Design of post-CERB benefits could change as pandemic shifts course, minister says

OTTAWA — The federal minister overseeing key aid programs for workers during the pandemic says there could still be changes to a proposed package of income-support benefits as the country faces renewed pressure from COVID-19.

As it stands, the package includes caregiver payments for anyone who can't go to work because their child's school or daycare is closed, or the child has to be kept home as a precaution.

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To get the help after the fact, workers would have to show they could not work at least 60 per cent of their usual hours, or about three days out of a five-day work week.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough says she's heard that eligibility criteria might be too restrictive for parents who have to take off a day or two to wait in hours-long lines for COVID-19 tests.

She says the proposed package and eligibility rules are a baseline and that the government wants them to be flexible to take into consideration that some people may only need one or two days.

The alternative would be to start from scratch on benefits, which Qualtrough says the Liberals want to avoid.

The Liberals unveiled the $37-billion package of three benefits and easier access to employment insurance last month as a replacement for the $500-a-week Canada Emergency Response Benefit that winds down later this month.

A new benefit that pays $400 a week for up to 26 weeks will replace the CERB for those ineligible for employment insurance. Anyone eligible for EI will get the same minimum for at least 26 weeks with easier eligibility rules. There will also be $500-a-week sickness benefit and caregiving benefit.

An analysis published Tuesday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated 2.7 million people receiving CERB payments will receive less when the new system kicks in.

"We've really tried in this yearlong plan that we announced late August to give a longer runway, some certainty, some predictability, while at the same time allowing us to pivot in response to the things we don't even know yet are coming," Qualtrough said.

"If we found out, for example, that people just couldn't access this benefit, it would of course be incumbent upon us to make sure that this was working for as many people as possible."

The replacement benefits have to be approved by the House of Commons. To have them ready before the CERB ends, the Liberals will have to land opposition support within days of MPs' returning to the House of Commons next week.

"This could ... look differently by the time it lands as law and we are completely open to working with other parties who might have ideas on the way we can make this better," Qualtrough said.

The change to benefits will also be accompanied by what Qualtrough suggested would be a broad rethink of skills training, including even some more novel programs that were just introduced.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that skills training would be a key feature in the government's income-support plan heading into the fall.

Denise Amyot, president of Colleges and Institutes Canada, said investments in skills training need not be costly — her organization has asked for $85 million this year and next to expand programs — but they should be refocused to make sure those in the labour market have the right mix of skills to help the country "build back better," as the Liberals say.

She said particular focus needs to be paid to groups that were hit harder by record job losses this year, and that have been slower to regain footing in the labour force, such as women and youth.

"We hope that there will be investments that will make reskilling and upskilling not only affordable, but we hope it will be responsive to employers' needs because we need it and we need it now," she said.

Qualtrough said the COVID-19 crisis is giving the government pause to review training programs alongside provinces and territories, including things like a training tax credit that was scheduled to arrive at the end of the year.

Promised in last year's budget, the training benefit was the subject of intense discussions among senior government officials and post-secondary training institutions immediately before the pandemic.

"Maybe we need the training benefit to be broader and allow self-directed training for non-working Canadians," Qualtrough said. "That's the kind of thing that's got to be on the table when we talk training."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2020.

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