Canada Provides COVID-19 Emergency Benefits Response

By Catherine Skrzypinski June 23, 2020
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​The Canadian government responded immediately to the economic fallout from the pandemic with income relief for the Canadian workplace. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government will pull out all the stops to make sure Canadians stay safe, healthy and supported.

The federal government has enacted emergency benefits valued at more than $250 billion Canadian dollars (approximately $184.6 billion USD) to alleviate the financial impacts from COVID-19, including covering employment benefits and wage subsidies.

The pandemic "will change how the Canadian workforce views sickness," said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Employers should go beyond assessing risk—they need to be empathetic and compassionate toward their employees. Businesses also need to be adaptable and flexible."

Government programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) have changed constantly since their inception in response to the pandemic, said Mathias Link, an attorney with Fasken in Toronto.

"The government is responding, listening and making adjustments on the fly," Pau added. "There's a huge response from Canadians to these government programs."

Trudeau said on May 25 that the federal government is discussing with provincial and territorial leaders the possibility of introducing 10 days of annual paid sick leave for Canadian workers.

"Nobody should have to choose between taking a day off work due to illness or being able to pay their bills," Trudeau said. "Just like nobody should have to choose between staying home with COVID-19 symptoms or being able to afford rent or groceries."

The premiers of British Columbia, Manitoba and Yukon said on Tuesday, May 26, they support the federal government's proposed national sick leave program. Yukon has already implemented a paid sick leave program for employers in its territory. 

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Support for People with Lost Income

Canadian residents who have stopped working because of COVID-19 can apply to CERB for temporary income support. CERB is a taxable benefit that provides eligible Canadians $500 per week (approximately $369 USD) for up to 24 weeks.

"People placed on a temporary layoff—those who are out of work and then called back—can apply for CERB," Link explained. "The benefit is also for work disruption—like parents who need to take care of their children or someone sick with the coronavirus."

Workers eligible for CERB benefits must have had employment or self-employment income of at least $5,000 (approximately $3,692 USD) in 2019, or in the 12 months prior to the date of their application. People are not eligible for CERB if they voluntarily quit their job.

The benefit covers the period from March 15 to Oct. 3. Applicants must submit their claim to Service Canada or the Canada Revenue Agency by Dec. 2.

To date, around 8.4 million Canadians—or around 22 percent of Canada's population—have applied for CERB, according to the federal government. The total dollar value of CERB paid to applicants as of June is $43.5 billion (approximately $32 billion USD).

"[CERB] is a simple, quick solution for monetary relief," said Lisa Stam, founder of SpringLaw in Toronto. "For those who qualify, $2,000 [approximately $1,477 USD] per month is a viable option for those who are out of work because of COVID-19."

Pau noted applicants should budget their federal emergency benefits accordingly. "CERB could be repayable" she said, if the applicant applied through Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency and received an extra amount or if the employer qualifies for and receives CEWS. "It's not just $2,000 a month free and clear."

Businesses Bring Workers Back

Canadian employers whose businesses have been affected by COVID-19 may apply for CEWS. CEWS provides eligible employers with a 75 percent wage subsidy—up to a maximum amount of $847 (approximately $625 USD) per week—on eligible employee wages for up to 24 weeks, retroactive from March 15 to Aug. 29.

"CEWS is a source of income for employers through this difficult time," said Gergely Hegedus, an attorney with Dentons in Edmonton, Alberta.

Eligible employers include individuals, taxable corporations, partnerships, nonprofit organizations, and registered charities and agricultural organizations. The list has expanded to include indigenous government-owned corporations, journalism organizations and nonpublic educational and training institutions.

For employers to qualify for relief during a claim period, they must demonstrate to the federal government a decline in revenue during a specific claim period:

  • March 15-April 11: At least a 15 percent decline in revenue.
  • April 12-May 9: At least a 30 percent decline in revenue.
  • May 10-June 5: At least a 30 percent decline in revenue.

The federal government is considering potential changes to CEWS, including extending the program.

The wage subsidy will also prevent further job losses and better position businesses to resume normal operations following the crisis. "CEWS is a tool to encourage employers to recall employees back to work," Link added.

Stam explained employers are expected to make their best effort to top-up employees' salaries to bring them back to pre-crisis levels.

The federal government has budgeted around $73 billion (approximately $53.9 billion USD) toward CEWS.

[SHRM Resource Spotlight: Coronavirus and COVID-19]

HR's Expanding Role

Experts say HR professionals in Canada need to stay ahead of the curve during the pandemic. HR's role will transcend acting as a conduit between employees and management and keeping up to date with health and safety and workplace legislation, Link said. 

Human resource professionals should play a bigger role beyond drafting workplace pandemic plans, Pau explained. They should keep an eye on company culture as employees gradually return to the office. HR should be checking in regularly with employees, while coaching and mentoring managers, Pau concluded. "Companies should rely on their HR people more than ever."

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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