On Wednesday, September 23rd, Canada’s 29th Governor General, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, outlined a plan to update Canada’s EI system to include the gig economy: “This pandemic has shown that Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century.”
The speech promised to create one million jobs in Canada, along with an extension of employment support for those in need. The following article, written just ahead of the Speech to the Throne, examines the effectiveness of the CERB, a benefit that supported Canadians throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April of this year, we wrote about the CERB’s similarity to the idea of a UBI
and the importance of gathering data on the CERB’s dissemination and impact. One of the central goals of UBI proponents is to ensure that no one who needs an income supplement is “left behind.” The universality of UBI is intended to remove issues of access, barriers to application, and stigma, among other challenges. We can now ask a similar question of the CERB: how effective was it as a blanket approach? As a somewhat targeted benefit (in that it was only intended for those who experienced a decrease in income due to COVID-19), does it illuminate whether or not a more
universal program is necessary?
Who Accessed the CERB?
The CERB emerged in response to severe job losses across the country. Statistics Canada estimated that employment dropped by 15% from February to late April 2020. Using different sources and methods, other research teams found that in some provinces, more than one in five households experienced a job loss, and that workers aged 20–64 years experienced a 32% decline in aggregate weekly work hours. Many sources found that those most impacted by COVID-19 were employed in public-facing industries impacted by shutdowns, such as the service industry. Indeed, 43% of those employed in the accommodation and food services sector applied for the CERB.
While the CERB is designed to be unilaterally applied and easy to access, it nevertheless faces some challenges in equitable distribution. For example, one study found that differences in provincial income assistance (IA) schemes and their interactions with the CERB means that recipients are treated asymmetrically depending on the jurisdiction in which they live.
During the early months of the pandemic, the Government of Canada’s Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) of the CERB found that women’s employment losses were slightly higher than men’s (February to April 2020, 17% vs. 15%, respectively). However, men’s employment increased at over twice the speed of women’s during reopening in May. The GBA+ analysis suggests that this could be due to the increase in goods-producing industries, more commonly staffed by men, and/or women’s likelihood of shouldering caregiving responsibilities during school disruptions. The Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB) is intended to support workers who quit their jobs to care for a family member or child after the dissolution of CERB, and while women are expected to access this more frequently than men, it is possible that women’s careers will thus be disproportionately impacted in the long term.
A report from July 2020 noted that 13.4% of off-reserve Indigenous people were receiving the CERB, vs. 18.7% of non-Indigenous people, despite comparable employment losses. Other types of financial aid, including funding for off-reserve Indigenous services organizations and funding for Indigenous students has been issued. This topic merits further investigation, both into the reasons for disproportionate access and mitigation for the future.
Nationality and Citizenship
Migrant workers, women, and newcomers were more likely to experience low job security during the pandemic. There were disproportionate rates of newcomers among CERB applicants, and temporary foreign workers and seasonal workers are able to apply for the CERB so long as they meet other eligibility criteria. In addition, unlike means-tested social assistance payments, accessing the CERB will not prevent a newcomer from sponsoring family members to come to Canada.