Canada’s last remaining emergency benefits are expiring due to COVID-19, and the federal government says it has no plans to renew the unprecedented support programs, which were set up in response to the pandemic.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office says Canada’s rapid job growth and record low unemployment rate are evidence that continued pandemic support will not be necessary after May 7.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, our unremitting focus has been on jobs – on keeping Canadians employed and on keeping their employers afloat,” Freeland’s press secretary, Adrian Vobchas, said in an email.
“With our economy in this position, the time for exceptional support for the novel coronavirus is over,” Fopshas added, echoing an announcement Freeland made during its presentation of the 2022 budget in April.
Public health officials also say they are cautiously optimistic about signs that levels of transmission are declining.
During a press conference Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Canada is seeing “a decrease in transmission in many areas.” Tam added that some indicators, such as sewage virus levels, indicate that the Omicron wave is “showing signs of potential stabilization.”
The expiration of benefits means the government will no longer pay workers if they need to self-isolate due to a positive COVID test result, or if they have to leave work to care for a child due to illness or school closures linked to the pandemic.
A program for workers forced out of work due to the local lockdown also ends today.
Programs designed to support hard-hit businesses, such as those that subsidize a portion of employees’ wages, are also ending.
The following programs are among the programs that expire on May 7:
- Benefits of worker insurance in Canada
- Canadian recovery benefits
- Advantages of providing care in Canada
- Canada Recruitment Program
- Tourism and Hospitality Revitalization Program
- The hardest business recovery software
Applications for these programs can be made retroactively and the government will continue to accept them after May 7. Applicants for worker benefits have 60 days to file their claims, while companies have 180 days.
Workers still ‘live and exist in the midst of a pandemic’
Alice Stewart, a representative of the Newfoundland and Labrador Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union, said Ottawa’s decision to end benefits ignores the pandemic’s continuing disruption to Atlantic Canada’s fishing sector.
She described the wave of infection passing through the processing plants and which is now only increasing for the busy summer season.
Most workers at these facilities don’t get paid vacation days, Stewart said, forcing them to make the difficult choice between self-isolating and losing their paychecks or going to work while sick.
“For us, it’s kind of this perfect storm where these benefits end as we’re just seeing our own wave in these rural communities,” Stewart told CBC News.
“For our members, and certainly for our rural communities, now is still the time to take extraordinary measures as we continue to live and live in the shadow of a pandemic.”
Small businesses struggle with debt
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business also warned that the end of the business-focused subsidy could make it difficult for troubled companies to get back on their feet.
“Whether this ending this weekend is still the right support is probably a good debate we can have,” said Corinne Pullman, vice president for national affairs at CFIB.
She said benefits expiring today may be appropriate, but called on Ottawa to consider more long-term support for companies that have accumulated large amounts of debt during the pandemic.
The group specifically wants to see Ottawa waive half of the debt acquired through the Canadian Business Emergency Account program and extend the repayment deadline for an additional year to December 31, 2023.
Small business debt now averages $140,000, according to CFIB figures, and companies in sectors like the arts and hospitality even deeper.
“We still need to think about how we can help hard-hit companies struggling under debt that they had to accumulate through no fault of their own,” Polman said.