August 11, 2020

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Ottawa urges provinces not to claw back CERB support

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OTTAWA — Manitobans on provincial welfare are waiting to see whether they'll qualify for a much more generous federal benefit, as Ottawa urges the provinces to stop clawing back COVID-19 support.

"I feel like I am being pushed aside," said Gregory Liverpool, a Winnipegger who has been on provincial welfare, known as Employment Insurance Assistance (EIA), for a decade.

Liverpool had a part-time retail job to supplement his EIA, until his boss cut back due to coronavirus. The province gave him just over $1,000 a month last year in EIA and Rent Assist, alongside the roughly $3,700 he earned over the six months he had the part-time job.

The new Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) offers a monthly $2,000 for people who have lost their job, including part-time workers. It’s meant to help pay living costs while also propping up the economy.

But Liverpool and other EIA recipients have been told that if they get the CERB, the Manitoba government will either claw back the funds, or ask them to withdraw from the EIA program.

In Liverpool’s case, he can only hold $4,000 in his bank account at any given point; the rest must go into a trust which can only be accessed for specific disability needs.

Ottawa has so far offered Canadians four months of CERB cash; Liverpool was told that if he took the total $8,000, he’d be frozen out of EIA until March 2021.

Regardless, Liverpool was on bereavement leave for half of last year, and so he earned less than the minimum $5,000 of taxable income needed to qualify for the federal CERB.

"I'm screwed six ways to Sunday," said Liverpool.

"The provincial and the federal governments, in my position, have unequivocally failed people who are on the low-income end of the spectrum."

While upset with Ottawa’s CERB criteria, Liverpool is even more frustrated that the province is incentivizing EIA recipients to live off of less. He said the province is effectively eschewing the CERB for low-income people, even though if they had more money from Ottawa, they would help ​stimulate Manitoba’s economy.

On April 2, the British Columbia government announced it would not claw back provincial income-assistance funds for those who receive the CERB. Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough asked her provincial counterparts, during an April 9 call, to follow B.C.’s lead in making sure welfare recipients "are not penalized" by having the CERB clawed back.

"Our government believes the CERB needs to be considered exempt by provinces and territories in the same way as the Canada Child Benefit, to ensure vulnerable Canadians do not fall behind," wrote Qualtrough’s spokeswoman, Marielle Hossack.

"We commend steps that have been taken at the provincial level on this to date, and urge all provinces and territories to do the same."

Manitoba Families Minister Heather Stefanson was not available Tuesday for an interview.

Her department suggested welfare recipients could get off the provincial welfare roll and reapply after receiving CERB payments.

"At this time, funding received from CERB is counted/not exempt when determining eligibility for EIA. Manitoba is continuing to review this issue and how the two programs interact going forward," wrote a provincial spokeswoman.

"We will work directly with clients who may be eligible for CERB to discuss their options and provide information about their participation in this program."

The Trudeau government has said it is looking at added supports for people who don’t qualify for the CERB, like students and people who made less than $5,000 last year.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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