Caught between a pandemic and an already hard place

Many on social assistance applied for CERB when COVID struck; now they fear losing their benefits as a result


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The federal and provincial governments jumped into action this past spring with financial support for workers, parents, seniors, and businesses great and small.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/09/2020 (995 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The federal and provincial governments jumped into action this past spring with financial support for workers, parents, seniors, and businesses great and small.

So it would follow that some of society’s most vulnerable — those on Manitoba’s Employment and Income Assistance (EIA), sometimes referred to as social assistance or welfare — would get a little help too.

And it’s likely many receiving the benefit assumed the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was there to help them too.

Giordano Ciampini / The Canadian Press The landing page for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

After all some may have thought they had “earned” the minimum $5,000 in the last year, counting their EIA and additional money they may have earned. And certainly, for general assistance individuals, their monthly EIA (a maximum of $867) was less than CERB’s cut-off for monthly income.

Yet two community organizations helping low-income individuals are now concerned a fair number of Manitoba’s approximately 70,000 EIA recipients could be cut off those benefits because they also received CERB’s $500 weekly benefit, aimed at covering food and shelter costs for unemployed Canadians during the pandemic.

“The term ‘Winter is coming’ is fitting — it’s just daunting,” says Millie Acuna, manager of asset building programs at SEED Winnipeg Inc.

Game of Thrones references about impending doom aside, the coming months could indeed prove incredibly challenging for a segment of society that already faces many difficulties — from mental and physical health problems to substance abuse and precarious employment opportunities.

And it’s largely the result of confusion over CERB eligibility in April before the Manitoba government made clear at the end of that month that EIA recipients do not qualify for CERB.

“Nobody knew at first how EIA would be impacted by CERB,” Sandra Guevara-Holguin, an EIA advocate at Community Unemployed Help Centre (CUHC) in Winnipeg.

“The province of Manitoba did not issue a clear understanding of how it would treat CERB until the end of April, and CERB applications started April 6, so there was this gap.”

What’s more, it’s likely many EIA recipients would have been unaware after the fact because EIA caseworkers have caseloads of up to 300 clients, she says.

“In general, it’s an over-crowded system that’s understaffed.” As such it’s easy for individuals to slip through the cracks.

In recent weeks, the province has begun examining EIA recipients’ finances, finding some received CERB. And Acuna says she has seen some instances where individuals’ benefits were cut off or reduced.

That’s led SEED and CUHC to team up to provide seminars on how individuals and families can navigate the problem.

Additionally, the organizations launched this month a helpline — the Community Financial Helpline, 431-813-HELP (4357) — for individuals seeking advice.

“SEED and CUHC are just trying to give people some support and hope in a difficult situation,” Acuna adds.

Among the callers so far was “Ann,” a pregnant, single individual on EIA, receiving $285 a month for rent in subsidized housing and $220 for other expenses.

Ann, who did not want her real name published, says when CERB was first offered, she believed she qualified.

Eligible or not, CERB has been a life-preserver financially during pandemic.

“CERB has helped me get what I needed to prepare for my (baby).”

Ann was able to buy a car seat, crib and baby clothes. Without that money she says she would have been unable to get these items because donations largely dried up because of the pandemic. She was also able to catch up on bills that were in arrears, including utilities and cellphone — which is another necessity so she can touch base with her case worker, and other critical supports.

All told, Ann has received several thousand dollars from CERB up to now.

“They (the help line) told me to go talk to my EIA worker and be honest, but I am scared to do anything.”

For one, she fears being cut off both programs and then losing her apartment. In turn, Ann worries her baby would then be taken away because she has no place to live.

Yet according to a statement from the province, Ann is unlikely to be cut off EIA as long as she tells her case worker she has been receiving CERB.

“EIA will not recover or deny provincial benefits if someone received CERB, reported it to EIA and was later found to be ineligible for the federal benefit,” the province’s statement to the Free Press explains.

But if recipients like her don’t come forward voluntarily, they risk losing EIA benefit in the future.

“EIA may assess overpayments if a client received CERB benefits, but did not declare them to EIA,” the statement further reads.

Additionally EIA clients could find themselves on the hook for CERB payments if Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) determines they were ineligible.

“In cases where claimants are found to be ineligible, they will be contacted to make arrangements to repay any applicable amounts,” an email from CRA to the Free Press states.

And the worry is receiving CERB could negatively affect the Canada Child Benefit, a federal program, that is a key source of income for many on EIA, Acuna says.

“Sixty-per cent of our EIA clients — I can say confidently — rely on their Canada Child Benefits, and … losing that would be detrimental.”

Guevara-Holguin says community agencies, working with economically vulnerable individuals and families, recognize the need for repayment of monies EIA recipients weren’t eligible for through small reductions in benefits over time.

But they also want to raise awareness regarding just how desperate these individuals feel due the often intractable poverty they face (never mind the stress of a pandemic that UN research shows most negatively affects low income populations).

“Unfortunately, many people think, ‘These people are just lazy. They don’t want to do anything,’” Guevara-Holguin says.

“But these folks struggle daily not just economically but with many related problems,” including getting the skills to be employable.

The province states EIA supports “help individuals who can work to find and secure employment” while providing money for basic food, shelter, clothing and other needs in this search.

But the supports to get individuals back to work are not as robust as they could be, Guevara-Holguin says.

What’s more, the EIA financial benefit speaks for itself, including the money received for food and other needs aside from rent.

As Ann puts it: “$220 a month for a single person, what the…?

“I’ve even asked a couple EIA case workers, ‘Can you live off $220 a month?’ They never gave me an answer.”

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