July 8, 2020

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Made-in-Manitoba misuse of taxpayer dollars

Opinion

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There’s an obvious flaw in Premier Brian Pallister’s plan to get Manitobans back to work: the premier has no idea how many people are refusing employment in favour of collecting federal subsidies.

Pallister announced a new program Tuesday that will allow anyone returning to the workforce between now and July 31 to collect four provincial cheques of $500 each, providing they work at least 30 hours a week.

The premier argues there’s a glut of unemployed individuals collecting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit who are refusing to return to work. He said they should "get off the couch," and stop collecting free federal dollars.

However, there is little — if any — reliable data to support the argument there are significant numbers of able-bodied people turning down work because of CERB. There is anecdotal evidence to that effect, but many employers have also said they’re having no trouble recalling or recruiting staff.

Either way, good government policy isn’t based on anecdotal information — it’s based on verifiable evidence and clear, stated objectives. When asked to produce such evidence, Pallister cited what he said were statistics from the parliamentary budget officer.

Good government policy isn’t based on anecdotal information ‐ it’s based on verifiable evidence and clear, stated objectives.

"There are as many as 6 1/2 per cent of workers who have expressed an unwillingness to resume work," the premier said.

That was it; that was the extent of the premier’s evidence. Apparently, not much due diligence went into creating this program.

Even if the statistics the premier quoted are accurate, it doesn’t answer the question of why up to 6.5 per cent of workers are unwilling to re-enter the workforce. Is it because of the CERB? If so, what portion?

More importantly, if the number is that low, why is government giving money to everyone returning to the workforce over the next five weeks?

If only 6.5 per cent of people choose to sit on the couch and collect a CERB rather than work, it follows 93.5 per cent are willing to accept employment without a taxpayer incentive. They don’t need the government handout, but Manitoba is going to give them one anyway if they apply for it (and who wouldn’t?).

This is bad policy.

There is some Manitoba-specific data on the disincentives of the CERB program. In a recent Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey, one of the top reasons (58 per cent) employers tabbed for difficulty recalling or recruiting staff was because people preferred to collect CERB.

However, 54 per cent also said it was because workers were concerned about their physical health. It’s not clear-cut.

It’s something that irks Pallister, who has shown disdain for the CERB program almost since Day 1. He complained weeks ago Ottawa is "paying people not to work."

Also, the survey is based on a tiny sample size: only 127 Manitoba employers; moreover, it’s outdated — compiled May 15-21, when businesses were just starting to reopen.

There’s little doubt some people are choosing to forgo work in favour of collecting CERB. In some cases, it may be for legitimate reasons, such as a lack of child care or fear among those with compromised immune systems who are at high-risk of contracting COVID-19.

Some people legitimately cannot find work, particularly in certain industries such as hospitality and entertainment. Some may just be loafers, as Pallister describes.

However, unless the province can demonstrate with evidence the majority of unemployed Manitobans are refusing work because they prefer to "sit on the couch" and collect CERB money, the program Pallister announced this week is a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars.

It’s based on an ideological belief most people who are unemployed during this stage of the pandemic are choosing not to work because they’re getting free money from the federal government. It’s something that irks Pallister, who has shown disdain for the CERB program almost since Day 1. He complained weeks ago Ottawa is "paying people not to work."

He reiterated his dislike for the program this week, when he said: "It’s time to kick the CERB to the curb."

Pallister’s "back-to-work" program is more about optics than a legitimate attempt to help people get back to work. It’s one in a growing list of poorly conceived policies the premier has rolled out during this economic crisis.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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