A Whitehorse woman says she’ll be financially worse off after getting the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) because the Yukon government will be clawing it back dollar-for-dollar from her social assistance.
Up until recently, Sandra Bigger worked a part-time job to help support herself and her wife and supplement their monthly social assistance payment of about $2,700.
When she was laid off, Bigger turned to the federal benefit set up to assist Canadians like her — people over the age of 15, who have lost work because of COVID-19 and made at least $5,000 in the past 12 months.
Eligible Canadians will receive $2,000 a month to help make up for their lost wages, to a maximum of $8,000.
What Bigger didn’t realize, though, was that the Yukon government would be deducting the entire sum from her social assistance, leaving her and her wife with less money than before.
“We won’t have money for anything,” Bigger said in an interview April 15, explaining that she feared they’d lose their home and car — a key possession, as they live in an area with no public transportation — as well as coverage for their medications.
“… We’ll be in the position where we have pretty much nothing.”
Bigger said she was making about $1,400 from her part-time job. Under the Yukon’s social assistance scheme, working recipients can earn up to a certain amount before deductions begin. Bigger recently hit that threshold, which would have meant, had she not been laid off, that the equivalent of 50 per cent of her paycheques would be taken off the couple’s social assistance payments.
That would have left them with $3,400 a month.
However, with the CERB being deducted dollar-for-dollar, the couple would have just $2,700 a month — the $2,000 benefit, and $700 in social assistance.
Unlike social assistance, the CERB is also taxable, meaning the amount available to spend would, in practice, be less than that.
Bigger said that when she applied for the CERB, she had assumed it would be deducted at 50 per cent like her income, if it was deducted at all. She only realized what would actually happen after checking in with her case worker, and wasn’t able to get through the Canada Revenue Agency’s phone line to pull her application.
“The right thing for the Yukon government to do is to not deduct a hundred per cent of those (CERB) payments off of our income assistance payments,” she said.
“Even if they were to deduct only half, that would be something, but realistically and ideally, they shouldn’t be taking any of that money off … The federal government is giving money to individuals to supplement their income so they have the means to live right now.”
Not all jurisdictions are deducting dollar-for-dollar. British Columbia announced April 2 that the benefit would “have no effect” on the province’s income or disability assistance, while the Ontario government said this week that the CERB would only be partially deducted.
The Toronto Star reported on April 13 that the federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough, was calling on provinces and territories to not claw back the CERB from people on social assistance.
Yukon Department of Health and Social Services spokesperson Patricia Living confirmed April 15 that the CERB was currently being deducted dollar-for-dollar, but that “discussions” were happening on a federal level.
The Yukon government then ignored or did not follow up on multiple requests beginning the same day to speak with either an assistant deputy minister, the director of income support services or Minister Pauline Frost about the situation.
Instead, government spokesperson Matthew Cameron provided the News with a written statement from Frost the morning of April 22 — seven days after the initial request.
“We are working very quickly to determine how the Canada Emergency Response Benefit factors into Yukon’s Social Assistance program going forward,” the statement said in part.
“I have asked department officials to evaluate options to ensure these support programs are effective.”
In an interview April 21, Yukon NDP leader Kate White described the dollar-for-dollar deduction was a “punishment” for the working poor.
“No person should be worse off, because they’ve gotten federal support, than they were in pre-COVID times… This should not put people back farther,” she said.
She also expressed concerns about the ability to hold the government to account since the early closure of the legislative assembly over COVID-19 concerns, explaining that while she could still ask Frost questions via letters that would eventually get answered, the exchanges wouldn’t be “as direct as during question period.”
“There’s not a ministerial statement about the justifications of why (the CERB is) being clawed back, there’s not that ability to have that conversation … As far as democracy goes, that should be a worry because there needs to be ministerial accountability, right?” White said. “There needs to be MLA oversight into cabinet ministers and there isn’t that currently.”
As of April 22, Bigger had not received a CERB cheque yet.
Other than waiting and hoping the Yukon government changes its mind, or that she’s able to get through to the CRA before any money shows up, she said she and her wife can only do one more thing at this point.
“(We’re) just trying to get any payments that we have deferred and that’s pretty much it,” she said.
“I’m very frustrated,” she added.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org