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Federal parties spar over emergency benefit tweaks, ending months of COVID-19 cooperation

Last Updated Jun 10, 2020 at 11:15 am MDT


Federal parties facing challenges coming to agreement on changes to COVID-19 relief programs

Opposition party leaders have their own demands as they get ready to discuss the programs and their costs

CFIB says businesses want to see changes to CERB, CEWS to get people back into the workplace

OTTAWA – It looks like federal parties are not in agreement on a Trudeau government bill to introduce penalties for people who fraudulently claim the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

The Trudeau Liberals need unanimous consent to deal with the emergency legislation, which would also provide new supports for people with disabilities, on Wednesday.

House Leader Pablo Rodriguez says so far there is no deal to debate and vote on the legislation today.

“And I’m asking, actually, why parties that asked us to do something for people with disabilities wouldn’t allow this debate to happen today,” he says, pleading with other parties to deal with the matter quickly. “We have all shown that we can put politics aside and work together on legislation that quickly helps Canadians. And I think that with good will and with collaboration, we can do that again. We can do it.”

The bill will introduce jail time and fines for people who fraudulently claim the CERB and changes eligibility so you may lose the benefit if you are offered to return to work but decline. It would also expand the wage subsidy to include seasonal businesses, and would provide a $600 one-time payment for Canadians with disabilities.

The prime minister has said the punishments aren’t meant to target people who make an honest mistake, such as not immediately ending the CERB when they return to work, but rather target those who purposefully take advantage of an emergency aid program to try and profit during a crisis.

However, that hasn’t calmed the criticism. The NDP says the fines and jail time proposed will unfairly target the most vulnerable. The New Democrats are linking the punishments to systemic racism, adding every new crime on the books disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and minority. They believe all improper claims, regardless of intent, should be dealt with through the tax system.

The NDP has also said it wants the program extended so people can receive payments longer than the four month maximum, due to end later this month for the first wave of claimants.

Nearly 8.5 million Canadians now rely on the $2,000 monthly payments doled out by the federal government through the CERB.

Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois are demanding a fiscal update before July 1 and a return to regular House of Commons sittings. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says he has three demands in exchange for support.

“Extending CERB for those families in need, getting rid of the penalties, and helping all Canadians with disabilities,” he says.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet notes there are elements to the bill he supports and others he doesn’t, saying it’s like mixing mix cod liver oil into chocolate cake. However, he has problems with some of the CERB changes, such as those around losing the benefit if someone declines an offer to work.

Blanchet says the Liberals aren’t willing to work with others.

“I believe that this government is trying to be as if it was a majority government,” he says.

Meanwhile, parliament’s spending watchdog has announced extending the current CERB program from June 1 to the end of January will cost another $57.8 billion. With the changes being proposed, that number is higher — $64 billion.

Businesses see labour shortages, despite high unemployment

For its part, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says while it’s too early to end the CERB, it is time to shift gears and encourage people to re-enter the workforce.

It has a list of asks, including recipients be required to look for work, and that they retain some benefits while earning more than $1,000 in additional income.

“The CERB benefit needs to change to make sure that it’s not keeping Canadians out of the workforce longer than is necessary,” CFIB President Dan Kelly tells NEWS 1130. “Obviously many are worried about returning to work from a health perspective but for others, the fact that they’re actually getting $2,000 a month is perhaps just enough for them to pay their bills and they wish to take the summer off.”

Kelly says the CFIB is pleased to see the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy has already been extended, however, he points out we’re already into June, with no rules released around how the program is expected to work.

“So we’re desperately waiting to find out how that is going to work. Our suggestion is that firms with smaller degrees of business logs should be able to qualify for a smaller amount of the wage subsidy to keep them going,” he explains.

According to the CFIB, 37 per cent of members say one of their top concerns right now is staffing.

“Right now, across Canada, 44 per cent of businesses are fully open, and that means 56 per cent of businesses are closed, but each week more provinces are announcing plans to allow more businesses to reopen their doors,” Kelly says. “They need to find staff to be able to put their products and services to market. It’s going to be critical to reunite employers and employee needs, and ensuring that there are some changes to CERB, as well as changes to the wage subsidy, I think will help.”

Kelly stresses changes need to happen quickly.