to have made at least $5,000 in either the last 12 months or in 2019.

Applicants for the student benefit, on the other hand, only need to be unable to find work because of the pandemic and meet the government's criteria to be defined as a student or recent graduate.

Asked about the potential for confusion, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough's office said the benefits are having a positive impact.

"The application process for both benefits is simple and straightforward. We have worked hard to communicate with Canadians about the different supports available to them and the ways in which they can apply," Qualtrough's office said in a statement.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough's office has not been able to explain what went wrong with Max Adams' case. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Extra challenges

Student groups say they are also concerned about particular groups of students that might be falling through the cracks.

International students can apply for CERB if they meet the criteria, but are not eligible for the student benefit.

"Our real call to the government, right now is ensuring that no student in Canada is left behind and that everyone has access to the student benefit," said de Chastelain, who is also president of the student association at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. 

Students like Adams, who had a summer job lined up and would have been eligible for CERB if the pandemic had hit a few weeks later are also a concern, said the CFS's Charest.

"Unfortunately, for many students, $1,250 a month is not enough to cover their expenses on top of saving for the coming year," she said in an email to CBC News.

"In our survey, 30% of students said they were reconsidering going back to school because of the financial impact of the crisis as well as the move to online classes. Women and people of colour were more likely to indicate it would be harder for them to afford post-secondary in the fall," she added.

Max Adams is still waiting to find out what will happen with his case.

The employment minister's office suggested Adams' case was complex, but even after several days of inquiry, officials were unable to explain why he hadn't received his student benefit payment.

An official with the minister's office said they didn't believe his challenges reflected a larger problem of students not receiving payments.

But Adams worries that other students are struggling.

He's managing financially because he's currently at home with his parents, but said he knows not everyone has that option.

"There are others who may be paying rent, who may be paying for food — things like this," he said.

"If you don't have a job right now — you don't have income — that is really, really scary."

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