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Trudeau needs to keep the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit in place

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: PMO

Cesar Paredes is a migrant worker and an engineer from Mexico whose status ran out after he was defrauded by an immigration lawyer. Since March, Paredes has gone to work daily despite the risks of bringing COVID home to his pregnant wife. Paredes' son, born in May, has a congenital heart condition that will require surgery.

While qualifying for the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) would have made life easier, Paredes would still have had to work to make ends meet. Now, he is not only facing an uncertain employment future, but has no chance of qualifying for the new employment benefits (EI) program proposed by the federal Liberals. Unfortunately, Paredes is not alone.

In March, millions of Canadians found themselves without an income as schools closed, businesses shuttered, and the arts shut down in response to COVID-19. Those who qualified for CERB will be facing a whole new financial crisis come September 4 when that program morphs into inadequate EI benefits.

Approximately four million people will transition to an EI system that is not up to the task. According to Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers' Action Centre, "The EI system needs to be overhauled to improve access and provide adequate payments to ensure no one is left behind."

During an August 6 press conference organized by the Workers' Action Centre, Ladd highlighted that while EI is generally a temporary program, during the pandemic it needs to be extended to ensure all workers have the means to live for the full extent of the pandemic.

Hardest hit during the COVID shut down were those making less than $14 per hour, women, racialized people, Indigenous people, new immigrants, and migrant workers. These groups are also lagging behind in the recovery and often find themselves excluded under current EI rules.

Pre-pandemic, 40 per cent of Canadian workers qualified for EI with that number dropping to 30 per cent in large cities. And, while many individuals had no problem reaching the $5,000 mark required to qualify for CERB, many of those same workers will find it impossible to qualify for the 600 hours of work currently needed to qualify for EI. Still other workers were simply furloughed so no record of employment (ROE) was issued -- a basic requirement for EI payments.

While CERB provided a standard $2,000 per month for every recipient, EI will be based on 55 per cent of earned income. For someone working a minimum wage job that would be the equivalent of living off of $8 per hour. For the city of Burlington and the town of Oakville, both often ranked as Canada's best communities, you would have to earn $20 per hour to make a living wage or the minimum income a worker requires to meet all their basic needs.

David Macdonald, senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, sees a potential risk to the economic recovery the country has been experiencing. For EI to ensure no one is left behind and the economy continues to be stimulated, qualifying hours need to be lowered to 300 and they need to be on an attestation basis rather than relying on submission of a ROE. Wage replacement rates need to be increased and/or a floor established.

Richard Lam, arts worker and member of the Canadian Actors' Equity Association, works in an industry that will be one of the last to recover. People working in the arts have historically been ineligible for EI, so those working in all aspects of the television, film, and the live performance industry will be without a social safety net. Projections predict it will be the summer of 2021 before the arts really recover and that will be with restrictions still in place.

Judy Li, a single mother working two minimum wage jobs in the food service industry, lost both her jobs in March. Li, who had never received any government help before, says she was totally dependent on CERB to survive.

But, CERB payments were not enough for Li to live on. Despite looking for work in May and June, it wasn't until July that she was able to secure four hours of work a week which meant an additional $54 dollars. Li says, "I want to work. I am not lazy. I have been looking for a new job, but not many companies are hiring."

On EI, Li will receive about $1,000 per month and that won't be any where near enough to cover all of her bills.

Jaime Brenes Reyes, a single father of two was working part time while completing his PhD. Brenes Reyes is immunodeficient, and the monthly cost for his medications is $250 to $300. Even on CERB, things were tight, so Brenes Reyes was picking up work mowing lawns and landscaping.

Brenes Reyes, currently rents a two-bedroom basement apartment, but would like to move to a three-bedroom apartment since his kids are getting older. Unfortunately, that would cost $1,500 per month.

His future is very uncertain. Many first-year students are taking a gap year before going to university and Brenes Reyes has no idea if instructors and teaching assistants will be hired for the coming year.

As it stands, Brenes Reyes doesn't have 600 hours to qualify for EI. He would like to see CERB extended with modifications that take into account the health needs of workers, housing support, as well as workplace safety.

Since most workers would receive somewhere between $600 to $1,000 per month on the new EI plan, Macdonald would like to see a $500 per week floor put in place. Macdonald says the cost for the new EI program will require federal financing. That's par for the course during times of recession like in 2008 and it's to be expected during these unprecedented times.

As Paredes wisely observes, "Fear limits the choices we have. Without an extension of CERB a lot of people will suffer. The government has made great decisions during the pandemic, but it needs to do better."

For more information about the Workers' Action Centre click here.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Image: PMO​

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