The NDP have raised concerns that essential workers wanting to access the COVID-19 wage top-up program shouldn’t have to rely on employers to apply.
In the legislature on Dec. 15, leader Kate White again stated that the current set-up of the program — which requires an employer to apply on behalf of its employees — risks leaving behind workers.
“The program has to be accessed by employers, which means that workers are penalized if their boss doesn’t apply. I have raised this concern with the minister before, but he dismissed the concern and questioned if there was a problem at all,” she said.
White said when she posted on Facebook about the issue she received messages from over a dozen employees who have tried to access the program but faced issues with their employer refusing.
The program provides low-income essential workers with a wage top-up of up to $4 per hour for 16 weeks, or a top-up that brings their hourly wage to $20 an hour. It was introduced at the beginning of the pandemic and extended in November until Feb. 15, 2021.
After a motion to modify the program was brought forward by the NDP, Economic Development Minister Ranj Pillai said there wasn’t enough evidence employers not applying was widespread.
Titu Pointeau, an essential worker employed at a courier company in Whitehorse, said he is one of those people who was left out because there was no direct way for him to apply for the subsidy.
Pointeau brought the program forward to his employer, but the application was never finalized.
Pointeau said he was then in the uncomfortable position of having to continue nagging his employer, who he said was also under stress. He searched for a way that he could take care of the paperwork and application directly but found no information.
“The fact is that I’m helpless to my employer, who also already hasn’t had a day off in months. So you know, it’s kind of uncomfortable that I have to ask him to work even more, just so I can get something,” he said.
As a result, Pointeau was missing out on an extra $3 an hour, which amounted to thousands of dollars over the 16 weeks he qualified for it. Pointeau said he tried to resolve the issue through the government but wasn’t sure the best person to reach. Eventually, he left his position with the company.
“I talked to Kate White briefly, I thought that would be the appropriate step to take. I don’t know. I made an initial call to the number that was at the bottom of the screen and I’ve just basically followed directions from there. I’m way out of my element,” he said.
In a second example, Atis Alksnis, who works at a different courier company in town, said he also got in touch with the department after his employer also didn’t apply for the subsidy. Alksnis said since reaching out the paperwork is now being processed.
In the legislative assembly on Dec. 15 Pillai said “the only person whom I have heard from about problems with the program is the Leader of the Third Party.” The following week he said he has since heard directly from one individual and was working with that person on finding a solution.
“Within a very short period of time, the department jumped in to help,” he said.
Pillai said the department is not opposed to tweaking the program if a need arises, but won’t consider rehauling the program if exceptional cases can be dealt with on an individual basis. He said he needs “more than a note on Facebook” and encouraged anyone in that position to reach out to his office.
“If we were in a position where there were a number of things happening consistently with the program and we feel that there’s a gap there, then we can go back and take a look at it,” he said.
White said she hopes the department reconsiders allowing employees to apply directly in the new year after the legislature has stopped sitting.
“What the minister doesn’t seem to understand is that, if a dozen people contact me because of a single social media post, there are likely many more essential workers out there who have not received the benefit that they deserve,” she said.
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