Ot­tawa to pay job­less $2,000 a month

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - CHRISTO­PHER NARDI

• The fed­eral govern­ment is hik­ing its di­rect aid to Cana­di­ans dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­demic to $52 bil­lion, mostly by send­ing $2,000 ev­ery month to those af­fected by the novel coro­n­avirus. But some worry the sys­tem won’t be able to keep up with demand.

Wed­nes­day, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Bill Morneau an­nounced that he was repackagin­g two aid mea­sures an­nounced last week — the Emer­gency Care Ben­e­fit and the Emer­gency Sup­port Ben­e­fit — into one, sim­pler pro­gram: the Canada Emer­gency Re­sponse Ben­e­fit (CERB).

Ad­min­is­tered by the Canada Rev­enue Agency (CRA), the new mea­sure will send $2,000 monthly for up to four months straight into the bank ac­counts of Cana­di­ans af­fected by COVID-19.

“The CERB would cover

Cana­di­ans who have lost their job, are sick, quar­an­tined, or tak­ing care of some­one who is sick with COVID-19, as well as work­ing par­ents who must stay home without pay to care for chil­dren who are sick or at home be­cause of school and day­care clo­sures,” the Department of Fi­nance said.

With this new ben­e­fit, the cost of di­rect COVID-19 aid has nearly dou­bled, go­ing from an es­ti­mated $27 bil­lion last week to $52 bil­lion now. The mea­sure was ap­proved by Par­lia­ment on Wed­nes­day as part of a larger emer­gency aid pack­age.

To ac­cess the CERB, a web­site will be launched in April. The govern­ment then es­ti­mates it will take 10 days for ap­proved ap­pli­cants to start re­ceiv­ing their money. That means the first cheques most likely won’t be sent un­til mid-April.

Of the govern­ment’s own ad­mis­sion, this new CERB was de­signed to al­le­vi­ate the strain on the Em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance (EI) sys­tem. In just over a week, roughly one-mil­lion Cana­di­ans have ap­plied for EI be­cause of COVID-19-re­lated clo­sures and lay­offs.

The nor­mal weekly aver­age is 45,000 ap­pli­ca­tions.

“The EI sys­tem was not de­signed to process the un­prece­dented high vol­ume of ap­pli­ca­tions re­ceived in the past week,” Fi­nance Canada ad­mit­ted in a state­ment.

“We know nei­ther the depth nor the du­ra­tion of this chal­lenge,” Morneau added dur­ing a press con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day. “The sit­u­a­tion is ur­gent. That’s why we found a sim­ple and ef­fi­cient way to ad­min­is­ter the aid. Clearly, our cur­rent sys­tems did not have the ca­pac­ity to rise to the chal­lenge, and that’s why we’re find­ing a new way to deal with this.”

But con­sid­er­ing the fact that mil­lions of Cana­di­ans are ex­pected to need ac­cess to the new ben­e­fit dur­ing a time when the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy is also deeply af­fected by COVID-19, some are con­cerned that even this new ben­e­fit won’t stop the govern­ment’s aid sys­tem from be­ing over­whelmed.

“We know that with this amount of EI claims com­ing in at once, we will def­i­nitely need more help in pro­cess­ing all those files,” Eddy Bourque, pres­i­dent of the Canada Em­ploy­ment and Im­mi­gra­tion Union, told the Na­tional Post.

To in­crease the pro­cess­ing speed of new EI claims, he said, Em­ploy­ment and So­cial De­vel­op­ment Canada (ESDC) has even been ask­ing former EI claims spe­cial­ists to come back to work for the next few months.

ESDC has also been rush­ing to equip bu­reau­crats now work­ing from home with se­cure phone lines and lap­tops to al­low them to con­tinue pro­cess­ing EI claims re­motely, Bourque said.

“The sys­tem just isn’t ready to­day for the wave of re­quests com­ing in. One way or an­other, they are go­ing to have to stream­line the process to make it faster so that Cana­di­ans can get money in their pock­ets sooner,” Bourque said.

And will the Canada Rev­enue Agency be ready to process all the new CERB re­quests it will be re­ceiv­ing when ap­pli­ca­tions open as early as next week?

Just this week, the agency’s call cen­tre was op­er­at­ing at lim­ited ca­pac­ity be­cause of re­cent strains on Canada’s “tele­phony in­fra­struc­ture as a whole,” a spokesper­son con­firmed.

De­spite that, we’ll be ready, said the direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Min­is­ter of Na­tional Rev­enue. The only (tem­po­rary) is­sue the agency fore­sees is if mil­lions of peo­ple try to file a claim on the first day, which may cause the IT sys­tem “to strug­gle,” she added.

“The vol­ume for CRA isn’t ex­cep­tional. Let’s say four-mil­lion peo­ple ap­ply for the new ben­e­fit, that’s not a lot for the department con­sid­er­ing they deal with ev­ery sin­gle Cana­dian tax­payer and busi­ness ev­ery year,” said Jan­ick Cormier. “I know that it sounds like a huge en­deav­our to some, but for CRA, it’s not a huge con­cern.”

VERON­ICA HENRI/POST­MEDIA

In just over a week, one mil­lion Cana­di­ans ap­plied for EI.

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